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House of Dolls by Francesca Lia Block

House of Dolls

by Francesca Lia Block

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Francesca Lia Block is known for a certain kind of edgy young-adult fare - her books don't draw back from depicting tough or disturbing issues that affect young people's lives - and she brings her unique sensibility with her, when exploring other genres (see The Rose and The Beast for some of her fractured fairy-tales). Her style and themes have won her a remarkably loyal fan-base (I've a friend who is simply besotted with her work), so when I learned that she had penned a "doll story," in the form of a chapter-book, I was intrigued. When I discovered that said story had been illustrated by the marvelously talented Barbara McClintock, I was even more excited. Now, having finally read House of Dolls, I am pleased to be able to confirm, at least for myself, that Block has triumphed again, taking a genre that might, at first glance, seem ill-suited to her particular style of story-telling, and making it her own.

This is the tale of a groups of dolls, heterogeneous in their construction, appearance and antiquity - you have Wildflower, a celluloid doll made with real hair, who had belonged to her current owner's grandmother; Rockstar (ironically named), a plastic doll with a mousy appearance, who had been a Hanukkah gift; Miss Selene, a delicate fairy-doll, with wings, green skin, and a secret sorrow; B. Friend, a "devastatingly handsome" stuffed bear, who only had eyes for Rockstar; and Guy, an army-fatigued African-American action-figure, who, despite their many differences, was the one true love of Wildflower's long life - and it is the story of a real live little girl, Madison Blackberry, who was a little too tall, had a sour face, and was desperately unhappy. The interplay between the dolls and the girl unfold in four brief chapters, as Madison enacts her feelings - about her distant, socialite mother, her frequently absent father, the grandmother who seems not to care - through the dolls, making them bear the brunt of her anger and her grief. Making them the scapegoat of her sorrow, and all those dark parts of herself that she cannot express to those around her, or even to herself.

An incredibly astute depiction of young girl psychology, A House of Dolls is rather dark in places (because, contrary to certain mythologies, we weren't all "sugar and spice" at that age), but it is not unrelievedly so, and has both happy moments and a happy ending. Despite this last, it treats it subjects and their experiences, whether girl or doll, with the respect they deserve. As my friend Kathryn, who recommended this one to me, (thanks, Kathryn!) notes in her review, playing with dolls is a far more complex activity than it is often given credit for being, by many grown-ups, and it is good to see a doll story taking that into account. After all, there's a reason therapists often use dolls to get children to communicate their difficult-to-express feelings and experiences: it is an activity that they already use, in that capacity. Madison Blackberry's resentment of her dolls might seem silly at first glance, but the truth behind it, the deeper feelings that her ostensibly petty acts reveal - feelings of abandonment, of being unloved by those whose responsibility it is to protect and care for her - are anything but.

I was struck, in my reading, not just by this nuanced depiction of the role of dolls, in a child's emotional life, but also by the idea that cruelty, especially in children, is so often the result of deep unhappiness. I can imagine many children enacting their frustrations in this way (or even by being cruel to animals, I'm sorry to say), so I think it's instructive that Block avoids condemnation, and focuses her readers' attention on the root causes of the problem. This is a fascinating little book, of course, but I don't want to focus solely on the psychological implications, as it is also just an engaging story, with delightful artwork by McClintock. She really is a master at depicting dolls (see Dahlia, for another of her doll stories), and her black and white drawings perfectly capture the emotional register of each scene.

All in all, this an outstanding little book! Despite its brevity and (ostensible) subject, I would recommend this one primarily to young adults, or to more mature middle-grade readers. ( )
1 vote AbigailAdams26 | Apr 29, 2013 |
Wildflower, Rockstar and Miss Selene live a quiet and isolated life away from all the sadness and pain of the real world, surrounded only by all that is beautiful and loving. That is until their world came into the hands of a little girl called Madison Blackberry.

Madison Blackberry is a lonely little girl who is bored with her life and jealous of everyone about her. Vulnerable and powerless in her own world she takes out her pain on the doll house and its occupants Wildflower, Rockstar and Miss Selene.

House of Dolls is an enchantingly illustrated fable that demonstrates that being little does not mean being insignificant. Beautifully written, this is a touching and tender story of life and lives intertwined, showing how our actions affect others and how in small ways we can change someone's world. A simply enchanting and powerful story for children and adults alike. ( )
  LarissaBookGirl | Feb 16, 2011 |
Madison Blackberry's dolls--Wildflower, Rockstar, and Miss Selene--have lives that she envies, with their beautiful clothes and warm, cozy house, while she is lonely most of the time. ( )
  prkcs | Sep 8, 2010 |
In her first middle grade novel, Francesca Lia Block tones down her I-have-just-ingested-a-large-amount-of-unknown-substances style and creates a charmingly brilliant story a little along the lines of Rumer Godden's The Doll's House, although with her own unmistakable style.

Wildflower, Rockstar, and Miss Selene live in a fabulous doll house. They have their friends, Guy and B. Friend, and they have their amazing and wonderful dresses, created by their owner's grandmother. But the little girl who owns them, Madison Blackberry, is not happy. Like many unhappy people, she decides since the dolls have the love and care she desires and doesn't have, she will punish them. Each of the dolls deals with grief and loneliness in their own way, until Madison's grandmother makes things right and there is a happy ending for all.

Block's elaborate and wild style is toned down just enough to give younger readers a delicious experience without completely bewildering them. Readers will revel in the descriptions of the elaborate dresses and feel the dolls' grief at their losses, as well as sympathizing with Madison's anger and hurt. Barbara McClintock's illustrations are the perfect counterpart, full of delicate detail but keeping the focus on the story. She brings to life Block's bespangled words and takes the reader into the world of The House of Dolls.

Verdict: Delightful! If I hadn't already used up my juvenile fiction budget for the year.....

ISBN: 006113094X; Published June 2010 by Harpercollins; Borrowed from the library
  JeanLittleLibrary | Aug 30, 2010 |
Ages 8-12

Wildflower, Rockstar, and Miss Selene are all dolls living in a house belonging to Madison Blackberry. They love living there with each other and with Madison’s other dolls, their friends. But Madison is jealous of the time her grandmother devotes to the dolls – and not to her. ( )
  kaledrina | Aug 21, 2010 |
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Madison Blackberry's dolls--Wildflower, Rockstar, and Miss Selene--have lives that she envies, with their beautiful clothes and warm, cozy house, while she is lonely most of the time.

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