Fashion

How Brit Bennett Made Her American Girl Dreams Come True


As an only child raised in upstate New Jersey in the early ’90s, my entire world revolved around American Girl. I know each doll’s name and memorize each of their stories. I’m obsessed with their stylish outfits (and their bedroom furniture) while studying American history. Sure, I struggled to accept the fact that Addy Walker was my only choice to play a young black girl, but I was inspired by her empowering story of survival during the Civil War.

I finally made a pilgrimage to American Girl Place in Chicago, and then to New York City’s location as retailers expand their access to the full AG experience: in-store shopping, cafeteria dining, in-store makeup and send your doll to the hospital to be purchased full body reboot. Obviously, the American Girl culture was a highlight of my childhood, and I applaud the present renaissance dolls with open arms.

A millennial herself, Brit Bennett also grew up in American Girl and immersed herself in every aspect of the franchise, from the books to the dolls (she shared an Addy doll with her sister). my daughter) until theater kits, which includes a script and director’s instructions for a four- to five-act performance based on a doll’s backstory. Now 32 years old, bestselling author of The Vanishing Half and Mothers Still a big fan of AG. In 2016, Bennett tweeted about wanting an American Girl doll deal. Six years (and more tweets) then, she expressed that lifelong dream through Claude WellsThe latest historical figure to enter the AG universe.

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an American doll girl riding a scooter on a city street

Claudie is the fourth Black American Girl doll, after Addy, who debuted in 1993, Cécile Rey in 2011 and Melody Ellison in 2016.

Polite

ClaudieThe story takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most important movements in Black history, which saw a fusion of civil rights activism, the national housing crisis, and the Great Depression. migrate. But for nine-year-old Claudie, finding her unique talent among a vibrant community of artists was paramount.

Claudie’s arrival with the AG brand makes her the fourth Black doll in history, following the debut of Addy in 1993, Cécile Rey in 2011 and Melody Ellison in 2016. During Claudie’s launch party in American Girl Place in New York late last month, Bennett met Connie Porter, author of Addy’s beloved book series. “It’s surreal to meet someone who wrote something that meant so much to me as a child,” Bennett said on a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “She talked very candidly about her experience when those books first came out, about the setbacks she received, the criticism and everything. It was great to meet her and think about how my book might affect someone growing up today.”

brit bennett holding claudie doll and porter connie holding addy doll before an american girl's step and repeat

Brit Bennett and Connie Porter at the Claudie launch party in New York City.

MICHAEL SIMON

Read on for a conversation with Bennett about Claudie’s story making process, including how the author was able to maintain a sense of playfulness and fun while also teaching young readers about some of the toughest aspects of her story. of US history.

How exactly did this opportunity come with American Girl?

After I wrote a essay about Addy in 2015, my friends started sending memes for American Girl. That’s what people started to associate with me. During a podcast interview, I was asked, “If you could write your own American Girl doll [story]no se?” It’s something I’ve never thought of before, and I feel like that conversation prompted my tweet in 2016. I think it’s finally one of the lines. my tweet got someone’s attention at American Girl, which I obviously didn’t expect – you know, you’re just talking on Twitter. Then someone contacted me, and We started discussing the possibility of playing a new historical figure, which was the culmination of both my childhood interests and my adult interests.

Can you guide me through the development of the Claude Wells story?

It’s a very involved process, I’ve never worked in a relatively collaborative way before. There is a board of historians and someone who can help me with my research. It’s been a long process of meeting with historians and talking about the nuances of the time period, and a lot of going back to try to develop the story in a way that’s really interesting to younger readers, but will also teach about this period. What a wonderful gift to be able to tap into the knowledge of the experts instead of just using my own Google.

Do you have a hard time keeping quiet about it?

Well, it’s very different from my typical book publishing experience, where you want to showcase it from the rooftops so that as many people know about it as possible as soon as possible. The process of publishing a novel forces people to read it very early. It was really fun when the book came out to see people react to it because it was one of two things “I did this book, and it came out today”. It’s interesting to see how people react to that. I imagine it’s like the sudden release of an album, very different from the very long, long, slow process of publishing a novel where you’re talking about the book six months before it hits shelves.

How was your experience on release date?

I signed autographs at the store, and one of the things that was interesting to me was that I felt like half of the people who signed autographs were parents and children, and the other half were the younger generation. Some people are used to my other work, but others are just excited that there is another book. It’s great to do something that makes people happy. Not that I haven’t been through that before with my novels, but it’s on another level — people are really emotional. There was this guy there, probably in his 20s or 30s, who told me he was buying the doll for himself. He said, “I always wanted an American Girl doll when I was little, but I wasn’t allowed to have one.” Of course it’s really touching to see the kids with the dolls, but it’s also emotional to see the millennials there, who are usually a little shy or embarrassed, but it’s also fun to re-experience what made them happy as children.

Claudie’s story takes place in 1922 during the Harlem Renaissance. What about that particular era appeals to you?

It was a period that I found really interesting, partly because of the contradictions. The fact that you’ve got an explosion of Black creativity, this coincides with the rise of lynching in America. These are happening at the same time and they are notifying each other. There are some moments where my story idea informs the direction of research and other moments where research informs the direction of the story. Speaking with historians, I learned of the Harlem Renaissance as an age in which this new focus became centered on the importance of Negro childhood. This is a time when people really focus on teaching black kids pride. And of course Harlem’s story is the story of housing and housing segregation. So I was thinking about all those big topics, and then thinking about the specifics of the character growing up surrounded by all these very talented people and worried that she He’s the only person on the planet who doesn’t have a talent. I wanted to balance her personal journey as she tried to figure out who she wanted to be and what kind of art she wanted to put out in the world with the larger systemic questions that were being asked. her world.

claudie american girl doll model renaissance dress harlem

Claude Harlem Renaissance Costume.

Polite

In an interview with Smithsonian Magazineauthor Emily Zaslow shows how “there is a call for the story of an African American girl’s childhood that is not filled with struggle” and instead focuses on the Black experience as something worthy of respect. honor. How did you find balance for Claude’s story?

I hear people say that often, not only with stories about children, but this [idea that] “We are tired of stories about black struggles; We want to see stories about Black Joy.” It’s a difficult thing because all stories have tension, all stories have conflict, all stories have some kind of problem that has to be resolved. Especially if you’re studying history, it’s hard to write a story that’s just “Claudie runs around Harlem doing anything” when every day she walks past a banner that says “a man was tied up yesterday.” I would like to draw attention to the fact that these books are intended for young readers, and part of the joy of these books, at least for me, is lost in the fantasy and the fun of that. . But at the same time, I feel like I can’t do that without being honest with the facts of that history. At one point, I asked historians, “What would a nine-year-old in Harlem understand about X, Y, Z?” Feeling like, “Well, who am I to assume that a nine-year-old today can’t understand what a nine-year-old 100 years ago was supposed to understand?” It’s a difficult balance that way, but I wanted to maintain Claudie’s spirit, creativity, and joy, while she also learns about the difficult histories that have influenced her current life. at her.

What do you hope young readers will learn from Claudie’s story?

Love books, love to read and be entertained, I think that’s very important. So I hope that they are entertained and enjoy reading the book. In the first part of the book, Claudie is so mindful of this that she doesn’t feel special. She does worry about it and she also feels that if you try something and you’re not good at it right away, you should stop doing it. One of the things that I miss so much about my childhood is that I didn’t have as much sense of self as I do now. I hope that’s one of those things that young readers take away, sort of falling into the things you love or the things you care about and let go and not worry about whether you’re good at them or not. If you like to sing then sing, don’t worry about your sound. I think it’s part of Claudie’s journey, finding ways to overcome her anxiety and fear about not being good enough or people laughing at her. Anyone can be an artist — it’s just doing what you love and creating something beautiful for the people you care about.

Meet Claudie

Meet Claudie

Meet Claudie
Credit: Courtesy





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