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The World According To Barbie

How Does a Real Doll Remember the '60s? Thinly.

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page D01

Everybody complains that American kids don't know their history, but nobody ever does anything about it.

This is where Barbie comes in.

In "Peace, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll" -- one of the first books in a series aimed to offer, as one of its creators puts it, "history through the Barbie filter" -- Barbie and her African American friend Christie are both illustrated with pink skin and long, straight hair, above. "There's nothing in the art that Mattel doesn't want there," says the book's publisher.

The shiny-haired, pointy-breasted cultural icon has just been revealed as a secret scribbler -- and, what's more, a historically minded one. Mattel, the toy behemoth Barbie built, has teamed up with Golden Books to launch the "Barbie Diary of the Decade" series. The first two diary books are out this month.

In "Red, White, and Blue Jeans," Barbie takes us back to those dy-no-mite days of the '70s -- 1976, to be precise -- when disco was boss and little girls put Pet Rocks under their pillows at night. In "Peace, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll," she time-travels a decade further back, to 1964, when Carnaby Street was groovy and John, Paul, George and Ringo were on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

She hosts a Beatles party to celebrate. "What a fab night, Diary!" she writes.

"Eeeee-ew," you might say, especially if you're an anti-Barbie individual, one who believes, perhaps, that a compulsively accessorizing shopaholic with a bust- to waist-size ratio not found in nature is hardly the best historical tour guide for 8-year-olds.

But not so fast.

What if the diaries portrayed Barbie as a pioneering feminist -- and never mind that she herself would never use that term?

What if they revealed that, when she wasn't trying on miniskirts, she was schlepping down to Washington for the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

What if they took on anorexia, for heaven's sake?

"It took me about five minutes to realize it was a brilliant concept," says veteran children's book author Linda Lowery about her reaction when an executive at Random House, which owns Golden Books, asked her to be Barbie's ventriloquist -- and never mind that she'd had a brief eeeee-ew reaction herself. By putting such a powerful character into history, Lowery said, she hoped to show girls "how to create change in their own lives."

Random House, she says, had no problem with her wanting to give Barbie a social conscience. She started with 1964 because of the Beatles-led British Invasion, but also because it was the year the Civil Rights Act passed. And she made sure that Christie, the African American friend-of-Barbie introduced by Mattel in the late '60s, played a major role in the story.

Then again, it might be a mistake to expect too much from a perky lightweight who once chirped "Math class is tough!" If the girl can't handle basic algebra, we shouldn't be surprised if she messes up her civil rights homework, too.

Lowery's text, as published, makes no mention of Christie's race. The author says she was "relying on the art" to make that clear. Reached by phone not long before the official March 8 publication date, she says she's just gotten the finished books in the mail.

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