The Case for Re-Illustration: William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow
I had just the loveliest dinner the other night with some high-falutin’ folks in the children’s literary biz. Fine conversation and finer memories were tossed all about. Yet I credit the devil on my right shoulder for suggesting to me the relative wisdom of my bringing up a long-standing belief that had been percolating in the back of my brain. I believe I must have said something along the lines of this.
Betsy: You know what would be great? If Harper Collins had William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow re-illustrated.
To my companions’ credit they did not subsequently pelt me with dinner rolls, though there were a palpable sense of shock in the air. At long last one turned to me and asked with great calm and presence of mind, “Has there ever been a successful re-illustration of a classic picture book?”
Well. Um. That is to say . . . . er.
Stumped! I haven’t been that stumped since Peter Glassman asked me which Newbery Award winner illustrated a Newbery Award winning book by another author (answer at the end of this post). I floundered about, then mentioned that I had never quite taken to the W.W. Denslow illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (another horror for some of you, I am sure, for another day). “Oh no,” she replied. “Not a work of fiction. A picture book.”
For a good ten minutes I sat there as the conversation drifted to other topics. Eventually I was able to come up with at least one book (my crazed cry of “Never Tease a Weasel!!!” may have caused serious damage to the soup course) before admitting that when it comes to well-known classics, no. I’ve never seen a successful re-illustration.
Which is not to say it couldn’t happen! And if it absolutely 100% did have to happen (more on that presently) then it should happen to Charlotte Zolotow’s best known book. William’s Doll. Copyright 1972.
How many of you would count yourselves as members of the Free to Be You and Me generation? If so, you may remember this old video from back in the day. I sure as heck do.
It was based on Zolotow’s picture book and I distinctly remember seeing this as a kid and finding it extraordinarily interesting. This may have had something to do with the fact that the original book sported a very different look.
Bowl haircut? Check. Neckerchief? Check. Bellbottoms? Check. Saddle shoes? Check and check. Yes, it seems that even when kids might have sported this look, I was more inclined to be interested in the kid wearing the sneakers, jeans and baseball cap in the Marlo Thomas production than the one featured in an honest-to-gosh book.
Now the illustrations for William’s Doll were done by the great William Pene du Bois, a man probably remembered best today for his Newbery Award winner Twenty-One Balloons (a wonderful video of THAT particular title can be seen here). No one is going to contest that the man was a master artist. And if this book were some timeless relic of the past I would have no trouble with the art. But here’s the thing: The book is not a relic. It is timely. So timely, in fact, that if you happen to scan through the comments on the above YouTube video (do so at your own risk here) you will note the overwhelming need for this book that continues even today.
Another factor? We haven’t even entered into 2013 officially and yet I think I’ve read about 14 different bully-related books. And not one, NOT ONE of those books has the sheer guts of this title. If you don’t know the story, here’s the long and short: William is a boy who wants a doll. His older brother and dad pretty much tease him mercilessly about this or try to get him into manly sports and train related things. Then his grandma goes and gets him one and then explains to dear old dad that the doll has a practical application. After all, someday William will be a dad of his own and he’ll need to know how to care for a baby. Now admittedly I always felt like this explanation (and the cover image of William doing an aforementioned manly sport) felt a bit like overcompensation. I mean, why can’t a boy just want a doll because it’s a doll? Does he absolutely have to have a reason? But hey, you go with what you’ve got. And what you’ve got is a book that even today is regularly assigned to kids to read by their schools and yet is losing a lot of its impact because of the art.
You see, here is William:
And he doesn’t look like any kid out there today. Here is his older brother:
Because if you think old William here looks a little dated, those preppy tennis whites are outta sight. Dude totally doesn’t have a leg to stand on here.
So my thinking is that if someone were to re-illustrate the book today with images of kids as they look today, yes it may date in time but until it does the book may be able to get back some of its impact. Then the ultimate book about a kid bullied for being who he is could be re-discovered by schools and parents all over this great green world.
You might say to me, “Well, sure. So let’s say we re-illustrate this book. What next? Do you want to redo A Snowy Day? How about finding someone besides Sendak to redo Where the Wild Things Are? How about Goodnight bloody Moon?!?” The difference as I see it is that I don’t feel the images in this particular book are, to be frank, William Pene du Bois at his best. They’re fine. They have their defenders. But no one has ever assigned this book because the art was so nice. It’s a book with a message that doesn’t feel didactic (to me anyway) and that should have been given to someone like Mercer Mayer. Someone who could have given it a shot in the arm. It’s not like I’m talking about redoing something like Oliver Button Is a Sissy. I mean THAT is a book that feels fresh every time you read it. Tomie de Paola is visually incapable of aging.
A deeper issue at work here is the question of use. I see this as a book that could speak directly to children today if they felt like it was the story of themselves or a fellow classmate. But that is how I see the book being used. I’m not talking about how the book can currently be enjoyed on its own merits. Must every picture book out there with even a tangential connection to bullying now be used as a tool in some way? Nope. But the fact of the matter is that this book is already being used, being used all the time, and I want its impact to hit home. What if you changed William’s race too? What if you had him living in an apartment or in the country? The possibilities are endless. If I were teaching a class on picture book illustration you can bet I’d assign this book as some kind of an assignment.
For all that, it has stayed in print all these years. Now imagine it came out for the first time today. In an era where princess stuff is pushed on girls from every angle, and where you can walk into a Toys R Us and find a “Girls” and “Boys” section (marked as such) this book deserves a second life.
Have at it, kids. Tear me asunder. Or read James Preller’s fantastic post on the book from two years ago, including much of the text and interior images. He even links to this in-depth explanation of how Ms. Zolotow was inspired to write the book.
Answer to the Above Stumper: It was Ellen Raskin. She illustrated the cover to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time before eventually winning her own Newbery for The Westing Game.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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