Isabel: Taking Wing by Annie Dalton
Cécile: Gates of Gold by Mary Casanova
Spring Pearl: The Last Flower by Laurence Yep
Minuk: Ashes in the Pathway by Kirkpatrick Hill
Neela: Victory Song by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Move over, Barbie … Say hello to The Girls of Many Lands, a book and doll series brought to you by Pleasant Company, renowned for the American Girl series of books, dolls and paraphernalia. Now the company is branching out globally as they introduce this month five new girls from faraway lands and faraway times.
“Although girls today have a great deal of exposure to other cultures in school and through the media, our world is still often filled with misunderstanding and mistrust of those who are different,” says Girls of Many Lands editor Tamara England. “By learning and identifying with the Girls of Many Lands characters, we hope girls will not only expand their cultural awareness but grow intellectually and emotionally in understanding, tolerance and compassion for others – something desperately needed in our world today.”
The five new Girls are all 12-years-old, each living in a time of great historical change. They are all independent, spunky, non-conformist and unwilling to spend their lives trapped in what society declares is so-called proper behavior.
The oldest, historically, is Isabel, an independent young girl living in 1592 London. In Isabel: Taking Wing, written by award-winning British author Annie Dalton (Night Maze, The Afterdark Princess), Isabel is banished from her beloved home for sneaking out to the theater – something unheard of at the time for girls of fine families. She is sent to live with a maternal aunt in the countryside, which proves to be a fortuitous experience.
“We have all these mental photofit pictures of what an English man (or woman) is like, and what I love is that the Elizabethans gloriously undermine and contradict every one!” laughs Dalton. “They were not in the least buttoned up or repressed. They were actually far more like our cultural stereotype of Italians – passionate, volatile, feuding and scheming, exuberantly in love with the arts and with life itself.” In that spirit, Dalton created Isabel. “Isabel is absolutely a child of her times, [which] is the greatest source of her conflict. … [but[ her spirit rebels against the deadly tedium of domesticity. Taking Wing shows how she finds a way to fly free within the confines of a 16th-century female life.”
Cécile: Gates of Gold,, the next in historical order, goes back to 1711 France and King Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. Brought to life by award-winning author Mary Casanova (Stealing Thunder, The Hunter), Cécile dreams of a life at court, away from the deprivation of life in her outlying village. But once her dreams come true and she enters the service of the King’s sister-in-law, her fairytale expectations of palace life are not at all what she expected amidst the rigid rules and inner politics of all the subjects vying for the King’s good favor.
“Court life was sumptuous, complicated and scandalous – full of intrigue and treachery,” says Casanova. “By stepping into the shoes of Cécile who comes from the countryside to court, from peasantry to royal surroundings, I found my way into a distant time through a character whose story begged to be told.”
In Spring Pearl: The Last Flower, veteran young adult author Laurence Yep (Dragonwings, Dragon’s Gate), captures 1857 Canton caught in China’s Second Opium War against the British and French. Spring Pearl, newly orphaned, is sent to live with the wealthy merchant family of Master Sung, an acquaintance of her famed artist father. Yep relied on the stories of his Chinatown “Aunties” to bring the story to life. “All of them … were tough, resourceful women who not only survived but flourished.”
Unlike most girls of her era, Spring Pearl not only reads and writes Chinese, she can also manage some English as well – a talent which proves extremely beneficial when she and a resourceful servant boy must go rescue Master Sung from corrupt government officials. Says Yep, “Spring Pearl has [my Aunties’] toughness, their compassion, the resourcefulness and above all, their sense of humor.”
In Minuk: Ashes in the Pathway, Kirkpatrick Hill (Toughboy and Sister, Winter Camp) introduces a Yup’ik Alaskan native village in 1890, whose simple life is on the verge of cultural collision with white foreigners. Minuk, who lives with her family on the Kuskokwim River, encounters missionaries who not only bring Christianity and western medicine but books, tortuous clothing (the corset!) and strange new foods. Tragically, they also bring influenza, which decimates the native population, including much of Minuk’s family.
“I love Alaskan history,” says Hill, a resident of the Alaskan bush for the last 30 years, “and the most interesting aspect of that history to me is the process of acculturation. … What could it have been like to have your way of life, your ideas, turned upside down in days, weeks? The most amazing thing to me is the way people absorb all this innovation without missing a beat … they just go on, matter-of-fact. But my, the pain of seeing old ways dying, old values, old beliefs.”
The final title in the series is Neela: Victory Song by award-winning Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Arranged Marriage, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives). Neela, who comes of age in 1939 India, becomes inadvertently embroiled in India’s growing Independence Movement from Great Britain when she steals away from her village home in search of her father who is being held in a Calcutta jail. “Quite a bit of information is from my mother, who was a girl in 1939 in Calcutta,” says Divarakuni. She applauds the series, in that “… children can learn about and identify with girls of other cultures, especially as many of those cultures have strong immigrant communities here. In the wake of 9-11, everything we can do to promote cross-cultural understanding is crucial.”
Besides, these Girls of Many Lands are “a good addition to the Barbies and Kens, don’t you think?” adds Divakaruni. Indeed, each of the girls of the Many Lands series must face their own challenges and restrictions, regardless of their homeland, their history, their family. And each of them prevails.
Says editor England, “… as girls grow into young womanhood and face changes and the increasing complexities of life, we want to offer them stories and dolls that connect them with other girls also in the process of change, of facing new challenges, of becoming their more grown-up selves.” That three more Girls are forthcoming next fall is only more good news.
Series profile: The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2002
Tidbit: Laurence Yep was a guest at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program’s literary event, “Three Chinese American Children’s Book Authors,” on November 6, 2005, together with Belle Yang. Da Chen had also been scheduled to attend – hence the three authors, ahem – but had to cancel at the last minute, alas.
Readers: Middle Grade