It’s 1974. Imagine Valerie Tripp and Pleasant Rowland (future founder of the American Girl Collection) taking a break from the reading program they’re creating for an educational publisher. Leaning back in their chairs, feet on desks, they’re brainstorming about writing books for girls, about girls, set during different historical periods.
Fast forward to 1984. Pleasant Rowland is on the verge of launching her first American Girl dolls, and she asks Tripp to choose one doll to write about: Kirsten, a pioneer girl; Samantha, from New York City at the turn of the 20th century; or Molly, on the home front in World War II. According to Tripp, “I chose Molly because I thought it would be more of a challenge to make her time period matter to girls.”
Tripp has since created a series of books for five American Girl characters: Molly; Felicity (from Colonial America); books four through six for Samantha; Josephina (from 1824 New Mexico); and now Kit (from the Great Depression). Sometimes the Pleasant Company asks Tripp to create a character for a specific period in history, like Molly and Felicity, but other times Tripp has a compelling story to tell, like Kit’s Depression Era story. As a new character comes to life in Tripp’s mind, she finds that the historical period dictates hair styles, fashion trends, and some of the character’s personality traits. But Tripp decides what each of her characters looks like, which ultimately determines the appearance of the doll.
Prior to writing each series of books, Tripp immerses herself in the historical time period. She listens to period music, watches movies and reads books and newspapers from and about the period, and studies catalogues and fashion trends. Her favorite research tool is interviewing people who lived through the period and were the same ages as her characters. Tripp’s mother inspired the Kit books set in the Great Depression. “My mother was exactly the same age as Kit in 1932. Her father lost his business because of the Great Depression. He died the Christmas my mother was eleven. My grandmother took in boarders to earn extra money and my mother did the same chores Kit does.”
Tripp’s favorite haunt is the stacks of her own Maryland public library, loading her arms with all the books she can carry. “Books are piled up next to the bed, around my desk and in the car. My husband asks if we’re opening a branch of the library!” In addition to her own resources, Tripp has at her disposal the Pleasant Company research department. “They find out the most arcane facts for me like the cost of ironing a shirt in Cincinnati in December of 1933.”
Tripp writes at her desk about five hours each day, but she doesn’t include the times she stops the car on the shoulder of the road, rifles through her belongings for a scrap of paper, and jots down an idea with her eyebrow pencil. She’s so immersed in the historical period and her characters’ problems that she “thinks” writing all the time. Even when she’s driving her 12 year old daughter, Katherine, to the ice cream parlor, she’s gathering material on girls of today—their joys, successes, failures—so she can help her readers care about her characters.
Many of the incidents in Tripp’s stories come directly from her own life, such as the snow angels Molly makes in Molly’s Surprise; the picnic Josephina and her sisters enjoy inJosephina Learns a Lesson; and the exhilaration Samantha feels being a part of the bustle of New York City in Happy Birthday, Samantha! When Tripp visits schools, she tells the children, “Pay close attention to your hopes and dreams. Remember your experiences—both real and imaginary.”
Tripp became a writer because it was the closest she could come to a job that allowed her to read all the time. “I became a writer because I’m a reader, but writing is hard for me.” Her entire first draft of Meet Josephina wound up in the trash and she’s intimately acquainted with the process of revision. “I know [writing] is still the right thing for me; it gives me back the energy I put into it.”