Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Friendship Doll, by Kirby Larson (ages 9 - 12)

I have always adored historical fiction for the way it brings me right into a time period and helps me connect to characters living through times so different from my own. As I child, I was absorbed by The Little House on the Prairie series, reading them again and again. But I also loved Escape from Warsaw, about two young children escaping the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II. Kirby Larson, who won a Newbery honor for her wonderful Hattie Big Sky in 2006, is a wonderful writer of historical fiction for children. She has an amazing ability to weave together compelling stories infused with rich historical detail and interesting conflicts. Her newest book, The Friendship Doll, gripped me from beginning to end.
The Friendship DollThe Friendship Doll
by Kirby Larson
NY: Delacourte / Random House, 2011
ages 9 - 12
available at my favorite bookstore and online through Google Books
preview available through Google Books
In 1927, Japanese schoolchildren sent 58 dolls to the children of the United States as a gesture of goodwill and friendship. NewberyKirby Larson shapes a touching story, following the travels of one of these dolls, Miss Kanagawa. At first, Miss Kanagawa is haughty and dismissive of the children who come to see her on display.
“I am above all an ambassador, a dignitary. I simply happen to be a doll.” 
But through the course of the story, Miss Kanagawa's heart is awakened by four different children she meets during her travels throughout the United States during the Depression years and those leading up to World War II. The narrative focus shifts from Miss Kanagawa to the four girls who bond with this special doll.

First Bunny, an upper-class girl from Manhattan, is furious that she was not chosen to speak at the welcoming ceremony for the dolls. The font changes to mark the shifting narrative voice, as Miss Kanagawa sees that Bunny’s anger comes as much from loneliness as snobbery.

With each child she meets, Miss Kanagawa is able to see that good intertwines with bad, and that she can help coax more thoughtful actions from her wisdom. The narrative thread follows Miss Kanagawa as she changes hands over the next eleven years and bonds with these four girls, from New York to Illinois, Kentucky to Oregon.

I was amazed how quickly I connected with each character, really feeling the dilemmas they faced. It is not easy to write short stories for middle grade readers. Larson did a remarkable job developing full characters with emotional resonance and unique perspectives, shedding light on how the Depression affected a range of children. The historical details are rich and interesting, woven throughout each story. The final chapter effectively brings the story to the present day, providing a sense of closure and possibilities.

I was fascinated to read Larson's note at the end of the book, where she explains which parts of the stories were drawn directly from history and which she invented to create her story. She also explains more of the background about the Friendship Dolls.

I am looking forward to sharing The Friendship Doll with 4th and 5th graders this fall. I am predicting that several of our students who enjoy realistic fiction with strong characters will enjoy this either as a family read-aloud or a book for independent reading. Can you tell I'm glowing about it?

If you enjoy historical fiction, definitely check out Kirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky and Jennifer Holm's Our Only May Amelia and The Trouble With May Amelia.

The review copy was kindly sent by Random House / Delacourte Press, and this will be donated to the Emerson School Library. We also purchased a copy for our own home library.

1 comment:

  1. I just had a "duh" moment - I hadn't made the connection between Hattie Big Sky and the Friendship Doll. I really enjoyed Hattie, and that makes me want to read the Friendship Doll even more.
    I love those end notes in historical fiction books.
    Thanks for such an enticing review!