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.

For the past four Throwback Thursdays I’ve been doing a review of the first four books in a series about a young girl growing up in the 1970’s, here is a review of the fifth book in the series. Like the other books, Julie’s Journey is part of a series of historical novels put out by American Girl (yes, that’s the doll company) that focuses on growing up as a girl in the 1970’s. Since I was a young girl back in the 1970’s, I thought it would be fun to compare the books to my own memories of growing up in the 1970’s. I also figured that it could provide an idea for some light summer reading.

The one thing to keep in mind about the Julie books is that they were written for a target audience of girls between the ages 8-12. As a result there won’t be an in-depth look at certain controversial issues of the day.

The books were 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.

Julie’s Journey is the fifth book in the six-book Central Series following Meet Julie, Julie Tells Her Story, Happy New Year, Julie, and Julie and the Eagles.

Julie masters horseback riding just in time for the Bicentennial celebrations on the Fourth of July, 1976.

Julie masters horseback riding just in time for the Bicentennial celebrations on the Fourth of July, 1976.

Synopsis: Julie Albright is a 10-year-old white girl with long blonde hair and brown eyes growing up in 1976 San Francisco. Her parents are divorced so she spends most of her time living with her mother, who operates her store full of handcrafted items called Gladrags, and her 16-year-old sister, Tracy, in a small apartment that’s located above her mother’s store. On most weekends she stays with her father, a commercial airline pilot, in the same home that the entire family lived in before the divorce. Even though Ivy Ling is mentioned among the cast of characters in the front of the book, she doesn’t appear in this story at all while Julie mentions her name only in passing a few times.

It’s the summer of 1976, which marks the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the United States of America is determined to celebrate the American Bicentennial in style. Julie is all ready to make the most of taking part in the special celebrations of this once-in-a-lifetime event. The story begins with Julie’s mom putting the finishing touches on some homemade pioneer-style outfits. While big sister Tracy complains about her pioneer dress saying that it’s ugly and it makes her look like Raggedy Ann, Julie loves her dress because she has been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books (which are based on Wilder’s childhood as the daughter of pioneers) and they are currently her favorite books. The next day Julie’s dad picks up both her and her sister and the three of them board an airplane flight to Pittsburgh where there’s this hilarious contrast between Julie being totally excited as the plane lifts off and big sister Tracy feeling scared of being up in the air while turning green until her father hands her a set of headphones so she could listen to one of the in-flight music channels.

The reason for both the pioneer dresses and the trip to Pittsburgh: The three of them plan to catch up with the final leg of the Bicentennial Wagon Train as it makes its way from the west to its final destination in Valley Forge, with the arrival date scheduled for the Fourth of July. They also plan to rendezvous with relatives who have been riding along with this special wagon train in their own horse-drawn covered wagon.

After spending the night in Pittsburgh, Julie, Tracy, and their father go to an area where the covered wagons are being unloaded from a barge. They also manage to meet up with Uncle Buddy, Aunt Catherine, and Julie and Tracy’s two cousins: 13-year-old April and 18-year-old Jimmy. These relatives live and work on a farm. They learn that Jimmy has recently purchased his first horse, Hurricane, after saving money for four years. They also meet Tom Sweeney, a neighbor of the relatives whose farm is next to theirs and he’s a big history buff. He convinced the relatives to come along on the wagon train and he loaned them his covered wagon and horses for the journey. At this point, Julie and Tracy’s father leave the two sisters with the relatives because Dad wasn’t able to get time off from his commercial pilot job so he’s going to meet with the girls at the end in Valley Forge.

The Bicentennial Wagon Train’s big project is to have volunteers distribute and gather signatures on scrolls called the Pledge of Rededication. Basically the people who sign this pledge indicate that they still believe in the principles that the U.S. was founded on and outlined in the Constitution. All the scrolls will be presented to President Gerald Ford at the end of the trail in Valley Forge and President Ford will also sign this pledge. Julie and April volunteer to be among those who would distribute and gather those scrolls at the places along the Bicentennial Wagon Train route.

Three's company as April, Tracy and Julie cram together in a covered wagon.

Three’s company as April, Tracy and Julie cram together in a covered wagon.

Tracy initially complains about the covered wagon being as big as her canopied bed at home while having to share the space with her sister and cousin April. Julie initially takes it in stride until April gets her to ride bareback on Jimmy’s horse Hurricane, even though Julie had never been on a horse before, and Julie gets thrown from the horse into a stream. At that point Julie realizes how hard pioneer life really was contrary to what she previously learned reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books several times. After that incident Julie becomes homesick for her parents, her best friend Ivy, and her bedroom while vowing to never get on Hurricane again.

In the immediate aftermath of that disastrous horseback ride, Aunt Catherine tells Julie a story about an ancestor known as Lightning Kelley who served on the Pony Express and he became legendary for braving all kinds of adversities (from both people and nature) in his single-minded devotion to his job of making sure that the mail gets delivered.

The Bicentennial Wagon Train heads towards the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania (you can guess what that town is famous for) and many of the participants, including Tracy, plan on spending a day at Hersheypark. In the meantime Julie happens to come across a newspaper article about a 101-year-old Hershey area resident and she thinks it would be a great idea to get him to sign the Pledge of Rededication. But there’s one problem: the man lives 10 miles out of town and the wagon master gave most of the outriders the day off so they can spend a day at Hersheypark. Julie has two options: 1) go to Hersheypark with the rest of the crowd and forget about that man altogether or 2) overcome her fear of riding on Hurricane and go to the man’s house to collect his signature but she’ll have to skip Hersheypark to do so. Julie wants to go to Hersheypark and not deal with horseback riding again but her desire to get that 101-year-old man’s signature wins out and, enlisting the help of cousin April, she overcomes her horseback riding fear and actually rides Hurricane to the man’s house.

It turns out that the 101-year-old man is named John Witherspoon and he’s a descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, also named John Witherspoon.

101-year-old John Witherspoon, a descendant of a Declaration of Independence signer of the same name, signs a Pledge of Rededication scroll as Julie and her cousin April look on.

101-year-old John Witherspoon, a descendant of a Declaration of Independence signer of the same name, signs a Pledge of Rededication scroll as Julie and her cousin April look on.

John Witherspoon signs the Pledge of Rededication only to have that same scroll stolen later. As the Bicentennial Wagon Train arrives at its final destination in Valley Forge, Julie quickly solves the mystery of the stolen scroll while invoking the memory of what Aunt Catherine told her about her Pony Express-riding ancestor Lightning Kelley. As a reward, Julie gets an unexpected yet memorable reward that’s shown on the very last page of the story.

The last chapter, Looking Back, is all about the American Bicentennial. It mentions that the Bicentennial Wagon Train that the entire Julie’s Journey book is devoted to was a real-life event. It also mentions another cross-country event called the American Freedom Train, which toured various places while hauling artifacts like Abraham Lincoln’s hat and the dress that Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz, and it made a stop in San Francisco where Julie could’ve visited it. It mentions how the entire nation celebrated the Bicentennial on July 4, 1976 in various towns and cities with events like parades and serving giant birthday cakes. The chapter mentions how the Bicentennial inspired people to take up traditional crafts (like quilting). People were also inspired to do their own genealogy research, which was fueled by the 1976 publication of Alex Haley’s bestselling book Roots. That book would lead to a TV miniseries, also called Roots, that was aired in 1977 and was a big ratings success. The chapter also briefly mentions the controversy surrounding the commercialization of the Bicentennial and how various Native American tribes had a more dim view of that anniversary.

Music Mentioned in This Book

Oh, Susannah

She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain


Movies, Books, and Television Shows Mentioned

The Little House book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little House on the Prairie TV show
Nancy Drew mysteries by Carolyn Keene
Roots by Alex Haley
Roots TV miniseries

Real-Life People Mentioned

John Witherspoon
Laura Ingalls Wilder
President George Washington
President Gerald Ford

News and Other Stuff From the Era Mentioned

American Freedom Train
American Revolution Bicentennial
Bicentennial Wagon Train
Chatty Cathy
Mystery Date
Pony Express
Princess Phone
Raggedy Ann
Square Dance
Valley Forge
Wonder Bread

My Own Impressions Based on My Own Experience With the 1970’s:

I remember the Bicentennial real well yet, for some reason, I don’t remember the cross-country Bicentennial Wagon Train at all. I think it’s because there were so many other things going on that I didn’t notice. Based on a couple of YouTube clips here and here and what I found on Flickr, it looks like the Bicentennial Wagon Train went through mostly rural areas. Since I grew up in a suburban neighborhood outside Baltimore, it’s possible that my area was bypassed completely.

While looking up the Bicentennial Wagon Train online, I came across this story in The Washington Post that contained this sad coda that wasn’t mentioned in the book at all: The scrolls that the Bicentennial Wagon Train went through great effort to get many people to sign (including President Gerald Ford) were ultimately lost before they could be placed in a time capsule at Valley Forge. The scrolls’ current location is a big mystery and it remains unsolved to this day.

Even though I missed out on what was mentioned in Julie’s Journey, I got to experience plenty of other Bicentennial-related things so it’s not like I missed out on that occasion at all. The state I grew up in (Maryland) was one of the original 13 colonies that existed when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 so I definitely remember that the Bicentennial was really a big deal. Someone in the town I grew up in (Glen Burnie, Maryland) painted all the fire hydrants in the small downtown area to resemble famous people (such as George Washington and Betsy Ross) or just average people wearing colonial-era outfits that were similar to the photos posted online here, here, and here.

I remember one of the two major newspapers, The Baltimore News-American, had a very rich history going back to the Revolutionary War and each week (starting late in 1975 and ending in July, 1976) that paper would re-print news stories from its archives in the layout style at the time and that paper encouraged people to collect those pages. The Baltimore News-American even sold a special folder where one could house those pages and my parents bought that folder. I remember it was dark navy blue had the paper’s logo printed in gold along with special Bicentennial markings and it had a motto that went something like “Reporting the Latest News the Longest.” Ironically The Baltimore News-American ceased publishing just 10 years later in 1986.

There was also Operation Sail, where tall ships from around the world made a tour up the East Coast until its final destination in New York City just in time for the Fourth of July festivities. The ships arrived at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in late June and my family drove to the docks in the late afternoon/early evening. Those ships were very impressive with the large masts. My mother and I tried taking as many pictures as we possibly could with our Kodak Instamatic cameras until we ran out of film. I also remembered seeing the crew on those ships wearing traditional sailor outfits that were reminiscent of what sailors wore during the 18th century. I was 13 years old at the time and I remember when I walked past the Chilean, Spanish, Panamanian, and Argentinian ships and the male crew members on board those ships practically ogled me from the decks as I walked by. My parents also noticed this and they didn’t let me out of their sight the entire time.

I was in middle school during the Bicentennial and in the spring our class took a few field trips to historic places like Fort McHenry in Baltimore (whose biggest claim to fame was that it served as the inspiration for Francis Scott Key to write a poem that was later paired with music and it turned into the national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”) and downtown Annapolis (where General George Washington resigned his military commission before he became the first President of the United States).

The one thing I remember the most about the Bicentennial was this year-long school project in my Social Studies class. We were required to keep a scrapbook where we included articles, photographs, and anything that had to do with the Bicentennial. I took to this project with relish as I eagerly collected all kinds of Bicentennial stuff for the scrapbook. We had to turn in our scrapbook a few times during the year where the teacher graded what we’ve done so far then handed it back to us. I got an “A” every time I turned my scrapbook in. I kept on collecting stuff for the scrapbook until June, 1976 (when the school year ended).

I still have that scrapbook and there are times when I still look through it at all the Bicentennial stuff I had put in the pages. In a way I wished I had extended my scrapbook project just a little bit longer because I could’ve included articles from the big Bicentennial finale across the United States on the Fourth of July as well as the pictures I took when I went with my family to visit the Operation Sail tall ships during the time they were docked in Baltimore. I would not have received any extra grades had I done so (since school was on summer break during that time) but it would’ve been cool thing to have for myself, especially when glancing through the pages years later. Over the years my mother would try to get me to throw it out but I’m glad I stood my ground and refused to do so because I still look through it every now and then and it’s like a trip down memory lane at a time when there were no far right-wing politicians in power like Senator Ted Cruz or Rep. Paul Ryan and people weren’t routinely accused of being anti-American just because someone expressed a different viewpoint. Belief in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism remained a fringe belief that was far from the mainstream (as opposed to now where it seems like more and more politicians and business leaders tend to spew her nonsense about how it’s great to be selfish and we all must be individualists and crap like that). Back then it was generally accepted that people of all political persuasions can be patriots.

I’m now thinking about scanning the Bicentennial scrapbook into a digital format because the pages have become increasingly yellowed and I’m afraid that the scrapbook will become more and more fragile as time goes on. If I get around to doing this, I’m definitely going to share it online.

There were other things about Julie’s Journey that brought back memories for me. There was the scene when sister Tracy and cousin April played the board game Mystery Date. I don’t recall ever owning it myself but I remember playing that game a few times at other people’s houses. And I especially remember seeing that ad on television with the dreamy music. I think the main reason why I never had that game was because I didn’t like it as much as Monopoly or Life. I briefly giggled at April comparing a bunch of parked covered wagons to Wonder Bread because I used to eat that stuff a lot as a child. (I’ve long since switched from eating white bread to whole wheat bread.)

The scene where people from the wagon train spent a day at Hersheypark also brought back memories because I started going to that theme park when I was a teenager. I belonged to the local Catholic Youth Organization and, in the summertime, we used to frequently take day trips to the three regional theme parks (Hersheypark, King’s Dominion, and Busch Gardens Williamsburg). There were some trips when I tagged along with my cousins, who were also members of the Catholic Youth Organization in their church. While I admire Julie’s decision to skip Hersheypark in favor of getting that one signature, I know that if I had been in her shoes, I would’ve chosen Hersheypark instead because the lure of two of my favorite things (theme park rides and chocolate) would’ve been too tempting for me to skip.

There were times when I rolled my eyes at Julie’s realization that prairie life is hard even though she has read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books from the first to last volume numerous times. I read those same books when I was Julie’s age and I remember that those books mentioned the dark side of pioneer life as well as the good aspects of it. If Julie was such a devotee of those books, she would’ve read about those dark times like I did. I remember the time when the Ingalls family all came down with malaria, which was called “fever and ague” in the book, and the entire family ultimately survived only through the efforts of an African American doctor known as Dr. Tann and a neighbor named Mrs. Scott. There was the time when the family lost their entire crop to a plague of grasshoppers and I’ll never forget the description of that time whenever Laura stepped outside and she felt the crunching of grasshopper bodies underneath her feet as she walked. There was also the time when the entire family came down with scarlet fever then had to deal with Laura’s older sister Mary going blind soon afterwards without the easy access to resources like the Internet, social media, social workers, and nonprofits that modern families with similar problems have. How in the hell did Julie read those scenes yet still come away with having this idealized view of pioneer life as some kind of a fun adventurous utopia where you could go wherever you want and do whatever you want? It seems like Julie just skimmed through the bad stuff in the Little House books and focused on the good things to the point where she had this totally idealistic view of prairie life that was destroyed once Julie went on the Bicentennial Wagon Train.

According to the American Girl Wiki, all the books in a historical character’s Central Series follow a certain format no matter what era the historical character represents. Julie’s Journey is supposed to be the summer book of the Central Series where the character goes on a trip to a new location (which explains Julie’s trip from San Francisco to Pennsylvania). At some point in the summer book the character is supposed to “save the day” in some way. In Julie’s Journey that “save the day” moment is the part where Julie figures out who stole 101-year-old John Witherspoon’s signed scroll. However, that “save the day” moment comes very late in the book (it occurs in the last 11 pages of the story) while it feels incredibly forced and contrived as if American Girl looked at an original rough draft of the book, chastised the author for not having a “save the day” moment, and forced the author to quickly include one because the entire book must be finished and ready to turn in to the publisher by the next day.

All in all I felt that the story in Julie’s Journey was flat with the only interesting highlight being the time that Julie and April ride on Hurricane through Hershey in order to get a signature on a scroll from a descendant of one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. I think this slavish adherence to follow a certain format that American Girl laid out at the expense of a real plot affected the overall quality of Julie’s Journey. I remember the Bicentennial being a time when there were so many things that were going on throughout the United States at the same time that could’ve provided all kinds of interesting story lines and the writer had to focus on a re-enactment of a pioneer wagon train that wasn’t very interesting. There was a minor character who followed the wagon train selling tacky Bicentennial souvenirs from his station wagon, much to the annoyance of the wagon train organizers (which had prohibited participants from selling anything while riding on the trail). He could’ve been an interesting foil while providing more details about the cheap tacky souvenirs he sold. That character was supposed to symbolize how some people viewed the Bicentennial as a golden opportunity to make a few bucks while promoting excessive consumerism but he appeared so briefly in only three scenes in the book that he seemed irrelevant. It’s too bad that a golden opportunity to explain this commercial aspect of the American Bicentennial to younger generations was squandered in this way.

Ironically American Girl has another series of books about a pioneer girl named Kirsten Larson who’s the same age as Julie except her story takes place from 1854-1856. Her family immigrated from Sweden to America, ultimately settling in rural Minnesota, so that series focuses on how a young girl deals with adjusting to a new country while learning a new language. I haven’t read the Kirsten books so I can’t comment on them other than to say that Julie’s Journey seems to cover the same type of pioneer living that was previously covered in that six-book series. I really don’t get the idea using one of Julie’s books to do a flat rehash of the lifestyle of another American Girl character in a different series. (Here’s a newsflash: Most people living at the time celebrated the Bicentennial wearing 1976-era clothing without re-enacting a different era like the people on the wagon train in Julie’s Journey did.) As someone who has read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books (which is repeatedly referenced throughout Julie’s Journey) when I was around Julie’s age, I would definitely recommend those books to anyone who wants to get a total glimpse of what pioneer life was really like instead of Julie’s Journey.

In addition, the Bicentennial was supposed to commemorate the outcome of the Revolutionary War while American Girl has a Revolutionary War-era character named Felicity Merriman who lived in Williamsburg, Virginia. What would’ve been really cool would be to ditch that wagon train storyline and, instead, have Julie travel to Colonial Williamsburg (which is now a living history museum) for the Bicentennial where she would’ve met a descendant of Felicity Merriman. The character could’ve bore a resemblance to the original Felicity with either the exact same name as the original Felicity or the same first name but with a different last name (like “Felicity Jones”). She could’ve showed Julie an heirloom (like a doll or a necklace) that once belonged to the other Felicity and had been handed down from generation to generation. That would’ve been totally kick-ass thing to do and it would’ve served as a sort of in-joke thing to American Girl’s most devoted fans. Disney and Pixar both routinely do such in-joke cameos in their movies all the time so I’m surprised that American Girl never considered this. It might have even spurred a sudden sales boost to the older Felicity books. (For the record, I have never read the Felicity books.)

I get it that the writer was using the Bicentennial Wagon Train to create one of those fish-out-of-water stories about an urban/suburban person suddenly transplanted to a rural area with fewer amenities than that person is used to. But it’s a kind of story that’s not only unoriginal but it’s also one that has been better told elsewhere (Green Acres TV series, the children’s book My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, the movie City Slickers, and the 2002 reality series Frontier House).

Another thing that the book gave short shrift to was having the dominant characters in the book interact with the locals in the towns that the Bicentennial Wagon Train went through. Julie mentioned those times in passing while writing in her journal but it would’ve been nice had one or two of those incidents been fleshed out in more detail. For example, Julie wrote about how, before one signing of the scroll ceremony, the mayor of one of those small towns gave a heartfelt speech about her grandmother who immigrated from Ireland and she scrimped and saved until she opened her own business during a reception for the wagon train. That is one scene that could’ve benefitted from more than just something that Julie writes in her diary. It would’ve been nice had that scene been fleshed out more while cutting all those paragraphs when Julie fretted about her disastrous first ride on Hurricane’s back.

It’s a shame that the book didn’t flesh out details about the places the Bicentennial Wagon Train went through. I live in Maryland and I’ve visited neighboring Pennsylvania numerous times. Yes, there’s something to the joke that goes “Between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia lies the state of Alabama.” (It’s a reference to the fact that much of Pennsylvania consists of small towns and sparsely populated rural areas once you travel outside either of those two major cities.) The book mentions that the wagon train went through Hershey while omitting the fact that Hershey is located just a few miles beyond the northwestern border of Lancaster County, which is nicknamed Pennsylvania Dutch Country because of the large concentration of Amish and Mennonites who live there. It would’ve been interesting had the book mentioned Julie’s reaction to seeing any horse-drawn Amish buggies in that area. Or seeing the Amish and Mennonites dressed in different clothes from what Julie is used to seeing. It could’ve been a golden opportunity to educate its target audience on how people dress differently or live lifestyles that are different from what they may grow up with. But, no, the book just doesn’t delve much into the places that the wagon train went through.

I only learned from reading the last chapter, Looking Back, that there was an American Freedom Train carrying various artifacts (it was like a traveling museum). I don’t recall the American Freedom Train at all. The only traveling Bicentennial event I attended with my family was the aforementioned Operation Sail that featured the tall ships from all over the world. Having read in the book that the American Freedom Train stopped near Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco where Julie could’ve visited it, I found myself wondering why wasn’t that event mentioned in the main story at all. It could’ve been mentioned at the beginning of the story before Julie and Tracy went to Pennsylvania with their father. Heck, a whole chapter could’ve been devoted to Julie and Tracy visiting that train while seeing the various artifacts on display. This is yet another example of a squandered opportunity that could’ve informed the young reader on how much of a big deal the American Bicentennial really was in real life but, instead, the book focused on this dull wagon train.

Julie’s Journey is a book that should’ve been interesting because of its subject matter but, instead, it leaves younger readers with the mistaken impression that most people spent the American Bicentennial riding on wagon trains dressed in prairie outfits while giving short shrift to the places that the wagon train visited. Only the final chapter, Looking Back, focused on the other events that went on during the American Bicentennial.

Basically the movie Dazed and Confused still remains the one that best told the story about what it was like to be a young person living through the Bicentennial year of 1976 even if that film would be unsuitable to American Girl’s target audience of 8-12 year old girls because of its R rating (which is justifiable because it contains a lot of swearing and a lot of pot smoking).

Where to Buy Julie’s Journey:

American Girl
Barnes & Noble
Powell’s Books

The American Girl Julie Albright Books List

The Original Central Series

Meet Julie
Julie Tells Her Story
Happy New Year, Julie
Julie and the Eagles
Julie’s Journey
Changes for Julie

The Best Friend Book

Good Luck, Ivy

The Julie Mysteries

The Tangled Web
The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter
The Silver Guitar
Lost in the City
Message in a Bottle

The BeForever Books

The Big Break: A Julie Classic Volume 1—A compilation of the first three Julie Albright Central Series books (Meet Julie, Julie Tells Her Story, and Happy New Year, Julie).

Soaring High: A Julie Classic Volume 2—A compilation of the last three Julie Albright Central Series books (Julie and the Eagles, Julie’s Journey, and Changes for Julie).

A Brighter Tomorrow: My Journey with Julie

Other Media Featuring Julie

And the Tiara Goes to…—A film short based on the Julie books.