Ship of Dolls by Shirley Parenteau (Candlewick, 2014)

Did you know that there is a Girls’ Day festival in Japan each year? And did you know that a Friendship Doll Project in the 1920s, created to foster understanding between the United States and Japan, resulted in thousands of dolls crossing the ocean between the two countries?

In 1926, a former missionary to Japan organized a Friendship Doll exchange between the United States and Japan in hopes of avoiding war between the two countries.  (A 1924 law enacted by Congress had recently barred new immigration from Japan to protect U.S. jobs.)  American children from across the country collected pennies to pay for the purchase and shipping of dolls from their own schools and clubs, and together they shipped more than 12,000 dolls to Japan.

This little-known event in American history ignited the imagination of author Shirley Parenteau, who created a fictional story about an 11-year-old girl who participates with her classmates in preparing a doll for the exchange.  Lexie Lewis has recently moved to Portland, Oregon to live with her strict grandparents after her widowed mother remarries. Struggling with the in-crowd at school, a neighbor boy who teases her, and the rigid expectations of her grandmother, Lexie is determined to find a way back to her mother, who is a breezy flapper and club singer in Seattle.

When Lexie’s teacher announces that the girl who writes the best letter to accompany their doll will attend the Friendship Doll send-off in San Francisco, the competition ignites conflict between Lexie and the school’s queen bee.   This well-written Middle Grade novel addresses classic issues of family, friendship, tough choices, and the importance of forgiveness, all within the setting of 1920s America.

For book clubs and homeschoolers, Ship of Dolls contains some excellent teaching connections as well.  In addition to history, there is a writing link to Japanese haiku poetry, a form that Lexie learns and uses as part of her letter.  The publishers, Candlewick Press, have also created a teacher’s guide that is available online at


We know from history that the American dolls arrived in Japan in time for the Girls’ Day celebration known as Hinamatsuri, and Japan responded by sending dolls to America in time for Christmas.  Sadly, the hoped-for peace between Japan and the United States ended on December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.  In 1943, the Japanese government declared the American dolls to be “symbols of the enemy” and ordered them destroyed.

Some of those dolls survived, however, and have gradually resurfaced for museum display.  Likewise, many Friendship Dolls from Japan have been retrieved from years of storage, and are being returned to museums as well.  Additional information about the doll exchange and the subsequent recovery of surviving dolls can be viewed online at