ONTD Political

An American Girl Doll Does Some Serious Traveling

6:41 pm - 01/24/2013
After one visit, she returned with her hair in dreadlocks. Another time, her long blond locks were primly fashioned into a traditional bun. One day, she came back wearing a uniform of the exclusive all-girls Brearley School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

These have been the many phases of Kirsten Larson, an American Girl doll who sat on a shelf in the Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library, in the East Village, until a resourceful children’s librarian began lending her to girls, many of whose parents, because of financial or feminist reasons, resist buying the dolls.

Kirsten — who retails for $110 and is marketed as a “pioneer girl of strength and spirit” leading an adventurous life in the mid-1800s — was dropped off a decade ago at the library branch, in a Gothic building on Second Avenue.

She could not have been more out of her element, in her homespun frock and bonnet, in the middle of a New York City neighborhood once known for punk rock, left-wing activism and on-the-edge art and fashion, and now for its rapid gentrification.

But Kirsten has adapted to her urban frontier, traveling from one girl’s home to another’s for two weeks at a time, spending nights inside cramped apartments in public housing projects and inside luxury high-rises with sweeping city views. She also has taken trips out of the neighborhood with her temporary guardians: boat rides on Oyster Bay, and to house parties held by Mexican immigrants in Harlem.

The doll, part of a brand that is all the rage among girls and whose price tag is rage-inducing to many parents, has become one of the most sought-after items at the library. For some girls, Kirsten was the only way they could afford such a luxury item in their home. For others, it was the only way their liberal-minded parents would allow any doll into their home, refusing to indulge in gender stereotypes or what they considered to be an elitist hobby.

Suzette Seepersad had been avoiding buying her daughter Caelyn Osborn, 5, any toys geared toward girls.

But Caelyn fell in love with Kirsten, taking her to the family’s apartment, bathing her, reading stories to her and putting her to bed. After keeping the doll for two weeks or so, she had to be reminded by a librarian to return it. Now, Ms. Seepersad said, “I’m trying to get my sister to buy her” an American Girl doll.

With its limited budget, the East Village branch library could hardly be mistaken for the upscale American Girl Place, the company’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue, where reservations are often required for $20-a-head tea parties. But the excitement level , at least, was comparable in the library — and of course, there it was free to take Kirsten home.

The children began adopting Kirsten for days or weeks at a time, the way they would borrow a book. The library system does not typically lend out dolls, so Thea Taube, the children’s librarian at the branch, kept it unofficial. She did not require names or library cards from borrowers but rather relied on the honor system. Some children kept the doll for several weeks, she said.

Now after dozens of trips over the years, Kirsten is worn out and is being shipped to the company’s doll hospital in Middleton, Wis., to have her loosened arm and leg joints fixed and her hair, which has become matted from being styled and restyled countless times, replaced.

She will also receive a new wardrobe and accessories, since Kirsten’s boots, apron, knit stockings and bonnet – everything but her dress – have all been long lost, something that Ms. Taube said was a result of “a lot of love over the years.”

A group of Kirsten’s other favorite caretakers gathered recently at the library for a going-away party, drawing get-well cards and relishing one last play-date with the doll.

There was Flora Sobrino, 11, who now has three American Girl dolls of her own. There was Alondra Salas, 6, who could not afford such a doll, and whose mother, a nanny for an East Village family, knitted Kirsten’s outfit at their modest apartment in Harlem.

There was Khadija Sankara, 6, from the Bronx, who asked her mother — a Senegalese immigrant who runs a T-shirt shop nearby – for an American Girl doll.

“She wanted one, but her older sister told me: ‘You know how much it costs? As much as an iPod or something,’” the mother, Theresa Sankara, recalled.

There was Alison Newmark, 3, who would sleep with Kirsten and show her off to neighbors in the lobby of her building.

“I would not buy it for her now because it’s very expensive, but she thought it was the most beautiful doll she ever saw,” said her mother, Julia Justo. “It was almost like a real person to her – like a friend.”

Despite all the adoration she has received, Kirsten was not an overnight sensation at the library. When Ms. Taube became the children’s librarian in 2004, she found Kirsten languishing on a forgotten shelf in a library office within earshot of the busy children’s room, because library workers considered her too expensive to risk damage by displaying.

Kirsten had been donated a year earlier by the American Girl company when it opened its flagship Manhattan store and gave dolls and their biographical books to city library branches.

“I thought, ‘Well, we loan out books that are that expensive, so why can’t we lend her out too?’” said Ms. Taube, who hoped the doll would attract more children to the branch, leading them to read the doll books.

Ms. Taube began displaying Kirsten on her desk, with no sign or label or explanation. Immediately there were shy inquiries.

“If I saw a girl admiring it, I’d say, ‘Do you know you can take her home?’” Ms. Taube said. “’She likes to take trips and visit other dolls.’”

New York library officials said they knew of no other doll-lending in their system.

Flora, a sixth grader at Brearley who dressed Kirsten in her school’s uniform, began borrowing Kirsten five years ago, taking her home to her apartment on St. Marks Place, and began writing homemade books with adventure stories featuring Kirsten.

She took Kirsten to playgrounds and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with her parents, who deemed Kirsten too extravagant. At one point, Flora misplaced the doll’s apron, but later found it and returned it along with a pair of underwear she bought for Kirsten with her own money.

“When Flora was 6 we told her, ‘It’s a very expensive doll,’” Ms. Sobrino said. “We weren’t considering buying her a $100 doll.”

“We were hoping that borrowing Kirsten might quench her desire for her own doll, but actually, I think it may have turned out to be a gateway doll,” she said.

Flora saved her allowance money for a year and bought herself two dolls and received another as a gift.
Now the dolls are watching Flora grow too old to play with them.

As the library prepared to close, Kirsten’s farewell party was coming to an end. The children hugged and said goodbye to the little well-worn pioneer and put her in a box bound for Wisconsin. Ms. Taube told the girls they would celebrate together when the doll returned in several weeks.

Ms. Taube said Kirsten exemplified the library as a community center that offered diverse services and lending materials.

“I tell the kids that the library belongs to them,” she said. “And I think that any child who could not afford that doll will remember the time they were able to borrow it from the library.”


Source includes an adorable letter from a child
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schexyschteve 25th-Jan-2013 02:14 am (UTC)
I wanted an American Girl doll so badly when I was younger. Felicity and Molly were my favorites, because I loved the Revolutionary War period and WWII. But, like the girls in the article, they were too expensive for my parents. So I had to settle for those books that took you into their worlds during the times they lived in (only I had Samantha's and Addy's).

That's such an awesome thing for the library to do. The children's section in my local library has all the American Girl dolls (well, at least the more original ones), but they're in glass cases.

Suzette Seepersad had been avoiding buying her daughter Caelyn Osborn, 5, any toys geared toward girls.

That just makes me sad for her daughter. There's nothing wrong with being a girl or having feminine toys.

Edited at 2013-01-25 02:19 am (UTC)
lurkch 25th-Jan-2013 03:10 am (UTC)
Yeah, that struck me as sad too. I wasn't really a doll kinda girl but my parents bought toys I was interested in without regard whether the toys were traditionally male or female.
chimbleysweep 25th-Jan-2013 02:15 am (UTC)
That is so sweet. It would be great if they could have an assortment. I wonder if people might donate their old American Girl dolls after seeing this. I would have been all over that as a kid. American Girl was my toy everything.

And they still have the doll hospital! I wondered if it disappeared after Mattel took control. I remember the ads with the doll in her gown and a get well balloon. My childhood best friend destroyed her Kirsten's hair and had to send her away to have her head replaced, which cost as much as the doll did back then ($85, I think it was).
chaya 25th-Jan-2013 03:01 am (UTC)
I would so donate my AG doll. ♥_♥ If... I can find it.
zinnia_rose 25th-Jan-2013 02:17 am (UTC)
That's awesome! :D

Suzette Seepersad had been avoiding buying her daughter Caelyn Osborn, 5, any toys geared toward girls.

This, however, pisses me off. It sends the message that girl toys, and by extension girls, are inferior to boy toys (and by extension boys). There's nothing wrong with being a girl who likes to play with dolls. Yes, it is problematic when girls are expected to ONLY play with dolls, but taking it to the other extreme is just as stupid.

(Also, why'd she give her daughter such a girly name, then?)
chimbleysweep 25th-Jan-2013 02:24 am (UTC)
And American Girl dolls, even now, are so educational. I read every book in every series up through Addy and part of Josefina, and I really do credit even the cataloges (which were all I had to lust over until the happy day I got Felicity) with my love of history.
perthro Re: thinking of other odd things libraries lend..25th-Jan-2013 04:08 am (UTC)
Really? I'll have to talk to my library when it opens back up. I've had so much specialty baking stuff that I've just given away, giving someone (in this neighbourhood especially) the ability to do cool stuff for free would be so cool.
randomtasks 25th-Jan-2013 02:26 am (UTC)
This is really awesome.

On a side note, was I the only kid who didn't know American Girl dolls existed? I've never heard of the American Girl series until a bunch of people talked about them in a nostalgia post on ONTD a few years ago.
corinn 25th-Jan-2013 03:07 am (UTC)
I knew of and read several of the books in the early 90s but never heard of the dolls. Maybe because I only borrowed them from classroom and school libraries instead of seeing a display in a store?
sio 25th-Jan-2013 02:26 am (UTC)
that's so cool! i still have my Molly doll that i got when i was ten.
kyra_neko_rei 25th-Jan-2013 03:23 am (UTC)
I've got Samantha, whom I won in a raffle when I was about that age.
belleweather 25th-Jan-2013 02:32 am (UTC)
Aww, this made me all teary-eyed. I really wanted a Samantha doll when I was a kid, but there was NO WAY I'd even ask my mom for it -- totally out o reach for us financially, and not something I wanted to take the flack for asking my Hippie mama for.
poopanna 25th-Jan-2013 03:20 pm (UTC)
I got my Samantha doll when I was 21!

My parents got me all the books and paper dolls but they couldn't really afford it until then, hahahaha. I'm not mad about it, she is in perfect condition in her box and every once in a while I take her out and brush her hair.
chaya 25th-Jan-2013 02:46 am (UTC)
For others, it was the only way their liberal-minded parents would allow any doll into their home, refusing to indulge in gender stereotypes or what they considered to be an elitist hobby.

zinnia_rose 25th-Jan-2013 02:48 am (UTC)
Yeah, since when is playing with dolls an elitist hobby? Mary and Laura had dolls in the Little House books, for heaven's sakes.

Edited at 2013-01-25 02:48 am (UTC)
eversofar 25th-Jan-2013 02:55 am (UTC)
such a cute idea! i pined after these dolls until i finally got one, but i checked out tons of the books from the school library. those books and the laura ingalls wilder books were my shit in elementary school.
roseofjuly 25th-Jan-2013 03:10 am (UTC)
This; it probably has the opposite effect that they want. Not to mention that the AG dolls (at least the historical ones) are probably the least unfeminist dolls you can get. The stories had nothing to do with boys or fashion or anything; the girls were all headstrong, active, curious, intelligent girls and the books were about dealing with being a girl during whatever historical period they lived in.
roseofjuly 25th-Jan-2013 03:08 am (UTC)
I loved American Girl growing up. Kirsten was my favorite; she was the first American Girl book I ever got (I selected it myself from a Scholastic RIF fair - I was always allowed to buy one new book from the RIF fair - I LOVED THE RIF FAIR) and I loved reading about her. I really liked all the original American girls (Felicity, Molly, Samantha, and Addy - getting my hands on Molly books was hard because she was the most popular and I borrowed my books from the library. Felicity was the easiest). But my parents also couldn't afford an American Girl doll.

Recently I took my little cousins to the American Girl place on 5th Avenue. I kind of hate it. The focus is all on the dolls when originally Pleasant Company created the dolls as companions for the books. The focus was on the historical characters and the books, but in the 1990s they created this My American Girl doll and Mattel ran with it and now when you walk around the first floor, the majority of the dolls are just...dolls. They're not the historical ones. And the books are not featured prominently; it's all about their clothes and ridiculous accessories (you can get the dolls' ears pierced; you can get their hair done in a salon; and there is a ridiculous amount of astronomically priced accessories. A single outfit is about $30.)
chimbleysweep 25th-Jan-2013 04:04 am (UTC)
That was my experience when I finally got to visit the mothership in Chicago. I had wanted to visit it for most of my tween years, once I found out there was a store, but when I finally visited in 2003, at the age of sixteen, I was so disappointed. Felicity had already been hidden away and I couldn't find the books. All of the historical dolls seemed to be hidden behind the wall of Mattel. All I could afford to buy was a pair of sunglasses.
checkerdandy 25th-Jan-2013 03:21 am (UTC)
I always coveted the Samantha doll, but could never afford one. Her set was over $1000!

I also read the Felicity books because Revolutionary times were my jam.
kyra_neko_rei 25th-Jan-2013 03:37 am (UTC)
I always dreamed of getting one or two dolls and then mix-and-matching all the dolls' outfits and such. Like, Josefina when she came out, dressed in Molly's work jeans over Addy's blouse and school jacket with Felicity's riding hat and Kirsten's or Addy's black boots. With Kirsten's kittens.
yeats 25th-Jan-2013 03:34 am (UTC)
so sad that the american girl doll line has back away from these types of educational dolls: kirsten, felicity and samantha have all been retired.
mary_pickforded 25th-Jan-2013 03:35 am (UTC)
It has gone so downhill ever since those Christian loonies took it over.
mary_pickforded 25th-Jan-2013 03:34 am (UTC)
I had three official American Girl dolls (Felicity, Samantha, Kit) and one of their dolls that was made to look like you. I had a bunch of clothes and a couple of those outfits that were kid-sized. I had fun with those but I always liked my Barbies much more.
mary_pickforded 25th-Jan-2013 03:38 am (UTC)
I'm glad I'll have them around in case I ever have a daughter.
nutmegdealer 25th-Jan-2013 03:44 am (UTC)
i have kirsten and still have nearly all of the books from the 4 older dolls. i remember being so excited when addy finally came out.
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