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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

In praise of "American Girl"

My daughter turned seven last month and is in the deepest throes of an American Girl phase. This is not unexpected, since my niece went through the same thing five years ago, as have daughters of friends. What  admittedly has been unexpected is that this has not been a bad thing. The whole product line presents some very positive, intellectually engaging messages for young girls.

I have been especially surprised by the books, which we have been plowing through for the past several months (several of them lent to use by a friend who saved her now-grown daughter's collection). These essentially are works of historical fiction, focusing on a particular character living in a particular time and providing seven-year-old-level historical context and information. They are fairly well written by accomplished children's book authors (as opposed to the assembly line of underpaid people trapped in a basement who we are convinced write the Disney princess books). The young girls are smart, curious, engaged, and strong, without being too perfect. And the books take pains to be historically accurate (albeit at a seven-year-old level); for example, the books about a Nez Perce girl in the mid-19th century were written in consultation with an advisory board of academics and tribe leaders. Each book also includes a short "Looking Back" chapter at the end that discusses real life in that time; and some of these were unflinching about things like slavery, the treatment of Indians, and the Great Depression (again, at a seven-year-old level). They are pretty clearly liberal in orientation, although I obviously have less of a problem with that.

Most importantly, the whole thing has fed my daughter's historical and political curiosity, which is fun for me to watch and to talk about. Last night was Title IX and Watergate; two nights ago was Reconstruction. I may be enjoying it as much as she is.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 9, 2013 at 06:26 PM in Books, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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Howard, thanks for the post about a fresh topic. I agree with your positive assessment of the American Girl line. I have a six year old daughter who is just getting into American Girl. Like you, I find the stories to be much more relevant and interesting than the Disney fodder. The Disney stories walk a strange line between victimization and empowerment, since it is often the case that the woman gains power by her association with the prince who rescues her. The only thing I find slightly questionable about American Girl is the tendency of girls to search for a "matching" doll as their starter doll; in the case of my daughter, she had some trouble finding a half-Asian doll, let along a half-Asian with Jewish ancestry. But I suspect that her interest will broaden to other dolls as she gets older. We live near the American Girl store in Chicago which has the tea room, spa, stage, etc, and I go there fairly often, and it is usually a really great experience for my daughter and her younger sister. As you said, it can be a good starting off point for discussing some interesting historical events that they would not otherwise want to discuss.

Posted by: Doug L | Jan 9, 2013 9:41:47 PM

"The whole product line presents some very positive, intellectually engaging messages for young girls" . . . of substantial means.

I think I get the appeal of the book line, and the appeal of the entire product line relative to Disney's. I also appreciate this post insofar as it celebrates finding a rough in the diamond, as it were.

But this is a bit like lavishing praise on a restaurant for the aesthetics of its kid's meal toys relative to, say, McDonald's. Initially, you have to get past the fact that the entire enterprise is designed to cross-promote dolls and doll play (which, like fast food, may not be so good to begin with). Then you have to cope with the fact that the product line they are pushing is priced so that it only winds up in the hands of latter-day princesses. I thought the flap over the $100 (for starters) "homeless" doll was a different example of how American Girl dolls might really be used to discuss contemporary events that kids and parents might not want to discuss. Beyond that, it'd be great to find other ways to peddle fiction and nonfiction to kids that didn't rely on tie-ins.

Posted by: Ani | Jan 10, 2013 9:57:40 AM

Amen, @Ani.

We're trying mightily to keep the princesses' lessons of learned helplessness from seeping in under our home's front door. "The Paper Bag Princess" by Robert Munsch is a fantastic children's book, and it has been helpful.

Posted by: hush | Jan 10, 2013 10:49:46 AM

That's obviously an important point, Ani. I don't have kids, but I'm probably part of the first generation of law professors who grew up with an American Girl doll. Back in the day it was less of an industry-- it was catalogue-based, without the stores and restaurants and vast inventory. But I had one doll and a lot of books, and my parents were fairly consistent in saying no to accessories and yes to books. Again, things have probably changed since the 80s, but as I recall the tie-in wasn't as aggressive as other branded books. If you had Samantha, you could read all the Samantha books and then move on to the Kirsten books without actually feeling you needing a Kirsten. (Or maybe my parents were just hell-bent on driving home that message.)

Posted by: juniorminted | Jan 10, 2013 11:36:08 AM

Junior: I don't believe it has changed at all. The books do stand independent of the dolls. As I said, my daughter has read just about every book series at this point and has never made a sound about needing the matching doll (not that we would have accommodated--but I don't think the idea every crossed her mind). She is very happy with her matching doll (and it was enough for her that it had bangs and blue eyes).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 10, 2013 2:38:31 PM

I too had an American Girl doll when I was growing up. I wanted Samantha first, but she was too expensive, so my dad got me a faux Samantha for Christmas, along with one of the books and the accessories package that went with the real doll. I adored her, even without all the bells and whistles. Over the next couple of years, for birthdays and Christmas, my dad got me a real Kirsten doll and just one or two of the outfits and other accessories. I read a lot of the books. I understood that these were BIG DEAL presents--I treasured them then and still have them now. The best part was always the history and the stories. It made me understand, in a small and age-appropriate but still tangible way, that I was part of a community and a culture bigger than my family and even my town.

I get that they're expensive and the company has a crafty approach to marketing endless add-ons. The dolls are also awesome, though, and a lot better than other common, expensive toys like video game consoles. Parents should know enough to say "no" to the potentially endless stream of add-ons. When a parent says "no," and explains the reasons to his or her child, it provides real life lessons. The child learns the value of money, the importance of appreciating what you have instead of complaining about what you don't have, and the concepts of having boundaries and being financially responsible.

Posted by: nostalgic | Jan 10, 2013 4:39:26 PM

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