February 21, 2011

Book Talk: The Friendship Doll

In 1924, The united States passed an immigration law limiting the number of people allowed into the U.S. from Japan and other areas of Asia.  This law caused great tension between the U.S. and Japan.  During this time, a very caring man named Dr. Sidney Gulick worked to improve the way Americans felt about people from Japan.  He lived in Japan for 20 years and knew how much Japanese children love dolls.  In 1926, as a gesture of goodwill, Dr. Gulick started a project to send American dolls to Japan in time for their Doll Festival.  The project was a sensation!  The people of Japan were overwhelmed with the arrival of over 12,000 blue-eyed dolls.  In return, the finest doll makers in Japan created 58 beautiful Torei Ningyo (Dolls of Gratitude) to be sent to The United States.  The dolls were welcomed with receptions and put on display all over the United States.  
The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson (May 10, 2011) tells the story of one of these 58 dolls as she leaves Japan and arrives in America in 1927.  Ms. Larson tells us that this book is based on the real events that occurred, but the story she tells is fiction. 
Miss Kanagawa is a beautiful Japanese doll, crafted by Master Doll-Maker Tatsuhiko.  From the moment she is created, she knows that she is an ambassador, and will act as such.  Master Tatsuhiko tells her that he wishes for her to one day feel the love of a child, but Miss Kanagawa is above such foolishness.  She is not a play thing, not a baby doll to be held and cuddled, but a symbol of peace and friendship.  As she will soon learn, sometimes you can't ignore what your heart tells you. 
There is something very special about Miss Kanagawa.  Her eyes are piercing, and she seems to look right into your soul and read your thoughts.  She seems to "say" the exact right thing at the exact right time, even though she is only a doll and cannot speak the way you and I can.  She seems to come into your life right when you need her.  She seems to make you a better person than you were before you met her.  
Miss Kanagawa comes into the lives of 4 different girls during her travels as an Ambassador of Friendship.  Each of the 4 girls are struggling to be a good friend or a good daughter, and are at a crossroads in their lives.  After being with Miss Kanagawa, they learn what they must do to be a good person.  The girls are not the only ones that learn about love and friendship. Miss Kanagawa's heart opens a little more with each girl she meets and she knows why Master Tatsuhiko wished for her to find the love of a child.  She finds that opening her heart is painful, because along with hellos, there are goodbyes and some goodbyes can break your heart. 
Sadly, in 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.  Most of the Friendship Dolls were removed from museums, some were even destroyed.  The dolls were seen as unpatriotic during World War II.  There were 58 dolls in 1927 and now, 43 of the dolls remain- some in museums, some owned privately.  I learned that The Putnam Museum in Davenport, Iowa is home to Miss Hokkaido.  I will be making a trip very soon!
Miss Hokkaido Serves Tea at the Putnam Museum in Davenport

I fell in love with each of the characters I met in this book.  I wish Ms. Larson could write an entire book about each of the characters.  Ms. Larson seamlessly places each girl in her setting and time period.  The voices of the girls and Miss Kanagawa intertwine beautifully.  At the end of the book, the reader learns the story behind each of the characters, and we learn facts about the actual events that occurred.  This book would be a great fit into a study of Japan, or a genre study of historical fiction.  After reading the book, I could see classes researching the actual Friendship Dolls and the events that took place before and after they arrived.  I, myself spent time researching the topic online as I read the book.   The book ends in present day with a sweet but sad twist that left a smile on my face and tears on my cheeks.
Bunny is the first girl we meet and she is struggling with a bully.  She has the perfect revenge planned when Miss Kanagawa tells her " Our actions make the fragrance of our lives.  Would you smell of plums or vinegar?"  That question really struck me, and I started to think about all of my actions in life.  Would my life smell like plums or vinegar?  No matter my answer, I decided that from that moment on, I would choose plums.  What would you choose?

Sites About The Friendship Dolls:
Bill Gordon's Friendship Doll Page: Tells the story of the 1927 Friendship Doll exchange between Japan and the United States. Friendship Dolls continue to play an important role in promoting understanding, peace, and friendship between children and adults in the two countries.
Wikipedia Friendship Doll Page lists where the remaining dolls are located. 
Japanese American Museum


  1. I like Kirby Larson, and this book looks delightful.

  2. I've never heard of this one, but I'm putting on my MUST READ list. I was a HUGE doll lover as a child. This one will definitely be sentimental to me.

  3. This was my favorite book of the summer - and I love seeing the photo you've shared here. I was amazed how well Kirby Larson breathed life into each of these characters, in what were essentially connected short stories. It's often hard for children to follow short stories, but I think they'll really respond to these.