Growing up, I loved the American Girl dolls and their accompanying books. Sure, I had my fair share of Barbies and Legos (and a whole lot of Beanie Babies that I thought would be worth more money by now), but American Girl truly understood what I wanted out of a toy, which was to imagine myself crossing the wide and lonesome prairie just after losing my friend to cholera. Or starting a workers' rights movement for children working in factories. Or racing across a field in a tattered gown, escaping the redcoats and also maybe owning a pet lamb. Isn't that what all little girls want, when you get right down to it? Even as an adult, it's hard to beat a good historical story about a young woman kicking ass and radicalizing her community. Here are a few books to read as a grown up, based on the American Girl dolls you loved as a kid.
I mean, yes, the dolls were expensive. And yes, I fully understand that they had all those books to sell all those extra accessories. I owned both of Kaya's horses. I get it. But at the same time, those books were instrumental in getting me interested in American history. And if you, too, miss reading about the revolutionary ladies of yesteryear, these "adult" books just might help you recapture some of the magic:
If you loved Kirsten, try 'Under a Painted Sky' by Stacey Lee
My Swedish-American grandparents were determined that I love Kirsten, the Swedish pioneer doll who crosses the prairie to make a new life in the west (after her best friend dies of cholera in book one). If you're looking for a story about two best friends who are both alive for their pioneer journey, then try Under a Painted Sky. This novel tells the story of Samantha, a young Chinese girl living in Missouri, and Annamae, a runaway slave just trying to survive, as they make their way across the Oregon Trail, hoping to find freedom for the both of them somewhere out west.
If you loved Josefina, try 'The Hummingbird's Daughter' by Luis Alberto Urrea
Josefina grew up on a ranch near Santa Fe while the area was under Mexican rule, just a few years after Mexican independence. Her story-lines revolved around the loss of her mother and her desire to heal people and her battles with a very cruel goat (who then dies because American Girl books don't play around). The Hummingbird's Daughter takes place a few years later in Mexican history, but the novel still follows a rancher's daughter who, much like Josefina, has the uncanny ability to heal people. Unlike Josefina, though, young Teresita's abilities seem to come from an otherworldly source, and not everyone is pleased to see a young girl wielding so much power.
If you loved Molly, try 'Gone to Soldiers' by Marge Piercy
Molly was the World War II doll, but Molly just didn't have that many problems (sorry, Molly fans). I think her dad was off at war or something, but Molly's day to day was mostly about getting perms and going to summer camp. Which made for fine reading as a kid, don't get me wrong! But if you're wondering what adult American women were doing during World War II, pick up Gone to Soldiers, a sweeping epic about six women and four men who worked, fought, and struggled their way through the war on every front.
If you loved Kit, try 'Saint Mazie' by Jami Attenberg
Kit's whole thing was a riches-to-rags Great Depression story. All her books involved her learning how to be a journalist, denouncing "girly" pursuits, and facing the harsh economic reality of America in the 1930's. Saint Mazie is also set during the Great Depression, following the big-hearted, bawdy Mazie Phillips as she struggles to stay afloat. Much like Kit, Mazie is a born writer who yearns to tell the truth. She desperately wants to save her community from the horrors of poverty, which she has experienced firsthand. And also Mazie drinks more, because she is a full grown adult.
If you loved Addy, try 'The Underground Railroad' by Colson Whitehead
Addy's books were not even in the general vicinity of messing around. In the very first book, little Addy's father and brother are sold, and then she and her mother escape slavery, almost drowning in the process and leaving her baby sister behind. The Underground Railroad follows another young woman escaping from slavery. In Cora's world, though, the Underground Railroad is not a metaphor but a very real series of inter-connected tunnels and train tracks, bringing Cora to freedom or to further trials as she tries to fight her way out of the South.
If you loved Kaya, try 'Shell Shaker' by LeAnne Howe
Kaya was my favorite American Girl, hands down. I mean, she had two horses. She was always getting kidnapped or escaping or getting lost in the woods and having to survive and save her family through sheer willpower. Her stories were set in the Nimíipuu territory of the mid-1700's, before Western colonization of the Columbia River Plateau. While the novel Shell Shaker centers on a Choctaw family instead, the narrative bounces from 1738 to the 1900's, following a group of courageous, clever women and their descendants as they, too, must fight for their family, some 250 years apart.
If you loved Samantha, try 'The American Heiress' by Daisy Goodwin
Look, I liked Samantha as much as the next '90s kid, but most of her Edwardian Era stories focused on little Samantha learning about poor people and then hiring them to work for her wealthy family. I mean... I guess that helps? But if you're looking for more of that Downton Abbey-esque Samantha content, try American Heiress for the story of a young, wealthy American women who doesn't necessarily want to live out the life that's been planned for her. Like Samantha, Cora intends to break the rules while also wearing very stylish clothing.
If you loved Melody, try 'Where Did Our Love Go?' by Nelson George
As her name might suggest, Melody is all about music. It's 1964, and Melody's whole family is involved in music in some way or another—although her parents think that college is a better path to success than trying be a Motown star. If you and Melody share the same taste in music (and swinging '60s style, of course), then you'll want to read the music history classic Where Did Our Love Go?, which tells the extraordinary story of the Motown Sound and the artists who changed the face of American music.
If you loved Rebecca, try 'The Tin Horse' by Janice Steinberg
Rebecca wants to be an actress and have her turn in the spotlight, but she's constantly overshadowed by her twin sisters and her big brother (so rude of her brother to try and make his Bar Mitzvah all about himself). If you're a fan of funny, dramatic Rebecca, then you might enjoy The Tin Horse, a multi-generational epic with plenty of high drama, disappearing twins, Jewish-American immigrant experiences and, of course, fierce sibling rivalry.