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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
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Review: House of Dolls

House of Dolls by Francesca Lia Block, illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Harper Collins. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Middle grade.

The Plot: Dolls Wildflower, Rockstar, and Miss Selene live together in their house, which was first owned by Madison Blackberry’s grandmother. The three dolls are happy enough, with Wildflower’s boyfriend Guy and Rockstar’s B. Friend, and all three have wonderful dresses made by Madison’s grandmother.

Then, one day, Madison becomes bored — bored and jealous of the attention the dolls get as “family heirlooms” with their fancy dresses. Madison’s grandmother has never made her a dress.

The combination of boredom and jealousy is a dangerous thing. Especially when the person feeling those things is so many times larger than  you are.”

Madison begins by taking away Guy and B. Friend. It doesn’t end there, and it turns out, it didn’t begin there, either. What can the dolls do?

dolls 248x300 Review: House of DollsThe Good: The quick, non-spoiler review: for readers who like the idea that dolls are real, living their own lives. At 61 pages, this is the perfect pick for readers who want a book with substance but don’t want hundreds of pages.

Madison takes away the boyfriends. Wildflower, faced with loss, decides she wants to change the world.  Rockstar reacts with wanting to change herself. As for Miss Selene, well, “after the disappearances [of Guy and B. Friend], Miss Selene just wanted to change clothes. This made perfect sense to Miss Selene. The world was much too big. Especially for a doll! The idea of changing herself felt overwhelming. And besides, in a way, changing clothes was changing herself. It might even change the world, in a tiny way, mightn’t it? Somehow make things just a tiny, tiny bit more magical?”

Then Madison takes away the clothes.

On one level, this is about the power Madison can exercise against her toys because she can. On another level, it is about the power anyone can exercise against those who are smaller, who are less powerful, who are within the control of another. It is scary and terrible. Because this book is about power, and abusing it, I’m reviewing it and suggesting it for middle schools. It’s a sophisticated topic wrapped in the package of a short chapter book. It’s a good pick for younger middle grade students, as well as reluctant readers.

Madison’s grandmother figures out what Madison is doing: “that little girl just doesn’t understand, does she?” What is terrific is that Madison isn’t punished. Rather, the grandmother realizes the role she has and has not played, and shows Madison some of the attention she had previously given the dolls. Madison responds by returning what she had taken to the dolls. House of Dolls illustrates both the abuse of power, and that anger and jealousy can be stopped in ways other than violence.  It is, perhaps, overly optimistic, but if it is it is not because this is a children’s book but because ”and they all lived happily ever after, with gorgeous clothes,” is Block’s style. All kidding aside, there is power in clothes and I liked that Block acknowledges that. There is also power in choosing – choosing to wish well for others, choosing to include rather than exclude, choosing to connect. Choosing to be overly optimistic and, in doing so, creating our own happiness.

 

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About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is lizzy.burns@gmail.com.

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