Review of the Day: Lissy's Friends
Lissy's Friends, written and illustrated by Grace Lin. Viking (a division of Penguin Young Readers Group). $15.99
Origami. I could never do origami. As a kid it didn’t matter if you wanted me to fold a crane, a frog, or a paper hat. For all the logic involved, origami was equal in difficulty to playing the accordion so I never really took to it as a result. It’s the old if-you-can’t-do-something-it-must-not-be-worth-doing argument. What I did like to do, though, was play with inanimate objects and give them distinct personalities. Not your usual toys and dolls, necessarily. I’d have sweeping romances involving crayons and the coloring pages they were in love with. Epic battles and court intrigue could come out of a deck of playing cards (particularly if the Jacks looked nefarious and cruel). So as it is, I found “Lissy’s Friends,” by Grace Lin to be a perfect intersection of something I loathed as a kid and something I loved. Where does that leave the book? Firmly in the latter category, I’m happy to report.
Being the new girl in school can be infinitely lonely. Lissy’s kind of a solitary gal to begin with and when no one talks to her or sits with her at lunchtime, she creates a little paper crane out of a nearby lunch menu. To her delight, the crane comes alive and Lissy has literally “made” a friend. When her mother (misunderstanding, naturally) says that she’s sure that Lissy will make lots of friends the next day, her daughter guarantees that this will be true. Now she swamped in wonderful friends of every shape and size, “And Lissy was never alone.” Unfortunately, when a ride on the merry-go-round in a stiff breeze sends her companions heavenward, this moment of despair is quickly alleviated by a girl like Lissy who’s interested in her origami skills. Now Lissy has human friends by her side while her former companions are now taking a bit of café au lait on the banks of Paree.
There is a moment in this book where Lin could have lost her readers entirely (at least her grown-up ones) had her writing been heavy-handed or icky sweet. It is when Lissy’s first origami creature, the paper crane, it comes to life in her hands. Some artist/illustrators would have imbued this moment with a great deal of silliness. With Lin, however, the moment just hangs there. For some reason, it makes perfect sense; not goofy or sentimental. Just a magical little occurrence that could be real or the figment of a lonely little girl’s imagination. Even the happy ending where the once missing origami friends write Lissy a missive from Paris comes across as more touching than cutesy. I also loved that in Lissy’s mind, her animals (with the exception of the original little stork) become the size of their real-life equivalents. The giraffe and elephant tower above Lissy, while the tiny mouse and crab (origami crabs?) scuttle beneath her feet.
Lin’s art is what I like to call deceptively simple. Clean pen-and-ink lines and supposedly simple human figures make up most of the scenes. But Lin has possibly outdone herself with this book. Lissy creates at least twenty different origami friends, and each one is made out of a different kind of paper. Their designs and colors never repeat twice. In one scene, Lissy and friends look out the window at some kids who are going to the nearby playground. Not only are the animals realistic looking origami critters, all folds and bends, but the curtains, floor, wallpaper, and Lissy’s shoes, pants, and jacket are ALL different colors and patterns as well! You’d think this sort of thing would hurt to look at or, at the very least, take in. Not the case. But what about when the animals disappear? Would that mean that the book becomes dull and less interesting? Not if you consider that the kids Lissy befriends by the end are all wearing their own distinctive patterns and colors. There were other little lovely details as well. The book takes place in the fall and feels particularly autumnal from scene to scene. I also loved Lissy’s “secret smile” she keeps when she thinks of the living little paper crane who is her first friend.
In the back of the book lie step-by-step instructions for creating your own paper cranes. They’re pretty straightforward, but be sure you have your origami skills well-sharpened when the child in your life demands a crane just like the one in the book. When people ask me at my library for books about making friends, I think I’ll take them at their word from here on in. The making doesn’t happen to be a problem. It’s the keeping that takes some work. A gentle, genuinely touching little tale.
On shelves May 17th.
Blog-Related Note: Grace Lin actually done went and dedicated this book to “my friends the blue rose girls.” That’s the first blog-related dedication I’ve seen to date.
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