Boy Books and Dolls

I originally posted this as a “lecture” in an online class. It is posted in memory of Charlotte Zolotow, who passed away today at the age of 98.

William’s Doll is a classic picture book by Charlotte Zolotow about a boy with a doll. Needless to say, he is teased by his friends while his parents openly worry about his sexuality.

It might be better known to my generation as a song on the “Free to Be… You and Me” album. The song is here, and captures the book rather well.

William’s Doll was selected and edited by Ursula Nordstrom, the same brilliant editor who brought us Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte’s Web, and Good Night Moon.

I like this book it’s remarkably frank treatment of gender roles and male archetypes: a dichotomy of “real boy” and “sissy” that I think underlies every conversation about “boy books,” because it implies that proper boys have a particular bent.I am inclined to use “William’s Doll” as an eponym for books that challenge the prevailing consensus about who boys are and what they like.

I do worry that boys (and men) are not reading, and appreciate that conversations about what books will get boys reading are necessary. But I also think we need to be cautious about acting like William’s Dad, steering a boy towards certain books and away from others.

When we talk about “boy books,” we run the risk of not just giving boys what the books they like, but communicating what they are supposed to like. And I have, sadly, seen moms leading their sons away from perfectly gender-neutral animal books because they aren’t boyish enough, or (conversely) confiding that their middle-school aged sons read romances on the sly because they would be scorned for reading them openly. I think boys seek out such books because, like William with his toys, they have emotional needs that are not being met with the books they’re supposed to read. So we need to take a broad view of what constitutes a boy book, one that is broad enough to take in all boys.

One of my favorite picture books last year is entitled Boy+Bot by Ame Dyckman. The book shows a small boy befriending a robot. The robot is switched off by accident, and the boy tries to nurse the robot back to life. With stunning illustrations by Dan Yaccarino, the book quickly became one of my son’s favorites as well.

It like the story and the pictures, but what I like best about the book is that it shows a boy in a care-giving roll. In a way it cleverly reintroduces William’s Doll to a new generation of readers.

One thought on “Boy Books and Dolls

  1. In 1955, Rumer Godden wrote a book called “Impunity Jane”, about a little boy who snatches his sister’s doll house doll and plays with her. He has some worries the other boys will think he is a sissy, but they play with the doll to (as a kind of action figure).

    It was ahead of its time, but more so, it had no political agenda. It was just honestly about children and the toys they love.

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