Dolls, East, and West

Book discussed: The Friendship Doll – Kirby Larson, Delacorte Press, 2011 (Yearling Paperback Reprint edition, 2012)

Japan dedicates a holiday each year to the role of dolls in the lives of Japanese girls, not as play objects, but as centers of elaborate ritual.  Hinamatsuri, observed on March 3, combines religious focus on dolls symbolizing the Emperor and Empress and other important figures, and prayer and wishes for the futures of girls (an official summary from the Japanese embassy is here; more detail can be found on the website of the the Kyoto National Museum).

doll cover

There are currently at least two authors who have written middle grade fiction about an historical event related to this practice.  Kirby Larson’s The Friendship Doll was followed by a three book series by Shirley Parenteau, beginning with Ship of Dolls in 2014 (more on those in a later post).  Both authors use the Friendship Dolls program of the 1920s, developed by Christian missionary Sydney Gulick and Japanese business leader Eiichi Shibusawa, as a way of promoting cultural understanding between the two nations through the exchange of traditional dolls. Larson weaves the stories of four different American girls suffering from different challenges, both economic and emotional, and one very haughty and yet vulnerable Japanese doll. The background of their stories is rich in historical detail; Larson’s attempt to present the hardships and inequality of the Great Depression is reason alone to share this book.

The Friendship Doll is a work of historical fiction, but it employs fantasy as well.  Miss Kanagawa, the doll who wanders America through a series of circumstances beyond her control, has a mysterious power of influencing the choices of people who encounter her.  There is a strongly didactic, even harsh, element to the way this happens.  Children, and sometimes adults, facing clear moral dilemmas look into Miss Kanagawa’s dark eyes and experience epiphanies.

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Monkey Is Ready for His Close-Up

Books referenced:

Baby Monkey, Private Eye – Brian Selznick and David Serlin, Scholastic Press, 2018
Curious George Gets a Medal – Margret and H.A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin, 1957


On July 4, I visited the Cloisters here in New York City, to see part of the wonderful new exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. (The rest of the exhibit is at the Metropolitan Museum’s main location on Fifth Avenue.) Along with other visitors, I was struck by the overwhelming beauty and simplicity of a Dior wedding dress designed by Marc Bohan.  The bride mannequin had her back to the visitors, as she stood behind a rope in a medieval chapel.  A lovely little girl, visiting the museum with her parents and grandfather, managed to sneak away, crawl under the rope, and approach the bride.  She wanted to touch the dress and she did.  Who could blame her?  My husband associated the dress’s style with the BBC series Call the Midwife, but it was more austere. Perhaps if Madeline’s Miss Clavel had chosen to get married she might have worn it. Well, once the little girl was noticed her parents removed her before the security guard had to intervene. She went in an instant from looking fascinated by the beautiful dress to realizing that she had done something embarrassing and she started to cry.  Everyone there empathized with her, since we all had experienced similar terrors as children.


This reminded me of Curious George, without the gorgeous fashion.  If you remember, in Curious George Gets a Medal, the fourth book in the series (I wrote on the second here), the intrepid little monkey has a series of disasters that one wouldn’t think would lead to winning a medal. He floods the floor with soap powder, accidentally lets a lot of pigs out of their pen, and, finally, ends up in the dinosaur diorama at the Museum.  It looks so appealing, and George enjoys the attention, posing casually against a stegosaurus as onlookers admire him and take pictures. Apparently, they don’t know that monkeys and dinosaurs did not coexist.  But when George reaches up to pick some phony grapes from a palm tree, everything crashes down. You guessed it, he’s in trouble.

But, wait! Professor Wiseman (!), while initially angry with George, quickly realizes that he is the very monkey whom he has contacted by letter requesting that he join an important space exhibition. Professor Wiseman has beautiful handwriting as well as an official seal as director of the Museum:

“I have never met you but I hear that you are a bright little monkey who can do all sorts of things, and that is just what we need.

We want you to do something nobody has ever done before: bail out of a space ship in flight.”

What monkey, or child, could resist this mission, especially in the very year when the Soviets launched Sputnik?  To the satisfaction of every child, or adult, who has identified with the Reys’ creation, rather than facing humiliating, George gets a medal.


Brian Selznick and David Serlin’s new hero, Baby Monkey, faces similar challenges as he teeters on the bridge between being a small and  helpless being who has trouble putting his pants on, and a successful detective solving crimes.  Like Selznick’s other marvels (I have written on this genius’ work here and here and here), the book is a complete production.  Exciting and young child-friendly plot points appear in large and dramatic font.  Each page features Baby Monkey engaged in hyperkinetic and purposeful actions, some against a blank background and others embedded in film noir scenery. There are plenty of references in the pictures to intrigue adults, from painting, movies, and opera to allusions to Selznick’s other work.


The end of the book has a helpful “Key to Baby Monkey’s Office,” identifying every image, as well as a fantastic Borgesian bibliography of unreal sources. When I first glanced at it, I was momentarily fooled! Famous Babies I Have Known: Bubbe Books, 1988: Is that an imprint of Kar-Ben Publishing?

When Baby Monkey solves his last case by finding his own mother, as loving and warm as the Mary Cassatt portrait in the little detective’s office, readers will feel as relieved as he does.  Or that little girl in the Cloisters when she went back to her family and realized, I hope,  that no one was mad at her.  I don’t know if Baby Monkey will be making further appearances in a library or bookstore near year: I hope he will.  Selznick and Serlin’s curious creation is worth a sequel.

Jasmine Toguchi Stands Up for Girls

Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen – Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017

jasmine cover

Eight-year-old Jasmine Toguchi has a “thinking spot” where she goes when she needs to contemplate what to do. Fortunately, girls in middle-grade series fiction now do quite a lot of thinking and quite a lot of acting on their own behalf, and on behalf of others, too.  Debbi Michiko Florence’s Jasmine, like Andrea Cheng’s Anna Wong, Annie Barrows’ Ivy and Bean, and Derrick Barnes’ Ruby (a very incomplete list!), has to negotiate competing demands on goals in her young life; she doesn’t get discouraged easily.  When her Japanese-American family prepares for their New Year’s Day custom of preparing and eating mochi, a traditional delicacy made of rice flour, Jasmine decides that sometimes traditions need to change.

Jasmine is endearing in many ways.  She is honest; her bossy older sister Sophie, old enough to participate in cooking mochi with the women of the family, drives her crazy. Jasmine bitterly describes her sister “barking commands…while she picked at the chipped polish on her fingernails.” Florence captures a younger sibling’s resentment without mincing words.  Yet revenge against Sophie, or event against her insecure and obnoxious cousin Eddie, a young spokesman for male privilege, is not Jasmine’s goal.  She decides that, rather than insist on being allowed to cook mochi two years before the minimal age of ten, she calculates that working with the men and older boys to pound the rice into flour with a heavy kine (mallet) is a more ambitious goal. She develops a physical fitness plan involving strengthening her arm muscles through a variety of activities, from climbing trees to stacking dishes after a spaghetti dinner.

One of the most touching aspects of the book is Florence’s description of Jasmine’s relationships with adults, particularly with her neighbor, Mrs. Reese, and her beloved grandmother, “Obaachan.”  Mrs. Reese is not Japanese American, but she is eager to learn about Jasmine’s family’s customs.  She is kind and tolerant, offering her home and yard as a neutral haven for her young friend.  Jasmine’s grandmother, whom she identifies beautifully as smelling “like a pine forest,” is not a mere symbol of allegiance to older ways. Yes, she initially responds to Jasmine’s desire to pound rice flour with the men by asserting that “Girls no pound mochi. It kisoku, the rule.”

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Hannah’s Way Is Our Way

Book reviewed:  Hannah’s Way – Linda Glaser and Adam Gustavson, Kar-Ben Publishers, 2012

This week will mark the two hundred and forty second year of independence for the United States. No matter how many times we remind ourselves that we are a nation of immigrants, it can never be enough.  With the important exception of Natives Americans and Africans brought here against their will as enslaved people, the rest of us either are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.  In the current climate of xenophobia, countered, we hope, by the majority of Americans who respect and defend newcomers and refugees struggling to get here, this Fourth of July would be the perfect time to read Hannah’s Way with your children. (I frequently blog about books about immigrants in kidlit; see here and here and here and here and here.)

hannah cover

Linda Glaser tells the story of Hannah, a child who left Minneapolis with her Jewish family to live in a small Minnesota town in the early twentieth century.  A helpful “Author’s Note” explains that many Jews followed the same route, opening small stores in regions with very small Jewish populations.  When Hannah’s public school teacher announces a class picnic trip on a Saturday, she feels lonely and alienated, as she will not drive to the event on the Jewish Sabbath.  Glaser describes Hannah’s feelings realistically.

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Happy Canada Day

Book reviewed:  This Is Sadie – Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad, Tundra Press, 2015

canada day

This is the week when we celebrate independence in both Canada and the U.S.  In writing for this blog, I have dedicated a number of entries to works by Canadian authors and illustrators, some published by the Canadian Presses Tundra, Simply Read, and Kids Can (e.g., A Pattern for Pepper; The Pink Umbrella; Julia, Child; How To; Singing Away the Dark; Suki’s Komono). Although these books are all different, I find a common thread of artistic individuality and respect for children’s imagination.  As an American, I enjoy learning about new authors and illustrators, both Anglophone and Francophone, and noticing both commonalities and different emphases from U.S. children’s books.


As you know if you read my blog regularly, Julie Morstad is one of my favorite illustrators, and her collaborations with author Sara O’Leary are wonderful odes to the childhood fantasy.  In This Is Sadie, we meet a little girl who lives in literature, literally in the case of one picture, which is a two-page spread of a swimming pool filled with characters.  Wearing goggles, flippers, and the same red and green dress she prefers on land (“And then she chooses a dress./’Don’t tell the others,’ she whispers,/but you are my favorite.’”), Sadie dives into a world of mermaids, swans, bears, and other literary creatures.  Her companions, from Mowgli to Alice, are as real to her as the ordinary bedroom where she wakes and plays actively but quietly, “because old people need a lot of sleep.” Cardboard boxes, an old fashioned record player, and, of course, piles of books, are part of the elaborate scenery.

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Rumer Godden’s World, Where Dolls Are Real

Books referenced:
Little Plum – Rumer Godden and Gary Blythe, Pan Macmillan, 2016 (reprint of Viking Press, 1962 edition, illustrated by Jean Primrose)
Home Is the Sailor – Rumer Godden and Jean Primrose, Viking Press, 1964


Rumer Godden might well be the goddess of doll fiction, or at least one of its most original and sophisticated practitioners.  Her best-known and loved works in this genre are probably The Story of Holly and Ivy, and The Doll’s House, but she also created other settings for dolls and the children who love them.  Home is the Sailor is a sequel to Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, in which a lonely English girl brought up in India is sent back to live with her cousins in a small British town and finds security and comfort by designing an authentic Japanese house for two dolls.  Godden herself grew up in India, and her works for both children and adults use complex cultural references; Miss Happiness and Miss Flower even includes illustrated building plans for constructing an authentic house for the Japanese dolls.

In Little Plum, cousins Nona and Belinda Fell confront a different kind of alienation, this time of one social class, as an improbably wealthy family with a daughter their age moves in next door, but seems distant in every way.  While the quiet and artistic Nona is the heroine of Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, her cousin Belinda is at the center of Little Plum.  Belinda is uninhibited, immature, and even a bit aggressive.  She has previously shown little interest in playing with her Japanese doll, Little Peach, but she becomes frustrated at her new neighbor’s apparent snobbery and the way that this privileged child, Gem Tiffany Jones, neglects her own doll, Little Plum.  There is quite a bit of “mean girl” behavior in the story, as The Tiffany family secludes Gem and refuses to allow her to interact with other children, who naturally come to resent her.  Godden describes physical fights between the girls with gory detail, presenting Belinda as a child who cannot really understand her own impulses and often expresses her feelings in risky behaviors and angry attacks.  Belinda’s mother is really wonderful. Rather than attacking her daughter for failing to conform to feminine stereotypes, she communicates acceptance and love, even as she assigns consequences for Belinda’s actions.

The villain of the story is Gem’s nasty aunt, who comes to help her benevolent but weak father while Gem’s mother is in a hospital for polio patients.  There are echoes of A Secret Garden and Heidi, as some characters seem to benefit by promoting illness and helplessness.  At the end of the book, Gem’s mother returns as the girls and their school friends are celebrating an elaborate dollhouse version of the traditional Japanese doll festival. Mrs. Fell, assisted by the kindly and odd bookseller, Mr. Twilfit, along with Gem’s father, has planned and executed an elaborate catered affair for her daughter, niece, and friends, as well as their dolls. In the Fell household, children’s obsessions are not cute trivialities to be indulged but patronized, but rather serious and significant events.

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Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor

Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty – Linda Glaser and Claire A. Nivola, Sandpiper of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010


This is a book about Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) and the “mother of exiles.” No, not the aspiring immigrant mothers, forced for various reasons to leave their homelands, whom we have all been watching with something close to despair, as their children are taken from them, and from their fathers, in a cruel and calculated spectacle.  Linda Glaser and Claire Nivola’s book describes the activism and the creative process of Lazarus, the daughter of an affluent and assimilated Jewish family, as she struggled to give a voice to the statue in New York Harbor, welcoming masses of disadvantaged and frightened newcomers, many Jewish like herself.  The poem which Lazarus wrote, later set to music by the great composer Irving Berlin, became a permanent part of the best of American culture, the part which does not turn away desperate people, but welcomes them and invites them to contribute to that culture in myriad ways.

The endpapers of the book contain a facsimile of the manuscript of “The New Colossus,” and the text encourages readers to understand how and why Lazarus wrote her poem.  Emma’s childhood is characterized by plenty: “a large comfortable house,” “plenty of books,” “plenty of good food,” and a loving family.  Her life is supportive and rich, but also something of a trap for Emma:

“Even when Emma was all grown up,
and by then a well-known writer,
she still only knew people
who had plenty of everything.”

The simplicity of Glaser’s language is both poetic and informational, in the best way.  She helps young readers to understand how advantages can bring their own limitations, and also how Emma’s empathy and sensitivity helped her to accomplish her goal.  Seeing the poor on Ward’s Island, Emma noted their sadness and poverty. “They were the poorest people/Emma had ever seen./Her heart hurt to see them.” Emma’s sorrow leads her to action and she becomes involved in the lives of those who need her help.


Glaser presents the composition of the poem as a combination of thought and feeling. Lazarus determines to imagine what the Lady in the Harbor, whom she termed the Mother of Exiles,” might say if she could speak, and the resulting poem has become synonymous with the great wave of immigration which brought so many people of such diverse backgrounds to our country .The restrictive immigration laws of 1921, 1924, and 1929 dimmed the light represented by statue and poem, and suspicion, even hatred, of immigrants has continued to be part of American life.

Nivola is a brilliant artist (I have blogged about her here and here and here), whose detailed and richly colored paintings capture the time period with realism and beauty.  Lazarus sits at her ornate desk in a beautifully appointed room of Persian carpet and tall potted plants. Her long bright purple dress calls the viewer’s eye to the center of the picture, where she begins to write her poem.  The same poet, this time dressed in somber black, helps an elderly man learn to read from a bright green covered book. Other immigrants stand in the background, including a young mother, her back to the reader, holding a sleeping baby as she talks to an elderly relative.  Nivola’s pictures also show the construction of the statue, and bring the story into the present with pictures of multicultural schoolchildren learning the poem:


 “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Published eight years ago, Emma’s Poem, like Lazarus’ work itself, will apparently never be out-of-date and will always be worth reading with our children.  Glaser’s careful narrative and Nivola’s luminous pictures frame the history of Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty with unforgettable words and images.



Jane Austen, Heroine

Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen – Deborah Hopkinson and Qin Leng, Balzer + Bray, 2018


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman writer, especially one who lived a long time ago, is a heroine for bookish girls.  How best to introduce her life and work to girls, and boys, still too young to read her sophisticated and ironic commentary on life around her? For all her accessible plots and appealing characters, Austen’s language and historic references may become a harder sell to kids raised on contemporary fare.  Deborah Hopkinson and Qin Leng, in her their new picture book biography of Austen, make an enthusiastic case for the author as someone who one would want to meet if we could, and whose books should be eagerly anticipated.

Hopkinson is the author of many critically acclaimed works of both fiction and informational books. Leng is an outstanding artist; her work includes a charming picture book, with Monica Kulling, about the devoted relationship of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. They are a perfect match for presenting the intimate but glorious world of Austen’s novels as a joyful one.

Hopkinson’s young Jane knows what she wants.  Equally happy having fun with her…

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Graham Greene, Children’s Author

The Little Train – Graham Greene and Edward Ardizzone, Jonathan Cape, 2014 (paperback edition published by Red Fox in 2017, both are reissues of original 1973 Doubleday editions)

The Third Man, The Quiet American, The Power and the Glory, Our Man in Havana, and…The Little Train.  British novelist Graham Greene, known for his dark and complex explorations of such adult themes as religious faith, abuses of power, and the desperation that sometimes underlies relationships between men and women, also wrote about trains and steamrollers.  While the hero of The Little Train ends the book with “his heart too full of joy for words” when the mayor of Little Snoreing praises his bravery, the tension leading up to this moment may cause young readers a bit of anxiety.  In fact, the Little Train has something in common with Greene’s British intelligence agents and conflicted priests, at least as much as he has with Thomas, Edward, and Percy of the Isle of Sodor.


The Little Train is a model of punctuality, respected by all the residents of his “lovely sleepy village.” Yet he can’t leave well enough alone, as he is “sometimes bored to tears.” Fed up with his lack of adventure, he decides to make a break for it at an uncharacteristic speed, inspired by thoughts of “Freedom, freedom, freedom.” Before long, he is thirsty and depressed, thinking of “explorers who had died of thirst in the desert,” and shutting his eyes in “deadly fear” of his unaccustomed speed. It is rare for children’s books about trains to use the word “death,” but this one does, in addition to “desolation,” “gloomy,” “grim,” and “demons.” Like Tootle, who refused to stay on the tracks, or The Poky Little Puppy’s persistent crawling under fences, the Little Train…

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The Petrinis, Mefisto, and The Magic Flute

Book discussed:  Pet of the Met – Lydia and Don Freeman, Viking Penguin, 1953

There is a publishing and educational toy industry devoted to ensuring that even very young children are exposed to the types of cultural experiences that will allegedly expand their brain capacities and ensure success later in life.  The “Baby Einstein” series, for all the obnoxious pretense of its title, actually includes cute board books that help toddlers distinguish circles from squares.  There are innumerable biographies of composers, authors, and scientists, ranging from appallingly bad to quite distinguished.   There are also helpful guides to acquainting older children with the opera, ballet, or theater, sometimes focusing on exciting summaries of the plots, or emphasizing the specific roles of the different professionals involved in these worlds.


There is another route to immersion in the arts, one taken by Lydia and Don Freeman’s unfortunately out of print classic Pet of the Met, in which a family of unassuming and gentle mice live in a harp case in the Metropolitan Opera House’s attic.  (Don Freeman is, of course, the creator of Corduroy.  I have blogged about him before, and he is the subject at a major upcoming exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.)  The father, Maestro Petrini, supports his family by working as a page turner for the Opera House’s prompter.  All is not idyllic, even with a secure job and affordable housing, as a truly terrifying cat named Mefisto, drawn by Freeman with huge green eyes, fangs, and feline muscles well adapted to destroying mice, threatens their home.

So it’s a little bit of a roller coaster for young readers.  They learn about the fanciful plot of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and see the colorful costume and ecstatic expression of Papageno the bird catcher as he breaks into song.  The following page’s text states that “the audience was all eyes and ears,” and the picture is literally all eyes, blue ones opened wide against the equally blue background of the darkened theater.   

Pet of the Met is not at all didactic, but children will learn while reading or listening to it. They will learn that music and spectacle are composed of many elements: the charm of beautiful sounds, the ingenuity of designing a costume out of “some dark-blue cheesecloth,” the moment when the lights dim and “Everyone was silent and expectant.”  Freeman’s dramatic theatrical scenes, evoking action and suspense, alternate with delicate renderings of mouse life that are comforting and oddly familiar.

The three Petrini children watch the production under a brass rail and behind a pair of a human’s white gloves, accompanied by their mother who is, appropriately, wearing pearls.  By the story’s conclusion, even Mefisto has been tamed by the music: “He purred himself to sleep with a tune from The Magic Flute.” In the final picture, he and Maestro Petrini stroll arm-in-arm towards the dress circle, the mouse in tuxedo and top hat, the cat, still a bit wild, unclothed as he carries the score to the prompter.  This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.