Before Ruth Handler introduced the Barbie doll, visionary entrepreneur Beatrice Alexander Behrman revolutionized the industry with lasting innovations: unbreakable dolls, dolls based on literary characters and popular culture, and new standards for dolls that made them aesthetically sophisticated, cherished playthings. This picture book biography presents Alexander as both an energetic businesswoman and a person who deeply understood what dolls meant to children.
Author Susan Goldman Rubin situates Alexander’s life within the Jewish community on New York City’s Lower East Side, where her immigrant father runs a doll hospital. Beatrice is a bookish child who dreams of the characters in her favorite stories coming to life. Illustrations by Sarah Dvojack emphasize the idea that dolls have an almost human status. Surrounded by shelves of disembodied heads, arms, and legs, the father and daughter are as committed to restoring life and health as real physicians.
As a young woman, Beatrice is skilled in math, reading and writing, and the arts. Readers learn how she finds opportunities when adversity strikes. During World War I, European-based doll production becomes unavailable to American consumers. Beatrice convinces her family to produce their own dolls out of cloth, which grows into a neighborhood success.
Marriage and family do not discourage Beatrice from growing her enterprise. The business eventually requires its own factory and showroom, and employs more than a thousand workers. Beatrice returns to books she loved as a child, producing dolls based on the characters in Little Women and many other classics. She even dares to market her baby dolls to the upscale FAO Schwarz toy store. There, she is conscious of being “a Jewish woman from the Lower East Side,” since both sexism and class prejudice pose as obstacles to expanding her line of products. Dvojack shows a somber and neatly dressed Alexander watching the Schwarz executive as he judges the quality of her doll. The expensive dolls standing on the counter with their backs to the boss seem to be silently waiting, too.
By the end of the book, Beatrice Alexander Behrman has become confident and highly respected, demonstrating outstanding skills. Her childhood love of dolls, and her recognition of the role they play in children’s lives, remains the core of her mission.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.