The Story

Betty Doll (From

Young Mary Ellen is heartbroken when her family's farmhouse burns to the ground, taking all five of her dolls with it. So when her mother announces that they are going to make her a new doll, she is overjoyed. But little does she know that Betty Doll will travel with her as her closest confidant through her whole life, watching as first Mary Ellen grows up, then her children, and her grandchildren. Along the way, Betty is privy to family events big and small: a devastating blizzard, tea parties, weddings, floods, illness, births, deaths, and war. When a much older Mary Ellen discovers she has cancer, she writes a letter to her grown daughter, Tricia, telling her the story of Betty Doll, and passing on her own abiding love for Tricia.


The Artwork

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Pictures from the making of Betty Doll.

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Betty Doll Activity Ideas

There are two important characters in “Betty Doll,” with the exception of Betty Doll herself, who of course, plays a prominent role in the story. The characters we want to focus on, however, are author, Patricia Polacco and her mother, Mary Ellen. “Betty Doll” is a true story and although it is a charming tale of a girl and her closest confidant, a doll, Betty Doll acts as a symbol of the love between mother and daughter.

Before you ask this question of your students, think of something that is important to you… your most prized possession. Why is that particular thing so important?
Chances are, it is significant to you because it symbolizes something greater, perhaps an event or a person. For example, a wedding album symbolizes the union of marriage. We don’t need photographs to remind us of an event that is forever embedded in our memories, but we take pictures because they represent not only the wedding day, but also the lifelong commitment of marriage.

In the story “Betty Doll,” Mary Ellen lost all of her dolls in a house fire. Her mother knew this was devastating to the young Mary Ellen, so she offered to help make a new doll. When Betty Doll was born, she acted not only as a playmate to Mary Ellen, but also as a symbol of… what? A relationship with her own mother? Rebirth or a new beginning, following the fire? Did Betty Doll represent all of Mary Ellen’s dollies, lost to the fire? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking your students.

Why did Betty Doll become Patricia Polacco’s most prized possession? What does she represent to Patricia? Is Betty Doll important to Patricia because she is a pretty doll and fun to play with, or does she act as a symbol of Mary Ellen's life; events such as a devastating blizzard, tea parties, weddings, floods, illness, births, deaths, and war, that were witnessed by both mother and doll? Like Mary Ellen’s relationship with her own mother, does Betty Doll also symbolize the relationship between Mary Ellen and her daughter, Patricia?

When you have finished reading “Betty Doll” to your class, ask your students the above questions to see what they come up with. Also, share with them the following definition. *

Something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially a visible sign of something invisible <the lion is a symbol of courage>

Now that your students are familiar with the definition of “symbol,” and have analyzed Betty Doll as a symbol in the story “Betty Doll,” share with the class, YOUR answer to the question: What is your most prized possession and why?

Now it is your students’ turns to share with the class. Remember, the idea behind this exercise is to encourage students to think about symbols and symbolism. What does that particular possession represent? An answer as simple as, “My most prized possession is my skateboard because my grandpa gave it to me and I love my grandpa,” is right on target.
Depending on the ages of your students, an answer might be as complex as, “My favorite possession is a bracelet that my mother gave to me, which her mother gave to her, and her mother gave to her. I will give the bracelet to my daughter when I have one, because it represents the bond between women in my family.”
Some students may not believe their favorite possessions represents anything. Of course they do! A student might cherish a skateboard merely because he or she loves skateboarding! Therefore, the skateboard represents the passion for the sport. Help your students discover the importance and symbolism of their most prized possessions.

Sharing can be done in several ways:
1. Have your students verbally answer the question, and explain why his or her particular possession is of significance, to the entire class.
2. Pair off your students and have them share with a partner.
3. Have your students write a one-page essay answering the aforementioned questions.
4. Conduct a “Show and Tell” in your classroom, where the students bring in their favorite possessions and show them to the class, while describing the significance of that item.

The above exercise serves not only to assist students in discovering the symbolic meaning of something they are already familiar with and hopefully, better appreciate it, but also to help them understand that symbols are as an essential part of existence. Symbols are everywhere, in art, religion, ancient and contemporary forms of communication, and in celebration.

As a class, talk about some of the symbols that you see on a daily basis (street signs, flags, etc.). What do they represent?

It’s nearly December, and everywhere we look, we see signs of the approaching winter holidays. Next, as a class, compose a list of some of the “signs” (or symbols) we see that the holidays are forthcoming (Christmas trees, crowded malls filled with gift-givers, menorahs, nativity scenes, etc.). Then, reviewing your list, decide what each “sign” or symbol mentioned represents, and which specific holiday it targets. For example, the Menorah is a symbol of Chanukah, whereas the Christmas tree is a symbol of Christmas, etc.

Share some of the following facts with you students: **
The Christmas tree is a symbol of peace and Christ to people in England, but it was a symbol of eternal life to the Romans because of the evergreen branches.
One of the most well known symbols in winter celebrations is the "gift givers." Santa Claus is the most widely known American gift giver for celebrating Christmas. However, before the gift givers were developed, gifts were exchanged at the winter solstice festivals to celebrate the new season. These winter celebrations included gifts of holly, ivy, and mistletoe as gifts of peace.
The gift givers are unique to different people in different countries. The German goddess Hertha took gifts of good fortune and health to her people.
The Romans (those who were rich) gave gifts of holly and laurel to the poor.
Jewish people celebrated in the winter with gifts for each day of Chanukah.
The three kings (or wise men) gave gifts to the baby Jesus. Many Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus today by giving gifts (symbolic of the wise men giving gifts to Jesus).
St. Nicholas was an actual person who lived in the fourth century who was known for his kindness and love of children. From then on, anyone receiving an unexpected gift said that St. Nicholas had done it.
St. Nicholas is known in many countries. Svaty Miklaus is the Czech (or ancient Bohemian) gift giver who is let down from heaven by means of a golden cord held by angels.
In Italy, Befana is a gift giver who searches the world over every Epiphany Eve (a celebration held in winter), leaving gifts and candy in the shoes of sleeping children just in case one of them is the baby Jesus who she did not see when she had the chance to go to Bethlehem with the wise men.
The Russian version of the Italian Befana is an old woman named Baboushka.
The star symbolizes the star in the east that lead the wise men to find the baby Jesus.
The yule log symbol came from Scandinavia who burned a log in honor of their god Thor.
The Christians adopted this tradition and considered it to be good luck to keep a piece of the log in the house.
Mistletoe was first used as a part of winter solstice celebrations. The Norse believed that if enemies met underneath it, they declared a truce for the day. This may be where the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe came from.

Wrapping it all up...
By now, your class should have discussed the story of "Betty Doll," what the doll itself probably symbolized for both the character in the story, Mary Ellen, and also her daughter in life, Patricia Polacco. Your students should have reported what their most prized possession is and why, and what that item symbolizes for them. Your class should be familiar with the terms “symbol” and “metaphor,” and have discussed common symbols in everyday society and what those symbols represent. And finally, your class should have composed a list of signs that the holidays are near and discussed what those signs represent with the help of the provided information.
The final activity ties each of the aforementioned exercises together. A “white elephant” is defined as an “unwanted object of possible use to somebody else.” Over the course of the next couple of weeks, have your students find an object that was once of significant or symbolic importance to them, that they no longer want or need... An object they feel may be of use to someone else (book, cassette tape, etc.). THE ITEM MUST BE USED, but be sure to instruct your students to ASK THEIR PARENTS before they give anything away! If you do not have a designated day for a holiday party in your classroom (which would be the ideal time for this activity), then set aside some time for your White Elephant Exchange.

Here’s how the White Elephant Exchange works:
1. Each student brings in his or her white elephant item wrapped like a holiday gift (so that no one else can tell what is inside).
2. Have the students form a circle on the floor of your classroom and place the white elephant gifts in the center.
3. The first child picks a gift out of the center of the circle and opens it. He or she may either decide to keep the opened item or choose a new gift from the center of the circle! If that child decides to choose a new gift to open, THEY HAVE TO KEEP THE SECOND GIFT!! They MAY NOT take a third gift. If they do take a second gift, the already opened white elephant is passed to the next child in the circle.
4. If the first child decides to keep the initial gift, then the second child in the circle chooses from the center. Again, he or she has the same decision (to either keep the gift or choose a new one). If the first child passed his first white elephant onto the second child, and that child does not want it either, it goes onto the third, and so on until an interested party claims the gift. EACH CHILD has the option: keep the gift in their hand (or the first gift they chose from the center of the circle) OR choose a new gift.
5. Eventually everyone will have either accepted a gift passed to them or opened one from the center pile, and EVERYONE will have something that once belonged to someone else.

The purpose of this activity… SYMBOLISM!!
When your class was discussing holiday “signs,” you shared with them the different traditions of gift giving and what the process symbolizes… As previously stated, for Patricia Polacco, Betty Doll is a symbol of the relationship between mother and daughter… Let your students’ white elephants gifts be a symbol of camaraderie in your classroom this holiday season. By each child passing on to another, something of symbolic meaning, they are sharing a part of themselves with another child. Like Mary Ellen passing on her most prized possession to her daughter, what better way to symbolize friendship, then gift giving?

* Definitions compliments of Merriam-Webster Online dictionary at:

** Celebrations facts site:

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