Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth – Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017
In this installment of Debbi Michiko Florence’s Jasmine Toguchi series (previously entries reviewed here and here), Jasmine struggles with the friendship issues that can decimate the lives of middle grade readers. She learns about empathy, and renews her joy in celebrating Hina Matsuri, the annual Japanese doll festival, with her loving mother and her reluctant older sister. All the Jasmine Toguchi books are really about empathy. Jasmine’s family relationships, her lovely affection for neighbor Mrs. Reese, and her ongoing understanding of how Japanese traditions fit into her life, are hallmarks of this warmly appealing and realistic saga. So what’s new for Jasmine here?
Jasmine is looking forward to March 3, when every year Japanese people celebrate girlhood, as well as the imperial family, by assembling an elaborate and hierarchical display of dolls. These are not play dolls, but fragile pieces which embody tradition and attention to aesthetic values. Display dolls or not, Jasmine’s older sister Sophie isn’t having any of it. One of the most subtle touches in the story is the moment when Jasmine relates to her mother’s sadness at the thought that her older daughter is growing up and struggling to break away:
“’You know it’s not only about dolls, Sophie,’ Mom said. ‘It’s about celebrating girls. I love celebrating with my daughters.’
Sophie shook her head. ‘I really don’t want to, Mom.
Mom’s eyes looked sad, but Sophie didn’t seem to notice. I felt sad, too.”
Jasmine is an artist, always busy making collages. Her imaginative nature extends to the way she views the world. Exploring her neighbor Mrs. Reese’s garage, Jasmine notes that the carefully arranged plastic storage boxes resemble “trees in a forest,” while a big dresser “sat like a castle.” There to play dress –up with her best friend Linnie Green, Jasmine becomes determined to find out the meaning of the mysterious objects they find there, including piles of old flyers with the puzzling titles Annie Get Your Gun and Fiddler on the Roof. Jasmine is creative, but she also proud when her teacher or other adults praise her rational approach to problem solving.
Jasmine’s friendship with the shy and less fearless Linnie, her friend who celebrates Hanukkah and not Christmas, (thanks, Debbi!), teaches her that friends need not be people with whom you share every personality trait or interest. Unlike Sophie, Linnie is thrilled to be invited to participate in Girl’s Day with the Toguchi family, but first she and Jasmine needs to take responsibility for their own actions and to relate to each other’sfeelings.
As always, Elizabeth Vuković’s black and white drawings capture Jasmine’s emotions. When she opens a letter from her formerly best friend, Jasmine is wide-eyed with remorse at Linnie’s kindness. The numbered images of Jasmine and Linnie dressing in their kimonos according to the proper, complex order, portrays their excitement through outstretched arms and happy faces. One of my favorite images shows kimono-clad Linnie, her back to the reader, observing the doll display, as a somewhat self-important Sophie points out the identities of each doll. The doll display is a shadowy grey, while the girls are drawn in darker lines, making their interaction the center of the picture.
Debbi Michiko Florence includes an “Author’s Note,” providing brief and pertinent information about Japanese customs. She chooses to explain exactly those aspects of Hina Matsuri that would be most intriguing to young readers, including the structure of the doll display and the details of traditional dress. There are also instructions for making an origami doll. Each book in the Jasmine Toguchi series sparks conversation and encourages readers to learn more.