In a small shop in a snowy village in Russia, Nikolai the doll maker was carving his last matryoshka. From one piece of soft wood he shaped six nesting dolls, each one fitting inside the other. They all opened in the middle and were hollow inside, except for the littlest. She was the size of a bumblebee and she was made of the heart of the sweet-smelling wood.
Nikolai lines up the dolls from biggest to smallest, and names each one: Anna, Olga, Varka, Vanda, Nadia, and Nina. He tucks them one inside the other. Before he sends them off to a toy shop in America, he kisses Anna goodbye and tells her: "Keep your sisters safe inside you and may you find a happy home."
The matryoshka sisters have a safe journey across the sea. The toy shop owner lines them up on the shelf, but Nina, the littlest, is too close to the edge. While her sisters watch helplessly, Nina is knocked off the shelf, kicked outside into the street, and buried in snow. What will become of her?
A little girl named Jessie buys the matryoshka at half price and brings it home. At night she put a little ball of cotton inside Nadia, so she wouldn't feel empty inside. Meanwhile, Nina starts off on an adventure-filled, perilous journey. She's carried off in a truck, swept along a stream, and caught in a waterfall. How will she ever be reunited with her sisters?
An Author's Note at the end of the book tells you all about the history of Russian nesting dolls.
I wrote The Littlest Matryoshka as a present for my daughter, to go along with a matryoshka I bought her. (It had all six dolls, but it was on sale because of a small crack.) I had a set of nesting dolls I loved to play with when I was a girl. The names in my story come from characters in the work of a famous Russian writer, Anton Checkov.
Nina's amazing journey was inspired by The Odyssey. In Homer's great epic, Odysseus has a long and adventure-filled voyage across the sea before he is back home again and reunited with his family.
Kids always ask me if I get to choose who illustrates my books. The answer is, no, the publisher chooses. I felt so lucky when they selected Kathryn Brown.
By chance, Kathy and I live close enough so we were able to meet before she began working on the art. She borrowed my daughter's matryoshka to use as a model forthe story. (One nice thing about wooden dolls is that they stand perfectly still when you paint their portraits.)
The Littlest Matryoshka was also featured during November and December, 2000 in the exhibit "Family Trees" at Concord Museum, Concord, MA
"When the dolls are separated, the feeling of loss is intense. Children will share the character's satisfaction when the set of dolls is made whole again. The delicate sense of an orderly universe that shines through the writing is reflected in the appealing paintings. . . Like Nina, who was 'made of the heart of the sweet-smelling wood,' this picture book was crafted of emotional heart wood, and children will respond to its essential goodness."
"Bliss's storytelling style makes this an easy readaloud and a good beginning readalone; the language is unaffected and there is real, if gentle, momentum. Brown's watercolors have the sensibility of old-fashioned illustrations. . . with uncluttered composition, expressive characters, and a soothing palette. Classic elements (the animism of toys, the lost doll, adventure and rescue) winningly combined are going to make this book an unpretentious favorite."
"Nina's long journey from a dump truck to the paws of the young girl's cat is thrilling; the improbability of the dolls' reunion is half the fun. The text is as deft and reassuring as the gauzy, pastel-hued illustrations.
". . . an effective readaloud. . .the adventure has definite appeal."
"With illustrations quaint enough for Christmas cards, an author's note that explains the history of nesting dolls. . . Bliss's picture book will especially please collectors of Russian matryoshkas. . . the elements fit together as cozily as the dolls nesting one inside the other."
It is the kind of story that children will respond to with its simple message of how good things can happen to good "people" ...or dolls, in this case, who share sisterly love....
Corinne Demas has created a simple tale that could have been rewritten in many other ways about a lost family member trying to get back to their home and family, but she does it using the nesting dolls that throughout history have been made most famous by the Russians. In fact, she even includes a post at the end with a little history of the always lovely and cherished Matryoshka dolls. What a perfect gift to give with a set of the dolls to any young child. I think its message and the feel of the story is most appropriate especially during the holiday season.
Noted in "Bookshelf" The New York Times Book Review, December 5, 1999.
Interview with the author by Bonnie Wells, "Dolls, fiction hold surprises," Amherst Bulletin, December 10,1999.
Included in "Meet the Authors" by Janice Beetle Scaife, Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 18, 1999.
Visit The Littlest Matryoshka Web Site for Games and Activities related to the book.
Note: This site was produced by the Northeastern University Hypermedia Class, Spring 2002 under the direction of Jay Laird, Metaversal Studios
Ask for it at your local library.
Buy it at your local bookstore.
Order it online:
at Magic Cabin. (Wooden dolls are available with this order.)
Here we are together
at our first book signing.
Kathryn Brown has illustrated nine children's books, including Climb Into My Lap (First Poems to Read Together), Tough Boris (an ALA Notable Book), A Bear for All Seasons, From Lullaby to Lullaby, Eeny, Meeny, Miney Mole, and Muledred, which she also wrote. She grew up in Idaho and now lives with her family in Western Massachusetts. Visit her website to learn more.