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Meet Valerie Tripp, the Writer Behind the Famous “American Girl” Doll Stories

December 3, 2015

One of my favorite parts of writing this blog has been interviewing different authors on this space. There’s something so exciting for me about finding out how writers create their beloved characters and how the stories are created. I feel like I really hit the jackpot with the writer I’m interviewing here today.

Valerie Tripp is the writer behind the beloved American Girl doll stories. Yes, that’s right — THE American Girl dolls that every little girl wants (including my own daughter, Sophie). I cannot tell you how excited I am that Valerie took the time to answer questions about what motivated her to write the American Girl books.

I’m a huge believer that books and reading helps kids learn about the world and hone their writing skills. Stories are the key to unlocking creativity and imagination. One of the reasons I like the American Girl doll concept is because it’s not simply about just owning a doll. I love that the product encourages reading and the dolls each come with a book (and have multiple books written about each of them).

So without further delay, here is Valerie to share how she started writing American Girl books, the process behind creating the dolls’ back stories, and what she hopes kids take away from the stories. {I LOVE her answers to why she became a writer of children’s books!} She also shares advice for young writers and her favorite American Girl dolls!

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Valerie Tripp, the author of the American Girl stories

How did you start writing American Girl stories?

It’s really a story of friendship: A year after I graduated from college, after I’d worked as a saleslady and a copy editor in Boston, I was hired by Pleasant Rowland to write songs, stories, plays, nonfiction essays, and skills book pages for a reading program called “The Superkids.” While Pleasant and I worked on the reading program together, we talked about the books we had loved as girls. Then Pleasant married and moved to Wisconsin and I married and moved to South Carolina. One day the phone rang and it was Pleasant. “I’ve had a great idea!” she said.Her great idea was American Girl: books about girls who lived in different periods of history written for readers of the same age as the characters.

It has been my life’s privilege and delight that Pleasant trusted me to be the first “voice” of American Girl. In 1983, I wrote the first outlines of the stories for Kirsten, Molly, and Samantha. As the years went on and American Girl grew, I wrote about Felicity, Josefina, and Kit as well as the characters’ best friends: Emily, Nellie, Elizabeth, and Ruthie. And now, Maryellen! So I began writing my American Girl books before American Girl existed, in a way, and it was all due to my friendship with Pleasant Rowland, the creator of American Girl. By the way, Pleasant and I still work on The Superkids; we’re revising it, which is tremendous fun.

What led you to that path?

Though I’ve always loved thinking up stories, writing is hard work for me. I’m persnickety and slow. I think I came to writing as a job because my favorite thing in the world is reading. (Don’t you love books and stories and just immersing yourself in the world of a book?) Writing allows me to use my imagination, and I am grateful to have a job that requires me to create something new all the time. It’s a great challenge.

Tell me about the process. Does American Girl tell you about a new doll, and then you create the story around her? Or do you inform the creation of the doll through your writing?

Sometimes, as with Kit who lived during the Great Depression, I suggest an historical period American Girl should have books about, and sometimes, as with Felicity, who lived during the American Revolution, the time period is an obvious mutual choice, and sometimes, as with Maryellen who grew up in the 1950s, American Girl calls and says, “We’re thinking of doing a character from the 50s. How would you tell that story?”

With Maryellen, my newest character, as with all the historical fiction characters in the American Girl series, the character comes before the doll. I begin with research, and research the books by immersing myself in the time period the character lives in. I read everything I can find both fiction and nonfiction, I watch movies, listen to music, travel to where the character lived, go to historical restorations, look at art, and talk to experts as well as people who lived during the period, too, if possible. Research doesn’t begin or end; it is a way of life. It turns out that the universe is full of the information you need – you just have to begin to pay attention to it! Once I feel that I have a grasp on the major issue of the period I know what my character’s personality will be. That is, my character’s personality is a girl-sized version of the major issue of the time. In Maryellen’s case, I felt that central dilemma was conformity vs. individuality. When I have that central dilemma, I write a description of the character, her family, her world, and what the plots of her stories might be. I send that to American Girl, and we’re off!

By the way, of course, my historical research is only half of the story. I love researching by observing the issues that matter to girls of today. Every story I write makes a connection between girls of today and the characters I write about from the past. Some issues have changed, but some issues about growing up are the same no matter when a girl lives. I am constantly impressed and inspired by the strength and creativity, intelligence, industriousness, and kindness of the women I read about in my research. Those women, and the girls I meet and get letters from today – my readers – are the inspiration for my stories. I think of my readers as the personification of promise. I take them seriously, and I write my stories to say to them, “Look how cool the world is! Be observant! Dive in! Have experiences – and remember them. You are creating the world we will all live in, so be thoughtful, alert, and compassionate.”

As always, I am grateful to my readers; they are my inspiration in every way. In Maryellen’s circumstances, their inspiration was specific: Maryellen has had polio, and that is because of the many, many girls I have met at schools, libraries, book stores, scout troops, and church groups or who have written to me and have asked me to write about a character who is differently abled. They asked me to show that the character’s physical or developmental challenge is not what defines her. It is but one trait among many that make her who she is as an individual. Because Maryellen had polio, one leg is weaker than the other and her parents worry about her heart and her breathing. But the stories make it clear that polio does not define Maryellen. She is also smart, left-handed, funny, thoughtful, energetic, redheaded, messy, and good at drawing. Polio has taught Maryellen compassion, determination, and never to judge by outward appearance. I know that my readers will understand that polio, rampant in the 50s, is a metaphor for any unfair wallop that life surprises you with.The One and Only-Maryellen Vol 1Do you have a few favorite stories?

Well, my favorite is usually the character I’m writing about at the time – IF she is cooperating with me! Sometimes a character and I have quite a tussle as I try to write the story! Right now, I am writing a mystery about Josefina, and we are having a great time together. But the answer to your question is, no, I don’t have one favorite character. I often think that my job is a healthy outlet for multiple personality disorder; it is a great pleasure to me to become each one of my characters and live in her world and speak in her voice and give her problems to solve.

I love all my girls! And I love all the books, but for different reasons. For example, I love “Brave Emily,” my book about Molly’s friend who was evacuated from London during the bombing at the time of WW2 because in “Brave Emily,” I was able to apologize to the universe for something I did when I was ten. I was taking clarinet lessons, and I was supposed to practice 45 minutes a day. Instead, I practiced 15 minutes a day, asked my mother to sign my practice book, then changed the 1 to a 4. I had Emily do the same thing in “Brave Emily.” It took me 40 years, but I was able to tell the world about my falsification, and feel better for being honest about it at last!

How did you become a writer of children’s books?

The reason WHY I write for young readers is because I think that there’s something about being involved in children’s literature that nurtures optimism. You just can’t help it. Children are the very embodiment of promise and potential (wacky though they are) and those of us lucky enough to be involved in children’s literature are right there, right on the spot, to witness how books and stories nourish their growth. I know that writing for children in-and-of-itself is an optimistic act of cheerful trust in transformation, a leap of faith that out of chaos will emerge order, story, maybe even that ping moment of recognition and connection. And all of us who are lucky enough to hand books and stories to children know that we are changing their lives. Is there anything more wonderful than saying to a child, “You’re going to love this book! And guess what? There’s more where that came from!”?

Children’s books leave an indelible imprint. They shape and color and influence the way a child perceives the world. The books we read as children serve as a measure of all the books that follow. Children’s books construct the readers’ characters, their view of the world, their ideas of the purpose and challenge of life. Books stretch children’s brains and hearts and give them a sense of themselves as unique beings with contributions to make. Books spark interests, feed passions, ignite ambitions. They are an ongoing reliable source of entertainment, education, rest, and refreshment. The books you give children introduce those children to characters and therefore, teach the children empathy and compassion. I saw where a recent study says fiction improves one’s ability to understand others.

And so does nonfiction, of course! Nonfiction stories have heart and emotion, in addition to of course providing facts that give a child a sense of mastery and curiosity, and give children a sense that they, too, can contribute to their community, whether it’s friends and family or the world. Nonfiction can teach children about other cultures, religions, tastes, mores, senses of humor so that they will connect and feel and hear and experience the excitement of discovery.

And writing books for children helps them learn to express themselves in written language so that they may connect with others and discipline themselves to articulate what is in their minds and hearts.

The Sky's the Limit-HRWhy do you enjoy writing American Girl books?

Pleasant has made my heart proud by saying that her favorite book is Josefina Learns A Lesson because it articulated something she had not realized, but loves, and that passage is when Tia Dolores says to Josefina: Reading is a way to hold onto the past, to travel to places you’ve never been, and to learn about worlds beyond your own time or experience.

If that sounds simple, but deceptively profound, that’s because it is. This is why I love historical fiction; it provides a vicarious experience. Emotion is the captivator, the driving force is friendship, and historical fiction can present subtleties, two sides – or more – to questions. Writing historical fiction has taught me that there is no one, right answer to most questions. Rather, conflict is healthy, ongoing, and can be fruitful. Though challenging, it’s also rewarding to acknowledge common perceptions and stereotypes about a period, and then proceed to explode them! For example, I worked hard to show how varied women’s roles were through Maryellen’s mother, her older sister Joan, and herself. People dismiss the 50s as a time of homogeneity, when in fact, its zeitgeist of “peace and prosperity” nurtured, nourished, and gave rise to tremendous growth and change.

The history as presented in my books has to be accurate and authentic. And that’s tricky, because as Toni Morrison says, “The past is not done, the past is not over, it is still very much in process.” And the past’s very unfamiliarity should not be diminished.

What do you hope kids will take away from your stories?

I hope readers will realize that THEY have important stories to tell too, and they are creating those stories every day, with every choice they make about how they act and how they are forming their character. Of course, I also hope my stories will make readers laugh, and that the characters I’ve created will be solid friends who’ll encourage readers to discover – joyfully! – their individuality. I was so aware of that while writing about Maryellen: It seemed to me that the central dilemma of the 1950s – conformity vs. diversity – will resonate with girls today, because it is their dilemma, too. Girls are barraged with messages and images. Just as Maryellen does, a girl today has to figure out who she is, all by herself alone, and how she can use her talents for self-expression AND be a generous, contributing member of her family and community. I hope Maryellen will bolster girls’ self-confidence and remind them to celebrate the ways they are different, and find how they can put their unique abilities to use for their own joy and to make the world better. Maryellen will say to readers, “Be yourself. Challenge assumptions!”

And how will the stories inform the way they interact with the doll?

No one has ever quite plumbed the depths of the mystery of how a child interacts with a doll. Sometimes the doll is the girl, sometimes she is her mother, sometimes she is her friend. Such imaginative flexibility and play fosters empathy. It teaches a child how to imagine how someone else might feel, and what a lovely life skill that is, isn’t it? I love it when girls tell me the adventures THEY have dreamed up for one of my characters through their doll play. It is as if the girls are my partners – they love my characters and bring them to life in ways beyond those I have imagined.

Sophie and Maryellen American Girl

What advice do you have for writers who want to make an impact in children’s lives?

The stories we give children must be fueled by understandable humor, shared experience; and common aspirations. They must delight with relatable mischief, joy, and friendship. We assume we’re doing children a favor by giving them books that have obvious connections to their lives. But I’d like to challenge that assumption, albeit gently. I recently read a study about resilience — why some children survive and thrive in terrible circumstances — and a reliable adult figure is key, but so too is imagination. Imagination, which is of course a branch of hope, is the ability to imagine different outcomes, different circumstances, a different life, a different self. So shouldn’t books stretch a child? Anyway, we don’t know what will form the bridge or forge the connection and we shouldn’t underestimate our child readers. Engage children readers where they are, yes, meet their interest, ability, comprehension, and background existing knowledge. But above all, respect them.

Readers are smart enough to understand that in the Kit books, the Depression is a metaphor for any undeserved whack life hits you with. Readers saw that my character Josefina’s aunt Tía Dolores was like a stepmother – so they understood Josefina’s divided loyalties. Molly’s dad went away to war, and their own parents went away to war or to look for jobs. These young readers are sharp. I believe if the emotion is genuine, the specific is less important. I’m not particularly interested in a story about a person like me. Jeeze Louise, I live with me every day! It is a self-fulfilling prophecy and it is dulling and self-defeating to say that children only want to read about children like themselves. It’s worse to say that the stories they read have to be written by someone like themselves, too. That’s how we end up in us/them mindsets.

So I’d say to aspiring writers: Write what’s in your mind and heart.

Valerie, thank you SO MUCH for answering my questions and for bringing these girls to life!

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Disclosure: This is NOT a sponsored post. I received a Maryellen doll and books from American Girl as part of the research for this post. The idea for interviewing Valerie Tripp, the questions asked, and my thoughts about children’s literacy and the American Girl dolls and books are entirely my own.

3 Comments leave one →
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