As Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly turn 30, we cast a wistful look back at the dolls and their books
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Kirsten. Samantha. Molly. If these names send a nostalgic chill up your spine, you’re probably an American Girl.
Launched in 1986 by the Pleasant Company, the American Girl dolls and companion books (penned by various authors) originally centered on three heroines from different periods of U.S. history. There was Kirsten Larson, a Swedish immigrant in frontier Minnesota; Samantha Parkington, an orphan raised by her grandmother in Victorian New York; and Molly McIntire, a bespectacled Midwesterner living through World War II. Each character was imbued with a mix of positive personality traits (Kirsten’s an optimist!) and fun quirks (Molly likes to tap-dance!), making them relatable and aspirational for a wide-eyed 7-year-old like me.
To be clear, I never owned one of these dolls. My parents scoffed at the nearly $80 price tag, and every penny I earned through lemonade-based enterprises fell prey to impulse purchases like marbles or Lisa Frank pencil pouches. So the books — which charted birthdays, holidays, and big changes in each girl’s life — were my passport to this enchanting realm. And what a vast sisterhood it was (and continues to be). More than 151 million of these novels have been sold in the past three decades. And I bet if you ask the nearest twenty-or thirtysomething woman about the American Girls, her response will be swift and spirited.
“Duh, I put on American Girl plays in my basement!” one friend replied when I asked if she’d read the books. “Of course! I’m a huge nerd and read solely historical fiction for many years,” enthused another. And when I reflect on my time with the American Girls, that last sentiment captures a big part of its appeal. For me, living in rural Washington State, these series were a window to the outside world — kid-sanctioned social studies, if you will. Where the Baby-Sitters Club encouraged entrepreneurial pursuits and Sweet Valley High stoked many a sexual awakening, the American Girl books encouraged empathy and cultural curiosity (especially once the company diversified its roster with additions like Addy Walker, a slave living in Civil War-era Philadelphia, and Josefina Montoya, a Mexican girl residing outside Santa Fe in the 1820s). Through Kirsten I learned about Sweden’s St. Lucia celebration; through Molly I understood the hardships of wartime. The stories could be surprisingly unsanitized for such a young audience. After 9-year-old Addy falls short on her duties in the field, a foreman pries her mouth open and forces a worm inside. This is not the kind of scene one quickly forgets — or should forget, for that matter.
The series inspired such inquisitiveness, in fact, that I even wrote a letter to the company inquiring about the accuracy of an American flag depicted on one of the covers. (They responded with a postcard thanking me but confirming that the cover was accurate.) Despite being an avid reader, I could never imagine caring so much about a book nowadays that I’d write a letter to the author. But that was the effect the American Girls had on me—and why the series will always have a home on my bookshelf.