Last weekend Bethesda, Maryland (whose Metro stop with the same name I blogged about several weeks ago) held its 16th annual Bethesda Literary Festival, an event that takes place from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon during one weekend in April each year.
On Saturday I heard author Valerie Tripp speak about the many, many American Girl books she has written. Most of her audience consisted of little girls, their families, and of course their dolls. But when Tripp introduced herself to me and I told her I had been a fan as a kid, she welcomed me as one of her “alums.”
American Girl has launched several dozen dolls, paired with books and accessories, many from historical periods with the goal of teaching today’s late elementary age girls about events and eras of American history through the eyes of a fictional girl growing up and trying to understand the world and find her place in it.
When I was young and receiving the big, glossy Pleasant Company catalogs in the mail, there were only three dolls: Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly. Then there was Felicity. Then Addy was added. Josefina came on board after I had lost interest, and I mostly lost track after that. When I was in elementary school, I had the Samantha and Felicity dolls, but I read the books about all of the dolls who had been invented at that point.
By essentially pairing books, dolls, and mini-replicas of historical items, American Girl offers object-based learning, which in my case often happened at elementary school sleepovers. You could buy Addy’s washstand, Kirsten’s weaving loom, the many layers of clothing Felicity had to wear.
At her talk, Valerie Tripp engaged the girls in the audience by having them pretend to be different characters: imagining wearing a corset and curtsying like Felicity, sitting up straight like Samantha, and curling their toes like Kit had to do.
Tripp asked the girls how this last exercise related to Kit, and a girl who must have been around seven or eight explained that Kit had to fit into shoes that were too small. Because they couldn’t afford new shoes. Because her father lost his job. Because of the Great Depression.
Delighted with this answer, Tripp explained that she had fought hard with American Girl to create a Depression-era doll, as the company had thought that kids would not understand such complicated ideas.
The books are slim, but they deal with some serious topics: slavery, war, child labor, immigration. They are not without controversy, to be sure, as adults disagree on whether and how to broach these subjects with children, how best to represent the diversity of people in American history, and which dolls to introduce and which to retire. Nor are the dolls and lines of related products cheap, thus excluding a lot of the potentially interested market and leading to the irony of spending good money on a doll and her accessories in order to act out the character’s impoverished day-to-day life. Despite the criticisms, the series has reached two generations of young learners now, and the company has won awards for its books, its toys, and even its restaurants.
Hearing the author speak about the books, so engaged with her young audience, added another layer of bringing the books (back to) life for me and reminding me of certain scenes I had read 16 years ago but forgotten. Tripp was eager to ask and answer questions, called the girls her inspiration, and read a story she had written in elementary school, spelling errors and all.
For anyone (adult or child) who missed the talk at the Bethesda Literary Festival last weekend and still wants to get their American Girl fix, there is the American Girl store at the (now Metro-accessible) Tysons Corner Center. Visitors to the National Museum of American History can use these guides relating to the stories of Caroline, Addy, and several characters from different eras.
Among the modern-day Girls of the Year, two in particular lend themselves well to museum and park visits. Saige’s art-themed curriculum, developed in partnership with Americans for the Arts, could be used in conjunction with a visit to an art museum or gallery. Nature’s daughter Lanie is the star of a National Wildlife Federation-sponsored curriculum guide that emphasizes finding and being a steward for the wildlife that is native to one’s area, which can be found in nearby parks and nature centers.
This article discusses a day at the National Museum of the United States Navy, featuring the World War II-era doll Molly, and an author visit from Valerie Tripp. The statement that at this NMUSN event, “Tripp agreed to continue signing books for a total of five hours, though originally scheduled to remain for two, giving more fans an opportunity to meet her,” is not at all surprising after the graciousness and genuine interest I saw Tripp give to her readers last week at the Bethesda Literary Festival.