#VastEarlyAmerica(n) Girl Doll Books: Reflections of a Father and Historian

When Sara first pitched the idea of The Junto hosting a roundtable dedicated to children’s and young adult fiction focused on early America, I was excited. But unlike others, I was excited not because Johnny Tremain was my favorite childhood read or because my own trajectory toward becoming a historian could be traced to the Dear America series or the young adult fiction of Ann Rinaldi. While I vaguely remember reading Johnny Tremain in elementary school, along with other books of early American historical fiction during my childhood and teenage years, my own interest in history was a later development in life. My excitement about this proposed roundtable came rather because I’m a father of three young children who love to read and be read to, and because I’m adamant about ensuring that they’re raised as historically-aware and -literate individuals.

Since the birth of my daughter five years ago, I’ve read dozens of children’s books set in early America or that otherwise introduce historical characters and events to young readers. My partner and I have used them to teach our daughter (age 5) and her two younger brothers (4 years and 14 months old, respectively) about important women and men from the past and as jumping off points to discuss the triumphs and tragedies of history.

When our daughter, then four, asked for an American Girl Doll from her grandparents for Christmas a couple of years ago, I was excited primarily because I knew each of the company’s historical dolls came with an accompanying book, and had heard from several colleagues and friends who traced their own interest in history to the dolls and books (a point confirmed on twitter when I announced my plans for this post):

In consultation with her mother, our daughter picked Josefina as her doll. My partner—the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants—was pleased that the doll was Latina. For my part, I was pleased that the doll’s story was set in the world of #VastEarlyAmerica. As the accompanying books describe, Josefina Montoya is a young girl living on a rancho just outside Santa Fe shortly after the Mexican War for Independence.

The books do a wonderful job of describing the time and place in which the fictional Josefina lived, touching on everything from the household economy (following the death of their mother, Josefina and her sisters assume a more active role while struggling to replace her contributions) and trade (Josefina’s Abuelito actively trades as part of a caravan along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro and Anglo-Americans arrive via the recently-pioneered Santa Fe trail) to the environment (New Mexico’s desert climate is described in detail and plays a central role in various plot points) and religion (Catholicism, including both private devotions and public celebrations, is featured throughout, as is mention of Spanish missions and indigenous belief systems). Even slavery and servitude are present (a Navajo woman named Teresita, captured and sold into slavery as a young girl, is identified as a “servant” of the Montoya family).[1]

In short, the book immerses young readers in the landscape and cultures of a particular moment in history. Josefina’s personality, interests, and familial relationships advance the storyline, but so do broader historical events and processes, and in the marriage of the two, the history of what is now the U.S. southwest comes alive. According to the American Girl Wiki, Josefina is one of three featured American Girl dolls whose stories “are set in a time and place that is not part of [the United States of] America yet” (the other two are Felicity, whose story starts on the eve of the American Revolution in Williamsburg, Virginia and Kaya’aton’my, a Nimíipuu girl living in modern-day Oregon, Washington, and Idaho during the mid-eighteenth century). Josefina (and Kaya), then, introduces young readers to #VastEarlyAmerica by decentering early American history from the Atlantic seaboard and privileging the lives and actions of non-white people and demonstrating how they shaped the regional cultures of the modern-day United States.

The value of that extends far beyond young readers, I think. Indeed, that decentering is a central aim of my U.S. survey courses, and I wonder if the American Girl books could somehow be incorporated into that (or other) classes. They could certainly be usefully incorporated into the curriculum of middle and high school history classes. And I’ve even toyed with the idea of creating (or crowdsourcing) a bibliography of relevant scholarly books and articles for each of the historical characters’ books/series, to be used both by readers interested in learning more about a period or place or event or theme and by educators interested in teaching the books.

For now, though, my primary interest remains introducing history and its complexity and messiness to my children. As we read through the books together, my daughter (and my oldest son, who listened along to each—American Girl doll books aren’t just for girls, folks) asked a lot of questions about the story and its setting, ranging from the mundane (Is where Josefina lives close to where we live?) to the more probing (What does “servant” mean? Why did people capture and sell children?). It’s sometimes tough to tell just how clearly my answers were understood by the four and five-year-old, but I have a feeling this won’t be the last time we (they) read these books and that the import and meaning of various plot points will be realized over time. For the time being, I’m quite pleased to have helped introduce them to some peoples and places in early America they might not otherwise encounter, and to see them learning to think historically.

___________________

[1] Each of the American Girl Doll books is vetted by an advisory board of historians and scholars to assist with historical accuracy (the advisory board for Josefina’s stories can be found here). In addition, the company recently advertised a job looking for a researcher “responsible for researching to ensure accuracy and authenticity of American Girl characters.” Such efforts should be applauded by the professional history community.

[2] A well-intentioned relative recently gifted my daughter a soccer uniform to fit her Josefina doll. After graciously accepting the gift, my daughter later quietly confided in me that she was pretty sure soccer didn’t exist when Josefina lived and only reluctantly changed her doll into the uniform after I assured her that her doll could be both a historically-accurate character and one who enjoys the same 21st century activities as her.

7 comments on “#VastEarlyAmerica(n) Girl Doll Books: Reflections of a Father and Historian

  1. Historiann says:

    Thanks for this post. Josephina was my daughter’s first AGD too, and always her favorite. We are not Latin@, but I’m pretty sure living in a town that’s 35% Latin@ and living in the same region as Josephina inspired her choice. Even at age 6 or 7, she was interested in #VastEarlyAmerica!

    I too was impressed by the scholarship that goes into each of the book series. There’s an additional chapter at the end of each of the books that explains the broader historical and material culture settings that inform and shape the story.

    Your daughter’s bristling at the soccer uniform gets at something else the AGDs and books inspire in kids–the interest in material culture. AGDs get a lot of critical attention from feminist/lefty academics that (rightly!) criticize the high price of participation–dolls that cost $115+!!!, and then all of the very expensive special clothing, furniture, etc. AGD is in it to make money, not to inspire an interest in American material culture, but that may be a happy accident of the enterprise. I know more than one M.A. student who has come through my university who cites AGDs and books as their entree into American history, and in our program, material culture and public history too.

    • I definitely credit my early interest in/awareness of changing material culture with comparing the tables and chairs for each doll in the Pleasant Company catalog.

      • Historiann says:

        You are an original Fan Girl, Megan–only my 30-something former students remember the Pleasant Company days before it sold out to big business!

      • Christopher says:

        Thanks, Historiann and Megan, for your comments.

        Material culture isn’t something I’d given much conscious thought to while writing this post, but I wish I would have now. My daughter is obsessed with the various outfits and accessories available. Thanks for promoting me to think a bit more about this.

        And in my initial draft, I included a paragraph lamenting to cost of the dolls, but excised it both for brevity and to keep the focus on the books (which, thankfully, are more reasonably priced).

        Also, I’ll go ahead and put in a plug for the latest American Girl book series, Melody, whose story ranges beyond the confines of early America (she lives in Civil Rights-era Detroit). My colleague at BYU, Rebecca de Schweinitz, served on the advisory board and the books do an excellent job of introducing readers to the difficult issues of housing discrimination, segregation, and racial violence (the bombing of the 16th St Baptist Church serves as a central plot point).

        • Historiann says:

          Rebecca is terrific–I didn’t know she had consulted on Melody, but that’s great to know! I had seen this doll introduced recently – seems like the company is ditching the older-period dolls in favor of very recent historical eras (such as Melody in Civil Rights-era Detroit, or Julie in 1970s San Francisco.) I think the New Orleans mixed-race creole girls were introduced and gone within a few years, which is too bad.

  2. Rachel says:

    I’m another US historian who grew up loving American Girl dolls and especially their stories. (And, I remember the Pleasant Company! RIP.) My first doll was Kirsten, and, perhaps not coincidentally, I ended up studying the 19th century.

    It’s great to know that professional historians consult on the books, and I’m now totally curious about Melody. Thanks for the fun post!

  3. Erica McCarthy says:

    Absolutely, they did. The original five–Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly–turned on my passion for history in general (along with my father, who I credit for sparking it in the first place). Though I’m a revolutionary historian, Addy was always my favorite, followed by Kirsten, and then Felicity, from the standpoint of a 10 year old girl who liked to read and liked the stories. 🙂

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