The Nose-Pickers vs. the American Girls

Thank you, Jenny, whoever
you are, for posting a comment yesterday that crystallized the source of my discomfort with the
American Girls, and even with those virtuous paragons of yore, Laura
Ingalls and Caddie Woodlawn and the kids of All of a Kind Family.

Because Jenny has captured, exactly, what nags at me about the American
Girls—they never pick their noses. Or go to the bathroom. Their flaws
and suffering are all part of a sort of yester-year school of flaws,
where characters feel bad about things like bragging too much or getting frustrated easily—flaws that don't seem all that shameful. And then they turn around and overcome this flaw at the
end of the book. And while this can be thrilling to read about, it's
also a bit dispiriting, because we are, all of us, a mess of flaws and
weaknesses, some of which we can sometimes overcome but others that
will dog us our whole lives.

People—and yes, I'm perhaps blurring the line between people and fictional characters, but that's how I play it, I think—are sloppy and difficult and often unpleasant. They do things that are shameful and terrible; they live with cowardice and fear and these things coexist with all those wonderful things like bravery and strength and conscience and integrity. That is what it
is, I think, to be human. As a professor of mine once said when someone protested at the
abstrusenesss of a particular poem (and I will paraphrase here;
he spoke much more eloquently): "Poems aren't meant to be simple. They are like people. Prickly and
difficult. They aren't there to be consumed but rather to be grappled
with, studied, appreciated, and, ultimately, loved."

OK, I'm not sure I said what I meant. And I will continue to appreciate the American Girls and the way they bring many interesting things into the conversation: bullying, slavery, poverty. Tomorrow I will try to get back to our regularly scheduled programming.

3 thoughts on “The Nose-Pickers vs. the American Girls

  1. I didn’t see Jenny’s comment, so I’m glad you pointed it out. You (both) make such an excellent point! When I think about the characters I enjoyed most, in stories for children as well as those for adults, they are the ones who have to struggle, the way I do, with fundamental flaws. By all means, I want to see characters grow and change and hopefully overcome something substantial. But if that leaves them without any dimension, any other little prickly annoying traits, it’s pretty hard for me to relate to. One of my favorite characters as a child was Ramona Quimby, I think for that very reason. No matter how much she improved or what she learned, she always had plenty left over, like me.
    My kids are a bit young for American Girls yet, but I think I will look them up when they get more interested. It sounds like they do address some interesting issues. But I won’t feel bad if I don’t love them!

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  2. I was going to mention Ramona too! I can’t remember if she actually picked her nose, but you can just tell she would have.

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  3. I think this is why my kid loooves Junie B. even though her grammar drives me nuts. She gets through the adventure and she possibly learns something, but she never stops being who she is. Unfortunately, she never learns to speak proper English, either.
    I like the American Girls because they tackle some historical issues in a very introductory way. We can read about Addie and get a conversation going about slavery and what happened and I can share a little or a lot depending on how close to bedtime we are and what she’s ready to know and understand. We recently read about Kit. Brynna was mostly uninterested while we were talking but the next day asked me if NiNi had lived through the depression. I told her to ask Granddaddy (my grandpa) and he could tell her some stuff.
    But, yes. They would ultimately be much, much better if the characters were a little more real. But then people wouldn’t buy the dolls. Because who wants a nose picking doll.

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