Ship of Dolls, by Shirley Parenteau; Candlewick Press, $16.99, 258 pages, ages 11-13.

Earlier this week, Nicole Claire reviewed The Secret Hum of a Daisy, a coming of age story chronicling the adventures of a bohemian girl left without her mother to guide her through her formative years.  Shirley Parenteau’s latest young adult novel also traces the moment in time when a young girl takes her first cautious steps out of childhood through self-discovery and personal growth.

Ship of Dolls revolves around a little known historical event that occurred in the 1920s after the First World War. An American doctor initiated a doll exchange program between Japanese and American girls in the hope of fostering cultural awareness between the two countries as well as maintaining a delicate peace. Lexie Lewis of Portland, Ore. participates in the exchange and enters the accompanying writing contest. Winners are sent to San Francisco to wish the dolls a safe journey.  Lexie’s estranged flapper mother is also in the city by the bay, and Lexie’s ulterior motive to winning the contest is to also win freedom from life with her strict grandmother and torture at the hands of a snobby neighbor. Ideals Lexie once held to be solid truth are chipped away, and as the girl learns tough life lessons, she also learns what it is to be truly loved, and how to share it.

Middle-grade readers will race through the book to see how the heroine tackles each new challenge, mostly because the girl manages to do so with unexpected grace and confidence. Parenteau keeps the tone squarely in the 1920s and only briefly loses authentic dialogue – a tender moment is jarringly thrown into 2014 when Lexie’s grandfather asks if he can ‘Get in on a hug.’  Young readers will likely not be tripped up, however, and the rest of the book is done well. Ship of Dolls would make a lovely, thoughtful gift to adolescent girls facing bullying and coping with estranged parents in their own lives.

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