American Girls: A (Personal) History

October 9, 2011 at 12:10 pm (General) (, , , )

Last week at the store, we had a tea party to celebrate the release of the newest American Girls, Cecile and Marie-Grace. It’s a first for American Girls, introducing two at a time, but their stories are woven together so they alternate books, and it switches up the formula a little. Our newest friends are from 1853 (’53! Every other American Girl ends in ‘4; heard a story that it’s because the company was founded in a year ending with a four, but who knows), in New Orleans, set against a Yellow Fever epidemic and orphans in desperate need of care from compassionate girls.

The party by itself was a lot of fun. We got an event kit so we didn’t have to come up with anything too extraordinary, but we got snacks and made tea and invitedd girls to dress up and bring their dolls, and that’s where the fun is. Almost every single girl brought at least one doll; one brought so many she carried them stacked in a baby stroller, then set them all around her like a fortress on the table. Have a feeling that girl has a lot of solo tea parties with her dolls. Some of them came in matching modern clothing, though when we introduced Rebecca at her own event (last year? year before?), we had a handful match their dolls’ period costumes. Some of the dolls had tangled hair, some looked like they’d just come back from the salon, but in every case, it was clear these dolls were very loved.

About half of them had the looks-like-me dolls, but even they could tell you their dolls’ stories, where imagination had provided them all they needed to give their girls backgrounds as rich and interesting as the official American Girls. And they’ll tell you. In a heartbeat. Some of them may not even wait for you to ask.

That, to me, is one of the true wonders of American Girl. In a time when girls are drfiting to so many other things, American Girl manages to keep them thriving in imagination, not just with the stories but with the vast array of products. (By the way, THIS IS NOT A SALES PITCH) They have little craft kits that show you how to make props for doll school, doll diner, doll pets. They encourage you to MAKE doll clothing- and show it off! They keep girls playing make-believe.

The other part, of course, is the history. I’m a history buff, so I love to see kids getting excited about historical fiction. They read about Felicity and they start asking questions about the Revolution; they read Addy and they start asking questions about slavery and the Civil War. It encourages them to question and explore and discover.

I don’t remember when I started reading American Girl. It’s something that feels like it was just always there. When I had them, they were white books with a centered photo of the girl. The “Meet” ones all had the slightly turned out profile walking picture that always makes me think of Abbey Lane. At that point, there was Felicity, Kirstin, Addy, Samantha, and Molly. Yes, just five of them (I’m old!) Right as I was moving away from the books, they introduced Josefina. I never read much Samantha; not really sure why, except that I didn’t have the books. But I LOVED the others. I loved Felicity’s mischief, loved Kirstin’s similarities to members of my own family who came over from Sweden, and reading Addy let me talk to my dad about the Civil War. I even dressed up as Molly one year for Halloween because I looked so much like her, glasses and all. Their stories were amazing, full of laughter and joy and sorrow and hope and growth, full of things to be learned and things to be taught, but what made them all the more real to me was the fact that they were built off of our history. A girl I know in Kristianstad needed to get a loan just to come home. There was no real Felicity Merriman running around in 1774; but there were girls just like her.

The highlight of my month used to be getting the American Girl catalog, not because I actually had any expectation of getting anything (I don’t know what the prices are now, but back then they were expensive!) but because I loved looking at the stuff. For the history, I loved learning about the different parts of the clothing, the styles and why they were popular. For the half that was the modern stuff for the looks like me dolls, I loved making stories around them. What kind of doll would wear that kind of outfit, and why? BOOM, instant story.

When I was twelve, we came home from Christmas Eve services to find our house on fire. Well, technically it was the inside that was on fire, not the house yet, but there was a house and there was fire and smoke and really it was not at all a fun time. Later that day, when all the flames were out and the smoke had cleared a little, the firefighters brought out our Christmas presents. We’d put them somewhere other than the usual place and closed doors that weren’t usually closed to lock away pets that weren’t normally locked up- because of that, all the pets were safe, and when they handed us the wrapped presents, their gloves leaving streaks of soot on the paper, the firefighters got to see us burst out laughing. That night, after we had Christmas dinner with friends, we sat down and opened presents.

And one of mine was an American Girl doll, one of the look-like-mes. She’d been wrapped and in all of her sealed packaging, but somehow just a little bit of smoke or soot had gotten through anyway and she had ashy smudges on her cheeks. And I loved her for it. I never sent her to the doll hospital to get cleaned (normal cleaning didn’t touch it) because my doll, like me, was a survivor. Her house caught fire like Kirstin’s but we were going to come out of this and, with some hard work and sacrifice and a lot of changes, things were going to get better.

Fourteen years later, still with the ashy smudges on her cheeks, Lexi came with me to the tea party. She’s older than all of the girls who came and has been in the same nightgown for ten years or so because somewhere in the seventeen moves I’ve made since then, all of her clothing got lost and I couldn’t afford to replace it/wasn’t skilled enough to make it. Her hair is in two French braids with mismatching ties, but this was before they changed the way they crafted the hair and skulls to allow for more intricate hairstyles, so really there are two braids on the side and then in the middle there’s a giant swatch of fabric with lines of sewn-in hair. She’s a little battered, but fourteen years later, she’s still a survivor.

And she’s still helping me make up stories.

I’ve never understood why American Girl doesn’t spawn off a brother company for American Boy. Understandably the dolls wouldn’t be a big hit with the boys but there are so many other ways to provide for them, and I think it does the boys a disservice not to give them historical fiction that is so incredibly accessible. Not to mention the vast array of non-fiction books that have been godsends for so many parents and children dealing with the terrifying world of middle school and puberty. American Girl? PLEASE give our boys the amazing experiences you gave us girls.

Do you have an American Girl story? Please share!

Until next time~

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If, And, Then- How Math Made Me A Better Writer

March 19, 2011 at 9:09 am (Writing) (, , , , )

I loathe math. Pretty much always have. I oblige necessity willingly enough with retail math or I-have-to-build-a-set-that-won’t-collapse geometry, and I have a strange fascination with the Fibonacci number sequence that helps stave off panic attacks, but otherwise my feelings on the subject range from indifference to sheer and utter detestation.

Which really makes it suck, given that I have to credit it for a large part of how a chronic scribbler actually became a writer who finished stories that made sense. The other biggest part was fanfiction, but that’s for another time.

When I was in sixth grade, my reading and writing teacher- an absolutely amazing man- kept telling me that I needed to plan my stories. Every time we turned in an assignment, he’d tell me the same thing: the characters were good, the writing was good (you know, for a ten-year-old), but the imagination of the story couldn’t make up for the fact that it didn’t go anywhere. I sat down with the characters in my head and words poured out. They meandered horrendously. I started out well enough and I’d eventually (usually) find an ending, but getting from one to the other was like following a weaving drunk.

He found a better way to say that to the ten-year-old.

To my brain, though, that just wasn’t what a story was. To me, they were just written down versions of the make-believe I played with my neighbors. We came up with characters (Nick was always either a scientist or velociraptor, occasionally a a magician; Erica was usually a princess; and I was always a warrior a/o magician), as well as some basic world rules, and then we just went with it. Each game would sprawl across days or even weeks until we either found a resolution or got bored and started a different story. For me, that’s what writing was, only without the costumes and bamboo sticks.

It wasn’t until high school that it changed. I’d been working on some math homework right after school, and then my friends and I started rehearsing an ensemble piece for Districts (Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, if anyone’s curious). The homework must have still been in my head because as we were working on motivations and actions, the pattern of “if, and, then” came out of my mouth. I know it’s used in debate, logic, and philosophy, as well as the sciences, but I always think of it as a math demon.

Basically, it’s proving a point using two examples with the same result. For example: IF x+4=7, AND 4x=12, THEN x=3; on its own, either equation has multiple possible solutions. In the first, x could equal 3 or -11. In the second it could be either 3 or -3. With both equations together, we know for a fact that x=3. Somehow (and I’m still not sure how), this got translated into both theatre and writing. IF a character has this personality AND this event happens THEN he/she will react in a certain way.

I’d learned the secret of character growth, of giving them believable reasons to do things.

For a character to grow, of course, things have to happen to them, and if you want them to grow in a certain way, things have to happen in a specific order. Suddenly, A PLOT! The next rehearsal-free day, I went back to my middle school and squeezed the stuffing out of Dr. Carroll because I finally understood what he’d been trying to tell me. I still didn’t outline- outlines were, after all, an element of research papers, and therefore to be loathed- but I’d have a page or two where I told the story like I would for an extended book report where we had to tell the ending in order to convince the teacher that we’d read the whole thing.

Flash forward a couple of years to chemistry- specifically stoichiometry. Balancing chemical equations. I hope my chem teacher never reads this, because I had two levels of that class (honors and AP) and I can’t actually remember why stoichiometry is done, or how. Much shame on me (though, in my defense, I haven’t had a science class in almost eight years). What I do remember is, like math, whatever you do to one side of the equation, you have to do to the other. If you multiply by 2 on one side, you have to multiply by 2 on the other.

Now, this might seem like a strange thing to translate into writing, but it got me to thinking about balance. As I did my little story point bulletins, and as I wrote the stories, I realized that nothing was balanced. I had short, intense spurts where a lot of things were happening, bookended by long stretches where not much was happening. It wasn’t as simple as remembering to multiply by 2 on both sides, but paying attention to how things balanced helped me smooth out my overall story arcs.

Also in chemistry (and US history, as a matter of fact), we had to do book notes on every chapter. This was during my two years of Really Horrible Hand Problems, when I literally couldn’t hold a pen or type without severe pain and muscle spasms (those two years sucked, by the way). My amazing mother spent a lot of time working on homework with me, which is when we discovered that my brain works through writing things down, that’s how I figure things out. We also learned that everyone outlines in a different way. Trying to dictate the notes drove us both crazy, so we finally gave up, she wrote her own outlines, and I promised to read each chapter at least twice before the tests. But- that process, the result of that frustration, taught me a lot about outlines, about structure, and how they could combine with plot points and balance.

I made another visit to Dr. Carroll the day that all finally came together in my head.

I’m an outliner now. I plot things out, I look for the balance, I make sure I know more or less where I’m going. Things still surprise me, or things get changed because they don’t balance fleshed out the way they did as skeletons, or after the outlines are done I get fresh ideas, or whatever. They’re flexible, certainly not set in stone. Even when I change things, though, I still have a guide, something to tell me if I’m getting too far off track, that reminds me constantly of the final scene that all the rest of the book is reaching for.

I’d love to say that most of my writing skills came from my English classes, but as much as I loved them, what I took from those classes was a love of some books, a hatred for others, and the profound certainty that authors don’t mean to do even half of what English teachers ascribe to them. (Proof? I have a clockwork story with twelve chapters- complete accident. A friend had to point it out to me.) No, where most of the foundation of my writing took shape was in math and science, the subjects I struggled with and sometimes (usually) hated, but nonetheless taught me a great deal my instructors never intended.

IF you learn something interesting, AND you learn to apply it, THEN your entire life can change.

So what do you do?

Until next time~

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