by Francesca Lia Block, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
9780061130946, HarperCollings, $15.99
Known for being poetic and surreal while featuring elements from the real world, Francesca Lia Block's latest, House of Dolls, is lovingly illustrated and difficult to sell. Its charming trim size and brightly-colored cover make it appeal to a picture book audience, but the length of the text will make it hard for most children under the age of 8 to sit through.
This reads as an ambitious project, tackling many tough subjects, filtered through the lens of three female dolls, two boyfriend doll-counterparts, and one human girl. The subtle themes of love and loss, family relations, and the larger context of wartime struggles may require some explaining to a younger reader. It is difficult to see quite how the human characters arrive at the ending they do, when the connecting piece is so clearly missing. Part of the story deals with the human girl's jealousy over the gorgeous doll clothes sewn by her grandmother. At a pivotal point in the book, one doll designs three dresses for herself and her doll friends - this would have been the perfect moment to draw a fourth dress for the little girl, giving the grandmother a clue that she wants to be involved. While the grandmother does eventually make a dress for her granddaughter, it's a stretch of the imagination to see how she comes to this conclusion. Perhaps the author, in signature style, felt that obvious a plot point did not fit with her writing, but as a reader, it would have helped.
The delightful, delicate, and intricately detailed illustrations are classic McClintock, and lend an air of charm to an otherwise heavily-burdened book that tries to do too much at once.