Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her, by Robin Gerber
When you were a kid, danger lurked everywhere. It seemed like there was always another bad guy waiting to create chaos, and only you could save the world from complete destruction, by using your cap gun or chemistry set. Being a spy, cowboy or playground warrior was tough work for a kid.
And, if world violence wasn’t imminent, the danger was in not having enough clothes for your baby doll or for your Barbie. Being a grade-school “mom” and fashionista wasn’t easy, either. So, what was your favorite toy when you were a kid?
For millions of boomers, no home was complete without a bevy of Barbies. But, if her creator had listened to the advisors, Barbie Millicent Roberts might never have existed. Read more in the new book, “Barbie and Ruth,” by Robin Gerber.
Ruthie Mosko was a go-getter, maybe because she was the 10th child of immigrants, who came from Poland in the early 1900s to hammer out a new life for themselves in America. Maybe it was because Ruth was raised by an elder sister who doted on her and set high expectations. Either way, Ruth was assertive and self-assured by the time she met Elliot Handler at a carnival dance.
Elliot was a quiet, introspective artist, known for his vision, creativity and skillful hands. Soon after they were wed in 1938, Ruth offered to sell Elliot’s products. It was a good marriage for both: Ruth and Elliot were deeply in love and Ruth’s aggressive, fearless sales tactics offset Elliot’s reluctance to step into the limelight.
By the end of World War II, Mattel (so named because an early partner’s name, Matt, fit nicely with Elliot’s) had a popular line of musical toys, including a jack-in-the-box and a crank-operated ukulele. Later, the company was a pioneer in advertising to children — a market that nobody thought viable — on a burgeoning medium called television. That advertising included Barbie.
Nobody besides Ruth Handler thought there was a market for a little girls’ toy that looked like a big girl. Everybody said the toy would flop, but research was conducted, consultants gave advice and the doll was pushed into production. Now, fifty years later, a Barbie doll is purchased every three seconds.
Part biography, part business profile, part history, and part pop culture, “Barbie and Ruth” is one of those books you just don’t want to put down. It’s a story of American culture, particularly the type that we baby boomers created and thrived upon; and of a corporation born, nurtured and lost by those who created it.
Gerber doggedly researched the life of Handler, an unconventional, “bawdy and outrageous,” ambitious woman, who ignored social mores to become successful at a time when women were largely subservient to men. In the process, as Gerber relates, Handler set various marketing precedents and broke through a “concrete ceiling.” Sadly, at the same time, her children paid the price.
If you remember your first Barbie (or second or third or 10th), pick up this don’t-miss book. Enjoying “Barbie and Ruth” is child’s play.
Harry Houdini for Kids, by Laurie Carlson
Have you ever watched a card trick really closely? The performer shows you a card and asks you to memorize it. He puts it in the deck and then–abracadabra, poof–it’s gone. But wait, there it is, back in his hand. How did he do that? You know it’s not magic, only your eyes playing tricks on you and maybe, if you watch long enough, you can figure out how it’s done.
But, some tricks may remain a secret forever. In the new book “Harry Houdini for Kids,” by Laurie Carlson, you’ll read about the man who some believe is the greatest magician and escape artist of all time.
Ehrich Weisz was born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874. When he was a boy, the family immigrated to America and settled in Wisconsin. As soon as he was old enough, Weisz took odd jobs to help his parents. One of his jobs was as a tightrope walker in the Jack Hoeffler 5-cent Circus. That job started Weisz on a training schedule. He loved being in shape, and gymnastics and acrobatics were his favorites. He won medals in many sports, but his talent as a contortionist was what started his rise to fame.
When he was 17, Weisz and a friend created a magic act, so that they could make some money. This was before television, when traveling performances were sometimes the only entertainment around. In his new act, Weisz called himself Houdini, in honor of a famous French magician.
For many years, Harry Houdini struggled to make ends meet. He and his wife Bess, who he met while on tour, worked on their stage performance, and while they were perfecting their act, Harry studied other illusionists and developed many tricks. He grew famous in Europe by challenging policemen to bind him with handcuffs, from which Harry would quickly escape. He brought his act to America and became a sensation. Houdini died on Halloween, 1927.
Even though he’s been gone more than 80 years, there are still lots of things we don’t know about Houdini. How did he do some of the harder stunts? Did Houdini work as a spy? Was he murdered?
No matter what age, we all love acts of illusion. Kids love to do them, so when you get “Harry Houdini for Kids” and give it to your young prestidigitator, you know you’ll be conjuring up a good time. Carlson gives both children and adults a thorough overview of the life of this American enigma, the reasons for his fame and a few hints about how Houdini performed some of his stunts.
What I found most valuable about this book wasn’t just the biography. I also appreciated the science, as well as the history and social study of the times. Kids will also love the 21 magic tricks that are included.
Nine- to 15-year-olds will enjoy this book, as will an adult fan of illusion or circus lore. Give them “Harry Houdini for Kids,” and watch the time disappear.
The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.