With an eye to Mary Jo’s continuing retrograde, I’m going seriously low-tech this week. I’m going to talk about dolls.
I’m writing this in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I’m visiting for week (and where the current weather is much like an aquarium on the cosmic back burner). If we’re searching for one of the ways to inspire the next generation with a love of the history and fiction and the two combined, then we should look no further than Miss Felicity Merriman. If you have a daughter/niece/granddaughter/neighbor girl or were yourself born after 1990, then likely you need no further introduction to this 18-inch historical powerhouse with green eyes, red hair, and cheerfully unceasing smile.
But if you’ve somehow escaped, (or only know boys), here’s a quickie bio: Felicity Merriman was the first doll of the American Girls Collection, introduced by the Pleasant Company fifteen years ago. A “spunky, sprightly nine-year-old girl” who lived in colonial Williamsburg, Felicity is not only a doll, but the heroine of her own historical fiction series.
Personally, I find the books grimly earnest in their pursuit of both Amusement & Education, but then I’m not seven-to-eleven years old, the targeted market. And wow, does that age group love Felicity. She’s sold thousands and thousands of dolls and books, and she’s launched a good many trips to Colonial Williamsburg, too, judging by how many dolls are clutched in the sweaty grasps of little girls trudging along Duke of Gloucester Street. (CW sells the books, but not the dolls, nor their clothes or other paraphernalia). These girls experience Williamsburg not only for themselves, but through their dolls’ eyes, too, as a kind of informed historic familiar that’s propped up on the seat in hired carriage rides so she can “see” along with the rest of the family.
Felicity also paved the way for a whole clan of other historical American Girls dolls and books of the past. Others include an African American girl who escaped slavery to live in Philadelphia and a Hispanic American girl living in the 19th century southwest.
They’re a pretty cool bunch, these American Girl dolls. They’re plucky, the way Nancy Drew used to be plucky. They have great hair. They have adventures. They make good choices, and bad ones. They have friends who happen to be boys, but no boyfriends. They have mastered the art of being in the right place at the right time, too, so they always get to meet famous, important historical people, and, in Felicity’s case, be smack-dab in the middle of starting the whole American revolution.
In fact, except for having no boyfriends (which is perfectly O.K. for nine-year-olds), they’re suspiciously like a lot of our heroines. Clearly the future readers of historicals could be in a lot worse hands than the dimpled plastic fingers of Felicity and her friends.
All of which made me think of another doll, one with far less responsibility and marketing savvy than Felicity. For my sixth Christmas, my grandmother sent me a small doll that I called the “Princess Doll”. She never had any other name, just the Princess Doll. Thanks to my grandmother’s love for me and her prowess with a sewing machine, the Princess Doll had a whole wardrobe of ball gowns, tiny crowns made of silver rick-rack and rhinestones and glass pearls, even a black velvet cloak trimmed with a scrap of mink.
Dressed to kill like all good royalty, the Princess Doll was put through an endless string of adventures, rescues, and near-misses. She didn’t live in any specific era, only Some Other Time that wasn’t 1960s New Jersey. The Princess Doll made daring climbs up mountainous sofas. She led breathtaking missions to pilfer cookies from the kitchen. She even rescued lesser stuffed animals from that Grendal-like monster of all monsters, the family cat. Her courage and resourcefulness were matched by her constant glamour. She was only limited by the rich outlandishness of my own imagination.
Which, come to think of it, is a lot like my heroines, too.
I think that the storytelling impulse is something we’re all born with, long before books and reading enter the picture. We all want to explain things that happen in our lives, or understand them, or escape them, and stories remain the best way anyone has discovered for doing this. Whether we whisper stories to dolls, or read them to children, or exchange them in a blog on the internet, the real power of storytelling itself never changes.
So now I ask you: what fed your imagination as a child? Did you play with teddy bears or dolls or toy soldiers, or (I did this, too) make your own corps du ballet in the peat moss from pansy blossoms?