Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Review: THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL by Kirby Larson

I'm always pleased when Augusta Scattergood drops a book review into my inbox.  And thank goodness, she's done it again! 

By Kirby Larson (Delacorte Press, 2011)
208 Pages
Ages: 9-12

In 1927, 58 dolls were sent from Japan to the United States as Ambassadors of Friendship. About three feet tall, their black human hair was cut in a bob, their faces hand-painted. They were dressed in silk and possessed lacquer chests, tea sets, and parasols. A young girl’s dream.

The dolls traveled around the country until Pearl Harbor, December 1941, when most were removed from display.

Based on her research into these doll ambassadors, Kirby Larson, author of another of my favorite historical fiction novels, HATTIE BIG SKY, has just published a terrific new book for kids, THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL.

Told chronologically in ever-worsening situations, beginning in 1927 and ending in present-day Seattle, four girls with strong, distinct voices, relate to a single Japanese doll. Woven together by the presence of the doll, any of the chapters could be read aloud as a stand-alone. The stories are harsh, moving, uplifting, funny—and page-turning.

The doll star of this show is Miss Kanagawa. She’s special, and yes, she interacts with some of the human characters in the book. But she’s not a toy who comes awake at night to dance in the playroom. Not a chance. She’s considerably more subtle and sophisticated than that. She communicates with interwoven snippets, imagined eye movements. She feels a slight twinge, a pain in her heart here and there.

As the story unfolds, Miss Kanagawa begins to understand what is happening:

 I sit on the shelf, watching the seamstress mend my kimono. It seems I am being prepared for something, but I do not know what that is.

There is a new feeling in my heart—how strange and yet how sweet to say that word…like there is a string tied to my heart, as if it is a kite being tugged by a kite flier whose face I cannot see.


A quasi debate about the nature of historical fiction has turned up on blogs and websites. Is it historical if it’s just set in the past— with appropriate details, characters, language— yet not related to an actual event? Is it historical fiction if it was written as contemporary fiction but now read by young readers 30 years later, who see anything before they were alive as the past?

I’m not re-opening that particular worm can right now. But I would like to go on record: This book represents all the best in historical fiction for young readers. Real history and facts—the kind you find in textbooks, reference books, and on scholarly websites. Through terrific books written of another time and other places, kids experience history in context (the food –lots of beans during the Depression, the clothing, the actual words spoken).

That’s what I love about THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL. It’s based on research and real facts, and it’s a great story, well-told in a way that makes the period jump off the page, in a good way. And there’s so much history! The Chicago World’s Fair, the Okies traveling Route 66, Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Author’s Note at the end breaks down the different stories and offers a glimpse into Kirby Larson’s extensive research and contagious enthusiasm for this project. I want to know more, or at the very least, read the novel again from start to finish.

This book was sent to me by the publisher. Whether or not, they knew I was once a child hoarder collector of dolls (often snatched from the arms of my younger sister), I can’t say. But that’s not really what THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL is about. Yes, there is a doll. No, it’s not the only thing to love about the book.

For additional information and resources, check out Kirby Larson’s website.

And check out this article on the Seattle’s Child website.

Augusta Scattergood
Reviewed by Augusta Scattergood

GLORY BE, Augusta’s first novel, is historical fiction set in 1964 Mississippi. It will be available in January, 2012, from Scholastic. You can follow her progress on her own blog:

Click on over and check out GLORY BE's stunning cover as well as Augusta's thought provoking reflections, book news, and reviews.

Thank you, once again, Augusta! I'll definitely be reading The Friendship Doll!


  1. I'm going to have to read this one. Reading this made me think of the doll collection at Meredith College. Each graduating class designs a class doll, and they are all on display in the main hall. A fun walk through time.

  2. Hi Ginny, What a cool tradition for college classes! Bet you do see some history on display in those dolls. How large are they? I am very intrigued.

  3. I'm a doll lover like you, Joyce! I even make dolls! Thank you for sharing about this new book by Kirby Larson that is going on my "to read" list today!

    I call my books social history which show the fabric of everyday life. But, as you wrote,it's a can of worms with differing point-of-views.

    Write on, Joyce!

  4. Hi Clara - you make dolls? That is awesome! Ever post the pics?

    BTW - Augusta Scattergood wrote the review and collects the dolls. I don't. I did pick up some adorable dolls in Germany but then I gave them to my sis. Wish I had bought a few more while there!

  5. Thanks Augusta and Joyce for this book review. Yes JOyce, I think it would be great to use for the next issue of Talking Story. I vote for this along with Bronx Masquerade, since this one is historical fiction and so is "The Braid" (other book you mentioned in K&S). What do you think? (answer me in email, OK?)

  6. Thanks for posting the review and for everyone's comments. Love the story about Meredith College also. What a treasure!