The Paper Dolls – Review and activities by Kim Benson writer and educator
Julia Donaldson’s picture book, The Paper Dolls, is often in my teacher bag as I head into elementary school classrooms, and it’s one of my favourite stories. Right away, the reader is introduced to a smiling little girl in tiger slippers who, along with her mother, has created 5 paper dolls holding hands. They are, “Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with a bow”.
With comforting repetition, the dolls sing and dance around the little girl’s bedroom where they meet a dinosaur. Among their many adventures, they dance with pigs on a farm, evade a snarling tiger and are confronted by a crocodile while they explore an island of toast and honey. The paper dolls escape these perils into the garden where they meet…a little boy with scissors and then-snip, snip! “He snipped them into tiny pieces and he said, ‘you’re gone forever.’” Illustrations show the paper dolls floating as little pieces of white into the summer breeze.
When I get to this part in the story there is usually a sharp intake of collective breath as students stare wide-eyed at the illustrations, riveted by the words. I pause here, and then turn the page (I even choke up sometimes). With the heartfelt loveliness of Julia Donaldson’s writing, the paper doll pieces float back together and into the little girl’s memory, “We’re not gone. Oh no no no! We’re holding hands and we won’t let go.” Illustrator Rebecca Cobb reflects emotion on every page, with every image and with every color choice. The blue of the sky when the snips the paper dolls is a sad blue, a blue of despair. But when the paper dolls come together and hold hands once more in the little girl’s memory, the sky is a bright and happy blue.
Indeed, this book has many layers as all really great picture books do, and Julia Donaldson is a master at the craft. Here are some of those layers I address with students to engage them in great discussions.
The paper dolls float into the little girl’s memory where, they find, “white mice and fireworks, and a starfish soap, and a kind granny…” Some students think the dolls are put back together magically and not gone forever. While others seem to understand the paper dolls are gone and in the girl’s memory. This is an abstract concept but the story presents a real life scenario for children to explore.
I ask students questions like: Have you ever lost something important? Do you remember what it looked like and why you liked it so much? When something important to you is gone where can you always keep it? Where is your memory?
Often students will talk about a grandparent or other persons in their lives who are not with them anymore. For discussions about loss and about where people, animals or things we love go when we can’t see them anymore, The Paper Dolls is a delicate and beautiful fit.
In the story a girl has created some beloved paper dolls and a boy destroys them…but let’s think about that…gender plays a role here. I don’t want students who identify as male to see themselves in books as being mean to others or believe that they should not play with paper dolls. I also don’t want students who identify as female to think only girls play with paper dolls, and that boys are mean and destructive.
I always ask my students, “Can anyone play with paper dolls?” and the answer is always an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Students often offer their opinion that boys can play with paper dolls as well as girls.
I encourage students to think about why the boy might choose to cut the paper dolls into bits. I encourage them to think deeper about what they see on the page. I ask questions like, “Do only boys choose to do hurtful things?” and, “Can girls choose to do hurtful things?” and, “Do you think the boy cut the paper dolls to be mean?” and, “Was be being thoughtless?” and, “What other choice could the boy have made when he found the paper dolls?”
Why did the boy cut the Paper Dolls? Like…what was he thinking?! I invite students to think about it for a moment, giving them thinking time then sharing their thoughts. I get many answers:
- He wanted to be mean
- They didn’t belong to him
- He didn’t like the dolls
- He didn’t ask the girl if he could cut them
- He was bored
But one time a student said this:
- He wanted to make snow
Oh, how interesting! This student introduced a new perspective and new motivation for the boy. One not born from unkindness or thoughtlessness but of simply making something else from what he found; snow from paper dolls.
Social Emotional Learning
For schools teaching the, Zones of Regulation The Paper Dolls is a great story to use to address how the girl might have reacted to the destruction of her dolls. We don’t see her have a fit, scream or cry because her dolls were cut up, so I invite students to think about her as well. How did she feel when her dolls were cut into bits? She rightfully could have become upset- and maybe she did. So, I ask students, “What do you think she did to make herself feel better when her paper dolls were cut up?” and “what do YOU do to make yourself feel better when you are upset?” This is always a great conversation because it addresses Social Emotional Learning and engages students in thinking about their own strategies to get themselves from a state of upset (red zone, yellow zone or blue zone) back to the green zone-a state of happy and contentment.
Finally, the story comes full circle to the next generation. As parents, we pass on to our children, what we know to help them live successful happy lives. This is symbolized so simply in The Paper Dolls. The little girl grows up, “into a mother who helped her own little girl make some paper dolls.”.
Thank you, Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb!
More books by Julia Donaldson
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