03 March 2016

Speaking With Forked Tongue

I'm aware that may be insulting, but it burns me to see that a large publisher is being insulting, and I am being insulting to them.

I've made no secret that I love many children's books as much as I love adult books and that I still buy the American Girl books. I've no interest in the dolls, other to see how they look compared to the character in the book; I've never been a dolls person. To me they're boring; to other little girls they are their best friend, and I hope those girls never lose the affection they had for that best friend.

I love the books because of the history angle. When Pleasant Company (and there really was a Pleasant, a Pleasant Rowland who originally conceived of the books and the dolls as a way to show girls that history wasn't some dry-as-dirt school thing and that they had a lot more in common with historical girls than they thought) founded the "original three" line, Felicity (Revolutionary War), Samantha (Victorian), and Molly (WWII), the idea took off. A pioneer Swedish girl appeared, Kirsten, and an African-American girl escaped from slavery, Addy. Since have come Marie-Grace and Cecile from seventeenth century New Orleans, Kaya of the Nez Perce tribe, Josefina of the New Mexican trading era, Kit the Depression-era girl, Rebecca the Jewish immigrant, Julie the hippie-era girl, Caroline from the War of 1812, and now the newest, Maryellen Larkin of 1950s Florida and Melody Ellison in 1960s Detroit.

When Mattel took over Pleasant Company's stock, they stated they would hold to the standards of the original three. The original books were published in a set of six that conformed to a pattern: an introductory story, a school story, a Christmas story, a spring (usually birthday) story, a summer story, and a winter story. (As the girls diversified, this did change. Kaya, the Nez Perce girl, did not observe these particular milestones, and Rebecca did not celebrate Christmas. The paired characters, Marie-Grace and Cecile, also had their books set up a bit differently, and that broke the original standard.) Each of the books were illustrated, and if something was mentioned in a story, like Felicity's pattens or Samantha's reticule, there might be a little illustration of it on that page to show you what it looked like. In the back of the book would be a six page illustrated section called "Inside [Girl's Name] World," which would talk about a particular theme from the book (child labor, surviving the Depression, scrap drives, Native American customs, etc.). They were lovely, and explained what might be some confusing concepts to modern kids, like why Aunt Cornelia was considered strange for riding a bicycle or why Julie couldn't play basketball or why a hope chest would be something valuable to a pioneer woman.

And so it went along for a while...until just recently. The doll business was still booming—or so it seems when they show those glitzy promos for the American Girl Place stores—but the books seem to suddenly have become an unappreciated cousin. The expensive dolls and their equally expensive accessories seem to be the reason-du-jour now, the novels just a sideline. This is very apparent after the recent "Beforever" rebranding.

Beside the fact that "BeForever" isn't even a word, it's just some sort of trademark they can put on the books, and it means absolutely...what? The books say "The adventurous characters you'll meet in the BeForever will spark your curiosity about the past..." blah, blah, blah, ending with "Read their stories, explore their worlds, join their adventures. Your friendship with them will BeForever." Really? Ick. Canned speech that was previously provided by a colorful, exciting cover, a good description on the back, sparkling illustrations inside, and that wonderful six-page historical recap at the end. I guess they had to provide the parroted introduction because there are no more sparkling illos. The wonderful illustrated historical tags are gone, too. The six books have been compacted into two text-only paperbacks, each with its own measly two-page text about the historical aspects. The older-line girls' stories are being reprinted in these bastardized editions while the new girls premiere in them. What a shameful comedown from the wonderfully done originals. I am especially incensed that the Melody Ellison series had to be abridged this way. I was kind of bored with Maryellen Larkin, but Melody has a rich family heritage and so much going on in her Civil Rights era setting that this one cried out for the six books with the six-page historical coda, so much going on that children today do not know about, and all we get is two pages of "yeah, black people were really put down back then and, oh, yeah, you could make it as a Motown singer if you were good enough." Talk about a comedown.

What's worse, Mattel hasn't even bothered to stick to the historical accuracy they stated they would adhere to. American Girl used to have a "History Mystery" line, where unique girl characters from different eras of American history would solve mysteries: a young woman in old New Orleans, a girl during the Alaskan gold rush, a scrap-drive hunting girl and her siblings coming upon mysterious lights, etc. One of the books, the World War I era The Night Flyers won an Edgar award for best children's mystery. Mattel, unfortunately, dropped these in favor of the established American Girl characters solving mysteries. Some of these have not been bad, but the quality is not that of the original "History Mysteries," and the new "BeForever" line of them seems to be worst of all. I got the latest batch this morning: one about Maryellen, one about Josefina, one about Kaya. I didn't think I'd ever see another Kaya story; Mattel doesn't seem to put much stock in their minority characters. The mysteries are usually about the white kids, Samantha, Kit, Molly, Caroline.

One of the copious notes that was provided about Kaya's stories was that you would never see her smile or open her mouth showing her teeth in the illustrations for her books. In Nez Perce society this was apparently considered extremely rude. So look at Kaya's face on the front of her new book, The Ghost Wind Stallion. Not sure if she's smiling, but she certainly is showing a lot of teeth. So they couldn't even be bothered to stick with that piece of historical integrity. Way to go, Mattel. Keep cheapening the books while getting all that nice plastic [credit cards] for those nice plastic dolls. Nice way to teach kids that books Just Aren't Important.

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