by Zinta Aistars
“It is the Gruelle ideal that books for children should contain nothing to cause fright, suggest fear, glorify mischief, excuse malice or condone cruelty. That is why they are called ‘Books For Children.’” -- Johnny Gruelle, author of the Raggedy Ann and Andy books.
When my family of four decided to leave home for an undetermined time, pack up the 27-foot RV, and head for Alaska, my daughter, Lorena, was 9 years old, and my son, Markus, was 7. Life on the road, out of school and away from work for nearly a year – it just didn’t get much better than that. Home was on wheels, and the scenery outside of our windows changed by the second. Every night we bedded down to sleep in a different place than the night before. Every morning we woke to a moment of confusion, bleary eyes searching our surroundings for something familiar to orient ourselves, before we realized where we were this time.
Stopping in a store in Juneau, Alaska in search of a souvenir, Markus and Lorena made a simultaneous squeak of joy. What had they spotted? I peered over the merchandise to see….two dolls sitting hunched together, hair of bright orange yarn, black button eyes, red triangle noses, a simple curved line for a mouth. Such simple faces, but so endearing. I could see why my children could not resist giving them a cuddle. And I couldn’t resist buying them the two dolls – Raggedy Ann and Andy.
As our cross-country journey continued, covering not only the breathtaking beauty of Alaska, but also much of the United States, I noticed that both of my children snuggled their new rag dolls more and more, carrying them along everywhere they went. The dolls came along on hikes into woods as well as into cities. They sat in restaurants just as they perched on rocks along the California coastline, looking out to the ocean with that pleasantly blank and patient stare. They smiled through the night, tucked under the children’s arms, greeting them with the same familiar smile each morning.
Familiar smile, I thought. Hmmm. Yes, I understood. Even as we explored the expansive and varied beauty of our country day after day, month after month, Markus and Lorena seemed to thrive on the sense of adventure, even as they seemed to need the familiarity of that friendly Raggedy smile. The two rag dolls were a symbol of the security of home, a familiar and unchanging smile wherever we traveled, wherever we might roam. They were the painted bright faces of love that touched a child’s heart and gave comfort.
With the rag dolls having quickly grown to be such a favorite with both children, I decided to include the series of books featuring the characters of Raggedy Ann and Andy in our homeschooling curriculum. The storyline appealed to both adults and children, perhaps appreciated for differing reasons. Reading these wholesome children’s stories, the kind we come across so rarely in contemporary literature, led to curiousity about the author and creator of the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls my children loved.
Johnny Gruelle, although best known for these dolls and their stories, was a freelance artist, a cartoonist, who loved to create his enchanting drawings to illustrate his stories, but also as cartoons for newspapers and magazines. Born in Arcola, Illinois in 1880, he moved to Indianapolis in early childhood, where he grew up under the wing of an artist father. By his early teens, he was already known for his cartoons. When Johnny had a family of his own, including a daughter named Marcella, he found a muse in his little girl, and a character in the doll that, legend has it, she one day brought down from her grandmother’s attic to place upon her father’s knee, asking for a story. The raggedy little doll had a missing eye and looked a bit battered, but the father picked up his cartooning pen and drew in the missing features – the triangle nose, the simple but sweet smile. From there the stories would unfold, as told to his daughter while clutching her rag doll. And, as the legend continues, the name for the doll came from a blend of two of Johnny Gruelle’s favorite children’s poems: “The Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley, to become - Raggedy Ann.
Tucking my own into their beds for another transitory night, I smiled at my babes… their rag dolls firmly held against them. Life could sometimes be a scary road to travel, I knew, but the unconditional love of a doll with a friendly face would make it easier to brave the unknown.
Today, my children are grown. The road they travel now is their own. But Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy still sit on my shelf, their button eyes still wide, their smiles as charmingly simple as ever. Perhaps that is the reason we love dolls so. They are our tie to our childhoods, our own and those of our children.
(This sidebar to "Once Upon a Time There was a Woman Who Loved Dolls..." was published in the January 2003 issue of Encore magazine. Photo at top of Markus and Lorena, dressed as their dolls, for a Halloween on the road, in Portland, Oregon.)