An 'Exciting Experiment'
The Barbie diaries were Kate Klimo's idea.
The vice president and publisher of Random House Children's Books says she pitched them "off the top of my head" at a meeting with Mattel in 2001. The target age was 6 to 10. Barbie coloring books and titles tied into Barbie videos were doing well, she says, but she thought the rest of the Mattel-licensed Barbie line "was kind of pablum-ish."
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.
Her idea was sparked in part by the success of historical novels based on American Girl doll characters (produced by Pleasant, which Mattel bought in 1998), and of Scholastic's popular "Dear America" diary series. Both have won praise as relatively accurate and nuanced, but a Barbie version would, of course, need its own identity.
It would offer "history through the Barbie filter," as Klimo puts it. Clothes and accessories would play a big part, because with Barbie, "you cannot deny fashion." But Klimo also calls Barbie's diaries "a noble and exciting experiment" designed to put girls in touch with the history their mothers and grandmothers lived through.
Some women on Klimo's staff initially resisted the notion of working on Barbie books, but she herself had no such doubts.
"Barbie is what Barbie is," she says. Now 55, she remembers being drawn to the doll as a girl because "she looked like she came from another planet," like the impossibly statuesque actress Julie Newmar. Also, Barbie was just plain sexy, she adds, and "little girls have sexual fantasies from an early age."
There's no sex in the Barbie diaries, though.
Linda Lowery's plot for "Peace, Love and Rock 'n' Roll" has Barbie, a recent college grad, scoring a tryout as a magazine fashion photographer. "Diary, I am so nervous!" she writes. "What if the pictures are horrible?" They're not. Impressed, the magazine sends Barbie to London, where she dashes from shop to Carnaby Street shop, "clicking pictures and trying on clothes."
Miraculously, she runs into the Beatles. She thinks she's going to faint, but she's got a job to do, and gamely -- "Click! Click!" -- she seizes the moment.
A few parts of the '60s are missing, of course.
The first diary entry is dated Jan. 4, 1964, six weeks after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Barbie apparently hasn't heard the news. ("That would be pushing it, don't you think?" Klimo says.) Her last entry is Aug. 10, the same day President Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, escalating the Vietnam War. Barbie doesn't know from Vietnam, or the Cold War, either. She's too busy baking cupcakes and chowing down on fish and chips.
And yet: That food is there for a good reason. "I'm very aware of the struggle girls can have with weight issues and eating disorders," Lowery explains. She wanted her Barbie, whose waist in the diary illustrations is not quite so impossibly thin as the original doll's, to be a better role model in this regard.
There's a women's-rights scene, too, that Lowery particularly likes. Skipper, the older of Barbie's sisters, mocks Stacie, the younger, for wanting to dress up as a rock drummer on her school's career day. Girls can't be drummers, Skipper tells her -- do the Beatles have a girl drummer? Barbie reminds Skipper how mad she'd been when the neighborhood boys tried to stop her from helping build a treehouse because "girls don't know anything about building."
But of all the good-role-model plots, it's Barbie's civil rights adventure that gets the most play. The magazine sends her and her best friend, Christie -- an aspiring writer -- to Washington to do a story on the Civil Rights Act and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.