American Girls Series

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American Girls Series

"We give girls chocolate cake with vitamins" explains Pleasant T. Rowland, the creator of the American Girls books, summing up the philosophy behind the bestselling historical fiction series. The 1980s and 1990s have seen a proliferation of series books for girls—the Sweet Valley High series, the Baby-Sitters Club series, the American Girls series—which have sold millions of copies. Pleasant Company's American Girls Collection, a set of 36 books about six girls from different eras in American history, is among the leaders in this popular and profitable field. Preadolescent girls are a powerful demographic in 1990s publishing; girl power, it seems, represents a significant buying power. Series books for girls have frequently been dismissed both because they are popular reading and children's literature and because they are series books, which have historically been disdained by critics. Such books, however, have been an important and influential (as well as lucrative) genre of children's literature since the middle of the nineteenth century, with the publication of Little Women (1868). Recently, there has been more critical attention paid to girls' culture as an area for scholarly inquiry and there is no reason that this inquiry should not be extended to girls' reading habits.

Founded as an alternative to mass market books and toys, The Pleasant Company was launched in 1985 by Pleasant Rowland, a former teacher and textbook author. The company's stated mission is "to celebrate all that is special about American girls—past and present—and in doing so, to create a community of American girls." The company has annual revenues in excess of 300 million dollars from the sale of books, dolls, clothing, accessories, and activity kits from both the American Girls historical collection and the American Girl contemporary products. Since 1986, Pleasant Company has sold 48 million American Girl books, and plans to release an additional 42 titles in 1999. Rowland got the idea for the American Girls books after she went shopping for dolls for her two nieces. All she found were "Barbies that wore spiked heels, drove pink Corvettes, and looked as if they belonged in stripjoints." Rowland wanted to give girls dolls that could teach "American history, family values, and self-reliance." Ironically, in 1998, Rowland sold Pleasant Company to Mattel, the makers of Barbie.

The American Girls book collection is based on the fictional lives of six ethnically diverse nine-year-old girls from different eras in American history: Felicity Merriman, a Williamsburg girl whose life is changed dramatically by the outbreak of the American Revolution; Josephina Montoya, a New Mexican girl of the early 1820s (whose books include a glossary of Spanish words used in the text); Kirsten Larson, an immigrant to the Minnesota frontier in the 1850s; Addy Walker, an African American girl who escapes from slavery in 1864; Samantha Parkington, an orphan who lives with her aunt and uncle in turn-of-the-century New York city; and Molly McIntire, a twentieth century girl whose father serves in England during World War II. Six books have been written about each girl's experiences, including volumes on family and friends, school, birthdays, Christmases, and summer and winter adventures. Each volume includes a "Peek into the Past" section in which photos, illustrations, and narratives are provided for historical background and context. The entire collection consists of the novel series, dolls and dolls' clothing, historically accurate replicas of furniture, girls' clothes, and memorabilia, and craft projects including (for each of the six characters) a cookbook, crafts book, theater kit, and paper dolls and accessories. The 18-inch dolls cost over $80 each. With all the accessories, including $80 dresses for actual girls, each collection costs approximately $1,000.

In 1992 the company launched the American Girl magazine, a bimonthly magazine free of advertisements that treats both historical and contemporary issues, which by 1995 had over 500,000 subscribers. The magazine is phenomenally popular—for each issue, the magazine receives over 10,000 pieces of mail, most asking for advice or directed at the help column. The magazine, aimed at 7-12 year old girls, features fiction and nonfiction articles on arts, sports, entertainment, history snippets about girlhood during various periods of American history, original short fiction, and a regular section called "Grandmother, Mother, and Me" which contains paper dolls and cutout clothes from both past and present. Pleasant Company also began publishing the American Girl Library, which emerged from the most popular features of American Girl magazine and is completely contemporary. The American Girl Library serves as a counterpart to the American Girls collection, and includes activity books, fiction, biography, and (most significantly) advice books, such as the bestselling Help!: An Absolutely Indispensable Guide to Life for Girls. In recent years, Pleasant Company has also created special events and programs for fans of the series, including The American Girls Fashion Show, Samantha's Ice Cream Social, and Felicity in Williamsburg: An American Girls Experience.

Like most series books for girls, the plots of the American Girls books are somewhat formulaic: the books typically center on moral quandaries, and the heroine is always exceptionally capable and plucky, helpful and brave. Addy Walker's story is the most poignant, and it is her books which have received the most attention. The Addy books are historically accurate, which makes for some painful reading: before her family can flee slavery, for example, Addy's master sells some of her family, and her family is forced to leave her young sister, Esther, in the care of fellow slaves. Addy's parents' experience of prejudice in the north, where they are free, also clearly demonstrates to readers that the social effects of racism go beyond legal statutes.

What explains the long-lasting popularity of girls series books? What social values do the books promote? While the messages such books send can offer their readers newfound self respect, the books can also help to perpetuate stereotypes. The American Girls books do not hide the fact that they emphasize "traditional values," and yet "traditional values" are reduced to a rather simplistic vision of the American past as a time when families were better off—when they were more closely-knit, more functional, safer, and most importantly, more likely a place where mothers and daughters spent time together. According to the Pleasant Company catalog, the American Girls books and programs have "nurtured a sense of community among thousands of girls around the country, and in a fast-paced, over-scheduled world have provided a memorable experience that mothers and daughters can share." In fact, the American Girls Collection does what much of the genre of historical fiction (especially for children) does … it satisfies our need for formula and reaffirms simplistic notions about the past. The popularity of historical fiction has never been based, after all, on the degree to which it reflects an accurate picture of historical eras or events, but is based rather on the degree to which it reaffirms cultural myths. The American Girls books, nevertheless, combine education and entertainment. While we may wish for fiction that would complicate, rather than simply corroborate, our understanding of history, these novels serve as an informal, informative introduction to history, which may be more accessible to its readers than more formal or complex treatments of the same historical periods.

Problems in the American Girls books are often surmounted too easily, almost as if having a loving family guarantees a good outcome: Samantha's aunt and uncle decide to keep all of her orphan friends, for example, while Addy's family is successfully reunited. In addition, several of the novels contain messages of self-effacement. Kristin and Molly, for example, both learn that their concerns are trivial compared to those of other family members. Despite their memorialization of the past, and their cliched moral messages, the American Girls books do offer their readers greater independence and a sense of their own potential power by presenting images of independent, resourceful young girls. Simply reading historical fiction featuring girls can give girl readers a sense of pride and self-awareness that they might not acquire from historical fiction featuring boys. As Rowland says, "I believe very strongly in the importance of gender-specific publishing. And, especially after recent reports that girls are given less attention than boys in the classroom, it is crucial that girls see themselves as significant characters in books—and in history. And it is also important for boys to recognize this, too." Perhaps most importantly, the American Girls books present exceptionally gutsy and articulate girls of different classes, races, and cultural backgrounds. Taken as a whole, the series says that what it means to be an American girl is significantly different than the white upper-middle class Victorian girl we are all familiar with from children's literature.

—Austin Booth

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American Girls Series

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American Girls Series