Poor Jordan. My over-enthusiastic nine-year-old self was trying to help out backstage, and in my eagerness, I cracked this set-crew member over the head with a lantern during a set change. Despite this, the play was a smashing success, smiled at by parents and thoroughly enjoyed by children. There was Josefina, the lead character; her aunt, Tia Magdalena; her pet goat, Sombrita; and even a nasty rattlesnake (played by my brother). These and other characters made up the cast of that 2005 play I directed, based on the American Girl Josefina series.
Josefina was but one in a group of historical-book series (and their accompanying, expensive, 18-inch dolls) adored by middle-school girls since they first became available in the mid ’80s. Other American Girls included Samantha, an orphan living with her grandmother in turn-of-the-century New York City; Kit, growing up in Depression-era Cincinnati; and Kaya, from the Nez Perce Indian tribe. Growing up — and there are probably many who can relate — these characters were very real to me, and many of the adventures, lessons, and historical facts in their stories have stayed with me over the years.
This year marks American Girl’s 35th anniversary. Originally produced by The Pleasant Company, the dolls and their respective books were bought by Mattel in 1998. American Girl grew in popularity, expanding to include more historical dolls and books, the Bitty Baby doll line, a magazine for middle-school girls, and all manner of advice and craft books. To maintain the company’s popularity and expand interest, in 2001, American Girl began offering a “Girl of the Year” doll and book. These books feature contemporary girls and their stories. While there certainly can be merit in telling contemporary stories, the timeless nature of the historical books is worth noting and praising.
Solid, simple stories, the historical tales of Kaya, Molly, Kit, Kirsten, Samantha, Felicity, Addy, and Josefina all follow a pattern: Each series had six books in which readers meet the girl, the girl learns a lesson, has a birthday, saves the day, and so on. Each individual book ended with a short historical section with interesting details about the character’s era. Well-researched and accompanied by artwork and other images, these few pages were generally clear and unbiased.
Compact and full of lovely detail, the books welcomed readers into the worlds of the different girls, allowing them to experience her joys and sorrows. The books were relatable, showing, as the book description says: “What was it like to be a girl long ago? The American Girls Collection takes you inside the worlds of girls who lived during exciting times in the past. As you read their stories, you can imagine how different life was back then. But you’ll also discover that their feelings, ideas, and dreams are just like yours.”
Comparatively speaking, the books coming out of American Girl today lack the charm and adventure of the originals. Blaire struggles with lactose intolerance. Saige is upset because the school art program was shut down. Kailey is determined to save tide pools. Some of the modern girls deal with significant issues, such as Joss, who’s deaf in one ear; Chrissa, who has serious bully trouble at school; and Gabriela, who has a speech impediment. These are concerns for plenty of girls, and to give them a friend for that journey, especially at such a formative age, can be helpful. A note of caution, though: These books are a product of their times, and while they are generally unobjectionable, some have started diving into the LGBT world.
It also has been sad to see the accusations leveled at American Girl for its supposed lack of diversity among the dolls and books. While having dolls of all different skin tones is perfectly reasonable, and indeed even praiseworthy, making race a point of contention is unhelpful. Focusing on this rather than “the content of their character” sends young girls the wrong message. Remember that aforementioned quote about the historical dolls? “You’ll also discover that their feelings, ideas, and dreams are just like yours.”
The original book characters dealt with serious hardships, and the authors didn’t shy away from difficult topics. These ranged from Kirsten losing her best friend to cholera to Addy escaping slavery (in a particularly well-written, intense chapter). Kit’s dad loses his job during the Depression. Molly’s dad is deployed overseas during World War II. Though the point was never belabored, it was apparent they went to church (or, in Kaya’s case, talked about their ancestors and Native American origin stories), and faith (ranging from Catholic to Protestant to Jewish) had at least some role in their lives. Importantly, these girls were usually surrounded by strong older women. Mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and sisters fill the stories. They aren’t all perfect characters, but the girls have important, helpful women in their lives whom they can look up to.
Those girls may have been from different eras, but today’s eight- to twelve-year-olds certainly would relate to their everyday trials. Spunky and full of life, our historical characters still had their faults. Molly embarrasses her brother in front of the girl he likes in revenge for his ruining her Halloween candy — and then is caught by her mom and made to clean up and apologize. Kaya disobeys her father by racing her horse when she’s supposed to be watching her brothers — and is then punished by the Whipping Woman. The punishments are just, and the girls often then have conversations about their transgression with a parent or other elder, receiving wisdom on how to learn from and move on after their mistake.
American Girl recently announced that, as part of the 35th-anniversary celebration, it’s bringing back the original historical dolls and their books for a short time. This is encouraging, and I hope they will continue to recognize the value of these timeless tales and their important impact on America’s girls.