For nearly twenty-five years, my well-worn copies of the original American Girl books sat untouched on bookshelves at my parents’ house. The American Girl books, the first of which was published in 1986, were formative for me as a kid. So many representations of young femininity to which I was exposed in school, in church, or through popular culture seemed either too saintly or too shallow and ditzy for me to relate to them.
A Young Girl Searching for Good Examples
The Virgin Mary was, well, the Virgin Mary (tough for the average seven-year-old to identify with) and I had not been introduced to many other female saints. Meanwhile, before tougher gals like Mulan and Tiana arrived on the scene, the Disney princesses that we elder millennials saw ran from flimsily demure (the aptly-named “Sleeping Beauty,” not exactly a tower of strength) to recklessly boy-crazy (looking at you, Ariel).
There were exceptions, of course – like the Baby Sitters Club series with its array of relatable girls’ personalities and problems – but few with the kind of gravitas that Little Women and Anne of Green Gables would offer once I hit age 10 or 11. Because of this, the American Girl books became an important transitional era in this bookworm’s childhood.
As It Turns Out, The American Girl Books Aren’t Just For Girls
Sometimes, when the beloved old books caught my eye on my parents’ shelves, I imagined reading them again one day, with my future daughter.
But last year, I gave birth to my third boy, and I may never have a girl. So, I began reading the books to my baby’s seven- and five-year-old brothers, hoping that they might take to them better than they had to other “girl books” (many of which are, as my five-year-old has pointed out, rather short on fighting).
It turns out that my all-too-typical, sports-and-fighting-obsessed boys are riveted by these “girl stories.” This delights me, and not just because I love the stories, too.
As I read through the books again, I see that they are not only good in themselves, but also bulwarks against both an undue focus on the myopic lens of the present to look at the past and an undue focus on the monolithic lens of identity to look at each person (past and present).
Lessons from the Past, for the Present
Too often, we assume that girls and women were, long before our own existence, so primitive or so oppressed that their lives contain no active lessons for our own. To the limited extent that we engage history at all, it becomes a blur of dates and events that can be hard to relate to emotionally, even if we understand them intellectually. But it is important for kids to understand that the colonial boycott on tea or the underground railroad are not just definitions to memorize, but rather the backdrops against which children just like them had their own wants, needs, and agendas.
Kirsten, a Swedish immigrant, misses the rag doll that her family had to leave in town for many months, even as she shares her family’s broader concerns about winterizing the farm and surviving the season.
Addy, an escapee from ante-bellum slavery, alights in my family’s own Philadelphia and experiences the trials and joys of learning to read alongside rank injustices, including Northern racism and the continued enslavement of family members remaining in the South.
Identifying with the peaks and valleys in these heroines’ personal stories and their character development as they grow up teaches young readers that, while historical context changes, the human condition (in God’s image, and also fallen) is eternal.
For my sons, the books are also a lesson in the feminist as well as the Catholic understanding that girls have just as much interiority – that is, just as much to offer, and just as much room to grow – as boys do.
Lessons on Virtue That Happen to be from Female Characters
Each American Girl story takes girlhood and femininity for granted. Each story centers the thoughts, feelings, and virtues of girls that are so busy living full lives that they never pause to consider their relationship to their femininity, nor to harp on it. Their girlhood just is; it is not experienced as either a presumptive limitation or a presumptive strength – because they, just like my sons, are individuals first.
Each girl has her own virtues and flaws, and is learning to demonstrate strength, regard for others, and responsibility of exactly the kind that my husband and I are trying to instill in our boys. We want them to understand that those virtues – while they may often be manifested differently by women than by men – are not gendered.
I consider it unfortunate that American Girl started making “Truly Me” dolls and publishing the accompanying books in more recent years. Of course, the point is for each child to identify with a girl that shares her own era, not to mention her hair color, skin tone, style, and so forth. But the whole point of the original American Girls was that a shared identity as an American girl (not to mention as a human being) was constitutive of all individual identities.
My sons are not even American girls, since they are boys. They are certainly not Swedish immigrants or Victorian heiresses. Yet, as they listen to these stories (as to all others), they assume empathy and identification, not the absence thereof. I pray that continues, and that they will be stronger Catholic men for it.
We already assume that worthwhile stories about boys belong to everyone. As I read the American Girl books to my sons, I hope they are learning that worthwhile stories about girls are their stories, too.