What could be better than a one-stop shop to make a new friend and visit the beauty parlor before sitting down for some scrumptious tea?
Since 1986, American Girl dolls have been delighting children eager to drag a carbon copy of themselves around by the hair. So, when my granddaughters came to visit recently, I couldn’t wait to take them to the flagship store on Michigan Avenue.
American Girl Place is a magical land where small plastic people of all ethnicities live together in a perfect world, separated only by plexiglass walls.
Maryellen serves up tiny pancakes in her Seaside Diner while Kira invites you to go glamping with her in her platform tent. History enthusiasts can go back in time with Rebecca, a ringleted cutie who celebrates Hannukah all year long. Melody Ellison is a ’60s Motown singer.
But the key selling point is little girls can craft a doll that looks just like themselves. I’m not sure how this worked in the ’80s but nowadays you can do it by touching a screen, rather like creating your own 18-inch avatar. You can pick the doll’s skin tone, eye and hair color and can even buy the doll’s owner a matching outfit. I couldn’t wait!
“How much!” exclaimed Papa Grumpy. “I’m not spending $ 210 on a doll for a 3-year-old who spent the morning happily cuddling a piece of cardboard with a drinking straw stuck to it.”
Technically that should have been two dolls, since I’d also promised Maddie’s 5-year-old sister, Chloe, one as well, but I took his point.
Turns out that while many of the dolls represent young girls from less privileged backgrounds, they come with very privileged price tags and more accessories than a Black Friday sale at Claire’s. I’m all for creativity, but does your doll really need its own cat complete with litter box? And when I say complete, I’m not exaggerating.
Good news for our family is that all the “food” you can buy for them to eat, from cakes and cookies to fried eggs and hot dogs, are naturally allergen free. That’s very useful when mummy has so many food allergies, she can only eat napkins.
You know what every doll needs in addition to a helicopter and healthy bank balance? That’s right. Its own Deluxe Spa Package. For a mere $ 15, she can enjoy a face, arm and leg scrub, nail decals and a faux face mask with cucumber stickers. To be fair, they do make it clear it’s a faux mask, just in case you thought they were smearing her with Crème de la Mer. (That would be an extra $ 345.)
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When I was little, I pierced my doll’s ears with a pin and hung paper clips from them. For $ 16, American girls can have their doll’s ears pierced, a service that comes a take-home book telling you how to take care of them. Personally, I think this is overkill. My dolls’ ears never became infected, although Tina’s left eye did roll back into her head a few days later.
One thing all little girls love to do is to brush and braid their dolls’ hair, but when you have to feed the pony and tune the piano you might not always have time. Much better to sit the doll in a tiny salon chair and have someone else do it. And if you don’t like the finished result, you can always pull it straight out and, don’t worry, mommy won’t mind at all that she’s just spent $ 20 plus a 20% tip.
In the end, we treated our English girls to a pair of WellieWishers. This is a line of dolls made specially for the under-6s, which means we’ll no doubt have to do this all over again when the girls are older. We spent two hours picking the two that looked most like them, with a couple of sleeping bags and a book thrown in for good measure. Fortunately, one of the dolls also came with her own credit card, which helped us to pay for them.
A week later we were in back in Naperville in a Dollar Tree store. Papa Grumpy had generously given the girls such a small amount of pocket money it was the only place in town they could spend it. They each chose one of Barbie’s lookalike redneck cousins from the wrong side of the tracks. Once again each came with a box of accessories, although some were indistinguishable from the wrapping.
Then they spent many happy minutes playing with their new friends at home, while Camille and Gywnn sneered at them from over the tops of their sleeping bags.
Hilary Decent is a freelance journalist who moved to Naperville from England in 2007.