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American Girls Grow Up

I still remember the first time I ever cracked open the glossy pages of my first American Girl Doll catalog. I was nine and friend of my mother’s brought me the catalog because there was a doll in it with *my* name and who wore braided pigtails just like I did. I was enthralled by the pages of realistic looking dolls with their delicate tea sets and miniscule school supplies. Each doll was from a different time period and Molly McIntyre, the 1944 girl, was by far the coolest. She would have been my favorite even if we hadn’t shared a name. I begged for a Molly doll and would covertly slip the catalog between the pages of my mother’s Good Housekeeping magazines, just like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. My parents weren’t in the position to buy me a $100 doll, but they did make sure that I had the full set of Molly McIntyre books, plus Kristin, Samantha, and Felicity’s books as well. And when my childhood library held a series of American Girl Doll summer programs, I was first on the list even though I didn’t have a doll of my own to bring with me.

Many girls (and a lot of boys too!) grew up addicted to the dolls and their catalog and still get a far-away, glazed look in their eyes when you ask them which doll they had. My friend and fellow children’s librarian, Ruth, owned two dolls, but Samantha was her favorite. So when we heard that March was the month of Samantha at the American Girl Doll Place in New York, we knew we needed to go.

It wasn’t as crowded as it we expected it to be, but it was still overwhelming. The first of the three floors is dedicated to dolls that can be customized to look like their owners. The third floor is filled with “experiences” for children to have with their dolls including a doll salon where dolls can have their hair braided and a restaurant where dolls can dine on crudité and cinnamon rolls the size of nickels. We spent the majority of our time on the second floor, though, because that’s where Samantha lives. But here’s the thing about growing up and nostalgia – everything changes and the changes are never as good as the originals.

Samantha’s dress is now princess pink instead of a more historically accurate maroon and gray. She is no longer a member of the Historical Collection and instead is the reigning queen of the BeForever line. The navy winter cloak that Ruth lovingly made her Samantha wear on cold days has been replaced by a frilly white coat trimmed in animal print. And, worst of all in my mind, Molly McIntyre has been “retired.” She’s gone from the shelves and in her place is a contemporary girl named Grace who spends much of her first book in a Parisian bakery!  To say that Ruth and I were disillusioned would be an understatement. At one point my husband picked up a pink, frilly headband meant for a little girl. After gasping at the $34 price tag he asked looked at Ruth and me and asked “Why?”

I’m not sure if he was asking us why it was so expensive or why it was so popular. I can’t answer the price question, but I do know that despite Samantha’s makeover and Molly’s retirement, I still think that American Girl Dolls are an important part of many children’s childhoods. What other toy infuses historically accurate stories of the Great Depression, the War of 1812, or the escape from slavery to the free North with characters who solve their own problems and do not, as a rule, fall in love with the first boy they meet? How many other book series encourage hard work and responsibility over being popular? And who is a better listener for a new reader to practice her skills on than the doll who is depicted within the books pages?

Today’s American Girl Dolls may not be Ruth’s or my American Girl Dolls, but they’re the American Girl Dolls for thousands of other children. All of their books, even Molly’s, are available at UDPL, whether you’re reading their stories for the first time or, like me, you want to recapture and remember a part of your own childhood!

American Girl

L-R: American Girl Doll Place in NYC, comparisons of the 1990 & 2015 Samantha, the 1990 Molly, the 2015 Grace, and my husband with a $34 headband set