The Princess Dolls is a gentle story about friendship, set against the backdrop of 1942 Vancouver. The faraway war in Europe casts deep shadows into the lives of two best friends, Esther and Michi, whose favourite game to play is royal princesses. One day, two magnificent dolls appear in the local toy-shop window: Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Not surprisingly, Esther and Michi long for these dolls.
But in wartime Vancouver there’s not much money for such luxuries. Bad things are happening: Esther’s grandmother is worried about the fate of her Jewish relatives in Germany, and Japanese families in the girls’ neighbourhood are being sent to internment camps.
When Esther’s grandmother gives her the Princess Elizabeth doll for her birthday, Michi is jealous. Soon, misunderstandings lead to a rift between the girls. Even as Michi leaves Vancouver for the internment camps, the friends haven’t been able to resolve their issues. But after a period of great unhappiness, Esther hits on the perfect solution to mend their relationship.
The Princess Dolls deals with two difficult issues from a child’s point of view. Esther is an observant narrator who doesn’t understand all matters of war and racism but is strongly affected by their impact on the people she loves. She overhears the worried voices of her parents and grandmother talking about missing Jews in Germany, but they fall silent when she enters the room. She witnesses school friends and grown-ups turning on Japanese neighbours and calling them racist names. And when Michi and her family must close their corner store and leave the city, Esther is heartbroken and confused.
By focusing on Esther’s reactions, author Ellen Schwartz manages to create the uneasy horror caused by the disappearance of Jews in Germany and the injustice provoked by the internments without letting either take over the story. Esther’s chief concern is her fraying friendship with Michi. Her need to restore the peace stands in poignant contrast to the troubled world around them.
Young readers will be engaged by the interaction between Esther and Michi while learning how the disruption of war affected everyone. The girls’ obsession with princess dolls is delightfully portrayed, and Mariko Ando’s evocative black-and-white illustrations add to the charm of this sweet and haunting story.