I have a love/hate relationship with American Girl, as I have mentioned before . There is nothing so (brilliantly) over-marketed as those overpriced dolls. And they retire! There is a new must-have doll of the year every year! The clothes cost about what I would spend on two outfits for my 7-year-old daughter!
Full disclosure: My child has two of the dolls and plenty of clothes for them. So while intellectually I know that it’s consumerist garbage, I can’t help but indulge. Like I said, brilliant marketing.
The love part, though, is for the books. I can’t get enough of those stories about plucky, independent girls from different historic periods. Neither can my daughter. So far we’ve plowed through Kit (1930s), Molly (1940s), Julie (my own dear 1970s) and parts of Kaya (a Native American girl from 1764) and Caroline (1812).
I spent many hours as a child reading and re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, devouring every detail from life in another time and imagining myself as a pioneer living on the Kansas or Dakota prairie. The American Girl books, while not based on true stories, give my daughter a similar window into many eras in American history. The spunky protagonists have rich personalities and are totally relatable, even if the specifics of their life stories (no girls’ basketball team? renting out rooms in your home so you can pay the bills?) are unimaginable to many 21st-century girls.
The girls in the books are doing things that matter, such as writing a community newspaper (Kit) or using Title IX to get a spot on the boys’ basketball team at school (go, Julie). The characters aren’t running around in trashy clothes and getting cheap laughs by being rude or disrespectful toward adults. They aren’t plotting ways to get attention from boys and they aren’t engaged in mean-girl antics. They’re too busy solving problems with friends and family to be bothered with that kind of nonsense. I’ll take a very large helping of that in our bedtime reading any day.
Molly, Kit, Addy and all the others are smart, tough and resourceful, and they face real problems. Kit’s father loses his job during the Great Depression and the family struggles to pay the bills. Molly’s father is sent to Europe during World War II and she worries about his fate. Julie’s parents get divorced and she has to move to a new home and change schools.
Each girl’s story is told in six books that are about 70 pages each. The books are peppered with beautiful color illustrations and end with a section on American history from the story’s time period. Yes, ultimately they are marketing period dolls and clothes and furniture. Julie’s car wash set, which comes with a doll-size blue Volkswagen beetle convertible, for example, rings up at a ridiculous $350. If you can bypass that, though, and just enjoy the great stories, they are well worth sharing with your daughter (and son) for the conversations they can generate about life then vs. now.
Next up: Felicity, who hails from my college town, Williamsburg, during the Colonial era.
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