Katie had not yet turned two when I began receiving American Girl catalogues in the mail. They had become popular, I later found out, right after I entered high school and so I had missed them entirely. Looking through the catalogue I could see the definite appeal—history, literature, adorable dolls and clothing—but we were far from that stage at the time, and I wondered if we would delve in. It seemed to be a potentially expensive world, and my mind could not yet imagine my two-year-old taking care of that kind of a doll.

I kept an open mind, though, particularly as the historical American Girl series and dolls came highly recommended in time from a person whose taste I have always trusted completely, my friend Donna. She told me how she would read the books ahead of her granddaughter, making thoughtful margin notes as she went. In this way, the books became part of a larger dialectic between grandmother and granddaughter. I thought many times about how beautiful a reading experience that must be.

But where to start? And when? Many of these books target an audience slightly older than Katie; the book says ages 8 and up. When would the time be right?

Katie, however, has been a reader since age 4.5, and an independent reader at various progressing levels since Kinder. (She is now fully autonomous and avid. I started keeping a list of new chapter books she has read on her own since this past June, and she is currently at 37 books. This does not count all the chapter books she read before June, the chapter books she has re-read since June, or any other little reading she does of short stories, magazines, etc. Since school started, we keep quite busy, too, so her rate of consumption is actually even more rapid than it appears—she is a passionate, eager, and fast reader). At any rate, we had read many, many chapter books together already before she turned five-years-old (all of the Little House series, all of Harry Potter, several Roald Dahl, some White, all kinds of other things): we savor the reading time together and always have, and our discussions have been rich. We have read thousands of pages for thousands of hours, discussing words, practicing the art of reading—and it is showing. I fully believe the ONE THING we can do for our children, if we do no other enrichment at all, is to read, read, read, read, read to them. Constantly. Hours and hours each week. (And, while we read: to talk at length about what we read and how the author has constructed it; to explore how literary themes are played out across multiple books; to read in a variety of genres; to show them all the parts of the book like copyright, publishing info, table of contents, etc., to talk about word origins and definitions; to talk about organization and logic and presentation of what we’re reading; to discuss how the artwork augments the ideas of the text, to look for symbolism in the text and in illustrations…yes, even in short children’s books). If we do nothing else, the sheer hours spent in focused reading are going to grow those supple brains.

Right after Katie turned five, we happened to be in Costco in the pre-Christmas season. Costco carried at that time boxed sets of three or four of the historical girls. The boxed set included all six books that go with each girl, a very small version of the doll, and a game. For the books alone, let alone the miniature doll, the price was excellent. Katie saw them and became intrigued. When she wasn’t looking, I put the Caroline set in the cart and covered it with the kale salad and some sushi and saved it for Christmas; my mom went back and got the Rebecca set for Katie’s Christmas that year, also.

So in January 2013, we had two sets of American Girl books to enjoy. There are twelve historical girls sets; each girl has a six book set. We started with Rebecca, an immigrant growing up in New York City in 1914. We next read about Caroline, a girl growing up in Sacketts Harbor, New York when the War of 1812 breaks out.

From there we read about Addy, a courageous girl seeking her freedom in the midst of the Civil War in 1864.

Josefina came next: she is a Hispanic girl who lives in 1824 in New Mexico prior to the land’s ownership by the United States. Katie had a gift card for Amazon from her Nana for Christmas that year, and she chose to spend it on this set.

By the time Katie’s sixth birthday rolled around, we had read only these four girls; we would read a set and then take a month or so off to read other books together. Even though Katie was an autonomous reader at this time, one of our chief pleasures is reading together. We still read together, and probably will for many years to come. Even when it became clear that she could handle all the rest of the girls on her own, I wasn’t about to miss out on them! I find myself learning, too, more about American history as we go along. Plus, I want all the talking points with Katie: I want to read what she reads so we can share those words and thoughts together.

For her 6th birthday, Katie wanted to go to lunch at American Girl in Los Angeles and pick out an historical doll. At the time, she chose Caroline, and we have enjoyed her. She is a brave girl who smuggles an embroidered escape map to her father who is being kept in prison by the British, and learns how to sail, who helps her mother immeasurably while her father is imprisoned, and who helps to put out a fire at the family shipyard when the war comes close.

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Katie’s birthday lunch with Caroline, October 2013.

Then we were hooked. We had purchased Kit, a clever young lady growing up in the Great Depression in 1934, during Katie’s birthday celebration; a couple of months later, Katie received the Molly (WWII, 1944) books from my parents for Christmas. We were still reading a variety of books and conducting school as well, during this time; but in late spring I found the Kaya set of books for a mere $8.00 TOTAL from a secondhand seller on Amazon. Since most of the sets cost between $28 and $32, scooping those up required very little inner debate. Kaya is a Nez Perce girl who has a deep love for horses and respect for nature growing up in 1764.

By this time, we had five sets left and things began to get serious. Finishing all the girls became a summer bucket list item, especially when we discovered that several of the sets we needed were at the library. My mom bought the Samantha (1904, women’s rights) books for Katie (I forget the occasion); and I bought the Felicity set outright on a trip to American Girl in June, knowing that I would want to have Felicity (1774) in our home library for reference during our future studies of the Revolution.

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A trip to American Girl in Los Angeles in June this past year, celebrating the end of school with my younger cousin Lark and my Uncle Jeff, along with my mom and Eric

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Excitement in American Girl with Lark!

After finishing Samantha and Felicity, we polished off Kirsten (1854, pioneer and immigrant) from the library before our Oregon road trip.

We also finished Julie (San Francisco, 1974) by the end of July, getting the whole set at once from the library.

Then we checked out five of the six Cecile and Marie-Grace books (1853, during the yellow fever in New Orleans). They are the only set to split into two girls: they are friends, share a setting, come into each other’s books, and alternate books in the series. They also have two different authors (one who writes Cecile’s part of the story; one who writes Marie-Grace’s). This became a bit of an issue. We checked out the five in stock, but we were missing #2, the first book of Cecile’s. We waited for a few weeks, checking the library often. We didn’t want to start the set until we had them all; I deliberated about buying the set. Finally, I decided to call the book in from another location. Because of the delay, we didn’t get started on the set until after we were back at school.

Today, we finished our final book together, cuddling on the couch as we have often done during these 66 books. We have read only a few times when Brother has been awake; since those first Rebecca books, we have snuck time in when he has napped or after bedtime, or early in the morning after I run and before he wakes up and school starts. A few times, he has read with us. A few times we have read together while Eric plays with Boppa or his daddy. This has been our mother-daughter project and amazing form of bonding for us.

On her own, Katie has read many of the supplemental American Girl mystery novels featuring these characters, as well as the supplemental novels about their best friends. She has also read a few of the Girl of the Year books (Saige, Isabella). But the historical girls are ours, a common memory of hours spent learning together and “let’s-just-do-one-more-chapter” and “this is so good!” and “I can’t wait to see what happens!”

Although all of these girls have different personalities, all of them are courageous, confident (or learning-to-be-confident) young ladies who grapple with actual ethical decisions and always choose the right course. They respect and love their parents, they make difficult choices, they deal with loss, and they demonstrate true friendship. Many of them actively seek ways to help not only their families but also their communities. As we read, illustrations occasionally in the margins acquainted us with cultural objects or artifacts of the time; at the end of every book is a “Looking Back” section that explains some of the history and context for the events in that particular book in the series. The blending of fiction and nonfiction is perfect.

Katie’s favorite girl, she wants to tell you, is Felicity. She also adores Samantha and is hoping for Samantha for her birthday.

My favorite girl was Kit, particularly as I thought of Nana and learned many more details about the ways in which families in hard times conserved and made do. Some of their ideas were ingenious. I choked up several times when I realized what a sense of pride and dignity that generation possessed; even when they had nothing, they never blamed anyone else and they were loathe to ask for handouts. There was a sense that you didn’t complain or look to make others responsible for you; you simply did what you needed to do to survive and take care of your American Dream. I loved Molly, too, for that reason, though something about her personality didn’t quite click with mine at all points. Josefina’s generosity and love for her family spoke to me quite a bit. And I liked Julie quite a bit more than I thought I might.

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Matching mother-daughter “Kit” nightgowns

Finishing our last book had the potential to be emotional today, but we reminded ourselves that we can and will re-read the ones we own for sure as we continue elementary school and arrive at all those moments in American history. Those books are waiting for us to enjoy again together, as all good books wait for multiple readings. To have this foundation in Katie’s mind, too, is going to be a real benefit; now she has schema on which to hang information from her history textbooks. We can say, “Oh, remember when Felicity wasn’t sure if she would take tea after her lesson?” or “Oh, what did Samantha’s grandmother think at first about the protests of women to vote? And how did she change her mind?” or “Who did Addy have to leave behind when she ran away from the plantation? How did she feel? Why did she do it?” This common experience will make our studies so much more alive, I think, as we progress toward the upper elementary grades.

So my darling Katie, I wouldn’t trade these many hours of reading with you for anything. We have learned alongside each other, and often sharing a book is one of the most powerful forms of togetherness there is. American Girl has been well worth the investment of time. It seems like only yesterday I was looking at the catalogues and thinking about how far away that age all seemed. Well, we are here. I am so thankful I get to teach you and be with you every single day!

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