I am too old to have grown up with American Girl dolls, and my daughter, at 17 months, is too young. But I mentioned the dolls to our 22-year-old nanny, Ellie, a nursing student at the University of Wisconsin who grew up near Milwaukee, and a few weeks later she brought me two heavy shopping bags of her old American Girl paraphernalia: a hairbrush, a wee wooden-framed chalkboard tucked into a cloth bag with a peg of chalk, plus books, clothes and shoes that are stitched, laced and nearly as sturdy as baby shoes.
As for the dolls, Ellie has brought an infant Bitty Baby, in lace-trimmed pajamas, and three 18-inch dolls: Swedish immigrant Kirsten Larson, in braids and a red-checked bonnet; Depression-era Kit Kittredge, sporting neatly bobbed blond hair, and a “My American Girl” doll who has light-brown hair and eyes, and who is currently standing, unassisted, on my desk and gazing at me as I write.
Beside her is a handsomely bound hardcover collection of novels about Rebecca Rubin, the first-generation daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1914. Rebecca, who debuted in 2009, is the second Jewish doll in the company’s line (the first, in 2001, was Lindsey Bergman, part of the contemporary Girl of the Year series; her religion was less of a focal point for the character) and the fourth historical doll to be of an ethnicity other than traditional white European descent.
The historical collection also includes Josefina Montoya, a Hispanic girl in 1824 Santa Fe; Kaya, a 1764 Nez-Perce girl living in what is now America’s Northwest, and two African-American girls: Addy Walker, who escapes from slavery with her mother and settles in Philadelphia, and wealthy Cécile Rey in 1853 New Orleans. Though the contemporary line also includes characters of Latina, Indian, Hawaiian and Chinese descent, the rest of the historical line and the contemporary line of dolls tend toward the Caucasian.
The company receives far more requests for dolls of varying time periods and ethnicities than it can fill, says Stephanie Spanos, public relations manager for American Girl, and Rebecca herself was a result of that demand. The company doesn’t break out sales for individual titles, but it reports sales of 139 million American Girl books since 1986. The most recent Rebecca book (“The Crystal Ball: A Rebecca Mystery”) was published in 2012.
American Girl is headquartered in Middleton, Wis., a small city adjacent to Madison, where I have lived for 12 of the past 19 years. Pleasant Rowland, the onetime primary school teacher who founded the company in 1985 and sold it to Mattel in 1998, now heads the not-for-profit organization Rowland Reading Foundation.
Her philanthropy is considerable, with a heavy focus on education and the arts, particularly in support of revitalizing Madison’s once beleaguered downtown area. The most significant of these endeavors is a $46 million endowment fund that she and her husband created to build and support the Overture Center, Madison’s performing arts center and art gallery.
In the late 1990s, when plans for an American Girl Cafe first went public, I was working at a high-end restaurant where Rowland and her family were among the VIPs we watched over with particular care. (At least one of us must have done this quite well, for Rowland tapped my colleague Kamille Adamany, who at the time was maitre d’, to run the first cafe; today, Adamany remains the director of the restaurants.) I remember being skeptical of the notion of an American Girl restaurant, which struck me as a little twee: Did girls really want girly food and a special toy-related place to dine with their dolls?
They did. There are 14 American Girl stores around the country and 12 of them have restaurants. Not only do American Girl doll lovers and their accompanying doll buyers wish to dine on dishes like French toast or quiche at tables complete with doll-sized seating, but they also wish to see musicals, throw parties and stock up on outfits (child- or doll-sized) and historically accurate furniture. Dolls can even visit the salon for a little sprucing up, like hairstyling or ear piercing.
A canny business move on behalf of the company is part of the reason so many people visit these experiential retail locations: It’s actually not very easy to lay your hands on an American Girl doll, and not only because a doll, with her accessories and accompanying book, costs $128. The dolls are not available at Target or Wal-Mart; they are available only on the American Girl website or at an American Girl store. Until my nanny came to the rescue, I had never seen the dolls in person.
The draw, toward the stores and the brand itself, is more than exclusivity. The American Girl, in doll and literary form, seems to be intended not only as an educational tool, but also as an aspiration and a companion, the ideal to which a girl hopes to live up and the real child she may already be.
The most fascinating thing about a historical doll like Rebecca is not so much the character’s personality but the process of her creation. The story themes and subjects, the historical moment and the doll’s accessories all aim to create a character who embodies an iconic time in American history. The goal is a girl who is accurate and alluring at once, familiar enough that a child identifies with her and enticingly different, so that a child wants to learn more. (Rebecca has a Russian shawl and Russian nesting dolls among her accessories for just this reason).
The company describes this paradigm, which was inspired by a trip that Rowland took to Colonial Williamsburg, as providing what Spanos calls “a window and a mirror.” Rowland wished to provide educational toys for girls of about 8 to 10, Spanos says, when these girls were possibly still interested in dolls but were becoming aware of the larger world around them and were able to understand the stories’ historical, cultural and familial themes. As a result, all of the American Girl characters are 9 turning 10.
American Girl’s historical dolls require about three to four years of development, and perhaps the most crucial portion of that process is spent deciding on — often with an advisory board and input from staff historians — the timeperiod and the central themes of the stories. Spanos and the executive editor, Jennifer Hirsch, say that even within American Girl’s own advisory board the discussion over whether to begin Addy’s story before or after emancipation was a passionate one (Addy’s story begins just before she and her mother escape).
The company wanted the Kaya doll, whose story occurs before European contact, not to represent all Native American tribes, and it chose Nez Perce partially because the tribe still exists and would advise them. Hirsch says American Girl aims to take “big historical themes and bring them down to girls’ size. If we want to provide a broader historical context, then we can explain it in ‘Looking Back,’ the nonfiction essay at the end of the story. We think that’s the best way to bring history to life for kids in a way that a textbook can’t really do.”
Some characteristics are determined as much by a doll’s place within the product line as by ethnicity. Rebecca, for example, does not have stereotypically dark-brown hair and eyes — not only because millions of Jewish people don’t conform to that stereotype, but also because Samantha Parkington, a brunette, already existed in 1904, so a lighter-haired Rebecca was placed at the tail end of the immigration boom, in 1914. Hirsch, who edited the Rebecca novels, told me: “After 35 years of immigration, the Jewish immigrant community was solidly established in America, especially in New York, where their population was 20% of America’s largest city. By this time, most were second and even third generation; their determination to build successful lives in America was bearing fruit, and they were beginning to have a major impact on the community around them. Telling that story rather than a ‘fresh off the boat’ story allowed Rebecca’s series to really show the [many significant ways] that Jewish Americans have shaped our country and our culture.”
But the concerns depicted in books like “Rebecca and Ana” and “Candlelight for Rebecca” are also relevant to most immigrant populations, from the hardship and uncertainty of entering the country to the inexorable pull of (and resistance to) assimilation, particularly across generations. The American Girl books as a whole are — admirably, in my opinion — willing to depict tragedy. Kirsten’s friend dies of cholera; Addy’s family is separated when her father and brother are sold; one of Rebecca’s cousins is detained on Ellis Island because he was injured on the trip over. When Rebecca’s aunt suggests that she, too, will return to Russia if her son is sent back, Rebecca’s mother warns her that not only is there no money for tickets, but no turning back, either. Hirsch says that once the parameters are set, the authors have freedom to invent the stories and characters.
Rebecca frequently runs into difficulty trying to guide her newly arrived cousin at school without speaking Yiddish, for example, but the tale that most directly addresses Jewish identity is drawn from an incident that series author Jacqueline Dembar Greene experienced as a third-grader, when she was assigned to make a Christmas-themed project despite being Jewish. Hirsch explained: “She didn’t know how to cope with it, and struggled with being attracted to it because it was pretty and fun and felt special, and her teacher expected it, but in her heart she knew it wasn’t right for her family or her culture. So I said we have to get that in there. That tension really was a theme throughout the books.” What makes this event appropriate for the series, Hirsch says, is that Rebecca’s experience — her wish to please her teacher and to make a beautiful object, which goes against her desire to please her traditional grandparents and celebrate her own family’s heritage — reflects the experience of many immigrant groups and their descendants: “We felt there was something universal [in her story] of the tension in being a minority culture in America,” said Hirsch.
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.
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.