Some biographies take their subjects from cradle to grave. Others are slice of life narratives that show one important aspect of a subject’s life. Kafka and the Doll is the latter. But the author, Larissa Theule, is careful to explain in her note to readers, that this work of historical fiction seeks to tell a remarkable truth about the man behind complex and haunting adult stories like The Metamorphosis and The Trial:
He was once extraordinarily kind to a little girl who was distraught at losing her doll.
Although Kafka, ill with tuberculosis, would be dead within a year, he took the time to pen letters, under the doll’s pseudonym, and deliver them to the girl. In her note, Theule explains that the letters are her own construct, because the originals were never found. Many years after Kafka’s death, Dora Diamont, the woman he loved who lived with him while he was dying, described the letters to Kafka’s biographer, Marthe Robert. Those are all the details we have. The young girl was never identified.
This is a romantic and bittersweet story in a variety of ways: knowing that Kafka spent precious hours of his short time left on earth writing these letters with such care to a little girl, knowing that the letters would have to end with the doll remaining on her adventures never to return, and knowing that the relationship between Kafka and the little girl would end with his untimely death.
But the feeling in this book is far from melancholic. It is playful, with unexpected conversations between the pair. And the letters send the imagination of the little girl soaring, so that she, too, may grow up and set forth on adventures of her own.
In the end, it is an expression of hope, one that, to me, the illustrator symbolized in the blue bird of happiness that appears in many of the illustrations. It’s no accident that the little bird is stationary on the the front end papers, wanders through scenes, and then flies free on the back papers. As if it were an expression of how a single kindness may help someone continue on their path, or perhaps choose a different, more wondrous path instead.
The last lines of the story are gloriously poignant:
Their warm breath clung fiercely to the cold air, then blew
softly away, one to play and explore and one, finally, to sleep.
Who knew that Kafka could be the subject of a picture book? I’m thrilled that Larissa Theule found a path inside his heart, a kind and thoughtful path that can be shown to children in a way that will resonate with them.
The illustrations by Rebecca Green, created digitally, and printed on matte, faded manila-shaded paper lend a sense of nostalgia, as if a grandparent were relating the story to a grandchild. Really lovely.
Do you think that Kafka was lying to the little girl, or telling her a story she wanted to believe? When is lying okay, and when is it not?
Make a string of paper dolls.
If you could have an adventure anywhere in the universe, where would you go and why? Write a story about your adventure.
Pair this book with Girl on a Motorcycle by Amy Novesky. How are the real girl’s adventures similar to the imagined ones about the doll?
Title: Kafka and the Doll
Author: Larissa Theule
Illustrator: Rebecca Green
Publisher: Viking, 2021
Ages: Elementary school
Themes: Kafka, imagination, adventures, sadness/loss
I’d also like to mention Larissa Theule’s other recent picture book published in 2020 by Bloomsbury, A WAY WITH WILD THINGS, illustrated by Sara Palacios. This book celebrates those of us who are shy introverts, and shows how the power of language can change perceptions and turn “wallflower” into “wildflower.” It’s a wonderful story!
For many more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.