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More Than Toys: Exploring History With American Girl

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Courtney Rodgers


Courtney has been reading and collecting books almost as long as she's been alive. She holds a B.A. in Theatre and Creative Writing. Courtney has been writing with Book Riot since 2019, and is a Bibliologist with TBR: Tailored Book Recommendations. She's currently brainstorming for her next creative project. You can follow her on Instagram.

Like most kids, my friends and I jumped from one new fixation to another, accumulating toys and books faster than we could enjoy them all. Throughout my childhood there was one constant, though: American Girl. This doll and book series began as a humble three doll collection and has expanded to include multiple doll series, books, children’s clothing, storefronts,  and feature length films.  The Historical series was the most popular when I was growing up in the late ’90s and early 2000s, each doll from a different era in American history. Each girl’s books detailed her life, peppered with lessons on friendship, leadership, and courage. An American Girl doll was the it Christmas gift. If you had more than one of the 18” dolls, you were one of the lucky ones. For me, American Girl was more than my favorite book series and doll, it was a lifestyle.

Right when American Girl hit its popularity peak, my family had just begun homeschooling. Many homeschool families, mine included, join a co-op to participate in extracurricular classes and academic classes that might be difficult to teach to just one student. Suddenly, I was surrounded by girls my own age who loved AG just as much as I did. It almost became a competition to see who loved American Girl the most, who read the most AG books, who had the most AG branded stuff.

Most co-op classes are taught by creative homeschool parents. A group of moms at my co-op got together to teach an American Girl class. Obviously, it was instantly the number one class. Each year, the class would focus on one historical American Girl, reading her series in class, and working on projects and history lessons pertaining to the book. I signed up for this class every year until I aged out. The memories from this class are some of my most treasured from this time period.

One year that I remember particularly well, we were studying Kirsten. Kirsten was a Swedish immigrant in the 1850’s. In class, we made braided yarn dolls, discussed what the Pioneering life would have been like, and made our own butter.  For the Christmas party, we made our version of saffron buns, then all dressed in long white dresses and red sashes from thrift stores and older sisters, and wore candle wreaths on our heads. Dressed as St. Lucia, we descended the long stairs to the lunch area of co-op to sing a Christmas Carol. Giggling, we delivered our Swedish-ish baked treats to the other students. Unfortunately, the photo I remember taking in my frilly white dress has been lost to time. The memories, though, have lasted.

Photos Contributed by Author

The American Girl love didn’t stop with my favorite class. In the summer, another group of friends and their moms got together to put on American Girl one-act plays. American Girl published accompanying activity books for each Girl, including a theatre kit with scripts and a director’s guide. I made my theatrical debut on my back porch in a checked dress my grandma made me, as Samantha Parkington, a girl living in 1904 New York. In my mind, I was Samantha. We had the same haircut, we loved to read and play the piano, and were outspoken.

That summer, we rehearsed and crafted our little hearts out. We decoupaged cardboard trinket boxes with Victorian looking scrapbook paper. Although my cardboard box is nearly 20 years old now, it still sits on my bookshelf holding my collection of foreign currency. We tried our hands at silhouettes, played hoop and stick, pressed flowers, and made sugary rock candy. For snacks, we crafted fancy tea sandwiches and petit fours and drank piping hot tea, even though it was 105 degrees outside. I wish I had kept my Samantha books and all of our crafts. Even now, Samantha holds a special place in my heart.

Another summer, I got to act out my first death scene in Kirsten’s play. The summer we did Felicity’s play, set in Colonial Williamsburg, we made pomander balls that seemed to rot instantly in the Texas heat. When not in a class or summer American Girl play, I read the books with ferocity. Reading the American Girl books sparked my lifelong love for historical fiction and research. I had to know more. With each Girl, I uncovered more on my own and experimented with recipes and crafts. I learned how to rag roll my hair like a Hollywood starlet from Molly’s activity book, a skill I would use for years in theatre. I made corn-husk dollies and a fringed shawl like Josephina.

This hunger for knowledge that the AG books sparked in me has become invaluable to me as an adult. I learned to connect historical events with literature and thought. I am grateful for what American Girl did for me and continues to do for so many children. To the creative group of moms who saw our special interest and invested in us, thank you.  More than a franchise to covet, American Girl was a gateway to imagination and discovery for me.

For more American Girl content, try out this quiz to find out which American Girl you are. ( I got Samantha, obviously)

Read How The American Girl Series Shaped My Reading, Imagination, and Future from Rioter Grace LaPointe.