Julie Albright’s life is changing. The 9-year-old’s parents have just divorced and she now lives in an apartment a few miles from her childhood home. She misses her best friend, her pet rabbit and most of all, her father. Holidays are difficult. She doesn’t want to tell her friends about the divorce.
Her experience is similar to that of millions of children in the United States, whose parents have divorced. The only difference is that Julie is a doll. The doll was created by American Girl, a subsidiary of Mattel Inc., and released in September this year. A series of six books chronicling Julie’s story were also released, written by author Megan McDonald.
McDonald made the decision to include divorce as part of Julie’s background, said Susan Jevens, senior public relations associate for American Girl. “She felt this was a really important thing for the character to be dealing with,” Jevens said. “We wanted to show girls that at the core of things, even though their family has changed, they can find ways to work together and get along.”
The Julie doll is the first to have divorce as part of her story since the company – which aims to reach girls ages 3 to 12 – began making dolls in 1986. McDonald, author of more than two dozen children’s books and best known for her Judy Moody series, consulted her husband – a marriage and family therapist – on the effects of divorce on children and families. She said she also drew from experience within her own family.
“I learned from watching some of my own family members go through divorce that the impact is lifelong,” she said. “My hope is that readers who are children of divorce themselves will identify with Julie and her family situation and struggle, and take some solace that they are not alone. By reading about how Julie overcomes difficulties, girls in the same situation may be able to feel hope.”
Julie’s story is set in San Francisco in 1974, allowing the books to also touch on issues such as protecting the environment, women’s rights and politics. “This is a way to teach girls history in a way that’s understandable to them,” Jevens said, calling this idea a “girl-sized view.” “There were a lot of compelling things going on in the country at that time, things that are still important to us today.”
McDonald said the 1970s were also a time when divorce was increasing, contributing to the decision to make it part of Julie’s background. “Historically, I felt it important to have Julie’s family reflect what would have been the reality in the mid-seventies,” she said. “In terms of fiction, divorce became for me, as writer, the metaphor for all of Julie’s stories. The country itself was deeply divided in the early 70s over the Vietnam War and deeply disappointed over Watergate …. It’s a personal way of understanding deep divisions that want to be healed.”
The first book opens just after Julie’s parents’ divorce. Later books deal with how the family handles holidays and Julie’s struggle to tell her classmates. As the books progress, Julie learns to accept the divorce and find her own identity. The 18-inch doll is made of cloth and vinyl, with accessories including clothes, furniture, pets and toys. She is the ninth doll in American Girl’s historical line, along with more than two dozen dolls in the company’s contemporary line.
Jevens said she has received positive feedback from parents who are going through divorce. “They think it’s a great thing that we’re introducing a character they can use as a way to talk about divorce,” she said. “This is a character that girls can identify with and parents can use as a way to start a conversation. It can help them realize there are others going through the same situation.”Stephanie Obley has worked at newspapers in Florida covering issues from education to crime. She lives in South Carolina with her family and writes freelance articles. She can be reached at email@example.com.
ABOUT THE BOOKS
The six books – each about 80 pages long – begin in September 1975 and span a year of Julie Albright’s life. Throughout the books, Julie is portrayed as an empowered young girl who sees no obstacle to the things she wants to do. While she ultimately does the right thing, her emotions are realistic, and she often feels conflicted or is tempted to take the easy way out. Her relationships are also complex as she sometimes argues with family and friends and must learn to compromise. Julie is such an open, good-hearted character that it’s easy to get swept up in her story, root for her and wish the stories went on to show what she makes of her life. As it is, she demonstrates how a young person can overcome difficulty through love from family and friends, and a desire to change the world. Targeted to a young audience, the books steer clear of more difficult divorce situations like custody battles or parental strife, and the reason for the divorce is never mentioned. Author Megan McDonald uses symbolism in a way young readers can understand such as the mending of a broken bone likened to a divorced family, and a jigsaw puzzle to reflect the emotions of a young girl. Colorful illustrations give snapshots of Julie, the people in her life and the events she experiences, and a “Looking Back” section in each book discusses events of the 1970s like divorce, women in the work force, integration, the environment and politics.
Book 1: Meet Julie
The book opens the day Julie, her teenage sister and their mother move out of the family home following her parents’ divorce. Julie often feels the sting of adjusting to her new life, and kids at her new school whisper about the divorce. To find her own niche, Julie takes on the basketball coach to let her play on the school’s all-boys team. Julie is presented as a girl with complex feelings like anger, fear, confusion and frustration. On Career Day, when Julie’s mother, not her father, shows up – the only mother in Julie’s class to talk about her work – she is initially mortified. But as her mother speaks about the secondhand store she owns and the other kids warm to her, Julie relaxes and feels pride.