The Best-Loved Doll – Rebecca Caudill and Elliott Gilbert, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962
The dolls in this book are competing for a party invitation. Their owner, Betsy, can only bring one doll to her friend’s party, and, what’s worse, it is a winner-take-all competition. At this party, given by a mother who wants a lot of structured activity, awards will be given in specific categories: oldest, best dressed, and multitasker, (“doll who can do the most things.”). As often happens in doll books (for example here and here), the characters are relatively helpless when their human friend is not playing with them. They can communicate with one another, and needless to say, they are pretty anxious about this event. Parties can have messy food and frightening dogs. Yet they also relieve boredom and prove in public, as in the Toy Story small movies, that Betsy needs them.
Rebecca Caudill (1899-1985) was the author of several popular novels about life in Harlan County, Kentucky set in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were both nostalgic and detailed, a bit like the Little House books, although less nuanced and literary. The Best-Loved Doll is a picture book, illustrated by Elliot Gilbert with black and white line drawings and touches of violet. The children themselves, as well as the mother at the high-stakes party, look somewhat like dollhouse figures: small and delicate, with simple features.
From the beginning of the story it’s pretty clear that the big winner isn’t going to be the centenarian doll, who looks adult but, rather sadly, lives in a cradle. Nor will the doll whose obtrusive wind-up key allows her to operate a sewing machine; she looks impressively busy, but maybe also oppressed, as she hunches over her work. Betsy is the kind of child who is confident in her own feelings, and she brings Jennifer, a worn-out veteran repaired with adhesive tape. “With the smile on her face that never went away, she looked like the happiest doll in the world.”
There is a wonderful picture of the party, in which twelve little girls don’t walk in two straight lines, but rather sit around a long table eating cupcakes and twirling miniature paper parasols. The mother, Mrs. Anderson, looks calm and easygoing, her elbows on the table, which I had thought was a sign of bad manners. The dolls have their own table with a little less activity.) Mrs. Anderson is compassionate and flexible, as evidenced by her informal posture. She has awarded the promised prizes, but, at the last minute, added one “For something important…Something I didn’t think of before.” Jennifer receives a gold paper medal, testifying to her best quality, which is much more important than an elaborate wardrobe or the status of an antique. You would think the other dolls might hate her, but she re-gifts the party favors to her fellow dolls and decides to share the medal with them. Who needs a medal, anyway, when your weakest and most tattered attributes turn out to make you the best at something?