The story behind Kirsten's stories

March 18, 1997|By SUSAN REIMER

JANET SHAW is the unlikely mother of Kirsten Larson, a spunky 10-year-old who made the dangerous journey from her home in Sweden to a farm on the American frontier.

Janet Shaw is a poet and a novelist, and she is also the mother of three children who are not historical characters. Though she is not a historian and she is not a writer of children's books, she has found more success among the lip-gloss-and-hair-bob set than most novelists or poets ever enjoy among grown-ups.

Her six novels about Kirsten, one of the extraordinarily popular American Girl dolls, have sold millions of copies. And she packs 'em in when visiting classrooms and libraries on Kirsten's behalf.

"Writing for young readers is extraordinarily demanding," says Shaw, a Goucher College graduate who will return to the school to read from her grown-up books March 27.

"It is a very good training ground for writing better fiction for adults. Children don't read your books to do you a favor. They want to be fascinated. They want to identify with the characters. They are not patient with digression or introspection."

Shaw was teaching creative writing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison when she heard that Pleasant Rowland, creator of Samantha Parkington and Felicity Merriman and the American Girl doll tradition, was looking for a writer to tell the story of her third doll.

Shaw's previous manuscripts, as well as her sample chapters for Kirsten, were so unimpressive, Shaw says, that Pleasant Rowland gave her a crash course in writing children's novels and let her try again.

"I began to imagine the world through Kirsten's eyes and I became enthralled," says Shaw. "I guess they liked what I was doing because the kept me."

But enthralled isn't good enough in historical fiction. Kirsten's world -- immigration to the upper Midwestern American frontier of 1854 -- was meticulously researched before Shaw began to write the first of Kirsten's books, and the process took more than a year.

"We were trying to say, 'If you were Kirsten, if you were 9 years old in 1854, what would your life be like?' Not who was president. This is not history. But it is the history of a young girl's life.

"In Kirsten's case, the larger issues are the Scandinavian immigration and the effect on Native Americans. But it is also the day-to-day life as she lives it."

Kirsten and her sisters in the American Girl collection of historical dolls are enormously popular among modern 10-year-olds, but it is not because their lives are museum quality.

Like the other girls, Kirsten is not perfect. She makes mistakes. Big ones.

In the last book, Kirsten's disobedience of her mother results in the burning of their cabin. Her mother says the right thing, that people are more important than possessions. But the fact is, they have lost their new home in their new land.

Kirsten takes responsibility for what she has done and she tries to put things right. But she must also try to answer the larger question of the novel: "What is home? How do you find home? How do you make a new home?"

"The circumstances of Kirsten's life are very different from that of her readers. Her daily life is extraordinarily rigorous. Her family is struggling to become Americanized and make a contribution to their new country. Her friend Marta dies on the journey from Sweden. Her Native American friend must move farther west.

"But the feelings she has are not so different, and the children who read these books identify with those feelings. And they have a tremendous curiosity about where their ancestors came from, and they want to understand the lives that have gone before. This is much more interesting to them than a list of battles."

When Janet Shaw talks to school children, the children always ask if Kirsten is real, a question that reveals how real she is to them. She is real to Shaw, too, who continues to contribute short stories about Kirsten to American Girl magazine.

"She remains a 10-year-old girl to me, though her world is broadening and there are other people coming into it. She continues to remind me of the things I did as a child, my memories of being with my brother, my memories of my daughters growing up."

Shaw's two daughters were just a little older than Kirsten when their mother was writing her six novels, and it was not always to the history books that she went for her research.

"I would call frantically to Laura, 'Kirsten is lost in New York and she doesn't speak the language. What does she do now?"

"My daughter told me that she would draw a picture in the dirt.

"And, of course, that's exactly what Kirsten does."

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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