fiction favorites…The Doll Shop Downstairs

The Doll Shop Downstairs, by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illustrated by Heather Maione

I’ve always lived above the doll shop on Essex Street…Out in front there is a sign that reads:  BREITTLEMANN’S DOLL REPAIR ~ All Kinds of Dolls Lovingly Restored and Mended ~ Established 1904
All the dolls here are waiting to be fixed by Papa.  But while they wait, he lets us play with them.  We each choose a single doll at a time — that’s the rule — and we have to be careful when we play.  The dolls are very fragile and easy to break.  The only time a doll can leave the shop is with its owner.  We are not owners.  We have no bisque or china dolls that belong to just us.  Bisque and china dolls are expensive.  We used to have rag dolls that Mama made, but they have fallen apart from so much use, and she has not had a chance to make new ones.  Papa says that if the shop does really, really well, one day he will buy each of us a doll of our own.  But it seems to me that day is a long way off.

Anna Breittlemann is nine years old, and the middle of three sisters, children of Russian Jewish immigrants living in New York City in 1914.  Her father keeps a small shop where he stays busy repairing dolls, ordering replacement parts from Germany for the cracked, chipped, broken bisque and china creations.  Anna enjoys playing with her sisters among the dolls, though it is trying, at times, being the middle girl —  young enough to be bossed a bit by Sophie, but too old to get her way by whining like Trudie.  Birthday picnics in Central Park; outings to FAO Schwartz on Fifth Avenue; errands to Guttman’s Pickle Shop; Anna’s world is a warm and happy one, despite her family’s relative poverty.

When WWI breaks out, however, and trade with Germany is cut off, Anna’s father can no longer get the parts he needs to repair dolls.  Soon the shop is all but closed, and the future is very uncertain.  It’s Anna who comes up with the idea of making their own dolls, fashioned from local materials, independent of German imports.  It’s also Anna who thinks of just the right type of doll for their first creation.  And most exciting of all, Anna is the one minding the shop when a well-heeled gentleman comes in, inquiring after their Nurse Nora doll he’s just seen.  Suddenly, things are looking rosy once more!

This is a sweet story, combining a love of dolls, historical places, events, and lifestyles of 1900s New York City,  and themes of family, and belonging.  The Jewish traditions and all-girl family are reminiscent of All of a Kind Family, but it is written for an even younger audience — probably 6-8 year olds.  An afterword tells the fascinating historical connection between this book and Madame Alexander.  Great read aloud for little girls or an independent read for young-but-strong readers.  A sequel, The Cats in the Doll Shop, has just been published.

Here’s the Amazon link: The Doll Shop Downstairs