The Cats in the Doll Shop

Yes, I know. Two children’s books in a row. Not my usual fare. But bear with me a moment. Baby Boomers read children’s books because 1) there are children in our lives and/or 2) good children’s books are always fun. In that vein, let me introduce The Cats in the Doll Shop by Yona Zeldis McDonough (illustrated by Heather Maione, Viking, November 10, 2011), a really good book. I won’t give too many spoilers because you should take my advice and read it aloud to a 8 to 11-year-old. A sequel to the prize-winning The Doll Shop Downstairs, the plot features three young Jewish sisters who live on New York City’s Lower East Side during the first years of World War I. Also in the story: their cousin Tania, who arrives from an increasingly impoverished Russia that is about to explode into civil war and revolution–and two cats. McDonough in no way diminishes “for kids” Tania’s suffering and emotional bruising (from poverty in Russia and a rough passage to the U.S.A.). Neither are Tania’s pathological shyness and strange personality ticks air-brushed. The fate of some newborn stray kittens cruelly broomed off a fire escape by an unfriendly neighbor is handled in a straightforward manner. And yet the tone and plot are mostly playful, always engaging. The Cats in the Doll Shop strongly reminds me, in fact, of the “All of a Kind Family” series by Sydney Taylor I read and loved in elementary school. (Those books were skewed to a slightly older audience.) Again, we have details of Jewish life in America in the second¬† decade of the 20th century. The book is filled with dolls made by the father and the talented young Anna. I loved that! (At this point in my writing I pause and look over at the bookshelf where several Madame Alexander ballerina dolls are posing gracefully.) Oh, no, I’m such a girly girl! So probably this is more of a girls’ book than a boys’ book, a distinction I would prefer didn’t exist, but it does, and so we should own it. If, however, a boy happens to be listening in–the cats’ stories will certainly catch his attention, as will the plot and characters. Moreover, though doll lovers, the three sisters are strong, imaginative, and resourceful, traits we want to nourish in our sons and grandsons as well as our daughters and granddaughters. McDonough includes a glossary that defines some of the Yiddish and Jewish terms used in the story (good for the non-Jewish audience she’s bound to attract, useful even for Jewish kids) along with a helpful timeline. Years cycle by and today’s youngsters¬† are disconnected an era that while we were growing up still seemed to be the fairly recent past. Thanks to Ms. McDonough, 100 years ago seems quite in step with “now.”