School Library Journal
Gr 4–6—Larson brings her talent for historical fiction to this story of one of the 58 handcrafted, child-size dolls Japan presented to the United States in 1927 as a goodwill gesture. Fans of doll stories will be enchanted by the way Miss Kanagawa changes the lives of five children of varying circumstances over a span of decades and learns to feel love despite herself. The theme of being kind to others could come across as didactic in less-skilled hands than Larson's, but the initial contrast between the doll's moralizing, superior tone and her actual disregard for humans lightens the mood considerably. The story is not solely lighthearted, however; heavy topics such as death, grief, and aging are addressed in a straightforward yet remarkably affecting manner. The book's background is meticulously researched, with the era of the 1920s-'40s evoked through slang and radio-show references, and authentic Japanese cultural details are thoughtfully described. An author's note explains that some pivotal plot points are fictionalized, but the true story of the Friendship Dolls is so intriguing that readers may be moved to learn more. A little research shows that the author cleverly constructed the narrative to match Miss Kanagawa's real-life fate, a detail that will delight historical-fiction enthusiasts. The idea of a doll becoming more human through its interactions with children may not be wholly original, but that is part of the comforting appeal of this lovely tribute to a little-known piece of history.—Allison Tran, Mission Viejo Library, CA
Children's Literature - Elisabeth Greenberg
This historical fiction story celebrates the special status of dolls in Japan and their unique role as ambassadors of friendship from the children of Japan to the children of the United States in 1927. At the heart of the tale is the discovery by the proud Miss Kanagawa of her true purpose, in the words of her maker Master Tatsuhito, to be awakened by the heart of a child. From the first moving scene of the elderly doll maker Tatsuhito carefully wrapping and delivering his last doll, the beautiful, but smug, Miss Kanagawa, to the last discovery of the abandoned doll in a dusty attic, this book reveals how a hard heart is softened and finally wakened by knowing young Americans who each have problems of their own. Each of the carefully drawn girl characters, slighted Bunny, reckless exuberant Lois, hooked-on-books Willa Mae, lonely loving Lucy, and the one boy, unhappy Mason, discover things about themselves through the quiet suggestive voice of Miss Kanagawa. This amazing tale, turning on a single Depression-era photo and a real historical connection between Japan and the United States, draws readers to an understanding of the Depression era and true friendship. An Author's Note includes information about what is historical and what is fictional in the book and additional resources for further reading. Reviewer: Elisabeth Greenberg
Read an Excerpt
Early Autumn, 1927
Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan
Master Doll-Maker Tatsuhiko
The old doll-maker Tatsuhiko poured boiling water into the teapot with trembling hands and inhaled deeply. It was the last of his tea. He portioned out his breakfast rice and took a seat on a tatami mat. One of the blessings of growing old was that it did not take much to make his stomach content. And this morning his heart was so full that food seemed trivial.
Tatsuhiko studied the doll he had completed the night before, smoothing an almost invisible tangle in her black hair. Miss Kanagawa. She would be the last doll he would ever make. Could ever make. His hands shook so these days, and his eyes were full of clouds. It was difficult to think his doll-making days were ended, but, like bitter tea, this fact was best swallowed down quickly.
Though he wasn't like Kurita--a man whose endless boasts clanged like the chappa cymbal--he was proud of his efforts. His wife would be, too, were she still living. Miss Kanagawa was a doll like none other. The size of a five-year-old girl, she was even more exquisite than the doll he'd made for the infant Empress. Two hands like graceful lilies rested at her sides. Her eyes, so clear and proud, gazed into his own. Her delicate cherry lips parted slightly, as if she were on the verge of speaking to him. He was almost disappointed not to hear her speak, but he knew she'd been created for the children in the Land of the Stars, and not for him.
He had dressed her in their daughter's best kimono, in its rich print of blue chrysanthemums against orange silk. This was the very one his wife had stitched for the child's fifth birthday. Her last birthday. Tatsuhiko's heart had shriveled like a dried plum the day the sickness took their sweet daughter away.
"You look lovely, little sister." The old doll-maker dabbed at his eyes. The steamy tea must be making them water. "I know you will serve your new role well, and will carry the message of friendship honorably. But my wish is that you will find a doll's true purpose: to be awakened by the heart of a child." He fussed with the obi until it was tied just so and then gently wrapped the doll in a blanket.
Yoshitoku Doll Company was a mile across town, but the walk there was too short, even for his old legs. Too soon, Tatsuhiko was unwrapping Miss Kanagawa from the blanket, handing her over to the owner of the company. "Safe travels, little sister," he said, patting her long black hair. His troublesome eyes began to water again.
"Will you not enjoy some tea before you go?" The doll company owner was concerned for this frail man whose head bobbed like a koi at feeding time.
But Tatsuhiko declined. "My wife waits for me," he said. And without another glance at his creation, his masterpiece, he turned and shuffled away.
Arrival in America
DOLLS TO BEAR GOOD-WILL
Japanese Children Are Sending Them to Show Friendship for Us
TOKIO, Nov. 5, 1927 (AP) --
Fifty-eight Japanese dolls, messengers of friendship from the children of Japan to the children of the United States, received their formal farewell yesterday from 1,500 Japanese schoolgirls in a ceremony preceding the sailing of the dolls for San Francisco aboard the steamship Tenyo Maru, which will leave Japan on Thursday.
The children read addresses expressing hopes that the doll gifts to the American schoolchildren, presented in appreciation for more than 10,000 dolls, which American children gave for the doll festival of Japanese girls, will carry the assurances of Japanese friendship for the United States.
The Japanese and American anthems were sung at the ceremony and Ambassador MacVeigh and Viscount Shibusawa made speeches.
This leg of our journey, from Washington, D.C., to New York City, we are riding as befits our rank--finally!--sitting in seats, rather than closed up in our trunks, in the luggage compartment, hidden away from the exciting sights and sounds of this country called America. Elder Sister, Miss Japan, is on my right, unusually quiet. It has been some time since she has offered advice about proper behavior for a Doll Ambassador. Not that I need her lectures, but others of our fifty-six sisters certainly do. Miss Tokushima, for example. Weeping and wailing as we departed Japan. Shameful.
It is no small sacrifice that I will not see my homeland again. But I will shed no tears, choosing instead to live up to the honorable task bestowed upon me: strengthening the bonds of friendship between two proud countries. Such a mission requires true samurai spirit. Sadly, some of my sisters are lacking in such spirit.
I will let you judge my fitness by stating certain facts. When the Tenyo Maru sailed out of Tokyo, I was the first of my doll sisters to turn a brave face west, to accept my new life. I rode courageously through the city on the back of a motorcycle when we arrived in San Francisco. And I'm sure you can guess which of us greeted the American president's wife, yesterday in Washington, D.C., with dry palms and calm confidence.
Make no mistake! This job has not been all peach blossoms and tea cakes. I've endured my share of dolts who point and stare and think me from China. And, though offended to the core, I was outwardly serene when that one young girl asked if I could say "Mama" or wet. Perish the thought!
None have heard me grumble--not once!--about all those grimy hands patting my kimono, that parting gift from Master Doll-Maker Tatsuhiko. He said he hoped that I would find my true purpose. Poor man--his longing to be with his daughter and wife had made a tangle of his thoughts. I know what my true purpose is. It is to be an ambassador beyond compare. And this kimono--lovelier than those of any of my sisters--is a fitting gown for one such as I.
Yes, Master Tatsuhiko would be proud of me. Through a multitude of indignities, I have worn a steadfast smile, holding my lily hands out to all in goodwill.
Miss Japan's thoughts stir. It is when we have had our hearts awakened by a child that we can truly call ourselves ambassadors of friendship.
From the Hardcover edition.