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20220925 170028

How Brit Bennett Made Her American Girl Dreams Come True

thehourlynews 3 weeks ago 0
20220925 170028

As an only child raised in suburban New Jersey in the early ’90s, my entire world revolved around American Girl. I met each doll by her name and memorized each of her stories. I became obsessed with her stylish outfits (and her bedroom interiors) while simultaneously learning American history. Sure, I struggled to accept the fact that Addy Walker was my only choice to portray myself as a young black woman, but she inspired me with her powerful Civil War-era survival story.

I eventually made the pilgrimage to American Girl Place in Chicago, and then to the New York City location as retail stores expanded access to the full AG experience: shop at the store, eat at the cafe, get dressed at the salon and send your doll to the hospital for a full body reset. Clearly, American Girl culture was a highlight of my childhood, and I have welcomed the current dollcore revival with open arms.

Brit Bennett, a millennial, also grew up with American Girl and was immersed in every aspect of the franchise, from the books to the dolls (she shared an Addy doll with her sister) to the theater kits, which included scripts and a guide to the director. for a four to five act performance based on a doll’s backstory. Now 32, the best-selling author of The fading half Y The mothers still a big fan of AG. In 2016, Bennett tweeted that he wanted a deal with an American Girl doll. Six years (and many more) tweet) later manifested that lifelong dream through Claudie Wells, the newest historical character to enter the AG universe.

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an american girl doll rides a scooter on a city block

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

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Claudie’s story takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most pivotal movements in black history, which saw a confluence of civil rights activism, a national housing crisis, and the Great Migration. But for nine-year-old Claudie, finding her unique talent amidst a vibrant community of artists is paramount.

Claudie’s arrival at the AG brand makes her the fourth black doll in the historic line, following the debuts of Addy in 1993, Cécile Rey in 2011 and Melody Ellison in 2016. During Claudie’s launch party at the American Girl Place From New York late last month, Bennett met Connie Porter, the author of the beloved Addy series of books. “It was surreal meeting someone who wrote something that meant so much to me as a kid,” Bennett says on a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “She spoke very candidly about her experience when those books first came out, about the pushback she received, the criticism and everything. It was great meeting her and thinking about how my book could influence someone growing up today.”

brit bennett holds claudie doll and connie porter holds addy doll in front of american girl step and repeat

Brit Bennett and Connie Porter at the Claudie Launch Party in New York City.

miguel simon

Read on for a conversation with Bennett about the making of Claudie’s story, including how the author was able to maintain a sense of playfulness and joy while teaching young readers about some of the most difficult aspects of American history.

How exactly did this opportunity with American Girl come about?

After I wrote an essay about Addy in 2015, my friends started sending me American Girl memes. It was something that people began to associate with me. During a podcast interview, I was asked, “If you could write your own American Girl doll [story]What could it be?” It was something I had never really thought about before, and I feel like that conversation prompted my tweet in 2016. I think one of my tweets finally caught someone’s attention at American Girl, which I obviously didn’t expect, You know, you. We’re just talking on Twitter. After that, someone approached me and we started discussing the possibility of doing a new historical character, which was the culmination of my interests as a child and as an adult.

Could you explain to me the process of developing the story of Claudie Wells?

It was a very complicated process, I had never worked in such a collaborative way before. There was a board of historians and someone who could help me investigate. It was a long process of meeting with historians and talking about the nuances of the time period, and a lot of back and forth trying to flesh out the story in a way that was really interesting for young readers, but also taught about this time period. . It was a great gift to be able to tap into the knowledge of the experts instead of just googling on my own.

Was it hard for you to shut up?

Yeah, it was very different from my typical book publishing experience, where you want to shout it from the rooftops so as many people know as soon as possible. Much of the process of publishing a novel forces people to read it very early. It was really fun the day the book came out to see everyone react because it was kind of a two-for-one, “I did this book and it comes out today.” It was exciting to see people react to that. I imagine it’s like releasing a surprise album, which is very different from the long, drawn out, slow process of publishing a novel where you’re talking about the book for six months before it hits the shelves.

How was your experience on launch day?

I did a signing at the store, and one of the best things for me was that I feel like half of the people who sign books are parents and children, and the other half are millennials. Some people were familiar with my other work, but other people were just excited that there was another book. It was great to do something that made people so happy. Not that I’ve never experienced that before with my novels, but it was on a different level: people were really excited. There was a guy there, maybe in his 20s or 30s, who told me that he was buying the doll. He said, “I always wanted an American Girl doll as a kid, but they wouldn’t let me have one.” Seeing the children with the doll, of course it’s very moving, but it was also moving to see the millennials there, who were often a little embarrassed or embarrassed, but also very happy to re-experience this thing that made them happy when they were kids.

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

It was a period of time that I found really interesting, partly because of the contradictions. The fact that you had this outpouring of black creativity, which coincided with the rise of lynching in America. These things are happening at the same time, and they are informing each other. There were some times when my story ideas informed the direction of the investigation and other times when the investigation informed the direction of the story. Talking to historians, I learned how the Harlem Renaissance was an era in which the focus on the importance of black childhoods was renewed. This was a moment in time where people really focused on teaching black kids pride. And, of course, the history of Harlem is a history of housing and housing segregation. So I was thinking about all those big themes, and then the details of the character growing up surrounded by all these very talented people and worried that she’s the only person on the face of the planet who doesn’t have a talent. I wanted to balance her individual journey as she tries to figure out who she wants to be and what kind of art she wants to show in the world with these larger systemic questions pressing into her world.

claudie american girl doll models harlem renaissance era dresses

Claudie’s Harlem Renaissance era outfits.

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In an interview with Smithsonian magazine, author Emilie Zaslow notes how “there has been a call for the story of an African-American childhood that is not filled with struggle” and instead focuses on the black experience as something to celebrate. How did you find a balance for Claudie’s narrative?

I hear people say that often, not just because of stories about children, but because of this [idea that] “we are tired of stories of black struggle; we want to see stories of black joy.” It’s a difficult thing because all the stories have tension, all the stories have conflict, all the stories have some kind of problem that needs to be solved. In particular, if you’re digging into history, it’s hard to write that story that’s just “Claudie running around Harlem doing whatever” when every day she walks past a banner that says “Yesterday they lynched a man.” I wanted to take into account the fact that these books are for young readers, and part of the joy of these books, for me at least, was to disappear into the fantasy and play of that. But at the same time, I felt that I couldn’t do it without being honest with the reality of that story. At one point, I asked historians, “What would a nine-year-old in Harlem have understood about X, Y, Z?” It felt like, “Well, who am I to assume that a nine-year-old today couldn’t understand what a nine-year-old had to understand 100 years ago?” It’s a difficult balance in that sense, but I wanted to keep Claudie’s spirit, creativity and joy, while also learning about these difficult stories that have influenced her current life.

What do you hope young readers take away from Claudie’s story?

Falling in love with books, enjoying reading and being entertained, I think that is very important. So I hope you are entertained and enjoy reading the book. At the beginning of the book, Claudie is very caught up in the fact that she feels that she is not special. She has this anxiety about it and she also feels that if you try something and you’re not instantly good at it, you should stop doing it. One of the things I miss so much about childhood is not having as much self-awareness as I do now. I hope that’s one of the things that young readers take away, to indulge in the things you love or the things you’re interested in without worrying about whether you’re good at them. If you like to sing then sing, don’t worry about how you sound. I think that’s part of Claudie’s journey, finding ways to work through her anxiety and fear that she’s not good enough or that people will laugh at her. Anyone can be an artist – it’s just about doing what you love and creating something beautiful for the people you care about.

Meet Claudia

Meet Claudia

Meet Claudia
Credit: Courtesy


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