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American Girl’s forays into “ethnic” characters have not always been entirely smooth. Lines in the books about Mexican-American Marisol Luna struck some Mexican-American activists and residents of Marisol’s Chicago neighborhood as derogatory, for example. But to my eye it’s difficult to find much source for controversy in the six novels about Rebecca; if anything, Rebecca feels a bit too brave, generous and lucky. In contrast, I think of a character like the spunky Ramona Quimby from Beverly Cleary’s books, her best intentions so frequently misunderstood, often charming no one but herself. Even Rebecca’s moments of self-pity and vexation feel wholesome and fleeting, her grievances reasonable.
The Rebecca novels, like any good children’s book, also do an expert job of conveying the texture of daily life, from the different neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn to the food, the clothing, the pleasures and the injustices of school. The books have to juggle a lot of goals, but this is true of all fiction. And what makes them successful or not rests not only on the narratives’ deft incorporation of historical elements, but also on a genuinely effective emotional hook.
I was one of the Christian children who grew up obliviously making Christmas decorations, but I, too, became immersed in Rebecca’s concerns about the wreath centerpiece: She wanted to do it well, but wasn’t sure whether she should be making it at all, whether Christmas was an American or a Christian holiday, whether Hanukkah is a significant holiday in itself. Through all this, she hid the wreath from her conservative grandmother, and when her grandmother finally saw it, I found myself genuinely moved by her response: “It’s a beautiful thing you made.” I don’t want to say I got a little teary, but I’ll say it anyway.
Yet I resisted the books, as well. Rebecca and many of her fellow characters can seem a little much to a jaded adult. She is an aspiring performer who gets to act in a film production thanks to her mother’s cousin Max. She is brave and principled: She rescues her cousin Ana from a dangerous carnival ride and delivers a pro-union speech at a protest. When Colonial-era Felicity Merriman helps deliver a baby, when Rebecca climbs up to fetch Ana from the Ferris wheel, or when Kaya tries to save a dog injured in a face-off with a bear — well, it all starts to feel over the top.