Mixing work and play in pre-war New York
The first things about the cover of The Doll Shop Downstairs that catch a reader’s eye are the delicate illustrations and sweet title. Below the old-fashioned lettering, a girl clad in a plaid dress and apron cradles a doll amid paintbrushes, spindles of cloth and a turn-of-the-century cash register. It’s not only a book cover but a window on the charming story that follows.
Anna Breittlemann, the nine-year-old narrator, loves the porcelain dolls her father and mother mend in their New York City shop. She especially loves a dark-haired beauty, despite its missing foot and cracked arm. Sharing Anna’s love of dolls are her two sisters, each of whom has her own favorite. Together, they have tea parties and cope with the economic effects of the start of World War I.
But what happens when the dolls’ owners are ready to take them back home and away from the girls? That source of anxiety for Anna is only dwarfed by her family’s money troubles, which Anna and her sisters ingeniously help their parents solve. It seems, though, that all the ingenuity in the world won’t help them keep the dolls they’ve loved for months.
Yona Zeldis McDonough gently evokes a now-lost world with her portrayal of a loving family of doll-menders in New York's Lower East Side. Young readers will enjoy vicariously living above the shop in a brownstone walk-up, sleeping overnight on a rooftop to cool off in pre-AC summer heat and paying a penny for candy at the neighborhood newsstand.
Heather Maione's period illustrations complement the text and create a nice bridge for children moving from picture to chapter books. Together with the story, which celebrates simplicity and resourcefulness, they remind the reader of the possibilities that scraps of cloth and ribbon can create.
The images of immigrant family life in a New York long since past and an industry now nearly forgotten are strengths that make The Doll Shop Downstairs a welcome addition to the shelves of yesteryear- and doll-loving youngsters alike.
Aniko Nagy is a bookseller and freelance writer in Boston.