Charlotte Zolotow brought us the story of William’s Doll more than 40 years ago. JJ Vincent looks at how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.
Once upon a time, there was a children’s book called William’s Doll. It was about a little boy who wanted a doll, but his father said, “No,” insisting on buying William boys’ toys – sports balls, a train set – hoping that he will forget about the doll. William played with them, but still wanted his doll, even when he was called “sissy” or worse on the playground. Because boys were not supposed to want dolls. Period.
Once upon a time there was “Free to Be You and Me”, a book/record/TV special combo of poetry, images, and music with messages of equality, tolerance, individuality, being oneself, and the idea that anyone could be anything. William Wants a Doll was part of this to spread the message that it’s ok for boys to have dolls, right along side their balls and and trains, no matter what anyone else says.
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Charlotte Zolotow. She wrote many children’s books, William’s Doll among them. The book covered themes including a boys desire for a doll, his father’s discomfort with it, bullying from other kids, a child’s longing to be understood, and his joy when his grandmother gets him his doll, assuring his still-hesitant father that it will help become a better father and man. Of her reasons for writing this book, which would become a modern classic, she said this:
“I remember lots of little pieces that went into it, and into my thinking.
“The first was this. My husband, Maurice, desperately wanted children, which was unusual in the crowd we moved in then. But even so, he had a hard time with the physical side of it. For instance, he never changed a diaper and would leave the room when the baby was being changed. This is not a put-down of him: it was the custom of the time, fathers just didn’t have much to do with their children, especially infants, in that way back then. But I used to think that both he and the baby were missing something because something else always happened. For example, one day when I was changing my first child, Stephen, he smiled — his first smile. I remember feeling sad that Maurice missed that.
“A third episode, the one that drove me towards the book most clearly, happened in Washington Square Park, where I used to take Stephen to play when we lived in the Village. I don’t remember the particulars, but there was a little boy there who wanted a rag-doll. I overheard the father say, oh get him a gun instead. It did make me mad. It all came together: how men missed out on the pleasure of being with very young children, and how, because they missed it and because they had never had it with their fathers, they had no concept that war and harshness and so much unpleasantness came out of playing with guns as children, and growing up thinking it was unmanly to play with a doll or stuffed toy bear or lion.” (from charlottezolotow.com)
Fast forward to now. It’s been more than 40 years since this book was released. More and more men are entering professions that were once the province of women only – nursing, teaching, childcare – and stay-at-home dads are less of a novelty than ever. Single dads are treated with more respect and less pity. Girls can play with trucks and boys can cook.
But taking your son shopping for a doll, or giving him one, is still far outside the norm. A boy carrying or playing with a doll will still get attention, most likely negative. Adults who provide the doll will still get disapproval. Boys will continue to miss out on the opportunity to learn and practice (if they want to) nurturing touch and gentle care of a baby. Williams are still being told by their fathers that they can’t have dolls and be called “creep” or “sissy” by the other boys if they want one.
Maybe more people need to revisit the wisdom of Charlotte Zolotow and her story of William’s Doll.
Author’s note: My godbrother was a “William”. Over the protests of my godfather, my mother bought our “William” a boy Cabbage Patch Doll in the mid-80s. The women of the neighborhood were impressed with how “William” took care of his doll, and he made a killing as a babysitter as a teenager. He went on to become a college ice hockey player and now has daughter.
Author’s note: Charlotte Zolotow passed away on November 19th, 2013 at the age of 98. My gratitude to my girlpartner for telling me about Ms. Zolotow, and my sympathy to those who are greatly affected by her passing.