Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Miranda Barnes, American Girl
Brit Bennett never thought she would create an American Girl doll, but it’s safe to say that’s a reality she’s been manifesting for years. “I will passively and aggressively tweet my way to this American Girl doll thing, watch me,” the author wrote in a deleted tweet since 2016, after the franchise added a 60s doll to its character portfolio. historical. When an ’80s doll joined the fray two years ago, Bennett persisted: “Give us a Black American Girl doll in the ’90s,” she tweeted in 2020adding “and please let me write it down.”
To Bennett’s surprise, the powers that be at American Girl contacted her. It was too early for a 90s doll, but they wanted to collaborate. Bennett had always been interested in the Harlem Renaissance, so she proposed Claudie, an 8-year-old black girl who grew up in 1922. Claudie, whose series began in August, is the third black historical doll in the franchise, after Addie by Connie Porter. , set in the Civil War era, and Denise Lewis Patrick’s Melody, the 60s doll released in 2016. The daughter of a baker and a journalist, Claudie lives with her little brother and her dog, Dizzy Dot, in a full pension of tenants who use their art to collect rent after an eviction notice is posted. But unlike many artists of the time, Claudie had no idea what her talent was, or if she had any. “I wanted to take the Harlem Renaissance, which we think of as this period of outpouring of talent, but also think about the ordinary people who were living their lives, who maybe weren’t the flashy artists,” Bennett says.
Bennett made his fiction debut in 2016 with The mothers, which tells the story of a young black woman grieving the suicide of her mother who returns to her Southern California community following a family emergency. Her second novel, The evanescent half, about two black sisters whose lives are shattered when one gives up her old life to pose as a white woman, is currently being adapted by HBO, with Issa Rae joining Bennett as executive producer. Claudie’s story is Bennett’s first foray into children’s fiction. “I always wanted to write for young readers at some point in my career, but I didn’t know what form it would take,” she says. “It’s a bit of a liability for black authors, because there are so few books about black children.”
The Cut spoke to Bennett about what it’s like to create an American Girl doll.
Claudie’s journey began with your 2020 Tweeter, but your relationship with American Girl dolls goes back much further. What was your experience with dolls growing up?
Like most millennials, I was a big fan of American Girl dolls. I used to check American Girl books at the library, and my sister and I owned some of Addy’s books. We were really in the tradition. I read a lot of historical fiction as a kid, but there was something special about American Girls that was more immersive. At the time, Addy was the only black doll, so that was the one I had. His series was very important to me. It was probably the series that introduced me to the idea of slavery.
Before writing Claudie’s story, you spoke with Connie Porter, who wrote the Addy series. How was it?
I spoke to him early in the process when I was still considering whether or not to do it. It’s only a few months later The evanescent half came out, and I wasn’t sure I had the energy or the ability to write a children’s book at that time. It was my first time talking to an author who wrote one of the books I read as a kid, so it was a surreal moment. I remember loving Addy and the books, but she told me about the pushback she had at the time. She told me that there were black readers who were like, why are you talking about this, and who had a sense of shame about this traumatic part of the story being presented to children. That was about 30 years ago, and it was interesting to hear her say how much it meant to her, in the end, that she made it. It was a trailblazing book series that meant a lot and still means a lot to young readers. She said to me, maybe in 30 years there will be a woman who will come to you and say she loved the book you wrote. That’s what touched my heart and made me want to do it.
I was touched that Connie came to my book launch in New York and was able to meet her in person. It was also a party for her. It’s important for me to see an author of his generation receive this type of love. Seeing all these millennials pestering her at the store, because she wrote something that meant something to them as kids, was really cool.
How did you decide to install Claudie in the Harlem Renaissance?
It was very involved. Writing about a period of 100 years ago presents challenges with the sources available. Thanks to American Girl, we had a board of historians and scholars who weighed in on those aspects of history. I had a researcher who helped me if I had questions: what would it have looked like? Would she have access to this? There were times when my story ideas informed where we were going with the research, and other times when the research informed where I was going with the story. I remember one of the historians mentioning the importance of community pools in Harlem at the time, as a gathering space, so I wanted to have a scene set in a swimming pool.
You don’t usually write children’s fiction. What was it like changing modes?
It was difficult in a way that I didn’t expect. If you’re used to writing for adults, you might have younger characters, but they’re not really story drivers. With Claudie, it was important to make sure there wasn’t an adult showing up at the last minute and fixing everything for her. You’re with her, centering her awareness, which may seem obvious but it’s not something that came naturally to me. I have never written from the point of view of a child as young as Claudie. I’ve done coming-of-age scenes, teenagers, but never for someone that young. Stylistically, it was different too. There were times when my editor said an 8 year old would literally read this, so you have to find another way to say it.
The most important thing was the fact that in these books you teach history to children. I wanted to be honest and truthful and accurate about the story and experience of this 8 year old black child in 1922. But at the same time you want it to be entertaining for the kids. It’s a doll, and you want it to have that sense of play, that fantasy, and that joy. I wanted it to feel organic and truthful without neglecting the fact that the function of these books – or at least the fun I got from them as a kid – was that I didn’t feel like anyone was m was teaching. I felt like I was living a story.
There is a prodigy trope in many books for young readers, where the protagonist has a supernatural talent or gift. Although Claudie is growing up in an era of creativity, I liked that she struggled to find what she was good at. Have you ever had similar doubts, child or adult?
That’s one of the reasons I wrote the story the way I did: the trope of the “special boy” with the talent or the gift. You know he’s the main character because he’s special in a way. This applies to anyone of any age or gender, and not just in children’s fiction. Growing up, I loved to read and write; I felt I had some writing talent, but I never thought it was a slam dunk or a guarantee that I would write a book one day. Like Claudie, I remember seeing people with more visible talents than writing. Writing is something you often do alone, working on for years before anyone sees it. Even if you’re good at it, it’s not that flashy thing like singing or dancing. In college, I was working on my novel alone in my dorm, surrounded by people with this very obvious brilliant talent that everyone was praising them for. When I came out with my book, it came out of nowhere. No one knew I was working on it. So I can understand the feeling that Claudie has, that everyone around you has talent and that you work a bit in the dark. I wanted to look at how all the people that we don’t look at as artists, like his parents, are able to create art in their lives.
What was the reaction to Claudie? So many people are excited.
It was fun to see the pictures people post with Claudie. I gave it to my friends with kids, so they started sending me pictures of their kids with it, which is really adorable. There was such an outpouring of love the day I announced the release of the book. People were blowing up my Instagram and getting excited about it. It’s gratifying to see the book and the doll in the world, and to have this doll, which is very cute, come out of my brain and now be something I can hold. It’s different from the typical experience of writing a novel and holding it, because I created this character and now she’s sitting on my bookshelf.