Grandmothers, mothers, teachers at all girls' schools, listen up.
(Well, librarians and other teachers listen up too.)
Here's that sweet little book that comes along once or twice a year and works its way into the hearts of its readers. That book that spreads itself out like the coziest of handknit blankets and wraps itself around you while you read it. That book that you open in front of a roomful of girls (or in front of your daughter, or granddaughter, or the little girl you babysit) and when you are done with the chapter you are reading, they beg you to read just a little more.
Sophie (11), Anna (9) and Trudie (7) live with their parents in an apartment on the Lower East Side in New York City. They live above the family business, Breittlemann's Doll Repair. Bisque and china dolls are very expensive, so the girls don't have any of their own, but they are allowed to play with the dolls that are waiting to be repaired by their papa. There are three dolls that have been waiting longer than most, unclaimed, and the girls have come to think of the dolls as "theirs."
Anna is our narrator, and her story is tinged with the unique frustrations and tribulations of the middle child:
I listen to their footsteps as they go, but I don't follow them right away. I want to be alone down here for a little bit. Sometimes it's hard being a middle sister, and I just need to be by myself. Sophie is smart and pretty and good at so many things; Trudie (her real name is Gertrude, though we never call her that) is little and cute and cries to get her way. I'm just the one sort of stuffed in between--at nine I'm not old enough to do some things, like light the kitchen stove, but too old to do others, like snuggle in Mama and Papa's bed on a cold morning.
Despite her feelings, though, and the family's relative poverty, theirs is a happy life. It is a loving family, and the girls love what their parents do, so they are happy to chip in with shop chores. School is also a source of happiness, as is their friendly Jewish neighborhood. And, of course, the time they are allotted to play with "their" special dolls is treasured. Anna often tells her private troubles to Bernadette Louise (the name she has given to "her" doll). The year passes, and is told in charming fashion.
On August 2nd, however, everything changes: Germany declares war on Russia. Although the war has not yet touched the United States, it begins to immediately affect Anna's family: the parts that Papa uses to fix the dolls come from Germany. Because Germany has declared war on Russia, the US has stopped trading with them. No more doll parts. No doll parts, no work for the doll repair shop.
The family comes up with some creative ways to survive the war, and Anna and her sisters grow through the experience. "Their" special dolls play an important part in both their growth and the story, as McDonough brings us beautifully to a satisfying and hopeful ending.
The reader gets a very nice portrayal of the 1930's Lower East Side and the experience of being Jewish at that time, in that neighborhood. It's not as big a part of the story as it is in ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY, but it's done in a very matter of fact way that I always appreciate. There's a lovely family relationship here, and the sibling rivalries, troubles and joys ring true. Most of all, we see Anna learn to be resourceful in some completely normal ways, which is refreshing. She's not super gifted - she's not a prodigy - but she's clever and creative in a way that comes from love for her family and a true desire to contribute in a difficult time. She's an excellent example for children without being obnoxious about it.
I think this book will have a long life.
(I also think it will sell better in paperback - this is one of those books that I wish had simultaneous hard and softcover print runs. Especially in this economy, it can be hard to get parents to spring for a $14.99 hardcover that's 116 pages long.)