Simply 7 with Susan Goldman Rubin: MADAME ALEXANDER

Did you know that mainstream cloth dolls started in America?  I didn’t either until I read today’s nonfiction picture book.


Photo Credit Sonya Sones

Susan Goldman Rubin grew up in the Bronx and dreamed of becoming an artist. She attended the High School of Music & Art in New York, then Oberlin College in Ohio. As a young woman she illustrated her own stories, then turned to writing nonfiction for all ages. She is the author of many highly praised biographies for young readers including Degas, Painter of Ballerinas, and Mary Seacole Bound for the Battlefield. You can learn more about her at her website.

MadameAlexander_9781250138590_CVR_03MADAME ALEXANDER is a nonfiction picture book about Beatrice Alexander, the creator of the first cloth dolls in America.  It’s also a story of one of the first successful business women in America, despite many obstacles and hardships.  I was quite stunned that I’d never heard of her before.  The illustrations by Sarah Dvojack are absolutely stunning as well.  This is a story you won’t want to miss.

Welcome Susan!

Me: This is a fantastic biography of a American businesswoman who was an incredible pioneer.  What draws you to write picture book biographies? 

Susan: I write picture book biographies to introduce young readers to people who did something extraordinary, exciting, inspiring.  I’m especially interested in true stories about figures in the arts, particularly women, who are not as well known as the usual subjects of biographies for children.  Growing up in the Bronx I rarely read books about successful women —much less Jewish!   I want today’s readers, boys and girls, to know Madame Alexander (Beatrice), the daughter of immigrants, who grew up in a poor neighborhood where my own father lived when he came to America from Russia. Beatrice used her imagination, artistic talent, and determination  to become Madame Alexander, a leading creator of exquisite dolls and a powerful businesswoman.


Me:  I’m floored that I’ve never heard of Beatrice Alexander before.  Her story fascinated me in so many ways.  When did you first learn about her?

Susan: I first learned of Madame Alexander’s beautiful dolls when I was a child and saw them at FAO Schwarz in New York.  For a birthday present, my mother took me to the store and let me choose a doll.  I didn’t pick one of the fancy dolls dressed in elaborate clothes, a Madame Alexander trademark.  Instead, I wanted a baby doll with eyes that opened and closed like a real infant.  It may have actually been a Madame Alexander creation because she was the one who originated “sleep eyes” among other innovations.  She understood that girls like me dreamed of being a mother someday. When I began researching this book, I was fascinated to discover that her father owned and ran the first doll hospital in the United States.  She loved helping him repair dolls, and that part of the story intrigued me. I was thrilled when my agent recommended me to the editor as the writer for this project.

Me: Some biographies are told cradle to grave (as you did here), while others focus on one part of a life.  Why did you choose the former for this story?  Was it difficult to write an entire life into the tiny space of a picture book?

Susan: I chose to write about Madame Alexander’s life, starting with her childhood on the Lower East Side of New York, watching sobbing children bring their broken dolls to her father’s hospital, her vow to invent unbreakable dolls, and ending with her achievement as the head of her own doll making company.  In this way I gave the book a dramatic and emotional arc. I ended the text on a triumphant note at the height of her career in her show room, surrounded by her beautiful creations. I added details about her philanthropic work and death in the back matter.  It was extremely difficult to condense her story in so few pages, but our brilliant illustrator, Sarah Dvojack, made the sequences come to life and flow smoothly with her stunning art.


Me:  She really did!  Beatrice loved dolls and the children who loved them.  Dolls might not seem like an important topic to some, but her life was extraordinary.  She really did break barriers and create a lot of firsts!  Why do you want young readers to know about her?  Why is telling her story important to you?

Susan: Telling Beatrice’s story was important to me for a number of reasons.  First, she was Jewish, and an artist, and devoted to her family— her parents and siblings, as well as her husband, and later her daughter.  These values resonated with me. I know this is truly what she felt because I based my research and lines of dialogue on a transcription of a lengthy interview she gave that I acquired from the New York Public Library.  I admired her ingenuity as she solved problems, such as creating those rag dolls when her father could no longer import parts of porcelain dolls from Europe during World War I, and the family was broke.  I thought this quality would make her a terrific role model for kids. 

Like Beatrice, I believe that for some children like me, dolls are important emotionally.  When I wrote that “dolls were more than just toys. They gave children comfort, like special friends,” I was remembering my own feelings as well as the teachings of Beatrice’s beloved father.  I’m sure that a psychologist could explain how and why kids transfer their experiences onto their dolls, and trust them with secrets.  Curiously, I happened to be reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens the other night, and to my amazement, in Chapter Three, the heroine, young Esther, a lonely motherless girl, describes her “dear old doll. . . the only friend with whom I felt at ease.”  I had never read the novel before so I’m excited to find that Dickens understood these truths. Speaking of Dickens, I thought it was marvelous that Beatrice, as a young woman, turned to classic books at the library for ideas. Another meaningful theme.

Me: What a fun find!  Sarah Dvojack’s illustrations in this book are gorgeous!  There are beautiful textures and the pictures of Beatrice almost reminded me of the classic Gibson girls.  Were there any illustration surprises for you?

Susan: Thank you for recognizing the “gorgeous” illustrations by Sarah Dvojack.  I am so grateful to my editor for showing me samples of Sarah’s art when we began the project, and allowing me to participate in choosing her as the illustrator.  But I was knocked out when I saw the final art.  Sarah made Beatrice and her family, and the whole Lower East Side spring to life while leaving white spaces which allow the reader to breathe. 

There were so many surprises! One of them was the sequence showing Beatrice helping her father repair a broken doll in the middle of the night for a sick child who won’t take her medicine until she has her doll.  Beatrice’s facial expression and the wisps of hair spilling out of her curlers told everything about her fatigue.  And her hair is even more disheveled as she climbs the stairs, yawning, after the job is done.  Another amazing surprise was how Sarah depicted Beatrice growing up as a teenage art student, then dating Philip and enjoying their cozy married life together — in one double spread!  Since I began my work as a children’s book illustrator, I can greatly appreciate Sarah’s draftsmanship, composition, and painting.  Her palette of soft sepia tones perfectly suggests the period.


Me: Did you have a favorite doll or toy growing up?  What was it?

Susan: Yes, I had a favorite doll as a little girl.  It was the birthday present baby doll that I had chosen at FAO Schwarz. I named her Jane.  One of the few books I owned was a gem titled Janie Belle about a black baby who is found in a rubbish can and saved and loved by a hospital nurse.  I identified with the story on many levels. I had been hospitalized twice as a very little girl and was kept in quarantine, unable to see my parents.  So I believed that they had abandoned me. Also, my much older brother teased me and said that when I was a baby our parents had found me in the garbage.  Of course, I took everything literally (I love writing nonfiction) and believed him, despite reassurances from my mother and dad. 

Me: You have written and published numerous books.  What is one think you have learned along the way, that you would share with other new writers?

Susan: I have learned so much and keep learning as I write books.  I belong to two critique groups who help me enormously.  But the one thing I want to share with new writers is to be excited about your story whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.  If you lose interest, the reader will know and put your book aside.  That means staying excited about the material through many, many drafts and revisions.  I always feel the urgency of telling a particular story and getting it out into the world.  If I don’t tell it, who will? And that passion keeps me going.  

I love that.  Thank you so much for stopping by my blog today Susan.

Dear readers, today is this wonderful book’s birthday.  It’s a wonderful story of an American female entrepreneur unlike any other I’ve read.  Don’t miss it!

4 thoughts on “Simply 7 with Susan Goldman Rubin: MADAME ALEXANDER

  1. How Beatrice became Madame Alexander is fascinating. I lover Madame Alexander dolls when I was young. I look forward to reading this book!

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