Magazine editors get a lot of free stuff: beer, wine and liquor, music CDs and movie DVDs, bath and body products, jewelry and invitations to grand openings with complimentary food and drink. Marketing and publicity departments shower us with all these goodies, hoping for what’s known in the business as “earned media.” I swear that's what it's called.
While these attention-grabbing gifts are fun when the envelopes and boxes show up on my desk, I usually pass them on to other writers and editors who might actually include them in an article. When the goodies box is food-related, we invite the whole staff to taste test the product with us. The wine-infused ice cream from Metcalfe’s Sentry was a welcome late-afternoon treat. And the gourmet cupcakes from the new bakery/café on the east side were out of this universe.
Once or twice a year I receive a box of new books from American Girl in nearby Middleton and founded by Pleasant Rowland. While most Madisonians know Rowland as one of the city’s leading arts philanthropists (along with her husband, Jerry Frautschi) and the brains behind our beloved Concerts on the Square, she made her fortunes building a business that caters to the wholesome hearts and minds of little girls. The historical character dolls and educational books and products are a refreshing antidote to Barbies and Bratz Girlz, whose anatomically impossible body parts and purposely misspelled words help turn out sassy, body conscious teenyboppers rather than smart, confident young women. Just sayin'.
The latest American Girl offerings include a new doll, Rebecca Rubin, who joins a terrific collection spanning American history from 1764 to 1974. Rebecca also stars in a six-book series about growing up as a first-generation Jewish immigrant in New York City in 1914. In Meet Rebecca, readers are introduced to an adventurous young girl with a flair for the dramatic whose parents and grandparents were among the mass exodus of Jews from an increasingly prejudiced Eastern Europe. The book is well-written and beautifully illustrated and, like all the American Girl dolls, historically accurate right down to the stoop she and her four siblings likely lingered on outside the family’s front door on the Lower East Side.
“The most enjoyable part of preparing to write the stories was spending several days in New York City…,” writes author Jacqueline Dembar Green. “We walked the streets that would have been part of Rebecca’s world. We toured the cramped apartments preserved by the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, were invited into a period apartment like Rebecca’s fictional one, and toured the Coney Island Museum.”
Another youth novel newly released is the latest in American Girl’s mystery series. In Clues in the Shadows by Middleton author Kathleen Ernst, World War II-era’s Molly is the main character out to catch the troublemaker wreaking havoc on the Red Cross drive she volunteers for.
What I love most about the AG books—and what most girls probably like least—is the “Looking Back” history essays at the end of every book that provide more context to the setting in which the stories take place. The Molly mystery essay explains how the government enlisted all Americans, not just soldiers, in the war effort, from children’s volunteer drives to women working outside the home for the first time. Rebecca’s “Looking Back” essay includes a glossary of Yiddish terms used throughout the book. Reading them felt like I was back in high school reading Cliffs Notes for Moby Dick rather than the real Moby Dick, without the guilt.
The Rebecca doll and book series was released this past Sunday, the same day my daughter turned eight, so I took Meet Rebecca and the rest of the AG shipment home for her to be my “taste-tester." She is now, as my husband likes to say, "in the wheelhouse" of American Girls' target age range. True to form, my little sweet-tooth smiled at the Rebecca and Molly books, then went straight for the fun: the activity books the company does so well. Here’s a sampling.
Dazzling Desserts Dubbed “awesome” by my kiddo, this recipe and treat decorating book is, let me just say myself, SO COOL. It comes with five cookie cutters, including one in the shape of a cute little dress, and some of the coolest sprinkle, spread, color, cut and devour ideas ever.
Is This Normal? Girls’ questions, answered by the editors of The Care & Keeping of YOU is a Dear Abby Q&A for the eight-to-twelve “tween” set. “Look, Mom: advice for nail biters!” my daughter yelped. Sadly, she was referring to MY nasty habit and proceeded to read me the sage advice about doodling, squeezing a stress ball, and other fixes. They don’t work, but then again I didn’t have this book for counsel when I was gnawing away in second grade.
a smart girl’s guide to her parents’ divorce Unfortunately, I didn’t have this book as a kid either, and thumbing through the contents, I see I could’ve used a chapter or two when divorce happened to me—even as a grown-up college kid. I have to say that I was impressed that AG doesn’t shy away from the really rough and often scary issues that can surround a family split. The book tackles fathers who leave and don’t come back and domestic violence. The final page is a wonderful “girl’s bill of rights” that touches on the books mains themes of staying healthy, safe and happy—and most of all, trusting your instincts.
Good stuff. And for me: free!