American Girl Books and Generations

I have been meaning to write this post for some time, but perhaps I am a little embarrassed about the topic. My 8 year-old daughter is into the American Girl Doll Books and we often read them to her during the day or as bed-time books.  At first I rejected the whole American Girl Doll thing as terribly mainstream. Since our kids go to a Waldorf School, we are fairly counter-culture in how we go about parenting. Just look at the things:


They reminded me too much of the whole “Just Like Me” dolls and the hyper-narcissism that they imply. Our daughter did manage to get two American Girl Dolls (as gifts) but I really started to balk when the books started showing up in the house (from the library).

But then I took the time to actually read one of them to my daughter and I realized they were fairly interesting. Each book is based on a specific girl from a period in history (I think there are several based on current times as well).  All the girls in the stories are between the ages of 10 and 12 (I think) and are based in different eras and generations:

Julie, 1970’s (Generation X, born 1961-1981)

Molly, 1940’s (Silent Generation, born 1925-1942)

Kit, 1930’s (GI Generation, born 1901-1924)

When my wife and I were reading through the “Julie” stories we were struck by how well the reflected the times we grew up in. Of course it did not hurt that Julie lived in in the San Francisco Bay Area (where my wife grew up) and she was in exactly the same age group. But the portrayal of the times, with divorced parents and rebellious older siblings was a good picture of those times. Likewise the world of Kit, growing up in the Depression Era gave a very clear (and different) picture of what those times were about. The books have a somewhat moralistic tone (the kids are mostly do-gooders) but the times they live in are fair representations of history.

Reading the stories about the 1930’s were a particularly interesting lesson. One of the important concepts of generations is that we often repeat generational cycles because we don’t have a living history of those cycles. But books that give a 10-year-olds view of the Great Depression (a time similar to our current part of the cycle) are a great window into how to view that era and the people living in it. Hearing the compromises, fears and triumphs of kids living in the Depression (who would later go on to be the WWII heroes) is a unique perspective. Giving kids a perspective on what other children their age, in different times, have dealt with is a gentle introduction to how generational cycles work. My daughter did roll her eyes when she heard me say something about generations after reading one of the books. The kids hear enough about that stuff with Dad around…

It is also interesting to note that although the GIs, Silents and Generation X are represented in the series, there are no stories about the youth of the Boomers (born 1943-1960). Did Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best cover that period already or was their childhood just so boring that no one would be interested?

18 thoughts on “American Girl Books and Generations”

  1. Interesting that there are no boomer dolls. Perhaps because most active parents right now are Gen X – and maybe their focus groups told them how much we all just love hearing about the boomers?

  2. Wow. That was very interesting. We have lots of American girl dolls. I haven’t bought any of them. They were a gift from older sister. My daughter is her namesake. THis is pretty fascinating. I completely missed Julie. WOW!!!! Very insightful. I’ve really enjoyed the movies. I hope Julie gets a movie. Thanks for this.

  3. i myself have very little experience with the american girl dolls. however, many girls in my age group (millenials) seem to enjoy them a lot. i would agree that it is a good way for young girls to learn history, but i dont think they really understand that that is what they are doing. i had an interesting thing happen to me the other day… i had a little get together with a friend’s family which involved watching the newest Kit movie. the funny thing was that there were at least 3 different generations watching it (all girls of course) but we all enjoyed it, even though it seemed to be geered towards younger children. perhaps history mixed with morality is appealing to all ages. and as for the lack of boomer’s dolls…. maybe it is because the boomers are the ones creating the dolls and they dont feel like they should go down as history just yet… and they create genx dolls because they consider them more “modern”? who knows. i find that quite strange actually.

    1. @krista – The Gen X doll is a bit of a puzzle for me as well. My kids pointed out that the author of those books (Megan McDonald) also wrote the “Judy Moody” books and is a Late Boomer (born in 1959). The author description in the book said she grew up in the Bay Area in the 1970’s, but her birthdate makes her a little old for that (perhaps she had younger siblings that were Julie’s age). But one possibility as to why they include the Gen X’er Julie is that they are trying to sell to Gen X Moms who have Millennial kids. Certainly worked in our case, although it was the 1930’s based stories that really got us interested…

  4. As a young child, I absolutely loved the American Girl Dolls. I was too young to ever learn anything
    about the background of the dolls, but then again, why should a six-year-old have to relate her
    dolls to historical characters. I think the idea of the dolls is fine, I know when I was older I read
    a couple of the books, but I never put the two ideas together. Education and play were two separate
    things for me. Looking back on it now, however, the whole learning history from another girl’s story
    sounds much better than reading a textbook. I just think that the age group that the American Girl
    Dolls and books are made for is too young to understand the academic aspects of the books.

    1. @Risha – I agree that much of the history lesson is lost on young children, but there could be insights into the “feel” of a different time through the stories. The stories about the Great Depression seemed to make an impression on our daughter (8 years old) although that may have just been because they were good stories. I will be curious to see if she remembers them later on when she is studying history in school…

  5. I have two American Girl Dolls (yes I’m 18 and still remember the good ol’ days with them fondly). In response to the history lessons taught in the books, I think they definitely stick with you. I read all of the books when I was young and absolutely loved them. When learning about the abolition of slavery in school, my mind sheepishly related it back to Addy’s story about escaping to freedom. Then, when learning about the depression, (my other american girl doll, Kit), I remembered the hardshipsand the general timeline and story of the depression. Though I feel a little dorky admitting this now, I definitely feel that the AG books have some cultural and historical significance.

    1. @Brieze – Neat to hear how those lessons stuck with you and acted as a guidepost in your later education. I wonder if our daughter will have the same experience. Stories are always the best way to relay information in a way that will stick (as a marketer I use that principle all the time).

  6. I personally never had any American Girl Dolls (dolls aren't really a guy thing), but i have a sister a little bit older than me who absolutely LOVED the dolls and their stories. My mother (who by the way also loved the stories and even had a few dolls herself) would read the book to my sister, brother and I when we were younger during our "bedtime stories" time after dinner. It was always under protest from my brother and I, but none the less she would read them quite often.
    I remember 1 story in particular about a girl growing up in New Mexico (Josefina i believe?) whos mother had died and she had to deal with that and live on. I don't remember many other details about the book itself (except that i seem to remember the girl having a goat).
    Where i was going with this rant was that i don't believe that time period had everything to do with the stories. i think they tried to teach lessons about life to (dare i say "prepare"?) girls (and maybe not only girls) about hard life situations.

  7. when I saw that one of the blog posts was about American Girl Dolls, I had to smile to myself. These dolls played a huge part in my young life. Though my mom also had concerns that the dolls and their stories might be too mainstream, she put her concerns aside and I got Molly (the silent generation girl) for my 7th birthday. We quickly read her entire story and began renting the other stories from the library. I have to say that up to about the age of 11 or so, I knew all the girls stories pretty much by heart. Though I would have never correlated these girls to certain generations, it makes a lot of sense! I remember when I first noticed that the books took place every decade to 20 years apart from each other, (Samantha was 1904, Kit, 1934, Molly 1944) I now wonder if the authors decided to do this based on the pattern of major historical events, which strongly relates to the study you do generations and the like. Though it may seem cheesy, but I would definitely accredit those books for igniting my interest in history. Though I may have been fairly young, I had a pretty accurate idea of when the civil war was, and what the war was about, which cant be said of all 8 year olds. Those books have definitely been beneficial to my upbringing.

    1. @Katrina – it's great to hear the story of how these books had a positive influence on you. We felt EXACTLY the same way about the dolls as your Mom did: they seemed so mainstream at first. But now that we have read the books we have an entirely different picture.

  8. Wow, I am feeling a bit old learning about new american dolls that were not around when I was around 8 years old. I had two american girl dolls and read all the books. My interest in history began with those dolls and like Brieze mentioned, I also always rememberd the different girls' stories when I learned history in school.
    I grew up in a very waldorf family and never had barbies but american girl dolls are very different and I learned a lot of important lessons from their stories.

    1. @laraaellinor – Great to hear they also had a positive effect for you. We will keep getting the books from the library until we have read them all! And maybe it is time for you to pick up the
      Julie series to learn what your Mom lived through (if she is Generation X). 🙂

  9. The reason why there are no boomer children is because they didn't make the biggest impact until they grew up…which in turn was the 70s. If you notice something about the books, they try to get into the minds of several ages that impacted the whole era as a whole. It's really based on important eras in American history rather than specific generations. During the "Boomer" kids' era, their parents didn't make much of an important era. Most of the results of their era took place in the 70s. Civil Rights was the only important thing to mention in the 50s and 60s which the results of it was in the 70s. The whole era is heavily relying on the adults running the world at the time. In the 70s, the parents made the most impact on the era, and the children were the victims of it.

  10. Take it from a nine year old girl who has six American Girls. They are awesome. I also have two closetfuls of clothes and accessories of American Girl stuff!<3

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