NOTE: This is a review of a previous edition of this book that was published prior to American Girl’s release of the BeForever book editions in August, 2014.
A few months ago I came up with an idea for Throwback Thursday and could provide some inspiration for light summer reading. Here’s some background.
American Girl is a doll company that was originally created as an independent woman-owned company until Mattel bought it years ago. What differentiates American Girl dolls from other lines are the fact that they portray girls between the ages of 9-11 (as opposed to baby dolls or teen fashion models like Barbie) who lived in certain historical times like the Great Depression or the Revolutionary War. They wear clothes of their era and they have accessories sold separately that reflected something that the character would use in their era (like a clay oven for Josefina Montoya, a girl living in 1824 in what is now New Mexico). Each doll also has a series of books written about them that explains their personalities, the challenges they faced in their personal lives, and the times they lived in.
I first learned about American Girl back in the 1990’s while reading the occasional story in the local media about the company and the controversy surrounding it (some of which pre-dates the company’s merger with Mattel). Some people expressed concern about the idea of buying an expensive doll and accessories—which promoted excessive materialism—when the emphasis should be on encouraging girls to read books and learn about history. While the dolls and accessories have always been on the pricey side, the books are usually sold separately so cash-strapped families can still get the books (either through the bookstore or the library) for their daughters without having to get the doll.
I finally paid more attention to American Girl a few years ago when I learned that they were coming out with a historical doll that’s set in the 1970’s. It initially didn’t set right with me because I was a child in the 1970’s and, to me, I felt that something that’s historical should be something as late as the 1940’s. My then-husband heard my complaint and told me that to younger kids, the 1970’s were history since the kids growing up now have no first-hand recollection of that era. I realized that he had a point.
But then I looked at the Julie doll and books and found that the doll’s default outfit was similar to the clothes I wore in the 1970’s. My mother made me a peasant blouse that’s a lot like the doll’s peasant blouse, except the floral embroidered parts in my blouse were done in red while Julie’s were done in blue. The doll wore a pair of funky bell bottom denim pants and, while I can’t say that I ever owned the two-toned denim pants, I remember once owning a pair of funky bell bottom jeans that had red studs placed in the bell bottom parts on both legs that formed the outline of an anchor. I ended up buying the doll and the books the day before my hip revision surgery in 2011 and my husband cited that doll purchase in a letter he left behind as one of the reasons why he had to walk out on me just three months later. Yet he soon ended up with a friend of ours whom he married just two months after our divorce was final.
Yeah, my Julie Albright doll got a bum rap for being unjustly blamed by my husband for ending our marriage and I ended up divorced. The big irony is that the Julie books focuses on a young girl dealing with the aftermath of her parents’ divorce.
I read the books and found that they were a total trip down memory lane for me with all the references to TV shows, music, famous people, and news events of that era. With the rise in Throwback Thursday all throughout the Internet, I’d thought that I would do a review of each book in the series each Thursday until I run out of books. This review will be done from the perspective of someone who was a child growing up in the 1970’s like Julie Albright so I have first-hand experience of that era compared to—let’s say—the Civil War. That’s why I intend to stick my American Girl book reviews to only the Julie Albright books. (For the record, I haven’t read any of the other historical books in the American Girl line.)
While reading the books with first-hand knowledge of the 1970’s, one has to keep in mind that the book series’ target reading audience is girls between the ages 8-12. As a result, there are certain 1970’s events that aren’t going to be mentioned at all in the books because it would make the books so controversial that it would lead to things like banning the books from schools and libraries and, as a large corporation, Mattel would prefer to avoid stuff like that altogether. So there is no mention of certain 1970’s stuff like the brief streaking fad, married couples exploring alternative lifestyles like open marriage and swinging, the rise of the gay liberation movement, and the 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
By the way, I find it curious that the books didn’t mention the one major news story that began in the San Francisco metropolitan area and continued from 1974-1976 (the place and time where Julie’s story is set): the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). I was a kid during that incident and there were frequent news stories about it, including the airing of taped messages from Patty Hearst to her parents that the SLA mailed to the news media and her later conversion to the SLA cause in a real-life example of Stockholm Syndrome. If Julie was a real kid in the 1970’s, she would’ve at least have heard a little bit about that incident. Surely there could’ve been a way of mentioning this incident in passing without seeming to promote radical left-wing extremism because it was a huge story in both the U.S. and foreign media in its day. Heck, there was recently a story that aired on BBC Radio about this case because this year marks the 40th anniversary of the day that this drama all began.
And that’s not to mention the fact that, back in the days when I worked for a now-defunct computer reseller, I was told by the teacher in a training class (that my company sent me to) this interesting tidbit about a font that was once routinely included on Apple Macintosh computers years ago. The font resembled what one would find in a ransom note and it was named San Francisco in honor of the metropolitan area where the Patty Hearst kidnapping saga began.
When a new doll is released in the historical line, American Girl usually puts out a six-book series known as the Central Series. The Central Series follows a certain format, which the American Girl Wiki explains in detail. The first book, known as the “Meet Book”, is included with the doll but it is also sold separately for those who want to know the story without having to buy an expensive doll. The other five books in the Central Series are all sold separately.
All of the books in the Central Series were originally published in 2007 and they were written by Megan McDonald, who has written a variety of children’s books including the Judy Moody series. The book Illustrations were done by Robert Hunt, who also designed the logo of a boy fishing from a crescent moon for Dreamworks Studios. Each book is a chapter book so it’s clearly intended for a girl who has already mastered reading. Here is the original promo video for the series.
Now, let’s get to the first book in the Julie Albright series, which is known as Meet Julie. I’m just going to provide a synopsis for the book because I’m not into re-typing whole novels into a blog entry.
Synopsis: Julie Albright is a 9-year-old white girl with long blonde hair and brown eyes living in San Francisco in 1975. (Yes I know the book cover is marked “1974” but since the Central Series is supposed to focus on one year in Julie’s life—from ages 9 to 10—and since the series ends in the fall of 1976, there is no way this story could possibly start in 1974.) She is growing up in a family that includes her father, a commercial airline pilot; her mother, a one-time housewife who recently opened her own store called Gladrags, which sells handcrafted items; her 15-year-old sister, Tracy, a high school student who’s an avid tennis player; and her pet brown rabbit, Nutmeg. Julie Albright’s backstory is considered groundbreaking in the American Girl canon because she is the first—and, so far, only—historical character with divorced parents.
The book begins during the Labor Day holiday weekend, shortly before the start of the new school year. While Julie’s father is busy piloting a cross-country flight, her mother prepares for the move to a small apartment located above her Gladrags shop (which was named after the Rod Stewart song “Handbags and Gladrags”) just a few miles away. As part of the divorce settlement, her father would remain in the original matrimonial home while Julie and her sister Tracy would move to the apartment with their mother. Due to the apartment landlord’s no pets rule, Julie’s beloved pet rabbit, Nutmeg, would have to stay with her father while her best friend who lives across the street, Ivy Ling, would look after the rabbit during the times when her father was on one of his long flights. As a result of the move, Julie would have to begin the fourth grade in a new school and she would see her best friend Ivy only during the weekends when she’s visiting her father.
None of the books in the Central Series explicitly say why Julie’s parents decide to divorce. On page 63 in the Meet Julie, there is a reference to Julie’s memories of how her parents used to argue over President Richard Nixon. On page 30 of the second book, Julie Tells Her Story, there’s a mention about how Julie realized that had her parents not separated, her mother would have never opened her store. (Which implies that either her father was opposed to her mother starting the store and that dispute caused a wedge that ultimately ruptured the marriage or her father was the one who suddenly announced that he wanted a divorce and her mother, who had previously been a stay at home mom, had to come up with a way of quickly earning her own income despite her lack of professional work experience. That mention also causes a story timeline dispute because the first book implies that Gladrags had already been opened for business for at least a month before Julie moved to the apartment above the shop with Tracy and their mother yet that mention in the second book about how her mother wouldn’t have the store if her parents never separated implies that Gladrags didn’t exist until after her parents divorced.)
Chapter 1 starts with Julie and Ivy playing together for one last time before the move then sitting down together to pet Nutmeg until her mother tells Julie that it’s time to go. When Julie, Tracy, and their mother arrive in their new apartment, they are greeted by Hank, a Vietnam War vet who met Julie’s mom the day she opened her store a while ago (the book doesn’t mention how long Julie’s mom had been running her store before the divorce and the move) and he was her first customer. Hank gives the family a loaf of his home baked zucchini bread as a welcome gift.
Throughout the first half of the book Julie has to adjust to living in a smaller apartment with a working mother, attending a new school with new teachers and new classmates, and seeing her father, best friend Ivy, and Nutmeg only on the weekends.
In her new school she quickly becomes friends with a boy in her class named T.J. She also has an unpleasant first encounter with a group of three girls—Amanda, Alison, and Angela—known as the Water Fountain Girls, whose personalities would be familiar to anyone who has ever seen Mean Girls or Heathers. (The Water Fountain Girls will figure more prominently in the last book of the Central Series, Changes for Julie.) She also has to adjust to coming home from school to an empty apartment because her mother is busy working in the store downstairs while her sister is busy with tennis practice after school.
There is drama the first weekend that Julie’s father drives by the apartment to pick up the girls and Julie’s sister Tracy refuses to go. As a result, Julie ends up going alone with her father to spend the weekend at his place. The book doesn’t explicitly say why Tracy refuses to see her father but, reading between the lines, it’s implied that Tracy blames him for the divorce so she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him.
The second half of the book deals with Julie fighting for the right to play basketball on her new school’s basketball team. Julie has always been a bit of a tomboy and she used to love shooting hoops with her father while she was growing up in the old family home before the divorce. When she learns that there isn’t enough school funding for a separate girls’ basketball team, she decides that she wants to play on the boys’ basketball team even though the coach says that basketball is for boys only and her father says he doesn’t like the idea of her being the only girl on an otherwise all-boys’ team. Even her best friend Ivy gets impatient with Julie’s single-minded determination to play on the school’s basketball team. Fortunately for Julie she has a very encouraging mother while her new friend T.J. also becomes her champion after he plays a few rounds of basketball with her. Even Hank the Vietnam War vet tells Julie not to give up her cause during the time when she felt like quitting. Most importantly Julie has the newly enacted Title IX law on her side, which says that schools that receive federal funding must provide facilities and opportunities for both boys and girls.
The final chapter in the book, Looking Back, is a brief history lesson about the time that Julie grew up in and discusses how divorce became more common in the 1970’s, the increased educational and job opportunities that women could pursue in addition to being wives and mothers or being stuck in jobs that have long been labeled as “women’s work” (such as secretary), and how Title IX has been very beneficial to girls and women in the long-run while mentioning women who became famous after the 1970’s like astronaut Sally Ride and soccer player Mia Hamm.
Music Mentioned in This Book:
“Handbags and Gladrags” by Rod Stewart
“Julia” by The Beatles
Movies, Books, and Television Shows Mentioned in This Book:
Real-Life People Mentioned in This Book:
Billie Jean King
Jackie Adams (an 8-year-old who was among the first girls to play Little League baseball)
President Gerald Ford
President Richard Nixon
Rep. Edith Green
News and Other Stuff From the Era Mentioned in This Book:
The Battle of the Sexes Tennis Match
Clue board game
The Ill-Fated Conversion to the Metric System
Ms. Being Used as an Honorific by Women Instead of Mrs. or Miss
Peanuts Comic Strip
Sears Tower Opening in 1973
The Vietnam War
My Own Impressions Based on My Own Experience With the 1970’s:
I initially felt like I was taking a trip down memory lane with all the references to the music, famous people, and other types of pop culture from that era. Fortunately the book doesn’t get too carried away with the cultural references of the period at the expense of a coherent storyline.
I found Julie to be a believable character. The scenes where she attempted a one-girl petition drive to get her elementary school to allow girls to play on the school basketball team reminded me of what my ex-husband and my late mother-in-law told me about my sister-in-law back in the 1970’s. Apparently my future sister-in-law wanted to play soccer in the local youth recreation league just like her older brother (my future ex-husband) but there was one problem. Her town had a boys’ soccer league with only boys’ teams. My sister-in-law talked with someone in charge of the recreational sports group who told her that if she gets enough girls interested, they would start a girls’ soccer league. So, just like Julie Albright, she made an effort to get enough girls to sign a sign-up sheet she made indicating that they wanted to play on a soccer team. As a result of my sister-in-law’s effort, the first girls’ soccer league was started in Garden City, New York in the 1970’s.
I also understood Julie’s initial negative attitude towards having a mother who worked outside the home (one scene in the book has Julie missing coming home to her mother serving recently baked cupcakes) because my mother did that all throughout my entire growing up years. There were a lot of times when I wished that my mother could be like the mothers of the other children in my neighborhood who were stay-at-home mothers, especially since, unlike Julie’s mom, my mother hated her job (she spent her entire career in clerical work for the life insurance industry) and she used to come home every evening ranting to my grandmother (who lived with us and who babysat for me during the week when both of my parents were at work) about what her boss did or what one or more of her co-workers did. My grandmother basically served as her passive sounding board for my mom’s nightly bitch-fest about how horrible her job was. Heck, there were times when I envied my cousins because my aunt (my mother’s sister) was a stay-at-home mother who used to bake cakes and make crafts with her children. (Once my youngest cousin started school, my aunt made extra money babysitting other people’s infants and toddlers in her home during the weekday.) At times I felt like a freak growing up because I was among the few kids in the neighborhood whose mothers worked full-time. (There were a few other kids whose mothers only worked part-time.)
I’m not saying that women should never work outside the home. But in my adult life I’m trying to strike more of a balance between working any job just to pay the bills and working at a career that I love because I’ve seen in my life what happens when one spends too many years working at a job that one hates then blow the bulk of a paycheck on shopping sprees only to be caught up in a never-ending cycle of not being able to afford to quit a job that one hates because one’s bank account is too low from all those shopping sprees but then gets so stressed out that one goes on shopping sprees in order to relieve the pressure of working a job that one hates and so on. I was in such a never-ending cycle myself once and I was fortunate because I had longtime members of my Unitarian Universalist congregation who were decades older than me set an example of how it’s possible to be happy without buying new stuff at the local shopping mall. I really appreciate them for this lesson and I’ll always be eternally grateful.
As for the scene where there was a Career Day, I remember when I was in the sixth grade and my elementary school had a Career Day where the parents of the students gave a talk about their jobs. I still have memories of a presentation by a professional photographer and it mesmerized me. The pressure to pick careers really began in earnest when I was in the ninth grade of high school. Most of the teachers made it seem like you need to pick a career by senior year or else the rest of your life is doomed. They also drilled in to us students that merely having a job that you took only for the money and hated it (like my mother did) wasn’t good enough—you need to have a career that you love. My high school had Career Days at least twice a year (in the fall and spring) where we had outside adults talk about their jobs or we had to go to the school library to research certain career fields. Even individual classes had units where we had to research careers (such as researching animal-related careers during a science course on the Animal Kingdom). It was totally relentless in my high school.
There was only one teacher whose advice turned out to be realistic in the long run. She said that just because you pick a career now doesn’t mean that you’ll stick with it years later. At the time she said that it was okay to change your mind once you’re in college or even in the work world and go into another field. Given the shipment of manufacturing jobs to China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other Third World countries and given the rise of technology (let’s face it, there were no such jobs as Web Designer when I was in high school), that teacher was correct.
As for the scene in the book where some of the students made an issue of a female teacher who wanted to be known as Ms. Hunter instead of Miss Hunter or Mrs. Hunter, I am very familiar with my females teachers doing that in real life. In my case it was a gradual thing. When I began elementary school, most of the female teachers still referred to themselves as “Miss” or “Mrs.” depending on their marital status at the time. But as time went on and I moved through the grades, more and more female teachers began to refer to themselves as “Ms.” By the time I graduated from high school, I think only the older teachers still used the “Miss” or “Mrs.” while the younger teachers (especially the ones under 40) all used “Ms.”
Julie’s mother’s store, Gladrags, specializes in selling handcrafted items made from recycled materials. I know that making recycled crafts rose from the environmental movement, which became big in the 1970’s. I remember that trend went dormant for a few decades starting in the 1980’s but it’s made a big comeback in recent years. For the past few years I’ve made a lot of sales with Barbies I rescued from thrift shops and refurbished them as fairy dolls (such as this one and that one). And I’m not the only one who does crafts using recycled materials. A quick search on Etsy will show the many crafts made from recycled materials including dolls, jewelry, clothes, purses, musical instruments, and more.
I felt that the book handled the issue of divorce with great sensitivity. While my parents didn’t divorce, I met a lot of kids in school who came from divorced households and how Julie and Tracy reacted to their parents’ divorce is not all that different from how my classmates reacted in real life.
If I knew a young child whose parents were in the process of getting a divorce, I would hand him or her a copy of Meet Julie. Yes, I would give that book to a boy in that situation as well as a girl because the book gives the child a taste of what having divorced parents could be like (assuming that the divorce doesn’t turn into a costly protracted ordeal where the parents literally hate each other and the children are literally caught in the middle).
When I read the second chapter about Julie’s class learning the metric system, that definitely brought back memories for me because I was taught that in science classes during middle school. I’ll admit that after spending all of my elementary school years learning the imperial measurement system, it was a bit jarring to suddenly switch to a different system of measuring things so I definitely identified with Julie’s reaction to the metric system. But I will admit that it was easier to remember to count things like centimeters and kilometers in units of 10 than the crazy fraction system of the other measurement system. Had the United States not abandon its previous goal of converting to the metric system, I think I would have eventually gotten use to it. Ironically when I got into Asian ball-jointed dolls, I had to make an effort to re-learn the metric system because doll sizes are measured in centimeters and not inches. These days when I post my artwork online, I always give both the imperial and metric units for the size because I know that there are potential customers who live in all parts of the world.
As for Title IX, I know that I was never discouraged from pursuing something because of my gender. Heck, one semester in high school I even took a woodworking class with no hurdles (although that course was a disaster for me because I quickly learned that, no matter what I did, I was incompetent at holding a saw straight). As for taking advantage of Title IX to play sports that were formerly reserved for boys only, I know that by the time I reached high school there were girls’ teams as well as boys’ teams with one major exception (football). But I never played sports outside of Physical Education classes because I was a total klutz at it. I still have memories when I was picked last for teams in Phys Ed because I was that bad of a player. But there were talented girl athletes who were able to excel in their chosen sport because of Title IX so I think Title IX was a good thing for them even if I wasn’t able to benefit from it myself.
I found it curious that Julie’s new elementary school had a basketball team complete with tryouts (even if the tryouts were limited to students in the fourth grade and above). That’s because in the school system I attended (Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland), students didn’t have the chance to play on formal teams until middle school and even then it was limited to intramural teams where different teams played each other within the same school. A student athlete wouldn’t have the opportunity to play on a school team against teams from other schools until high school. Most of the competitive sports teams for younger kids I remember were basically recreational teams that were organized by local community centers or other similar groups (such as Little League Baseball) but they weren’t associated with a school. When I was in elementary school, Phys Ed classes were the only time when students played on sports teams during the school day but that was only for the allotted one-hour class time.
I also found it curious that Julie’s father ended up with the family’s original matrimonial home while Julie, her sister, and her mother were the ones who moved to a much smaller apartment. A single guy living alone in a large house who is away from his large house most of the time because his job requires him to travel a lot while his two kids are living in a cramped apartment with their mother most of the time. A situation where the father is living in a place with more space than he really needs (especially since he’s gone from home much of the time) while the mother, who could’ve used more space since she had the two children living with her, is in a small apartment. In a real life situation like this, it would be the father who moves to a smaller apartment while the mother keeps the home so the children wouldn’t have to face further disruption (like having to switch schools as Julie did). I know this because one of my cousins was in such a situation when her marriage fell apart. It was written in the divorce agreement that my cousin could remain in the original matrimonial home until her two teenage sons graduated from high school then it would be sold. It was done this way so her sons wouldn’t have to face further disruption by moving to a new area so they would be forced to switch high schools. Her ex-husband was the one who moved to a smaller apartment after he left the marriage.
I understand why the book had Julie undergo so many changes at once (parents’ divorce, switching schools, etc.) because it made the story more dramatic. Let’s face it, having to start a new year in a new school full of strangers in the wake of a divorce and a move to a new neighborhood does create more drama than had Julie stayed in the home she grew up in. But the post-divorce living arrangements just didn’t make much sense (other than the mother saying that taking the apartment above her Gladrags shop makes her daily commute to her job very easy).
I felt that it was pretty nice that this first book ended on a high note for Julie because it sent a message to young girls that if they fight for something they believe in, they can achieve their goals and dreams while, at the same time, reminding them that taking such a path isn’t always easy and it requires sticking to that path in order to reach the desired goal.
That’s it for Meet Julie. Come back next Throwback Thursday where I’ll write about the first sequel in the Julie book series, Julie Tells Her Story.
Where to Buy Meet Julie:
The American Girl Julie Albright Books List
The Original Central Series
The Best Friend Book
The Julie Mysteries
The BeForever Books
Other Media Featuring Julie
And the Tiara Goes to…—A film short based on the Julie books.