Ingenious idea links books, merchandise Dolls: A major corporation saw the value in the popular American Girls series and paid $700 million for the privately held Pleasant Co.

Education Beat

July 26, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

ONE OF THE most popular series of books for young girls has been sold to a toy company for a very pretty penny -- $700 million.

Parents who have paid hundreds of dollars for American Girls historical books and the dolls and accessories that accompany them will understand the appeal of the privately held Pleasant Co., a mail-order publisher and doll manufacturer purchased this month by the giant Mattel Inc.

There's something charming, even magical, about the Pleasant Co.'s dolls that sets them apart from Mattel's billion-dollar teen-ager, Barbie. Pleasant Rowland, a former teacher and reporter who launched the girls in 1986, has consistently emphasized the educational value of what she sells, though it's clearly the merchandise that sells the literature, not the other way around.

Rowland had an ingenious idea, which is paying off big-time. It's as if Nancy Drew had been accompanied by a Nancy Drew doll, a complete wardrobe, an exact replica of Carson Drew's roadster, a miniature Nancy Drew flashlight and a historically accurate miniature grandfather clock as described in "The Secret of the Old Clock."

Some parents I know have banned American Girls dolls, lest appetites be whetted for more -- and still more -- of the line of six historical dolls, each costing $82 -- a paperback book is thrown in -- not to mention the collection for younger children (Bitty Babies) and the American Girl of Today, who comes in 20 combinations of hair color, skin tone and facial features.

The historical dolls include Felicity (1774), a "spunky, spritely colonial girl"; Josefina (1824), "an Hispanic girl of heart and hope"; Kirsten (1854), "a pioneer girl of strength and spirit"; Addy (1864), "a courageous [black] girl of the Civil War"; Samantha (1904), "a bright Victorian beauty," and Molly (1944), "a lovable schemer and dreamer." All are marketed for girls between ages 7 and 11.

Each doll comes with a set of six books of historical fiction, which can be purchased separately for $34.95 soft-cover, $74.95 hard-cover. The books have been widely praised for their historical accuracy. Each concludes with a section called "Looking Back," which reviews the lives and times of the era represented by the doll.

Public libraries are doing a steady business in American Girls, but the books have been slow getting into schools, perhaps because of the commercial connection. However, educators I know who are familiar with the books say they're no worse than what passes for history in most elementary schools.

In "Felicity Learns a Lesson," for example, Felicity is sent to Miss Manderly's house to learn to be a polite gentlewoman. Sisters from England join the instruction in serving tea, one becoming Felicity's best friend.

But Felicity's father decides that the King's tax on tea is unfair and refuses to sell or drink the stuff. "How can Felicity continue the tea lessons she loves and be loyal to her father?" asks the teaser in the American Girls catalog.

Along with the book and doll, you can buy Felicity's jacket and petticoat ($20), a miniature Windsor writing chair ($55), a tea caddy with cup and saucer ($22) and a writing ensemble complete with hornbook, quill pen and inkwell ($18). That's just for one book in a series of 36.

Or, for free, you can check out "Felicity Learns a Lesson" from the public library. Thirty-eight of the 63 copies in Baltimore County libraries were in circulation Thursday.

I don't want to be too hard on the American Girls. They are clearly a wide cut above Barbie, who in the early '60s spawned a short-lived series of novels published by Random House. Ironically, the American Girls were conceived by Rowland a dozen years ago to counter the busty miss, who only recently has been redesigned to make her proportions more realistic.

"As a parent," says Roseann Maher Curran, a Cockeysville mother of two girls, "I can attest to the fact that the American Girls books are excellent. They key in on historical details and give you a real sense of what was happening in America at the time.

"Another plus is that there's always a lesson learned. The girls get in trouble and have to make choices. They always make the right choice."

But why not, if reading is the objective, simply lead the girls to the great children's classics? It would save a bundle.

"There's room for both," says Curran. "We do both, and the dolls, with their quality and attention to detail, do help make a historical connection with the stories. Besides, I'm not embarrassed to say I enjoy playing with them."

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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