Books

Who’s That Living in the Dollhouse?

(Buccina Studios/Getty Images)
Patricia Clapp’s King of the Dollhouse is a simple, lovely book that speaks to the secret wish of many a little girl.

My sister and I received the loveliest dollhouse one Christmas when we were very small. Blue with white shutters, the two-story house had a long front porch, a fireplace, and carpeted stairs. We spent many a happy hour in there, playing pretend (though it was very real to us) with our mismatched families of paper dolls, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, and LEGO guys. The idea that something real might decide to take up residence in our dollhouse, besides the odd spider or stinkbug, never crossed our minds. At least, not until we read Patricia Clapp’s King of the Dollhouse.

In the middle of the night, Ellie is wakened by a very small sound. Someone yelling “Drat!” to be precise. This small “Drat!” came from an equally small — only in size, certainly not in dignity — person, a person of royal lineage named King Bora-Bora. You see, he had bumped his knee very hard on a desk in Ellie’s dollhouse. Who is Ellie? She is the little girl who owns a magnificent dollhouse. It is the dollhouse of many a little girl’s dream, complete with tiny furniture, a newspaper, and even electricity.

Diminutive but regal, the king has moved into Ellie’s dollhouse with his brood of eleven tiny babies. He is caring for them while his wife is off on an adventure, a fact which amuses Ellie. As time goes on, Ellie’s interest and participation in the life of her dollhouse residents grows. She finds ordinary household items to repurpose for the king and his family, items ranging from toothpaste caps to thimbles. The reader also discovers, along with Ellie, that the king’s tiny babies eat only peanut butter (so she dubs them the Peanut Butter Babies), and, at first, Ellie is appalled by their dreadful eating habits. Over time, though, she takes delight in teaching the little ones how to eat properly using the dollhouse plates and spoons.

But where is the Queen? Every king, especially one with so many children, must have a queen. Queen Griselda is, according to the King, a splendid mousequestrian, and she is off on a grand moth hunt. Apparently, she goes on many such adventures, ranging from aviation (spinning off trees on maple keys) to an interest in scuba-diving (in large puddles, of course). We, along with Ellie, meet her in the course of the story, and it is hard not to love her. A daring adventuress, she is also the best of mothers and a loving wife to the king. She tells Ellie that while she is very bad at housekeeping, the king is very good at it. And while the king is a poor stitcher, she loves to sew and creates all the clothes for their babies. In her words, “Everyone does some things well, but no one can do everything well. It all works out rather neatly, I find.”

Patricia Clapp, the creator of King Bora-Bora, Queen Griselda, and Ellie, was a Boston native and attended the Columbia University School of Journalism (though she did not finish her degree). Her first book was Constance: A Story of Early Plymouth, which she wrote after discovering she had an ancestor named Constance who arrived in America via the Mayflower. Clapp was also the author of many plays for both children and adults.

The Schutte copy of King of the Dollhouse is a discontinued library version, still with its crinkly plastic dustcover protector in place. Which library book sale or thrift store it came from, no one remembers, but it was cherished reading for us growing up. More often than not, it could be found tucked in the bottom drawer of the bathroom cabinet, within easy reach. The best part? We never questioned the plausibility of the tale.

Stories of little creatures have been around for generations, ranging from Thumbelina to Tom Thumb to Stuart Little to The Borrowers. Especially as a child, it was enchanting to think of something small living a normal life parallel to yours, but in the tiniest of ways. Could a minuscule king and his babies come live in a dollhouse? Of course. Could a queen ride a mouse and make small clothes out of flower petals for her children? Absolutely.

This imaginative book is simple and effective, with sweet, humorous characters ready to entertain young readers. Little nuggets of truth, from how to tidy up a room properly to what makes for spousal compatibility, are woven in deftly, and nothing comes across as preachy. Short but full of vivid descriptions, this story is perfect as either a read-aloud or read-alone. So next time you walk past that dusty dollhouse, take a peek inside. You never know what charming personage may be living there.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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