Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Friendship Doll

The Friendship Doll, the 2011 middle-grade novel by Newbery Honor winning author Kirby Larson, is a study of friendship through historical fiction.

For me, it was an interesting followup to a recent New York Times article entitled, What are Friends for? A Longer Life, written by Tara Parker-Pope.

Friendship isn't just simply comforting, which most of us would agree it is. It actually helps us live longer. And according to Sociologist Rebecca G. Adams, cited in that article, "Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships." 

The Friendship Doll is a novel comprised of a series of connected friendship stories, involving girls, a Japanese doll, and adults, such as librarians and teachers and even Eleanor Roosevelt. The inspiring and healing effects of friendship are evoked. Check out the review linked to the book title above for a full description of the plot. 

Miss Kanagawa is a large and beautiful handmade Japanese doll sent to the U.S. in 1927 as a friendship ambassador. Magical, in that she is able to think and feel, Miss Kanagawa takes her roll as a friendship ambassador, seriously. 

What she experiences isn't always pleasant. When she witnesses girls being mean to one another as they stand before her at the doll exhibit, the doll tells us: "I feel a twinge inside my muslin chest, under the left side of my kimono. Since the day I was created, I have never had a moment of feeling unwell. What is causing this pain?" A real girl named Bunny feels a pain in her chest too, " . . . the sensation of being poked by an umbrella." Bunny is a lonely, envious girl. However, the sudden strange connection she feels when she looks into the dark eyes of Miss Kanagawa, makes her kinder, more empathetic. Miss Kanagawa is working her friendship magic as she appears in subsequent stories.

Everywhere Miss Kanagawa goes, she inspires connection, and in every case, she makes those who experience her power, better and more generous people. This lovely Japanese doll made me wonder about the reasons why children in real life are charmed by dolls, carry them around, love them. Even though we can assume most dolls are not magical, still, they inspire something magical, that is, imagination and emotion.

But Larson also shows us the power of friendship in relationships between children and their adult mentors, such as teachers and librarians. We even see letter writing as a means of friendship. Lucy, a barefoot, hungry little girl from the dust bowl of Oklahoma, finds courage in the letters she writes to Eleanor Roosevelt, a pen-pal of sorts, who actually eventually writes back. She helps Lucy, who spills her thoughts and feelings forth in words, never give up in her struggle to survive. 

Friendship is a magical, indescribable thing in all its permutations. One indeed might live longer with friends than without them.  


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