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It took me a while to see the obvious, maybe because what the books may actually be doing is rare enough that even an avowed feminist — this one, at least — misses it at first. Many of these books are adventure stories, with girls as the active agents. Rebecca, Kaya, Felicity and their ilk are not part of realistic narratives so much as heroic ones. In fact, the newest character, Caroline Abbott, is explicitly positioned as a hero during the War of 1812.
As for the dolls that embody these stories, the company uses several face molds, which means that dolls of Latina, African or Native American descent have varying faces, if not wildly different ones. Some faces are rounder or narrower, freckled or not, and noses are broader at the tip or pertly turned up. Their little eyebrows arch in different shapes and thicknesses, and the eyes have genuine depth. Their expressions are direct, pleasant and expectant, not overtly happy so much as ready to be happy. The dolls’ thick, glossy and lifelike hair (“a blend of mod-acrylic fibers of different colors and textures,” according to the company) is not only better than most dolls’ skimpy panels of hair, but better than mine, as well.
Part of the “mirror” side of the company’s mission is reflected in a range of “My American Girl” dolls that allow a child to choose among various kinds of coloring and hairstyles. Children may also have hearing aids attached on their dolls; they may buy doll-sized wheelchairs and service dogs, or dolls without hair. But, going by the comments on the company site, it appears that, just as girls often send photos of themselves holding the dolls of other ethnicities, not all children who buy the wheelchairs and hearing aids have actual hearing aids or wheelchairs themselves; many girls are apparently administering their own doll hospitals, complete with American Girl splints, crutches and fleece-lined casts.
I thought it might seem simplistic to suggest that girls want dolls that resemble them, but then again, maybe it isn’t. As I looked through the dolls’ faces, I kept returning to the image of Molly, a 1944 historical doll with light-brown hair and little round spectacles. I was trying to decide why I found her expression so movingly frank, sweet-tempered but a little grave, as well — wise, you might even say — until I remembered that had you seen me at age 10, the first things you would have noticed were my light-brown hair and my eyeglasses. Maybe I didn’t look exactly like Molly. Maybe she is a little cuter and probably nicer than I was. But in the same essential way that my family looks both different and elementally familiar to me, I feel I know her.
Michelle Wildgen’s third novel, “The Back of the House,” will be published by Doubleday late in 2013. A film based on her first novel, “You’re Not You,” is in production. She is executive editor of the literary journal Tin House.