Process Notes: Larissa Theule on Kafka and the Doll

Kafka and the Doll is a picture book inspired by a fabled tale from legendary writer Franz Kafka’s life. The book opens in Berlin in 1923, when Kafka and his sweetheart, Dora Diamant meet a little girl in a park in Berlin. The girl, Irma, is crying because she’s lost her doll, named, engagingly, Soupsy. Kafka assures her that the doll, named Soupsy, is not lost but merely travelling. What ensues is at once kind, inventive, and captivating. For three weeks Kafka writes and delivers letters to the child from her globetrotting doll. The letters thread through the journey of writer and child, becoming emblematic of growth and life, affection and loss.

I told Larissa that I found the book’s greatest strength to lie in the risks she took in deepening and changing the anecdotal story about Kafka and the doll. I asked her if she’d write about that for me–about why she made those choices and how it felt as they shaped the book.  Here is her reply:

When working on Kafka and the Doll, I knew from the beginning that I needed to shape the narrative around Kafka’s real-life character as much as possible. Because the letters are lost and the girl was never found, the details of the legend are nebulous. But Kafka’s character is well known. He wrote surreal and bewildering fiction, but he was also playful, generous, and wonderful with children. One of the first thoughts I had when reading about his kindness to the little girl in the park was that he might have been an excellent parent, or teacher, as his instinct was to validate the child’s grief and guide her through it. We can feel sure the story-letters he wrote entertained the girl, affirmed her deep, complex feelings, and helped her face the world—like a children’s book might do. I wanted Kafka and the Doll to offer the same trust and validation to a child reader, which is one reason why I chose to leave the ending wistful and a little sad, but ultimately triumphant. Wistful endings can be scary to write because you risk leaving the reader feeling unsatisfied, but in this case, I believe (I hope!) the child reader feels seen. 

Green’s stylized artwork in the picture book is whimsical yet sensitive, evoking changes of season and shifts in mood. Her depiction of Kafka presenting Irma with a journal opens up a whole new layer of story in the space between text and image. This is a bold book, written and illustrated with conviction and respect for today’s young readers.