Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Friendship Doll

by Kirby Larson
Delacorte Books for Young Readers (May, 2011)
Ages 9 and up

Take four stories that span more than a decade of the Great Depression, each of which captures a pivotal moment in the life of a different girl, and link them through the awakening heart of a Japanese doll—you know what you have? One of this year's most compelling books in children's literature: THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL.

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?

Source: I bought my copy from Secret Garden Books

About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read are not so much reader-type reviews as they are my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Gary Schmidt
Clarion Books (April, 2011)
Young Adult

Problem: Take a troubled teen with a violent father, bullying brother and a shameful secret and watch him navigate the perils of downward mobility during a turbulent time when our country is perched precariously between hope and fear—the first moon shot and war in Vietnam—and you've got a dilemma: How in the world do you keep his story from smelling like cheap melodrama?

Answer: Get Gary Schmidt to write it.

In OKAY FOR NOW, Gary Schmidt's follow-up to his Newbery Honor-winning WEDNESDAY WARS, Doug Swieteck's life has all the hallmarks of an ABC after school special about abuse, illness, poverty, bullying, disability, war, and first love all rolled into one; and yet, in the hands of Gary Schmidt, it's a multi-dimensional work of art—just like the John James Audubon's drawings of wildlife that Doug studies at the library every Saturday afternoon.

In fact, the images of Audubon's birds in flight, conflict and balance provide the underpinnings of Schmidt's complex novel. He opens every chapter with a different plate from Birds of America and uses each one as a focal point for Doug to grapple with as he learns Audubon's techniques for depicting movement and stability in a perilous world. In the case of OKAY FOR NOW, life imitates art imitating life.

The parallels are worth taking note by anyone who attempts to re-create life through words or images. Both Audubon and Schmidt's stunning real life portrayals hinge on one simple technique: suggestion. The point is driven home by Mr. Powell the librarian who (pardon the pun) takes Doug under his wing:
"Don't think of the bird as a flat image. Think of it the whole way around, even the parts that you don't see. Then think of how all the different pieces of the bird are working with or against each other. Think how the body of the bird wants to fall..."

"And the wings want to keep it up."

"Exactly. All movement relies on that kind of tension. You show the movement by suggesting the tension."
Simply put, Schmidt's novel succeeds because of his ability to suggest. This single attribute is what makes OKAY soar above other books that deal with difficult subjects.

Doug's father is abusive, but Schmidt doesn't come out and tell us that; he suggests it. Doug never tells the reader his father hits him. That would make him a chump. But he does say his father's hands are quick. He doesn't say his mother feels trapped and hopeless; instead, he shows us how he feels during those rare times she smiles. Often, Doug doesn't assign any value to an event, other than to say. "You know how that feels?" Thanks to suggestion, the reader feels the emotion more keenly than being told outright.

Like Audubon's birds that Doug learns are indirectly defined by the space around them, he is likewise being shaped and defined by the narrative unfolding around him. It's an effective technique if you can pull it off, which Schmidt does without being too overplayed. He does tend to draw the comparisons a little strongly at times, but since the story is told first person by a boy who's trying to figure himself out as he goes along, it works.

The other technique that works beautifully is Schmidt's introduction of an object on page one that will ultimately save the story from becoming distractingly improbable at times, and that is this: Joe Pepitone's hat. It's established right at the beginning that Doug was given that hat the year before by Joe himself (which readers of WEDNESDAY WARS would recall and new readers can easily accept as fact). Without this element of something slightly fantastical, much of Doug's storyline later in the book would feel unearned and parts could be dismissed as too unrealistic for such a realistic story. As a result, I can buy into anything Schmidt delivers at the end (except maybe what happens with the father).

There's so much going on in OKAY FOR NOW, I won't even attempt to lay out all the plot threads; but trust me, none of it would work if Joe Pepitone's hat did not make an early appearance.

And with that, I leave you to READ THIS BOOK and decide for yourself.

About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read are not so much reader-type reviews as they are my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work.