Shirley Parenteau's new book for young readers tells the remarkable story of 11-year-old Lexie Lewis. It's 1926, and her class has been raising money to ship a doll to the children of Japan. Lexie dreams of accompanying the doll to the farewell ceremony in San Francisco. This warm novel is based on real events that occurred before World War II, when American children sent more than 12,000 dolls to Japan. In a Behind the Book essay, Parenteau shares the astounding and long-forgotten history of the Friendship Dolls program.
Imagine children all across 1926 America donating pennies to buy dolls for children in Japan. Imagine 12,739 dolls traveling with passports, visas and introductory letters, being greeted by children in Japan with celebration and ceremony.
The story is true, but was lost with most of the dolls in the tumult of World War II.
When I learned of the Friendship Dolls, I was looking for inspiration for a new picture book. I had written one called Bears on Chairs, adorably illustrated by David Walker, which is so popular in a Japanese translation that the bears in the book are now available there as plush toys and other items. I had a greater personal connection with Japan through my daughter-in-law Miwa, who is from Fukuoka.
When Miwa and my son took their daughter to the Girls' Day Festival, or Hinamatsuri, I was intrigued by their photos. Wondering if I could write a picture book about the festival celebrated with treasured dolls, I researched online. One source linked to this website and revealed an amazing story—the Friendship Dolls of 1926.
The project was the inspiration of Dr. Sidney Gulick, a teacher-missionary who had retired after working in Japan for 30 years. Fearing war might break out between the United States and Japan—two countries he loved—he urged American children to send dolls to children in Japan for Hinamatsuri.
All across America, children responded, emptying piggy banks and holding fundraisers. In return, donations from Japanese children allowed their finest dollmakers to create 58 large dolls to send to America. Each wore a kimono in a pattern designed by the empress’ own dressmaker and traveled with tiny accessories as examples of their culture.
Children in both countries continued to exchange letters, but sadly the Friendship Project could not prevent World War II. Fourteen years later, Japanese planes bombed U.S. ships in Pearl Harbor. The dolls became symbols of the enemy in both countries. In America, they were stuffed into storage. In Japan, they were ordered to be destroyed. Of those that survived, many were shattered during U.S. bombings.
I longed to tell this lost story through the eyes of an American girl and to set the book in Portland because I grew up on the northern Oregon coast. A second novel, Dolls of Hope (2015), will tell the story of the dolls from the viewpoint of a girl in Japan.
Happily, many of the surviving dolls have been recovered, beginning in the '70s. About 300 of the 12,000-plus dolls sent to Japan and hidden at great personal risk during the war years are on display. In America, 46 of the 58 Japanese dolls have been located. A list of 38 which can be seen in museums, along with their locations, is here.
In the past 15 years or so, children, communities and organizations in both countries have again begun exchanging dolls.
I wrote Ship of Dolls and Dolls of Hope to celebrate the unquenchable hope of children for international friendship and peace.