Nesting, that biological imperative. That habit we share with creatures who spend their last days of gestation preparing a home for their coming little ones. That urge to go to Target just to look at small clothes and different shapes of pacifiers. That millionth eye roll because The Bump writes that you should just go ahead and hire a house cleaner if you’re too tired to do chores. Yes, Bump, all that was holding me back from hiring house help was lacking the Internet’s permission to do so. Thanks.
But of all of the odd things I’ve done lately to “get ready” for the new baby, giving an American Girl doll a makeover is definitely the oddest. I’m scrubbing beige skin with baking soda, gently brushing out damp hair. I’m trimming unruly flyaways and arranging pin curls. I’m deep in doll restoration world, and it’s weird and wonderful.
Whenever our new daughter decides to make her appearance, my once-treasured doll will go to the new big sister, now quite grown up enough to enjoy playing with the doll and her expansive wardrobe. I’m sure I’m not the only woman between 20 and 35 who’s pulled an old American Girl doll out of a cardboard box in her parents’ garage and tried to turn it into an heirloom. These dolls are like $200 new, so it’s worth a bit of effort.
Apart from the ridiculous price tag, there’s plenty to like about American Girl dolls, which in contrast to the mostly-white historical dolls of my childhood, are now far more representative of the great variety of actual American girls. Not stopping at racial diversity, today’s little girls can also select dolls with insulin pumps or no hair, finding identification in dolls that are beautiful in the midst of challenging life circumstances, just like they they are.
Way back in the mid-1990s, before this doll entered my life, I knew American Girl as a collection of fictional 11-year-old girls from various eras of American history. They each had six books following a similar narrative arc, which didn’t stop me from checking each and every one of them out of our card-catalogued library in Skagit County, back when the library was an hour’s drive away. These were the days of home schooling, violin lessons, and reading Molly Saves The Day by the wood stove for the thousandth time.
These books were some of my first favorites. I loved learning about pioneer Kirsten’s Swedish heritage, which I shared, or reveling in the excitement of Felicity’s front-row seat to the revolutionary war. It was from Addy’s character that I first learned about the Underground Railroad, our home schooling curriculum being less than strong on the details of slavery. Molly’s World War Two-era ingenuity inspired me and impressed me, exciting me for the first time to ask my grandparents questions about what it was like to be alive at the same time. (Samantha, even then, seemed a bit silly to me, but no books are perfect, right?)
Though I’m not yet a connoisseur of what eight-year-olds like to read these days, I know that American Girl, at least, has changed drastically since then. The historical characters I knew and loved are mostly relegated to the Internet equivalent of a back room, while more current “Girls of the Year” take center stage, each year a fresh 11-year-old with a story to tell, mostly of pursuing an arts- or STEM-related passion, somewhere in contemporary America. Gone are the days when reading an American Girl book meant connecting to someone who lived in a world drastically different than yours.
Today’s books, though, don’t impress me as much. While having a doll that looks like her (as mine does, vaguely) may be a valuable affirmation for many little girls, I don’t know that it’s as important to read stories about people who share so many aspects of your own life circumstances. Though they are racially diverse, these characters seem to come from mostly the same upper-middle class context. Girls of the Year books are relatable to their audience, contemporary girls with contemporary concerns. But is that really what kids—or any of us, really—should spend most of their time reading? Shouldn’t good literature, for children as much as for adults, be an exercise in empathy, a chance to learn about and from people who may be vastly different from them?
The first Girl of the Year came out in 2001, a year in which empathy and historical knowledge were more important than ever before. Had I been an editor at American Girl then, in a position to give feedback on the company’s future, I would have encouraged them to give a wider platform to history, rather than put it away. The company has since created a few more diverse characters, but they need even more. I want to hear from a young girl growing up in a Japanese internment camp, or a Muslim-American girl in the early 2000s. I want to hear about school integration and the Trail of Tears, about chapters of our history that are so critically important, so seldom taught, and without which it is impossible to understand the whole of our nation.
Plenty has been written about the famine of empathy that haunts our culture today, and quite honestly I don’t know how to fix it. What I know is literature, the way that reading a variety of voices, telling a variety of stories from of a variety of perspectives, makes us better listeners, better observers of the real world around us. In the classroom, this meant that we never read books by John Green, even though his portrayals of contemporary teenagers are fun and (mostly) accurate, but instead spent time with Huckleberry Finn, with George and Lennie, with Abigail Williams and Hester Prynne and Jay Gatsby.
These days, it means that the library is our friend, and that I will spend time actively looking for stories to help my daughters understand not just their own little world, but the many voices and stories that make up the big, wide world around them. If you have any to suggest, please share them, and whatever you do, keep listening, learning, and reading all the stories.