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In 1990, aback I was in aboriginal grade, a children’s book columnist alleged Valerie Tripp visited my school. She was there to allocution about a new alternation she had accounting for a four-year-old startup called American Girl. The company’s mission was to broadcast books about girls active in altered periods of American history—like the Pioneer Era or the Revolutionary War—and advertise dolls based on anniversary character.
Tripp had been brought on to advance the aboriginal characters of the series. From the start, my admired was Molly McIntire, a 9-year-old active through Apple War II. I begin it amazing that Tripp was accommodating to portray the acrid realities of Molly’s life: Molly’s ancestor had been beatific to the advanced curve of the war, but he hadn’t accounting home in a while. She was afraid he ability never appear back. Best adults in my activity were active authentic me from difficult things, and yet the American Babe books advised me like I was a capable, able actuality who could handle concepts like warfare and mortality.
I afresh batten to Tripp again, 28 years afterwards I aboriginal met her as an 8-year-old. I acicular out how the books were accommodating to accouterment capacity like bullwork and adolescent labor—issues that are still rarely addressed in books targeting accouchement aloof starting elementary school. “This comes from account for the reader,” Tripp tells me. “I acquainted that it was my job to assure my clairvoyant that difficult things will appear to them, abundant like they happened to Molly. You’re activity to acquaintance big changes in your lifetime and you’re not activity to end up area you began. But here’s the thing: You will be all right.”
That was an allotment message, one that I appetite to canyon on to my daughter, who has aloof angry four. Aback my babe will anon be able to dig into the Molly belief herself, I accept amid my aboriginal books (which Tripp active about three decades ago) and put them on her bookshelf, so they’re there aback she’s accessible for them. But aback I dug about the American Babe website to accretion a Molly doll, I begin that the appearance had been discontinued six years ago. In fact, the absolute American Babe cast bears little affinity to the one I aboriginal encountered as a child.
American Girl—which was founded by abecedary Pleasant Rowland in 1986 and again acquired by Mattel in 1998—has acquired above its roots in actual fiction. Afterwards decades of growth, the brand’s sales accept been in chargeless abatement for the aftermost few years. In 2018 alone, sales alone by 28% compared to 2017. In adverse to Molly, the brand’s accepted Babe of the Year, Blaire Wilson, lives in our own time and aspires to be a farm-to-table chef. In her book, Blaire’s bigger claiming is award time for her best acquaintance while additionally allowance to plan a bells on her family’s farm.
American Babe still sells some $98 actual dolls whose belief are set in altered periods of America’s past, but today it additionally offers added all-encompassing dolls that aren’t actual audible from others on the market. There’s a band of $60 babyish dolls for toddlers alleged Bitty Baby, which accept no adventure absorbed to them at all. Four years ago, American Babe launched a new cast of $60 dolls for preschoolers alleged Wellie Wishers, who alive in the present day and advise kids about affinity and friendship. For $98, you can additionally architecture a babyish from scratch—customizing its beard color, adenoids shape, and bark tone—to attending absolutely like your child. (American Babe dolls accept consistently been on the added big-ticket end of the toy market: The aboriginal babyish and book admixture amount $82 in 1986, which is about $150 today adapted for inflation.)
It shouldn’t accept appear as a abruptness that the American Babe of my adolescence has morphed into article else. It has been three decades, afterwards all, aback I aboriginal met Molly. But allotment of me is cornball for the past. I’m not the alone ancestor who grew up with American Babe and is now revisiting the cast as an adult, partly because I accept a adolescent of my own. In February this year, two historians in their thirties launched the American Babe Podcast, which goes aback to the aboriginal books from the 1980s and 1990s, and unpacks them.
“The bodies who are fatigued to what we do (on the podcast) affiliated actively with a authentic set of actual belief that helped ascertain who we are,” says Allison Horrocks, one of the show’s hosts. “We allocution jokingly about a appearance like Blaire. But at the aforementioned time, I’m not a adolescent person, so alike admitting Blaire does not bell with me, I accept she could bell with a altered generation.”
American Babe is tasked with a catchy business challenge: It must win over today’s accouchement by creating dolls, content, and adventures that bell with them, while additionally acceptable over their parents, who like me, are admiring for the cast that shaped their own childhood. And based on American Girl’s banking woes, it may be disturbing to babyish to the needs of two actual altered ancestors of consumers.
In 1990, architect Pleasant Rowland launched a band of babyish dolls awash through American Girl, alpha a about-face abroad from an absolute focus on actual fiction. By the backward 1990s, American Babe had become awfully popular, raking in annual revenues of $300 amateur a year (or about bisected a billion dollars today, factoring inflation). Aback Mattel purchased the aggregation from architect Pleasant Rowland for $700 million in 1998, it connected churning out dolls that didn’t appear absorbed to “stories” or actual eras.
“The basal apriorism is that about the time of the acquisition, there was a movement appear dolls that resemble you,” Horrocks says. “I admired that in the aboriginal years, the books accustomed you to accommodated girls whose lives were not at all like yours, but were additionally agnate to you in added ways. And I anticipate that has afflicted with the new stories.”
Mattel—a $4.5 billion toy association which additionally owns Barbie and Hot Wheels—has spent the aftermost two decades attempting to accumulate the American Babe cast relevant. That has meant not aloof reimagining the dolls and stories, but developing new means for accouchement to appoint with those dolls and stories.
Jamie Cygielman, who became the accepted administrator of the American Babe cast in May and ahead ran business at Barbie, credibility out that consumers apprehend altered things today than they did 30 years ago. For instance, in a retail mural area Instagrammable pop-up shops like the Museum of Ice Cream are badly accepted with kids, Cygielman believes that creating immersive in-store adventures is actual important. Mattel began architecture out food anon afterwards the acquisition, and today, at the brand’s ample flagship food in Chicago and New York, you can not alone acquirement dolls, you can additionally acquirement adventures for the dolls.
These adventures actualize new means for accouchement to collaborate with their doll, and they additionally actualize an absolutely new acquirement stream. For $10 barter can get their doll’s beard styled and for $15, they can accord their babyish a spa day, complete with cucumber stickers for her eyes and a affected face mask. Cygielman says the cast has aloof launched a babyish hospital too. “If you appetite to accompany your babyish in for a wellness visit—like girls do aback they go to their doctor—they can do that,” she says. “There’s a little eye abject to get their eyes checked, and they can get glasses for the dolls.” (Eyeglasses and sunglasses for dolls amount $10 a pop.)
And while American Babe still publishes belief to go with some dolls, the cast is no best conjugal to books as the alone agent for storytelling. Some food accept a anecdotal component, for instance. The cast has a pop-up in New York alleged Julie’s Groovy World, that takes accouchement into the activity of a 1970s appearance alleged Julie Albright, area they can analyze accouterments from that period, like rotary phones and VW Beetles from the era.
Cygielman says the cast has additionally been developing agreeable for the American Babe YouTube channel, like how to accomplish DIY dresses for dolls and simple recipes. “The belief we acquaint through American Babe are absolutely about the rites of girlhood,” she says. “Pleasant Rowland set them adjoin the ambience of assorted actual periods, but what’s constant is the things that are important to girls as they’re growing up, whether that’s their friends, family, or arduous the cachet quo. The catechism is how we accompany these belief to activity today by deploying agreeable our chump abject will accretion accordant and exciting.”
Yet these efforts to accomplish activity for the cast through food and agenda agreeable haven’t resulted in added sales. American Babe has apparent a abatement in sales for years now, and 2019 hasn’t been an exception, with sales bottomward 32% in the aboriginal division compared to the aforementioned division aftermost year and 22% in the second. In March this year, American Babe bankrupt two food in the Mall of America in Minnesota and Boston, abrogation the aggregation with 17 actual stores. And while Mattel has managed to abate the Barbie authorization and Hot Wheels is thriving, American Babe is finer boring its ancestor aggregation down. In 2018, Mattel’s sales alone by 8% from the year before.
In some ways, American Girl’s efforts to boom up sales accept followed the playbook of added toy companies. Many of the brand’s accepted products, like the Bitty Baby, Wellie Wishers, and customized dolls, are agnate to added articles that abide on the bazaar at abundant lower amount points. (Baby dolls are all-over in the toy aisle, and for $19.97, you can buy a customizable babyish on Amazon.) While American Girls’ in-store adventures are immersive, so are those at the Disney and Lego stores. “Now the cast is affairs a lot of artefact that absolutely isn’t differentiated abundant in agreement of purpose,” Allison Horrocks, the podcaster, says.
Ultimately, the affair that has consistently set American Babe afar from its competitors is its accent on actual storytelling. And conceivably abiding to these roots will accord the cast its best adventitious of continuing out in a awash bazaar and abandoning some of its losses. American Babe still releases actual characters, although they are a abundant abate admeasurement of the business compared to the pre-Mattel days. Cygielman says American Babe is still absolutely committed to allowance accouchement action the joys and challenges of adolescence abundant like Valerie Tripp did in the actual aboriginal books she wrote for the series. And aback American Babe does absolution a new actual doll, it invests a lot of analysis in the process, and tries to accomplish her adventure accordant to the issues girls are currently facing.
While the aboriginal actual dolls Pleasant Rowland launched were popular, American Babe faced some criticism for not actuality assorted enough. It wasn’t until 1993 that the cast featured its aboriginal African American character, Addy Walker, who able from bullwork with her ancestors during the Civil War. Afterwards the acquisition, Mattel seems focused on cogent belief that beset a broader arrangement of American experiences.
Cygielman credibility to Melody, a appearance appear in 2016. Her adventure is set in 1964 Detroit at the acme of the Civil Rights movement. She’s a 9-year-old African American babe who is adjoin racism directly. At a time of increased racial tensions in America during the Trump presidency, Melody’s adventure is decidedly poignant. And indeed, the cast itself hoped girls would be aggressive by Melody to accouterment amusing inequalities arch on. “With the attempt for adequation and amends still accustomed today, Melody bridges the accomplished and present for girls and shows them how accustomed bodies can do amazing things aback they appear calm to accomplish a allusive difference,” American Babe said in a account aback the babyish debuted.
According to Cygielman, the cast was acutely advised about crafting Melody’s story, authoritative abiding it was not alone accurate, but additionally represented the authentic point of appearance of an African American babe active through that moment in history. The aggregation created a six-person advising lath that was complex with every aspect of Melody’s development, from the adventure to her appearance accessories. Lath associates included the backward Horace Julian Bond, the administrator emeritus of the NAACP lath of directors, and several advisers of African American studies. The columnist of Melody’s book, Denise Lewis Patrick, grew up during the Civil Rights era. “She was addition who had immediate acquaintance as a adolescent African American babe during that time,” Cygielman explains.
Horrocks believes that this affectionate of careful, heavily researched storytelling is what has consistently set American Babe apart. It’s additionally these authentic actual narratives that fabricated the dolls account their actual aerial amount point. In added words, there’s an altercation to be fabricated that the cast ability do bigger if it invested added heavily in the actual storytelling instead of architecture busy in-store babyish hospitals. “American Babe acclimated to be article characteristic because of its actual roots,” says Horrocks. “Parents acquainted like they could absolve the amount because it was educational.”
Perhaps the cast could alike accompany aback some of the earlier dolls from the archive. “A lot of the characters who were best accepted amid women who would now be accepting accouchement themselves accept been put in the vault,” Horrocks says. “I could see there actuality a longer-term action of accepting a delayed absolution of these characters and putting them on the market. I anticipate they’d do well.”
While Horrocks and I would adulation to see American Babe acknowledgment to its roots, it is additionally accurate that the cast faces abrupt challenges in a toy bazaar that’s added apprenticed by cyberbanking toys and characters from cine franchises. Some of the top toys this Christmas accommodate a Playmobil alcazar featuring Frozen 2 characters and a Monopoly set that allows kids to use articulation commands to play. But some parents are blame aback adjoin these high-tech toys in favor of old-school ones that animate altered kinds of learning. Melissa & Doug, which makes board toys for adolescent children, has been thriving; a new aggregation alleged Lovevery has accustomed allotment from top Silicon Valley investors to actualize analog toys for kids from the time they are born. Aback these accouchement access elementary school, their parents will be attractive for developmentally adapted and educational toys for them. If American Babe continues to advance in its actual storytelling, it could actual able-bodied be what they’re attractive for.
For my part, I’d adulation to buy my babe a Molly babyish in a few years and watch her acquaintance her adventure the way I did. The bewitched affair about the American Babe books is that they didn’t aloof acquiesce you to asperse yourself in the past; they fabricated you apprehend that you too were a allotment of history. In some ways, this was the point of the accomplished American Babe endeavor. “I was aggravating to acquaint the reader: You’re authoritative choices that will accept an aftereffect on history,” Tripp tells me. “You’re far added affecting than these fabulous characters. You charge to booty yourself actively and see yourself as a amenable amateur because you accept a role to comedy in the world.”
Tripp’s bulletin came through loud and bright aback I apprehend the Molly books, and it shaped who I became as an adult. It’s a assignment that doesn’t get old.