For the past few Throwback Thursdays I’ve been reviewing a series of books put out by American Girl (yes, that’s the doll company) about a girl growing up in the 1970’s named Julie Albright. 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.

Last week I reviewed the sixth and last book in what is known as the Central Series, Changes for Julie. Despite the end of that series, this wouldn’t be the last we hear from Julie Albright.

Here’s some background. For some of the historical doll characters American Girl has not only released a doll based on the main character in the books but it has also released another doll known as the best friend. That best friend is usually a supporting character in the Central Series who is the same age as the main character but is different in some way from the main character. In Ivy Ling’s case, she is not only a different race (Julie is white while Ivy is Asian) but, unlike Julie, her parents are not divorced and she lives close to her grandparents, whom she sees on a regular basis. While Julie’s mother switched from being a stay at home mother to a working mother who owns her own business, Ivy’s mother has always had a job until she quit it so she could attend law school.

Not all historical characters has had a corresponding best friend doll released. The American Girl Wiki has a complete list of which historical character dolls also have a best friend doll.

Just as the historical character doll comes with a Meet book (such as Meet Julie), the best friends character doll also comes with a book of her own where she is given a prominent role and it is considered to be a supplement to the the Central Series. Usually the events in the Best Friend book run concurrent with the events in the Central Series. Like the Meet book, the Best Friend book is also sold separately for people who can’t afford to buy the doll but still want to learn the story anyway.

In 2007 American Girl released the Ivy Ling doll at the same time as the Julie Albright doll. A few months ago American Girl announced that Ivy Ling is one of four historical dolls that the company will permanently retire by the end of 2014 or until these dolls and their clothes/accessories are completely sold out—whichever comes first. Even if the doll is retired, American Girl has a history of keeping the corresponding books in print long after a doll is retired. One such example is the fact that American Girl continues to sell books for its World War II-era historical character Molly and her English friend Emily even though both dolls were retired last year. Which means that, once the Ivy Ling doll is given the heave-ho from the product line, her book will still remain in print for the immediate future. (For more on this, I recommend the hilariously snarky AG Complaint Department: Archival is Not Character Death.)

However, there is one issue about Ivy’s retirement that is not an example of fan hysteria and should be taken seriously: Ivy Ling was the only Asian doll that was released as part of the American Girl Historical Character line (even though she was released as a sidekick to a different character and not as the star of her own story) and, with her upcoming retirement, there will be no Asian historical dolls available. Understandably there has been uproar among the Asian American community and it has prompted this thoughtful column on Forbes magazine site. This isn’t the first time that American Girl has seemed to ignore the fact that America is a multi-racial society these days and that company seems to have a major problem with catering to the wishes of little girls who aren’t white.

Good Luck, Ivy runs concurrent with the events in the Central Series. The American Girl Wiki specifically mentions that this book’s events fall after the fourth book (Julie and the Eagles) but before the fifth book (Julie’s Journey). That sounds correct because the first chapter mentions a red dress that Ivy wore five months earlier during Chinese New Year in January plus there are numerous passing references to Ivy attending school at the time, which means that this book takes place in early June when school was still in session before the start of the annual summer hiatus. (Julie and the Eagles takes place in April and May while Julie’s Journey starts in late June and ends on the Fourth of July). Good Luck, Ivy is the first and, so far, only book where Ivy Ling is the lead character while Julie Albright is given a supporting role. (The only other member of Julie’s family who makes an appearance in this book is her father.) Like the other books in the Julie Albright series, Good Luck, Ivy was written for a target audience of girls between the ages 8-12 so there won’t be an in-depth look at certain controversial issues of the 1970’s.

This book was published along with the Central Series in 2007. Like the Central Series, this book was illustrated by Robert Hunt, who also designed the logo of a boy fishing from a crescent moon for Dreamworks Studios. For the story itself, this book replaces Megan McDonald with a Chinese American author named Lisa Yee, who has written other books for both American Girl (Aloha, Kanani and Good Job, Kanani) and other publishers (Millicent Min: Girl Genius and Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time).

Ivy and Julie: Best Friends Forever!

Ivy and Julie: Best Friends Forever!

Synopsis: Ivy Ling is a 10-year-old Chinese American girl growing up in 1976 San Francisco in a house that includes her father, her mother, her 12-year-old brother Andrew, her 3-year-old sister Missy, and the family cats Wonton and Jasmine. Her grandfather, known as Gung Gung, and her grandmother, known as Po Po, operate a Chinese restaurant called the Happy Panda located in San Francisco’s Chinatown district.

The book begins with Ivy griping over having to eat take-out food from the Happy Panda yet again because her parents are too busy to cook these days. Over the past year Ivy has had to make many adjustments to changes in her life. Her mother has quit her job so she can go to law school while her father is currently working two jobs to make ends meet. As a result, she and Andrew have to help more around the house, including taking care of little Missy.

If that isn’t enough, her best friend Julie, who used to live across the street before her parents divorced, now lives a few miles away with her mother and attends a different school so she can only see Julie on the weekends when she’s visiting her father, who got the original family home in the divorce settlement.

Ivy has to deal with going to elementary school during the week and doing homework at night. On Saturdays she and Andrew spend breakfast at the Happy Panda with their grandparents before heading off to Chinese school where they and other Chinese American kids learn to speak and read the Chinese language. While Ivy loves spending time with her grandparents, she’s less-than-thrilled with Chinese school and wonders why she has to learn Chinese when she considers herself to be an all-American girl. Her latest school session becomes interesting to her only when the teacher talks about the dragon and how it’s a symbol of good luck and it’s the most powerful signs in the Chinese zodiac. (In addition, as Happy New Year, Julie made clear, 1976 was the Year of the Dragon.) But then Ivy’s attitude about Chinese school changes again when her teacher assigns some extra-credit homework that involves interviewing family members about their lives (which is reminiscent of the plot of Julie Tells Her Story) while those with siblings in the class can work on an alternative extra-credit assignment of doing a report on a famous Chinese American. Ivy’s brother immediately volunteers to do a paper on his hero, Bruce Lee, leaving Ivy with the task of interviewing members of her family. Andrew idolizes Bruce Lee because, like the martial arts star, Andrew was also born in the Year of the Dragon. Andrew has even emulated Bruce Lee by studying kung fu himself.

The one thing that Ivy has to look forward to during the weekdays after school is going to gymnastics practice at the Chinatown YWCA, where she’s on the Twisters gymnastics team. Ivy is an avid gymnast who especially admires Soviet Olympic gymnast Olga Korbut. Even gymnastics isn’t a total escape because it turns out that Ivy has an issue with the balance beam stemming from two tournaments ago when, during that competition, she made a mistake that caused her to fall completely from that apparatus. She tried to get back up but her nerves got the best of her and she ended up running to the girls’ bathroom. Since then she had developed a fear of performing on the balance beam despite her coach’s encouragement to keep trying during practice. She has to master that fear quickly because the Twisters are set to compete in the upcoming all-city tournament followed by a pizza party for the team (that’s set to happen regardless of whether the Twisters win or lose).

Ivy versus her biggest nemesis: the balance beam.

Ivy versus her biggest nemesis: the balance beam.

If all that wasn’t enough, there was also the upcoming annual Ling family reunion which is going to be extra-special this year because relatives from both sides of Ivy’s family will be there. Unfortunately for Ivy, that family reunion is scheduled at the same time as the Twisters’ all-city tournament followed by the pizza party and she has to decide which one to attend.

In time Ivy finds a use for her Chinese school lessons when she helps a Chinese-speaking stranger. Ivy tries to overcome her fear of the balance beam while remembering her brother’s frequently saying that dragons make their own luck. She makes a compromise regarding her scheduling conflict that works out well for her. She also finds a way of working on her extra-credit assignment for Chinese school.

The last chapter, Looking Back, is all about the Chinese immigrant experience in America (which went as far back as the 1849 California Gold Rush and continued through the building of the Transcontinental Railroad) while mentioning the racism and discrimination that they frequently faced. The chapter also mentions prominent Chinese Americans like Bruce Lee, Connie Chung, Michelle Kwan, Maya Lin, and Amy Tan.

Movies and Television Shows Mentioned

The Brady Bunch
Enter the Dragon
The Price Is Right
Sesame Street
The Six-Million Dollar Man

Real-Life People Mentioned

Amy Tan
Bruce Lee
Connie Chung
Maya Lin
Michelle Kwan
Olga Korbut

News and Other Stuff From the Era Mentioned

1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany
California Gold Rush
Five and Dime (also known as Five and Ten) Stores
Lucky Charms Cereal
Mr. Bubble
Polaroid Picture
Transcontinental Railroad
The Year of the Dragon

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

Reading about the scenes where Ivy’s mother is an older college student reminded me about the time when I spent my freshman year at a community college before I transferred to the University of Maryland. I was 18 at the time while I had female classmates who were old enough to be my mother and, in a couple of cases, even old enough to be my grandmother. These women had gotten married straight out of high school and had children soon afterwards. Once their children reached school age (or even once their children were grown and moved out of the house), these women decided to go back to college. Some women were studying for professional careers while others (especially the senior citizens) were taking classes just for personal enrichment. I also remember when my ex-husband used to tell me that his mother went back to school to get her master’s degree in library science once her children were school age. (My mother-in-law married her college sweetheart—my ex-husband’s father—soon after getting her bachelor’s degree followed by having children and becoming a stay at home mom.) He told me that it felt strange at first to see his mother be a student, which is similar to the scene where Ivy felt weird that her mom is back in school and she has to study and do homework just like her two older children. (My ex-husband told me that his mother got her master’s degree when he was 13 but she still remained a stay at home mom for another seven years until after his younger sister went away to college.)

I identified with Ivy feeling envious that her Great-Uncle Henry and Julie’s father owned color TV sets while her family had a black-and-white TV set. There was a time when color TV was very expensive so people with tighter budgets had to make do with black-and-white TV sets since they were cheaper at the time. When I was growing up my family initially only had a black-and-white TV set. We were lucky one year when my mother’s boss at the life insurance company (where she initially worked as a secretary before getting promoted to office manager) decided to give a color TV set to my family as a gift. I don’t know why he was so generous that year but we were thrilled when we got a color TV set. We ultimately moved our black-and-white TV to the basement where it served as a second TV, which came in handy for those times when members of our family wanted to watch different shows that were showing on different channels at the same time. (This was in the days before there were VCR’s or TiVo or Internet streaming or On-Demand cable programming when people were at the mercy of the TV networks’ rigid schedules much more than today.)

The scene where Ivy’s brother Andrew adjusts the TV antennae on the black and white set so younger sister Missy can watch Sesame Street brought back memories of those days when we had to do that with the black and white TV. Once we got the color TV set, my parents had to install an outside antennae because the signals would’ve come in better. (Cable TV in those days were for rural areas only since some places in the U.S. were so remote that picking up the nearest big city TV signal was impossible without cable because some places were located at least 50 miles or more from the nearest city. I grew up outside of Baltimore and we were also close enough to Washington, DC that we picked up stations from both cities so we weren’t considered eligible for cable TV until the 1980’s when cable TV companies started to expand into urban and suburban areas.) I remember we had this box next to the TV set and every time we changed the channel we had to get up and manually rotate the dial a little bit at a time until the picture came in clear. (In those days we had to get up off the seat if we wanted to turn the TV on, change the channel, or adjust the antennae. There were some sets that had remote control but they were very expensive back in those days. My grandparents on my father’s side of the family were the only ones I knew growing up who had a remote control TV set. The remote control they had was thicker and larger than modern-day remotes and it made a clunking sound every time you pushed a button to turn it on or change the channel.)

The scene where Ivy puts some Mr. Bubble in the bathtub for her sister brought back memories of when I used to love bathing in Mr. Bubble as a child. I thought seeing bubbles in the bathtub was the coolest thing in the world until I was about 9 or 10. I also remember the Mr. Bubble ads on TV such as this one. That brief reference to a Polaroid picture was also a trip down memory lane because my father owned a Polaroid camera for a few years until my parents switched to Kodak. I also took a trip down memory lane when there was a brief mention of Ivy eating Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast because Lucky Charms was among my favorite cereal as a child (along with Frosted Flakes, Trix, Fruit Loops, and Cocoa Puffs). (I eventually stopped eating pre-sweetened cereal as an adult when I learned how eating such cereal every morning isn’t good for you. These days I alternate between Cheerios, Total, Honey Bunches of Oats, Wheaties, and Wheat Chex.)

Good Luck, Ivy has a lighthearted plot that’s reminiscent of Julie Tells Her Story. The scene where Ivy and Julie attempt to bake cookies despite the lack of experience and not having a cookbook on-hand had me laughing out loud, especially when it was paired with this illustration.

Ivy and Julie attempt to bake cookies without a recipe, despite a lack of baking experience.

Ivy and Julie attempt to bake cookies without a recipe, despite a lack of baking experience.

There were also times when her brother Andrew served as comic relief in his arrogance and over exuberance.

I think Good Luck, Ivy does a great job at explaining Chinese American culture and how the children being raised in it go about their ordinary lives. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about Chinese American culture in general. Despite passing references to Polaroid photographs and black and white TV sets, this story could easily have taken place this year since there was more of an emphasis on traditional Chinese American culture than on the fact that it takes place in 1976. Good Luck, Ivy can stand on its own as a separate book because one doesn’t really need to have read the Julie books in order to understand this one.

Ivy’s Asian background reminds me of this memory when I was growing up in the 1970’s. When my family first moved from Baltimore to nearby Glen Burnie, that town was mostly white. By the third grade there was a Japanese family named Nakanishi who moved from Okinawa to my neighborhood. Sometimes I used to play with one of their daughters and that girl was in a couple of my classes until after the seventh grade (when her family moved elsewhere).

By the mid-1970’s there was suddenly an influx of South Koreans who moved to Glen Burnie and I suddenly had Korean classmates who were struggling to learn English and adjusting to an entirely new country and culture. Some South Korean families moved to the United States because they were fleeing the repressive dictatorship of Park Chung-hee (who ruled that nation with an iron fist until his assassination in 1979) while others were simply looking for better education opportunities for their children than what they could get in the South Korean school system at that time. Unlike Julie, while I was friendly with some of my Korean classmates, I was never close enough friends with them where I was invited to their homes so, growing up, I never got a first-hand look at how a different ethnic group live their day-to-day lives.

I did have one Chinese American classmate in high school but we weren’t close friends like Julie and Ivy are in the books.

While Good Luck, Ivy remains the only book where Ivy Ling is given a dominant role, it wouldn’t be the last the reader hears from her or her best friend Julie Albright. Next week I’ll write about how American Girl has tried to keep Julie’s story going past the Central Series and Best Friend book.

Where to Buy Good Luck, Ivy

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.