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The Friendship Doll Paperback – May 8, 2012
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A Q&A with Author Kirby Larson
Your first novel, Hattie Big Sky, was a huge critical success and won a Newbery Honor. Can you describe what it was like to start a new book, and how you got the idea?
It was overwhelming to begin a new book after winning the Newbery Honor (with my first novel, no less!) and, in fact, I suffered mightily from what my friend Cindy Lord calls "The Dreaded Second Novel Syndrome." Everything I wrote after Hattie Big Sky seemed wretched, nothing near the quality of that book. One day, I was walking with my husband, pouring out my tale of writing woes, and he reminded me that I'd said the same things about early versions of Hattie's story. When we got home, I looked at my very first draft of Hattie Big Sky...and it was awful! I was thrilled. I figured that if I could whip a manuscript that bad into shape, I could do it again. In addition, I had an idea that wouldn't leave me alone, inspired by a photo I'd run across while researching Hattie Big Sky. Taken in 1928, it shows a Montana farm girl standing next to an exquisite Japanese doll, nearly the girl's size. It was so intriguing to me--how on earth did such a doll end up in rural Montana? Answering that question took me over five years. An early version of The Friendship Doll tried to incorporate a contemporary child into historical events. And it really didn't work at all. My wonderful editor, Michelle Poploff, told me two things that helped me find my way into the heart of the story. She said the story really took on energy when I was writing about the past. She also pointed out that we are living in hard times now, and that a story set during the Great Depression would definitely resonate with today's kids. I pitched that early version (not without some pain and grumbling) and started completely over. It was the absolute right thing to do.
I do, and I feel proud to have been able to write a story that shows that love and friendship can soften hard times. In addition to Hattie Big Sky and The Friendship Doll, you’ve written a few picture-books as well as a book in the Dear America series. What draws you to historical fiction?
If you had told me 15 years ago that I'd be writing historical fiction, I would've laughed out loud. I was never a student of history until I learned that my great-grandmother may have homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana as a young woman. In attempting to find out if that really did happen, I discovered that history is not just dates and battles and footnotes, it's people--people like you and me. And I find people completely fascinating! I love the challenge of learning enough about a different time and place to be able to take a reader there. Growing up, I always thought it would be fun to be a detective, and with historical fiction, I feel like I can be one--without the danger. You’ve traveled all over the world to discuss your books, but you’ve also traveled with relief groups to troubled parts of the world. How do you think these experiences inform your creative process?
People often ask me what I want readers to take away from my books, and I always say, “I want readers to take away what they want to take away.” That being said, I think both my writing life and my personal life are a lot about figuring out what it means to be a decent human being in this world. My experience helping out with Hurricane Katrina clean-up certainly informed and enriched my contributions to Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival, co-written with my dear friend Mary Nethery. My trip to the Middle East, especially after speaking with kids in Beirut, certainly fed my desire to explore why we humans often set up barriers of prejudice and suspicion and added to the impetus to write about the War Relocation Camps in World War II, as I did in The Fences Between Us. I want to write books that offer hope. That's one reason the story of the Friendship Dolls--the ultimate example of hope--wouldn't leave me alone. In 1927, Dr. Sidney Gulick wanted to do something to improve the rocky relationships between the U.S. and Japan. A former missionary, he knew how important dolls were to the Japanese culture, so he organized a drive to send blue-eyed baby dolls overseas. Thousands of kids--in Sunday schools, Camp Fire Girl groups, schools in every state--participated and, in the end, over 12,000 dolls were sent to Japan. In gratitude, the school children there contributed the equivalent of one penny each and 58 amazing Friendship Dolls were created and sent here. Sadly, these positive efforts were undone by WWII. But Dr. Gulick never gave up hope, holding firmly to these words: "We who desire peace must write it in the hearts of children." When Hattie Big Sky received a Newbery Honor, the announcement was made at the ALA conference that just happened to be in your home town of Seattle that year. How did it feel to achieve this honor among so many local supporters?
Aside from my wedding day and the day each of our children was born, that was the best day of my life. After the very early morning call (and the admonishment not to reveal the news until 9 a.m.!), I was so overwhelmed, I burst into tears. Hattie Big Sky is a very personal book--I call it my love letter to my maternal grandmother, who was a huge influence in my life. She died before the book came out so the big news was bittersweet. A few minutes after I hung up the phone, I began to wonder if it was a practical joke. But we decided to drive into the city anyway for the press conference. I found a seat in the very back--still wondering if it was true. My husband (to whom the book is dedicated) marched right up front. As soon as the cover appeared on the big screen, the room erupted into the loudest cheers I've ever heard. I began to cry all over again. To share that news with so many local booksellers, librarians, and fellow book creators was sweet indeed. Though there have been rough patches, I feel completely blessed to be able to pursue my passion of writing books for children and young adults. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
When KIRBY LARSON was researching Hattie Big Sky, she came across a 1920s photo of a Montana farm girl in overalls standing next to an exquisite Japanese doll. Kirby wondered what was the story behind their meeting? She did some research to satisfy her curiosity, but it would be several years before she could turn her full attention to the Friendship Dolls' story. Now here it is for readers everywhere.
From the Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
I enjoyed meeting the girls in the story, Bunny, who so desperately wants to win more attention from her distracted parents, Lois, who must choose between pursuing a personal desire and getting a gift for her best friend, Willie Mae, who leaves home to help support her struggling family, and Lucy, who searches for a new home after she and her father lose not only her mother, but their farm. Each girl is different, but finds her life touched by the doll. A well-told tale of loneliness, hope, love, and persistence, I recommend this for those who enjoy strong historical fiction with a magical twist.
Although I am an admitted fan of Kirby Larson, I am not a big fan of dolls (unless they are the wicked, mangled, creatury kind); however, by the time I reached the end of the first story, I could not put this book down. Not only does Larson breathe life into the pretentious Miss Kanagawa, one of 58 Ambassadors of Friendship sent by Japan in 1927, she breathes life into the pages of this book with a subtle element of liminal fantasy that gives each episodic tale a mesmerizing mystical quality grounded in historical authenticity.
This is no easy feat, but when it works (as this does), the payoff is huge. One of my librarian friends read the ARC of this book a couple months ago, and she was raving that it "blew [her] mind." I had no idea what she meant by this, but I do now. The book--its four part structure and seamless blending of the magical with the mundane--has a numinous quality. And the voice--the voices--so pitch perfect in each narration they lend even more authenticity to the telling as Miss. Kanagawa is passed from place to place, suffering the hardship of years and diminished circumstances--but not diminished heart.
THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL closes with a fifth story that diverges from the other four by jumping to the present day. The leap jarred me at first, mainly because the Depression-era world created by Larson in the rest of the book is so hard to leave, but I can see that the book wouldn't have worked without it. In this sense, I tend to think of it more as a perfect epilogue than an ending.
On every level, THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL embodies the power of storytelling and friendship to heal and unite that which has become separated, isolated or broken. For me, there is just one thing lacking in this marvelous narrative: a cash reward for information leading to the whereabouts (or fate) of Miss Kanagawa and her missing sisters. Random House, are you listening?