more than you ever wanted to know about american girl

so, it’s wintertime, it’s getting chilly outside, & that is perfect weather for staying at home, curled up on the couch, reading my way through big stacks of library books. recently i have become somewhat obsessed with reading american girl books, especially the canonical six-book series that accompanies each historical character.

american girl is a toy company that is now owned by mattel, but was originally started in the mid-80s by an entrepreneur named pleasant rowland. she wanted to create dolls that actually looked like little girls (as opposed to the omnipresent baby doll or a fashion doll representing an adult woman, like barbie). each doll would be a character based in a different historical era, with a series of six books telling the character’s story. each series started with a basic “meet so & so,” introducing the character & the unique historical circumstances of her time period, followed by a school story, a holiday story, a birthday story, a story about the character doing something dangerous & helpful, & a story that sets the character on a new, more grown-up path. various accessories were also available for each doll, corresponding to her stories. for example, you could buy a replica school desk that was historically accurate for the character’s era, or a dress that matched the dress she is depicted as wearing in her birthday story, or even tiny miniatures of the toys she plays with in her stories. it’s all very cunning: catnip for adult collectors & little girls alike, & a perpetual moneymaking machine. wish i’d thought of it first!

the first three characters were kirsten, a swedish pioneer girl growing up in 1854 in minnesota; samantha, a posh edwardian-era orphan being raised by her rich grandmother in 1904; & molly, a spunky girl with glasses growing up during world war 2 (her father is off treating wounded soldiers on the home front). allow me to add, molly’s father is not an attractive man:


though he was rocking harry potter glasses 50 years before his time. hipster dads strike again.

the fifth character introduced was addy walker. growing up in 1864, she was born into slavery & ran away to freedom in philadelphia with her mother after her older brother & father were sold to another slave master. she was the first historical character of color, & until this year, the only black historical. (cecile rey, a free person of color growing up in new orleans in 1853, was released this past summer.)

as children, my sister & i were OBSESSED with the american girl catalogue, which must have been mailed to every little girl who happened to be between the ages of 6 & 10 at any point between 1987 &…i don’t know, NOW, i guess. my sister loved samantha because her collection was full of frilly dresses & clever little accessory sets like a butterfly-catching set that comes with faux-butterflies, or a doll-sized watercolor set with real watercolors. my sister has always been a major girly-girl. let me just tell you that she has enough nail polish that it requires an organizational system & we’ll leave it at that. (i’m 32 & still bite my nails.) i liked kirsten & felicity, the redheaded colonial character who rises up against the british circa 1774 (she was released fourth). i’ve always had a soft spot for both the revolutionary war & the “little house on the prairie” books, so it was a tough choice for me. but the dolls cost something like $70 at the time, & each little dress or accessory set was at least $15 more, & it all just seemed like a money pit to my parents, who said no way.

which set the stage for an adulthood of being weirdly obsessed with these dolls that i was not allowed to have as a child.

i thought i had read addy’s books ten years ago when i started researching american girl again, but i guess i didn’t, because i checked them out of the library last week & read them over the weekend & HOLY SHIT. i knew on some level that she was an “escaped slave,” but her first book is all about the work she has to do on the plantation, her brother trying to run off & getting hunted down by dogs & hauled back to the plantation to be whipped, addy getting whipped for saying goodbye to his father while he is manacled on the ground after being sold to another slave owner…i mean, JESUS. there’s a scene where addy is helping serve lunch to her master, who is hosting a fellow slave owner. the other slave owner asks if addy’s master would be willing to sell her, & then he pets her head. if you are an adult who is aware that female slaves of all ages were routinely raped & sexually exploited by their masters, you will definitely pick up on those undertones in this scene. god only knows how it reads to a child. there’s another scene where addy is distracted while working in the fields because her brother & father have been sold. she misses a few worms that she was supposed to be picking off the tobacco plants & the overseer forces her to eat them. GODDAMN. i felt traumatized reading that, & i am four times older than the target demographic. when addy & her mother finally decide to run away, addy’s mother explains that they have to leave behind addy’s one-year-old sister esther. they have to run too far & too fast to make it to the safe house before being re-captured, & carrying a baby will only slow them down. plus she could cry at any time & give them away. i mean, it is beyond imagining.

i feel like most of the american girl books are heavier than i expect them to be when i am just looking at their plastic smiling doll faces & their cute little accessory sets, but addy’s really blew me away. i feel like most of her collection is quite fetching (especially the retired stuff), but really? no one at american girl stopped & had a moment where they were like, “hmmm…we have created an escaped slave doll…& now we are going to SELL HER.” it’s a bit tone-deaf, no?

Published by Ciara

Ciara Xyerra wrote zines for the better part of two decades. She has a brilliant & adorable preschooler named Ramona & sews as much as she possibly can. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her boyfriend. She enjoys catching up on "The New Yorker", meatball subs, keeping it cranky, intersectional post-third wave feminism, dinosaurs, & monsters. If you have nothing nice to say, she recommends that you come sit here by her, so you can say not-nice things together.

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