Book Review: Ginnie and the Mystery Doll

Title: Ginnie and the Mystery Doll

Author: Catherine Woolley

Date: 1960 (Morrow), 1965 (Scholastic)

Publisher: Morrow (hardcover), Scholastic (paperback)

ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon

Length: 156 pages

Illustrations: line drawings

Quote: “In your mother’s old diary she says something about a doll that her Uncle Frank brought her from Paris. Is that the doll in the parlor?”

From the years when the commercial media were hard-selling “femininity” comes what must be the ultimate girly-girl mystery novel. Two middle-school girls spending the summer on Cape Cod help a nice old lady who needs extra money find the family treasure in her heirloom doll collection. There are moments of suspense—fear that the treasure has been lost. There is no sex (a few male relatives get speaking parts, but the girls solve the mystery without any “help” from boys), no violence, no danger of anyone’s being hurt. The only danger is that the girls will be embarrassed by failing to solve the mystery, and you know that won’t happen.

(Per the recent discussion of G.K. Chesterton’s almost-all-male fictional world…I wouldn’t put Catherine Woolley’s novels in the same class with Chesterton’s, either.)

Woolley wrote a whole series about Ginnie in the 1950s and 1960s. They were nice, wholesome stories about nice, wholesome little girls who never got into any trouble or danger. They helped nice, wholesome little girls relieve the boredom of long bus rides to consolidated schools, rained-out recess periods, and spending days in bed with the “childhood diseases” against which vaccines hadn’t been invented yet. They don’t seem to have been anyone’s favorite books. They weren’t endlessly reprinted, as the wholesome adventures of Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, the Melendy Family, Beany Malone, or the Boxcar Children were reprinted; Ginnie may never have become any child’s best imaginary friend, as the characters in the more popular series did. Nevertheless, the books met a need, and they can still meet that need for any child who still has it.

According to the mass media, the need that used to be met by trivial storybooks like the Ginnie stories is now being met by electronic gadgets. I’m not sure that this is true. Books are cheaper than the “plug-in drugs” we’re told that today’s children crave. Keeping and rereading old books is better for the environment than plugging a TV or computer into the wall. Recycling electronic devices is mostly done overseas, so few Americans have noticed yet, but the recycling process for old TVs, computers, batteries, etc., is even more toxic than producing and recycling paper. Books are easier on the nerves of parents, teachers, and classmates than noisy electronic gadgets. And, given the choice, some children actually prefer to use their imagination to read, reread, and rewrite stories rather than passively watching TV. Parents should not be too hasty to overlook light reading as entertainment for today’s children.

What do you do if a child hasn’t discovered the pleasure of books yet? First of all, if the child is under age ten, I recommend backing off. Some kids (usually boys) are slightly farsighted at this age; their eyes can focus on the page long enough that they learn how to read, but their eyes quickly grow tired of holding this close focus, so they minimize the amount of time they spend reading. This is natural and normal and has nothing to do with the child’s intelligence…if the child is allowed to outgrow it in peace. If mental blocks are set up, or glasses are forced on the child, then not having been an early reader may do permanent harm. Data about the possible damage done by exposure to blinking electronic boxes may still be questionable or inconclusive, but TV, computers, and video games definitely are not good for children’s eyes (or even adults’ eyes)—the question is how much harm they do.

If I knew that a child was able to enjoy reading, I might try a very soft sell of the idea of sharing a book an older relative used to enjoy. Instead of being afraid that the child would be reading about a time, place, or lifestyle different from her or his own, I’d encourage that. It builds the child’s imagination, helps the child understand the differences among people in the real world, gives the child a sense of history, and may even help the child understand the difference between desirable and undesirable “social change.”

However, I wouldn’t expect boys to like Ginnie and the Mystery Doll, and if a girl named this book as a favorite I might try to open a conversation about what she likes about it (the calmness, the serenity, the absence of boys) and whether overindulgence in a taste for calmness and serenity might be what causes the unfortunate old lady to become dependent on visiting children for financial help.

Maybe it’s because of its soft, serene, feminine atmosphere, too, that this book is becoming a bit of a collector’s item. Although Catherine Woolley (who also wrote as Jane Thayer) lived to the age of 100, she no longer needs a dollar…but in order to sell Ginnie and the Mystery Doll online I’d have to charge, currently, $10 per book + $5 per package. Other sellers may offer a better deal so, unless you want to tuck this one into a package with a Fair Trade Book, feel free to take advantage of their offer.

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