25 May 2011


Meet . . . My Latest Bargains!

In an earlier post, I mentioned getting most of my "teaching materials" from used bookstores. I'm lucky to be able to buy them at bargain prices because I need a lot!

Anyone who is learning a new language, like my tutees Star Shaker and Skid Breaker, needs to devote some time to reading "real world" texts in that language. But it can be a real challenge to find texts that fit the student who has to read them. Remember that the books have to be both easy enough for the student to read on his own, yet challenging enough to get him to stretch himself a little. And then they have to be interesting. Who wants to read a boring book?

Thanks to a combination of superior "browsing skills" (part of every good reader's skill set) and sweet serendipity, I stumbled upon some books that proved to be a beautiful fit for Star Shaker.

Meet the American Girl books!

Written for girls between seven and ten years old, and full of playful historical details, these four American Girl books--the introductions to Colonial girl Felicity, Pioneer girl Kirsten, Victorian girl Samantha, and Great Depression girl Kit--made excellent reading exercises for Star Shaker, as well as her introduction to unfamiliar episodes in the Anglophone culture she is studying along with the language. (Ever hear the expression, "To learn a language is to learn a culture"? It's so true!)

She and I did a whole unit on the Great Depression after reading Meet Kit: watching some Clara's Kitchen episodes to learn about Great Depression cooking, and even singing the WWI song which gave Kit her nickname, Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag. These activities had the added value of making her decode spoken English in another accent and polish up her own accent. ("Sung English" is the secret weapon in any ESL arsenal.)

Not bad for the price of a bargain book, aye? I'm happy to have these four (so far!) American Girl books as teaching materials.

And that's the end of this week's Bargain Book Bonanza proper . . . but of course I have some more things to say. Feel free to skip the rest of this post if you'd rather not read my blather . . . =P

* * *

If you live in the US, then you already know that the American Girl Historical novelettes were written to help sell a line of dolls. Which is not a problem for me! Didn't I grow up watching a cartoon produced for the sole purpose of promoting a direct competitor to Mattel's Barbie?

Then and Now

We all know that if you give a girl a doll, she'll make up a story--heck, a whole history--for it. What the Jem! cartoon and American Girl books do is reverse the play process: they make up the story first and then provide the dolls. It's really great marketing, yes . . . but I wonder whether dolls with prepackaged characters hinder rather than help a child's imagination.

My second reason for juxtaposing the Jem dolls and the American Girl dolls is that they share a similar obscure status in the non-American country where I live. Jem! the cartoon wasn't syndicated over here until the very late 80s because Habro-Sunbow had no plans to sell the doll to Filipina girls. And American Girl books will only ever be found in used bookstores that get a lot of their stock from the US, because there will never be any local marketing of the dolls. But there is one great difference between the cartoon and the books: the former can stand alone, while the latter seem unable to.

Does it then follow that they are bad books?

Let's not be too hasty! Outside of an ESL lesson, I probably wouldn't recommend them to any other girls I know . . . but that's mostly because there are so many other books they could read.

And there is something about these novelettes that reminds me of Juvenile Series novels (which you know I love). I'd like to explore that further and to see if there is anything to the resemblance.

Since my Baby-sitters Club Project has been put on hold until I find BSC #6: Kristy's Big Day, I shall review some American Girl books in the meantime. And while I'm doing that, consider the jury out!

Image Source: a) Jem, Kimber, Aja and Shana dolls, c) American Girl dolls


Jillian said...

American Dolls!!!

Having grown up there in the Philippines, I didn't really know much about American Dolls. But my cousin, who's from Michigan, would always bring her books and dolls as hand me downs when she comes to visit.

I've always liked them. However, I definitely get what you mean; If I was a parent, I think that if I had to line up book titles for my kids to read, this wouldn't be in front of the line! It would be somewhere there, but it won't be priority or anything.

Lesa said...

That is a lot of bang for the bargain! DeLynne always recommends reading narratives in the the language one is trying to learn too. Cool that you found books perfect for your tutee but even cooler that you help your students learn in so many interesting ways.

Hmm, which came first: the book or the doll--- never considered that one. I missed out on American Girl books and I've never heard of Jem! but I like anything that promotes reading. Too bad American Girl books weren't out when I was in Elem because I loved reading historical stories about kids.

Thanks for joining in BBB!

Enbrethiliel said...


Jillian -- I didn't get any of them as hand-me-downs. I guess my cousins just weren't into the American Girl dolls. =P

Lesa -- Oh, we know that the dolls definitely preceded the books. It's something the books will have a hard time living down, if they are to stand alone . . . but I hear that the dolls are really loveable and fun. =)

lisa :) said...

I love how the picture you posted of the book covers really showcases how the cover art changed over time too. I think the upper left one was one of the originals that I remember from my childhood.

I haven't thought much about their marketing tie-ins but I have to say that probably the hugest difference between Jem and the AG dolls is their cost. I seem to remember that the former was on scale with Barbie (probably $8-$15 USD) where as AG dolls I believe start around $100 USD (and that's not even counting all those lovely accessories.....) Granted the AG's are a lot larger, but I think in terms of a toy and a collectible they are definitely geared more towards upper-middle to higher class families and children where as Jem and Barbie were more the everygirl (though in many cases still a privilege to have) toy.

Back to my point... when I was young I really liked the American Girl books but obviously the dolls were something I knew I could never have. I liked that the books offered a way to "visit" the characters and enjoy the different time periods. Since I didn't have the dolls, I could enact their stories in my mind - hopefully that just means I was destined to be a book nerd and not a pathetic child without the toys that some other kids had. ;)

Enbrethiliel said...


That's a good point, Lisa! I knew about the pricing in the back of my head, but I didn't make the connection yet--so I'm glad you did.

It's disconcerting to think that there are many real American girls who could never afford an American Girl doll. That seems a little wrong. =(

I was just reading Meet Samantha last night. She asks Grandmary for a doll that happens to be really expensive, and Grandmary says something like, "We'll see . . ." Of course Samantha gets the doll, being the child of privilege that she is--but the twist is that she later gives the doll away to Nellie, who is clearly enchanted with a toy her parents could never afford to give her. Oh, the cognitive dissonance I feel, now that I know that Nellie in that scene mirrors many of of the girls who read the books! =S

Anyway, I never had a Jem doll, but was also content to act out the cartoon scenarios in my mind (and later, on my guitar!). No, you and I are definitely not pathetic! =) And I don't think we're really nerdy, either. Just differently cool. ;-)

lisa :) said...

The funny think is I'm now imagining modern day suburban American children reenacting the Samantha-Nellie scene. I think if any child today was kindhearted enough to give away an American Girl doll to a friend that did not have one, rather than the sweetly emotional scene drawn in the book it would more likely result in a battle of parents and their lawyers arguing the inexcusable offense of a minor gifting away something of such monetary value. ;)

Lesa said...

$100 a doll!! If they had existed in the 70s, I wouldn't have had one either and would've been too ashamed to ask for something so extravagent. And if I had a little girl right now, she wouldn't be getting one either. $100-- that is just insane. I thought they looked about $25 worth of doll.

Enbrethiliel said...


Lisa -- Your scenario reminds me of an anecdote I heard from one of my Marketing teachers about two mothers getting into a screaming fight over a Happy Meal toy. =S

Lesa -- Of course, the exorbitant price just makes them more desirable. ;-) Makes you wonder about what's really behind that marketing campaign!

Now, honestly, until you and Lisa actually said that $100 is a LOT of money to pay for a doll, I thought that most American parents were okay with paying that much for a toy. (Plus accessories!)

Salome Ellen said...

My daughters never had American Girl dolls, but they read the books. (Having no TV, I was not aware of Jem.) But as a girl in the early 60's I had Madame Alexander Little Women dolls which cost about $25 then, which I suspect is an equivalent price. Although in this case the book definitely came first! ;-D

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks for your input, Ellen!

It's interesting to me that two people have already said that they (or someone they knew) read the books but didn't get the dolls. At the moment, the books seem like glorified doll catalogues (and indeed, the older ones come with order forms you can send away at once), and I imagine that girls who read them put a lot of pressure on their parents to get them the dolls, too. (Of course, I also imagined that American parents think $100 is a perfectly reasonable price for a doll, so I may need to be set straight on a lot of points!) So how does that work out?

Katie said...

Oh my gosh, Kristy's Big Day was my favorite Baby-sitters Club book ever. The cover fell off my copy, I read it so many thousands of times!

I also had the Molly doll from American Girl - I remember it being a big deal to have such an expensive doll - and read all of her books, but when I've tried to go back and read them as an adult, I've just found them so boring.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, now you're making me even more excited for Kristy's Big Day! I hope I can stumble across it soon!

And there is something boring about the American Girls books. =P The little novelettes seem like they could be one or two chapters of a longer story. I'm not crazy about the format--especially since the text is so secondary to doll sales--but I still think they're worth a closer look . . . at least until I get my BSC Reading Project up and running again!!!