The characters in the American Girl historical fiction series are metaphors for the time period they live in, said Valerie Tripp ’73, the main author of the popular books, who spoke at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea on Wednesday.
“[The characters’] experience is a girl-sized version of what is going on,” Tripp said. “I love taking those major things and then boiling them down to the girl level.”
For example, Felicity Merriman, whose story is set in colonial Williamsburg learns to gain independence through discipline, Tripp said — symbolic of America’s own struggle of independence.
Tripp, a member of the first coeducational class at Yale College, spoke to a mostly female audience of 30 about her experience at Yale, the writing process, and her career with the American Girl books, which she said has given her the opportunity to do interesting research and incorporate aspects of her own life. She also discussed her opinions on the changing roles of young girls and boys in society: Images of young girls are increasingly sexualized in modern society, she said, and boys lack nurturing environments to explore unconventional interests.
“Nothing is wasted when you are a writer or in any other kind of creative endeavor,” Tripp said. “No matter what happens to you, it’s all grist for your mill. That’s a great way of being in the world. It gives me an excuse to be adventurous and curious and a great participator in life.”
The American Girl Company was founded by Pleasant Rowland in 1986, when she called up Tripp and suggested they pair up to create historical fiction about young girls for young girls, then manufacture matching dolls, Tripp said. The company has since expanded to include characters facing modern issues, has three stores in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and is now owned by Mattel, Inc.
The American Girl books allow young girls, who are constantly faced with sexualized images, to enjoy their childhood, Tripp said. She has written all of the books in the Felicity, Kit, Josefina and Molly series and some of the Samantha books for the American Girl Company, which creates dolls, books and accessories based on the preteen girl characters.
Writing, Tripp said, is messy. She showed the first manuscript of “Meet Felicity,” full of yellow post-it notes from her editor, which she said she has come to be grateful for.
Her inspiration comes from her own childhood and mothering experiences, and suggestions from fans, she said. Still, the stories begin with history.
“The problem for me is too many ideas,” Tripp said. “It’s like a tree with too many branches and possibilities. And the problem is choosing the branch that is really going to support your story.”
In addition to her work as an author, Tripp is also the creative editorial director of “The Boys Project,” which aims to support and encourage the passions of young boys.
“I think we have limited boys,” Tripp said. “I really think that if before I die I could be a little subversive about gender I would love that.”
Tripp reflected on her experience at Yale, saying being a minority taught her how to observe and gave her a stronger sense of self. Though Yale men at the time would often assume one woman’s viewpoint was representative of the opinions of all women, she said, her female classmates were all mutually supportive.
“I felt like an extremely unreliable spokesperson for womanhood,” she said. “Being observed was hard but the experience stands you in good stead.”
It was an “exuberant” time to be a woman, Tripp said, adding that it was exciting to have an overwhelming number of opportunities.
Five students, who all had grown up with the series, said the talk made them nostalgic for their childhood while also enlightening them of the behind the scene process that gave each doll a personality and a background.
Amy Larsen ’10 said she appreciated Tripp’s exploration into the historical context of each story. Laura Hefferon ’10 said she enjoyed hearing about Tripp’s career, which she said was “inspirational.”
“I was an American Girl enthusiast as a young girl and wanted to meet the woman who created these worlds that I followed as a child,” Sara Stalla ’13 said.
Tripp is currently working on designing a new character for the American Girl series. She has written more than 50 books, including stories for children just starting school, nonfiction essays and a new book about scientists.
Correction: March 4, 2010
An earlier version of this article misquoted Valerie Tripp ’73. “Nothing is wasted when you are a writer or in any other kind of creative endeavor,” Tripp said. “No matter what happens to you, it’s all grist for your mill.