A unique comparative literature class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, uses the popular American Girl books as part of its assigned reading. Yes, the college students who are enrolled in the course read the very same middle grade books about Addy, Kirsten, and Kaya. Assistant Professor Brigitte Fielder’s course contrasts the American Girl stories with 19th and 20th century literature to explore the definitions of “American” and “girl.” It’s been a popular course each spring semester, attracting many nostalgic students who grew up with the iconic dolls and books.
The American Girl company (now owned by Mattel) is based near Madison and since 1986, has been selling dolls, accessories, and books focused on a wide range of historical periods and cultural perspectives. The company has long supported diverse characters and stories.
Students in Fielder’s class also read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, as these books offer a contrast to the content in the American Girl stories.
The professor frames the class around the notion of American girlhood — what it means to be American, to be a girl, and to be an American girl. She feels the AG books offer a broad example of the different lives of many girls over time who lived in America — whether or not they were considered “American” during their lifetimes due to slavery or being an immigrant. Fielder believes the books stimulate critical thinking skills about gender and race, whether they’re read by college students or middle graders.
Interestingly, after the course ends, some of the participants have rediscovered middle grade and YA books. One student who took the course included such favorites as S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie as must-reads on her blog’s 2017 reading bucketlist.
Obviously, I’m a big champion of all things middle grade, but seeing MG books included as part of a college course just made me want to stand up and cheer. I firmly believe that reading MG lit can be life-changing, whether you’re 12, 18, or 45!