For all the literary geeks, this is an essay I originally submitted to Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honors Society, but it’s also a personal interest of mine. I’ve grown up with the American Girl dolls, and reading these series warms my heart.
For this essay, I was inspired by the class lectures in my Christian Thought class on the Northwestern campus, and I hope the essay will spark not just publication awards, but also a more in-depth study into the heart of my favorite children’s series.
The essay was centered on Sigma Tau Delta’s annual convention theme, “River Current.”
Sigma Tau Delta Scholarship Essay
River Current 2014
Many currents of our literary history have flowed as mere tributaries, yet none have flowed as strongly as the river of postmodernism. It celebrates every minority and believes everyone is special, demanding justice for any injury done to these minorities. As I resonate with its morals, I see how it has influenced our children’s literature in a most unexpected place: The American Girl series.
Normally, the American Girl series does not strike people as postmodern, yet this series portrays the very currents that have shifted our history. From Realism to postmodernism, American literature has trended from poetry exalting the aristocrats to novels faming the middle class, as if from repression the middle class were emerging as a mighty ocean coalescing to demand its own voice in literature.
Writers of Realism saw that the average people—the street merchants, the bumpkins, the homeless ones—were neglected by the wealthier authors who portrayed them in downcast lights, and the American Girl series carries the influence of Realism into children’s literature. Every character, no matter her background or class, is viewed as an individual worthy of recognition.
If any character’s minority is threatened or abused, the series portrays the abusers as morally wrong. The plight of the African American slaves, for instance, is embodied in the character Addy Walker, a slave girl who escapes the plantations of the South to the freedom of the north. The young readers sympathize with characters like Addy, for whenever the protagonists have good moral qualities, such as bravery or kindness, and are wrongfully abused, the readers tend to side with the protagonists.
Likewise, whenever injustice is inflicted on the lower classes, the readers side with whoever supports the mistreated characters. In the Samantha Parkington books, the Victorian aristocrat girl Samantha rescues her orphaned friend Nellie from working in a factory, where children’s hairs or fingers were caught in the machines, and Samantha’s family adopts her as their own.
Nowhere else in the series does kindness appear more gently, more sweetly than in the currents of postmodernism. Even the poor, the lesser-known, and the downtrodden are rendered as noble, and the readers cheer them on. As I look back at the trends of yesterday and anticipate the future ahead, I see that the rivers of the American Girl series will flow through our culture like the springs of cool fountains washing away the injuries of the past.