Book Club

American Girls.

By: Jen Shoop

I am listening to the most delightful podcast, American Girls, after Bradley Agather of Luella and June introduced it to me in an Instastory a few weeks back. (Thank you, Bradley!) The podcast, narrated by two inquisitive, sardonic, and highly-educated 32-year-old historians, analyzes the American Girl book series, exploring (and problematizing) many of its assumptions about race, gender, and class as it works to understand the American Girl doll as a cultural production of its time.

It is a thing of beauty for those of us raised with the first generation of American Girl dolls, back when they were manufactured by The Pleasant Company (i.e., pre-Mattel years), and for several reasons:

First, there is a pleasant degree of insidership implicit in the podcast in the sense that the series makes reference to personas that only those of us raised in the 80s who owned first-generation AG dolls will immediately grasp. “She is such a Molly,” for example — and I know exactly what that cuneiform is meant to conjure. Those who did not own or appreciate the dolls will rightfully cast sidelong glances at the amount of space these books and dolls are being afforded. “How can you listen to so many hour-long podcasts on dolls from your youth?!” you might sanely ask. Well — nostalgia and, my second point, which is:

The podcast is equal parts stirring scholarship, snark, and common sense. The podcasters nail the perfect balance of sarcasm and intellectual inquisitiveness. At the end of the day, this is a “woke” re-reading of texts that many of us inhaled as young girls and absorbed in ways that shaped our understanding of families, relationships, independence, and responsibility. Their analysis has made me both laugh out loud while walking Tilly and think, hard, about how I unpacked and interpreted many of the cultural norms and themes the books present as a child.

(Note: I would not want to be Valerie Tripp, the author of the original book series. She is putty in their capable, clever hands.)

There is a particularly interesting treatment of the concept of “invisible labor” at the hands of women and enslaved people of color in the books focused on Felicity Merriman, a character from pre-American Revolution era Virginia, that left me thinking critically for some time.

And the exchanges are delightful and dry. In the second podcast on Felicity, Allison says: “One thing that drove us to make this podcast was thinking about how friends are represented in books.” (A gorgeous initiative.)

Mary: “We’re going to get into that. It’s a tough move. If you pull what this chick does in this book to me at any age…we would be done.”

Allison: “There are a lot of themes about loyalty in Felicity that are really interesting because, again, everything is given equal weight in this book — like, will her father be a part of the growing revolution against the king? Will Felicity gossip about her friend? Both things appear equally terrifying in this book.”

Mary: “And will she look good in a brunette wig?”

Allison: “The answer is no.”

Mary: “The answer is a hard no. And I’m happy that they clarified that for us.”

This brand of dry humor paired with thoughtful investigation and historical chops is just my cup of tea and I can’t recommend it enough for those of us raised on AG dolls.

Next: someone please publish a podcast undertaking the same intellectual work on The Babysitter’s Club, that other bastion of my childhood literary canon, from whose chapters I learned much about the various permutations of the “family” (we see adoptions and divorces and sibling relationships of all kinds across those pages) when my own was so straight-forward.

That is all for today. Just an unsolicited plug for something deserving of praise and a request for more.

What’s shaking with you?

Post Scripts.

+Just ordered this narrow (and collapsible!) laundry basket for micro’s petite room. More finds for his nursery here. And an epic nursery here.

+Some musings on academese.

+In my hunt for a basket for his room, I re-discovered this floral laundry set from Target: love this laundry basket and this ironing board cover. It’s the little things, people!

+Speaking of laundry, I’ve now converted most of my household products over to the brand Puracy and am really impressed with the quality and the scents (I am picky on this front). I now use this detergent and one surprising benefit is that it is highly concentrated and one small bottle yields like 96 loads.

+Which books are in your personal canon?

+Micro is rapidly outgrowing his Baby Bjorn Mini, which has been one of my absolute favorite baby products this time around. So easy to get into and out of, and I love that you can unclip the entire front so you can deposit baby right into crib or stroller without too much of a disturbance. What should I use next? Hitha said she is testing the Colugo one as her baby grows. Any other endorsements?

+We recently ran out of hand lotion in our master bath and I re-upped with this delightfully-scented limited edition Molton Brown. But I thought you should know that Barney’s Warehouse currently has a bunch of MB’s wonderful shower gels on sale. Would be a great stocking stuffer / smaller-end gift for a man in your life. Or for yourself. I love that these scents run more “gender-neutral” / less floral and fruity. I have been testing Necessaire’s highly-and-widely hyped Body Wash and — it’s fine. But it’s no MB, which lathers up beautifully and is so elegantly scented.

+Thinking I will order this chic but fanciful shower curtain for micro’s bathroom. It will be a nice complement to the blues in the bedroom. Also like this similar style.

+The art of tsundoku. On this subject: after a disturbingly long hiatus from reading (there was…a lot going on in my life), I finally picked up a new book: Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming. Several of you had recommended this book and one of you had written a comment along the lines of: “Jen. You must read this book.” The message was pecked out with the kind of urgency I reserve for life-changing books and so I had it mentally tagged as something juicy for whenever I was ready to take on a bit more intellectual work than the latest thriller. Man am I glad I did. Only a bit of the way in and it is rich and important and beautifully written so far.

+This velvet dress is everything. Thanks to Born on Fifth to pointing me in its direction. Pair with these inexpensive black suede sandals for a true high-meets-low mix.

+Have been wearing this headband a lot lately.

+Someone gave Hill a bunch of these Rubbabu cars, trains, and planes and they are adorable! So cute I might line them up on a special ledge in his room!

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20 thoughts on “American Girls.

  1. OMG — I cannot wait to listen to American Girls! I was a fellow Samantha owner (I’m sorry to say that while I initially picked her because she bore the closest resemblance to me, I did not hate that she was the ‘posh’ one! Eeeek) Thank you for the recommendation!

    Love that Hygge & West shower curtain. I just replaced an old Crate & Barrel one with a cheerful, blue & white Marimekko wave-print one and I love it! xx

    1. You MUST listen, MK! I feel like you’ll get the biggest kick out of it, especially its examination of pop culture. So interesting and hilarious and weird.


  2. Love the AG podcast! It’s such an integral part of my childhood. Love how deep the hosts go into explaining the critical history of the American doll characters.

    1. So good — and yes, the dolls played such a critical cultural role in my childhood! Worth affording them space. xx

  3. I was utterly devoted to my AG dolls for years and years. They came everywhere with me (church, family vacations, the grocery store) and were the stars of endless elaborate, imaginative plots. I was *obsessed.* So, obviously I’m obsessed with this podcast. I binged it all! I love that while they smartly jab at the books and the dolls, they also take it just as seriously as 9 year old me did. I’m giggling just thinking about a few of the snappy zingers they slung out…..gah what a find haha xx

    1. YES. They are just so delicious. I find the seeming omnivorousness of the hosts heart-warming — they are just as at home discussing The Bachelor and Gigi Hadid as they are the exact dates of the Yorkville tea party and complicated concepts like “invisible labor.”


  4. I read this whole post thinking to myself “I’d bet anything that Jen had Samantha.” Lo and behold the comments reveal it to be the case! No shade, fellow Samantha (and later Addie) here. Definitely going to check out this podcast, thanks for the rec!

    1. HAHA! So funny — I know. One of my secret inside “barbs” with my best friend is when I call her a Molly in passing. She insists she is a Samantha, but she is definitely a Molly. xxx

  5. Omggg American Girl dolls. I had Kirsten, probably because she looked the most like me (blonde) and her outdoor lifestyle appealed to me. Those books tackled some pretty heavy themes for little kids- her BFF dies of cholera on like, page 5 of the first book!!

    1. I know, there is some seriously heavy stuff in those books! You might enjoy giving the Kirsten set of podcasts a listen 🙂

  6. Oh man, I actually had alllll the dolls and their books because I played with dolls for far, far longer than was cool. Maybe through fifth grade? Eep. But Felicity was my GIRL–so much so that my mob cap and I even went on the Felicity tour in Colonial Williamsburg. And I owe bits of (hopefully accurate) historical knowledge to the AG books, ie that benne wafers were brought over to Charleston by slaves and later sold by freemen, or that separatist colonists served hot chocolate instead of tea.
    Anyways, I read about this podcast in the NYT; now I’ve really got to check it out!

    1. Yes! The podcasters point out a number of factual/historical inaccuracies and curiosities but I agree that for the most part, these books were excellent at grounding girls in American history. They actually poke fun at this, but I always remember Felicity making apple butter with her mother in the books and that, in addition to Little House on the Prairie, gave me a very distinct vision of home economics as a girl.

      Anyway, you need to get on this podcast! You’ll love it.


  7. American Girls really are such a touchstone for our generation. I would spend hours pouring over the catalog. My first doll was Samantha, for some reason I identified with her early 1900s vibe.

    Homegoing is one of the best books I read this year. I feel like it gives important insight into the lesser discussed effects and legacy of colonialism and the slave trade.

    1. Ooh, Jen – this is making me even more excited to get further into “Homegoing.” I’m already really, really taken by it.

      Fellow Samantha owner!

  8. There is a podcast about the Babysitter’s Club titled “The Babysitter’s Club Club.” It takes a much different tack, though – it’s created by two 30-something men who have had almost no prior exposure to the books. They read each book and dedicate an entire episode to each one. It certainly leans closer to satire than thoughtful historical commentary, but I really enjoyed it and found it nostalgic!

    1. Haha! This sounds hilarious! Might give it a try if I’m longing for something from my youth once I finish this series. Thanks for the heads up 🙂


    2. I was going to let you know the same thing about The Babysitters Club Club! I adore this podcast- highly entertaining.

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