By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007
If there's a tough-to-buy-for girl on your Christmas list, particularly one between 7 and 12, Valerie Tripp has a one-word shopping tip for you: books.
Maybe that's not surprising from a writer and reading expert who sees holiday gift buying as an extension of her mission to keep girls connected to the realm of books and the imagination, especially girls being too quickly stampeded into the realm of mascara, txt mssging and all things boys.
Three or four times a month, Tripp, who has lived in Silver Spring for 22 years, visits a library, school or Brownie troop in the Washington area to encourage girls to linger, for just a little longer, with the joys of the written word.
"I think the best books allow girls to celebrate exactly the age they are," Tripp said in an interview last week at the Silver Spring Borders, where her works take up about 2 1/2 feet of shelf space in the Independent Reader section. "She's going be 16 soon enough."
The girls who show up at her events couldn't care less about Tripp's pedigree as a reading expert with a graduate degree in the subject from Harvard University and a writer for reading textbooks for three decades. To them, she is the literary mom of Molly, Samantha, Josefina, Kit and several other dolls of the hugely popular American Girl line.
Tripp has written more than 40 of the historical novelettes that provide the back story for the dolls and their period in time, including Josefina's 1820s New Mexico, Kit's Depression-era Cincinnati and Felicity's Colonial Williamsburg. The books are included with every $90 doll but are big sellers on their own. (American Girl doesn't break out the numbers for its individual writers, but the line has sold more than 117 million copies since Tripp's first Molly book in 1986.)
The books are written for young readers but don't shy away from the more forbidding elements of their eras, including slavery, war, poverty and child labor. Still, some parents and librarians credit Tripp's warm, unflinching girl bios with having a Harry Potter effect on the reading habits of girls. They flock to the libraries where Tripp speaks, often in period costume and hauling bags of books for her to sign.
"They are really, really good stories," said Nora Howard, 11, of Takoma Park. Nora read and reread the Kit and Josefina series as some of her first chapter books. "I still remember Josefina trying to learn the piano at their ranch. You really learned a lot about the early era."
"I'm sorry if I'm gushing, but she really is one of the favorite authors we've ever had here," said Kathleen Kelly, a librarian at the Cascades Public Library in Sterling, where Tripp visited last month. "We've had her at least three times, and every time people have driven in from all over: West Virginia, Fairfax. We don't have the dolls and products here; we're just about the books."
And so it wasn't surprising when Tripp, asked to offer advice on gift buying for girls, had a simple answer.
"Everyone on my list is getting books this year," she said with a laugh.
Asked to recommend works for young girls (see box), Tripp included none of her titles. She reached back to the favorites of her youth, when she was growing up with three sisters in Mount Kisco, N.Y.
"The things you read as a child become part of who you are," she said. "I still reread 'Charlotte's Web' every year."
Tripp began her writing career after graduate school, penning readers for a Boston textbook publisher. In the mid-1980s, shortly before moving to Silver Spring with her husband, a history professor at Montgomery College, a friend and co-worker, Pleasant Roland, invited Tripp to help launch a line of historically oriented dolls.
Their goal was a doll -- less buxom than Barbie, less passive than Madame Alexander -- that would fire girls' imagination in a literary way. Tripp's job was to create a spunky, period-appropriate personality to go with the 18-inch figure Roland was having manufactured in Germany.
"I always hated books where it's the girl who says to the boy, 'Don't go in there!' " Tripp said. "We wanted the girls to be the ones pushing things to the limit."
The success of the dolls, and the books, slowly propelled Tripp into the status of girl-power guru. In addition to the regular library gatherings, she visits mother-daughter book groups and has been a guest nine times on a student-produced television talk show at Silver Spring's Eastern Middle School. She offers her house for American Girl tea parties several times a year as an auction fundraiser and has spoken on female empowerment at conferences at the Library of Congress and Yale University.
"There's an age when girls can lose their footing, when sports aren't cool anymore maybe and everything seems to be pushing them to be older than they are," Tripp said. "My hope is to help shore them up a little bit as they enter that tough period.
"I like the idea of a vacation from sophistication. Books can provide that."