I am too old to accept developed up with American Babe dolls, and my daughter, at 17 months, is too young. But I mentioned the dolls to our 22-year-old nanny, Ellie, a nursing apprentice at the University of Wisconsin who grew up abreast Milwaukee, and a few weeks afterwards she brought me two abundant arcade accoutrements of her old American Babe paraphernalia: a hairbrush, a wee wooden-framed chalkboard tucked into a bolt bag with a peg of chalk, additional books, clothes and shoes that are stitched, abstemious and about as athletic as babyish shoes.
As for the dolls, Ellie has brought an babyish Bitty Baby, in lace-trimmed pajamas, and three 18-inch dolls: Swedish immigrant Kirsten Larson, in braids and a red-checked bonnet; Depression-era Kit Kittredge, antic neatly bobbed albino hair, and a “My American Girl” babyish who has light-brown beard and eyes, and who is currently standing, unassisted, on my lath and gazing at me as I write.
Beside her is a amply apprenticed album accumulating of novels about Rebecca Rubin, the first-generation babe of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Ancillary in 1914. Rebecca, who debuted in 2009, is the additional Jewish babyish in the company’s band (the first, in 2001, was Lindsey Bergman, allotment of the abreast Babe of the Year series; her adoration was beneath of a focal point for the character) and the fourth absolute babyish to be of an ethnicity added than acceptable white European descent.
The absolute accumulating additionally includes Josefina Montoya, a Hispanic babe in 1824 Santa Fe; Kaya, a 1764 Nez-Perce babe alive in what is now America’s Northwest, and two African-American girls: Addy Walker, who escapes from bullwork with her mother and settles in Philadelphia, and affluent Cécile Rey in 1853 New Orleans. Though the abreast band additionally includes characters of Latina, Indian, Hawaiian and Chinese descent, the blow of the absolute band and the abreast band of dolls tend adjoin the Caucasian.
The aggregation receives far added requests for dolls of capricious time periods and ethnicities than it can fill, says Stephanie Spanos, accessible relations administrator for American Girl, and Rebecca herself was a aftereffect of that demand. The aggregation doesn’t breach out sales for alone titles, but it letters sales of 139 actor American Babe books aback 1986. The best contempo Rebecca book (“The Crystal Ball: A Rebecca Mystery”) was appear in 2012.
American Babe is headquartered in Middleton, Wis., a babyish burghal adjoining to Madison, breadth I accept lived for 12 of the accomplished 19 years. Affable Rowland, the onetime primary academy abecedary who founded the aggregation in 1985 and awash it to Mattel in 1998, now alive the not-for-profit alignment Rowland Reading Foundation.
Her alms is considerable, with a abundant focus on apprenticeship and the arts, decidedly in abutment of abating Madison’s already abandoned burghal area. The best cogent of these endeavors is a $46 actor award armamentarium that she and her bedmate created to body and abutment the Overture Center, Madison’s assuming arts centermost and art gallery.
In the backward 1990s, aback affairs for an American Babe Cafe aboriginal went public, I was alive at a high-end restaurant breadth Rowland and her ancestors were amid the VIPs we watched over with authentic care. (At atomic one of us charge accept done this absolutely well, for Rowland broke my aide Kamille Adamany, who at the time was maitre d’, to run the aboriginal cafe; today, Adamany charcoal the administrator of the restaurants.) I bethink actuality agnostic of the angle of an American Babe restaurant, which addled me as a little twee: Did girls absolutely appetite changeable aliment and a adapted toy-related abode to banquet with their dolls?
They did. There are 14 American Babe aliment about the country and 12 of them accept restaurants. Not alone do American Babe babyish lovers and their accompanying babyish buyers ambition to banquet on dishes like French acknowledgment or quiche at tables complete with doll-sized seating, but they additionally ambition to see musicals, bandy parties and banal up on apparel (child- or doll-sized) and historically authentic furniture. Dolls can alike appointment the salon for a little sprucing up, like hairstyling or ear piercing.
A able business move on account of the aggregation is allotment of the acumen so abounding bodies appointment these empiric retail locations: It’s absolutely not absolute accessible to lay your easily on an American Babe doll, and not alone because a doll, with her accessories and accompanying book, costs $128. The dolls are not accessible at Target or Wal-Mart; they are accessible alone on the American Babe website or at an American Babe store. Until my assistant came to the rescue, I had never apparent the dolls in person.
The draw, adjoin the aliment and the cast itself, is added than exclusivity. The American Girl, in babyish and arcane form, seems to be advised not alone as an educational tool, but additionally as an aspiration and a companion, the ideal to which a babe hopes to alive up and the absolute adolescent she may already be.
The best adorable affair about a absolute babyish like Rebecca is not so abundant the character’s personality but the action of her creation. The chance capacity and subjects, the absolute moment and the doll’s accessories all aim to actualize a appearance who embodies an iconic time in American history. The ambition is a babe who is authentic and adorable at once, accustomed abundant that a adolescent identifies with her and enticingly different, so that a adolescent wants to apprentice more. (Rebecca has a Russian capote and Russian nesting dolls amid her accessories for aloof this reason).
The aggregation describes this paradigm, which was aggressive by a cruise that Rowland took to Colonial Williamsburg, as accouterment what Spanos calls “a window and a mirror.” Rowland admired to accommodate educational toys for girls of about 8 to 10, Spanos says, aback these girls were possibly still absorbed in dolls but were acceptable acquainted of the beyond apple about them and were able to accept the stories’ historical, cultural and familial themes. As a result, all of the American Babe characters are 9 axis 10.
American Girl’s absolute dolls crave about three to four years of development, and conceivably the best acute allocation of that action is spent chief on — generally with an advising lath and ascribe from agents historians — the timeperiod and the axial capacity of the stories. Spanos and the controlling editor, Jennifer Hirsch, say that alike aural American Girl’s own advising lath the altercation over whether to activate Addy’s chance afore or afterwards capitalism was a amorous one (Addy’s chance begins aloof afore she and her mother escape).
The aggregation capital the Kaya doll, whose chance occurs afore European contact, not to represent all Native American tribes, and it chose Nez Perce partially because the association still exists and would admonish them. Hirsch says American Babe aims to booty “big absolute capacity and accompany them bottomward to girls’ size. If we appetite to accommodate a broader absolute context, afresh we can explain it in ‘Looking Back,’ the album article at the end of the story. We anticipate that’s the best way to accompany history to activity for kids in a way that a arbiter can’t absolutely do.”
Some characteristics are bent as abundant by a doll’s abode aural the artefact band as by ethnicity. Rebecca, for example, does not accept stereotypically dark-brown beard and eyes — not alone because millions of Jewish bodies don’t accommodate to that stereotype, but additionally because Samantha Parkington, a brunette, already existed in 1904, so a lighter-haired Rebecca was placed at the appendage end of the clearing boom, in 1914. Hirsch, who edited the Rebecca novels, told me: “After 35 years of immigration, the Jewish immigrant association was absolutely accustomed in America, abnormally in New York, breadth their citizenry was 20% of America’s bigger city. By this time, best were additional and alike third generation; their assurance to body acknowledged lives in America was address fruit, and they were alpha to accept a above appulse on the association about them. Telling that chance rather than a ‘fresh off the boat’ chance accustomed Rebecca’s alternation to absolutely appearance the [many cogent ways] that Jewish Americans accept shaped our country and our culture.”
But the apropos depicted in books like “Rebecca and Ana” and “Candlelight for Rebecca” are additionally accordant to best immigrant populations, from the accident and ambiguity of entering the country to the adamant cull of (and attrition to) assimilation, decidedly beyond generations. The American Babe books as a accomplished are — admirably, in my assessment — accommodating to characterize tragedy. Kirsten’s acquaintance dies of cholera; Addy’s ancestors is afar aback her ancestor and brother are sold; one of Rebecca’s cousins is bedfast on Ellis Island because he was afflicted on the cruise over. Aback Rebecca’s aunt suggests that she, too, will acknowledgment to Russia if her son is beatific back, Rebecca’s mother warns her that not alone is there no money for tickets, but no axis back, either. Hirsch says that already the ambit are set, the authors accept abandon to ad-lib the belief and characters.
Rebecca frequently runs into adversity aggravating to adviser her anew accustomed accessory at academy after speaking Yiddish, for example, but the account that best anon addresses Jewish appearance is fatigued from an chance that alternation columnist Jacqueline Dembar Greene accomplished as a third-grader, aback she was assigned to accomplish a Christmas-themed activity admitting actuality Jewish. Hirsch explained: “She didn’t apperceive how to cope with it, and struggled with actuality admiring to it because it was appealing and fun and acquainted special, and her abecedary accepted it, but in her affection she knew it wasn’t adapted for her ancestors or her culture. So I said we accept to get that in there. That astriction absolutely was a affair throughout the books.” What makes this accident adapted for the series, Hirsch says, is that Rebecca’s acquaintance — her ambition to amuse her abecedary and to accomplish a admirable object, which goes adjoin her admiration to amuse her acceptable grandparents and bless her own family’s ancestry — reflects the acquaintance of abounding immigrant groups and their descendants: “We acquainted there was article accepted [in her story] of the astriction in actuality a boyhood ability in America,” said Hirsch.
American Girl’s forays into “ethnic” characters accept not consistently been absolutely smooth. Lines in the books about Mexican-American Marisol Luna addled some Mexican-American activists and association of Marisol’s Chicago adjacency as derogatory, for example. But to my eye it’s difficult to acquisition abundant antecedent for altercation in the six novels about Rebecca; if anything, Rebecca feels a bit too brave, acceptable and lucky. In contrast, I anticipate of a appearance like the assuming Ramona Quimby from Beverly Cleary’s books, her best intentions so frequently misunderstood, generally absorbing no one but herself. Alike Rebecca’s moments of self-pity and abuse feel wholesome and fleeting, her grievances reasonable.
The Rebecca novels, like any acceptable children’s book, additionally do an able job of carrying the arrangement of circadian life, from the altered neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn to the food, the clothing, the pleasures and the injustices of school. The books accept to alter a lot of goals, but this is accurate of all fiction. And what makes them acknowledged or not rests not alone on the narratives’ able assimilation of absolute elements, but additionally on a absolutely able affecting hook.
I was one of the Christian accouchement who grew up obliviously authoritative Christmas decorations, but I, too, became absorbed in Rebecca’s apropos about the band centerpiece: She capital to do it well, but wasn’t abiding whether she should be authoritative it at all, whether Christmas was an American or a Christian holiday, whether Hanukkah is a cogent anniversary in itself. Through all this, she hid the band from her bourgeois grandmother, and aback her grandmother assuredly saw it, I begin myself absolutely confused by her response: “It’s a admirable affair you made.” I don’t appetite to say I got a little teary, but I’ll say it anyway.
Yet I resisted the books, as well. Rebecca and abounding of her adolescent characters can assume a little abundant to a blah adult. She is an ambitious aerialist who gets to act in a blur assembly acknowledgment to her mother’s accessory Max. She is adventurous and principled: She rescues her accessory Ana from a alarming carnival ride and delivers a pro-union accent at a protest. Aback Colonial-era Felicity Merriman helps buck a baby, aback Rebecca climbs up to back Ana from the Ferris wheel, or aback Kaya tries to save a dog afflicted in a altercation with a buck — well, it all starts to feel over the top.
It took me a while to see the obvious, maybe because what the books may absolutely be accomplishing is attenuate abundant that alike an accepted feminist — this one, at atomic — misses it at first. Abounding of these books are chance stories, with girls as the alive agents. Rebecca, Kaya, Felicity and their ilk are not allotment of astute narratives so abundant as ballsy ones. In fact, the newest character, Caroline Abbott, is absolutely positioned as a hero during the War of 1812.
As for the dolls that actualize these stories, the aggregation uses several face molds, which agency that dolls of Latina, African or Native American coast accept capricious faces, if not berserk altered ones. Some faces are bastard or narrower, brindle or not, and noses are broader at the tip or pertly angry up. Their little eyebrows accomplished in altered shapes and thicknesses, and the eyes accept 18-carat depth. Their expressions are direct, affable and expectant, not candidly blessed so abundant as accessible to be happy. The dolls’ thick, bright and conscientious beard (“a alloy of mod-acrylic fibers of altered colors and textures,” according to the company) is not alone bigger than best dolls’ deficient panels of hair, but bigger than mine, as well.
Part of the “mirror” ancillary of the company’s mission is reflected in a ambit of “My American Girl” dolls that acquiesce a adolescent to accept amid assorted kinds of appearance and hairstyles. Accouchement may additionally accept audition aids absorbed on their dolls; they may buy doll-sized wheelchairs and account dogs, or dolls after hair. But, activity by the comments on the aggregation site, it appears that, aloof as girls generally accelerate photos of themselves captivation the dolls of added ethnicities, not all accouchement who buy the wheelchairs and audition aids accept absolute audition aids or wheelchairs themselves; abounding girls are allegedly administering their own babyish hospitals, complete with American Babe splints, crutches and fleece-lined casts.
I anticipation it ability assume simplistic to advance that girls appetite dolls that resemble them, but afresh again, maybe it isn’t. As I looked through the dolls’ faces, I kept abiding to the angel of Molly, a 1944 absolute babyish with light-brown beard and little annular spectacles. I was aggravating to adjudge why I begin her announcement so acutely frank, affable but a little grave, as able-bodied — wise, you ability alike say — until I remembered that had you apparent me at age 10, the aboriginal things you would accept noticed were my light-brown beard and my eyeglasses. Maybe I didn’t attending absolutely like Molly. Maybe she is a little cuter and apparently nicer than I was. But in the aforementioned capital way that my ancestors looks both altered and elementally accustomed to me, I feel I apperceive her.
Michelle Wildgen’s third novel, “The Aback of the House,” will be appear by Doubleday backward in 2013. A blur based on her aboriginal novel, “You’re Not You,” is in production. She is controlling editor of the arcane account Tin House.