In the last two years, I’ve been introduced to the culture of American Girls. Living in a wealthy suburb, I watched my daughter interact with neighbors and classmates carrying around their very own personalized American Girl doll. For just a little over $100, you can customize a doll to look just like you. But the spending does not end there. Here in Chicago, we also have an American Girl store, equipped with a hair salon, where dolls can get their ears pierced ($14), face washed ($12), and their hair done. For the sporty types, attire for their favorite athletic event probably exists: for example, for $34 you can have your doll ready for her upcoming soccer game.
About a year ago, my oldest daughter asked about the dolls. She has never actually liked dolls, so the request was a bit unexpected, but also a testimony to the power of peer pressure. Talking about the cost of the doll and other things it might be used to purchase, my daughter changed her mind after about ten minutes.
This is not meant to be an attack on American Girls. I suspect a number of readers--like many of my daughter’s friends--really enjoy these toys, and find them worth the cost. Even as I find the money spent on the dolls and their care a little outrageous, I am fully aware that I spend money on things others would find even more questionable in value. Rather, it is more about how my rejection of this particular doll culture almost prevented me from finding something my daughter and I have greatly enjoyed: the American Girl book series.
My lack of enthusiasm for the American Girl dolls is perhaps matched by my enthusiasm for the stories surrounding some of the ‘historical’ American Girl dolls. Months after the initial conversation with my daughter, with some trepidation we started our first American Girl series showcasing Addy. We selected the book in part because she did not look like my Addy. In this series, we were introduced to the daughter of slaves who escaped to Philadelphia. Through the engaging stories of Addy and others, my daughter has learned about important historical events (Revolutionary War, Civil War, the Great Depression, Women’s Suffrage) as well as “met” girls from different cultures and backgrounds.
In this post and the next post, I want to highlight what the sociological parent in me has appreciated about these books and the ensuing conversations.Unfortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to read many a children’s book whose message I find frustrating. As printing and publishing books becomes even easier, it’s an experience I expect to only increase over time. While I would not suggest that the treatment of issues of cultural difference, racism, and classism are beyond reproach, the books have dealt with each of these issues with appropriate complexity for an early elementary age child. Just as important, the books broach these topics through the stories of girls with whom many of the readers are able to connect. And they teach these lessons through a number of various perspectives.
Ethnicity, Race, and Racism. My daughter and I have started to have some of these conversations, based on our reading together of this series. As we began our journey into the American Girls histories via the story of a daughter of a slave, my daughter got a glimpse of some of the evil slavery entailed. She saw families being separated; people being treated as less than human; and people struggling to survive with few resources once “free.” But she also saw resilience and hope and a faith in God in people exploited. While this story focused on the past, it gave us an opportunity to talk about racism today, and how it continues in different forms.