Celebrating Girls and all they can be

Spring 2012

American Girl E-News

In January, American Girl introduced the newest Girl of the Year. She's McKenna Brooks, a ten-year-old girl who shines in gymnastics but struggles in the classroom.

Who inspired McKenna's stories? Girls and moms themselves. Based on surveys with mothers and daughters about issues that mattered to them, these rose to the top: believing in yourself, respecting those who are different from you, and getting good grades. Girls also weighed in on their favorite interests, and sports ranked high. McKenna™, Girl of the Year 2012Using those key issues and interests as background, the American Girl Book Editorial and Product Design teams met to brainstorm storylines. They imagined a girl who aspired to be a good gymnast and student but who had trouble "balancing" those interests. By consulting with a gymnastics trainer and studio owner, the Editorial team was able to create a safe and authentic portrayal of gymnastics throughout McKenna's stories. Identifying McKenna's sport also helped decide the setting of her stories—Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. A number of gymnastics training centers are located there, and with its majestic mountains and towering forests, the Northwest seemed the perfect place for a girl to reach high and believe in her potential.
The "fourth-grade slump" To address the theme of being a good student, the Editorial team researched some of the hurdles that children McKenna's age face in the classroom. They discovered something called the "Fourth-Grade Slump," which describes a fairly common drop in reading and math scores among fourth graders, even those who excelled in earlier grades. As many as 30 percent of fourth graders struggle with reading comprehension. One explanation is that between third and fourth grade, the focus of the classroom moves from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." Students who haven't mastered reading comprehension begin to struggle in all subjects where reading is required. After consulting with a reading specialist to help portray McKenna's challenges accurately, the team chose an author with intimate knowledge of those challenges. Mary Casanova, author of the Jess® and Chrissa® Girl of the Year series, was drawn to the storyline because she, too, struggled with reading as a young girl. She had trouble comprehending what she was reading and sticking with a book long enough to finish it.
Respecting differences As the storyline developed, the team decided that McKenna would need a reading tutor, which led to the introduction of another important character, Josie. McKenna's tutor and new friend has physical disabilities that require her to use a wheelchair, but she is academically strong and confident. The addition of Josie helped bring to life another issue important to moms and girls: appreciating those who are different from you.McKenna with her tutor, Josie To be sure Josie's character was sensitively portrayed, the team met with three experts: an advocate for children with disabilities, a social worker who aids girls and families, and the director of a horseback riding center for children with disabilities. The horseback-riding storyline was woven into the second McKenna book as a way for Josie to explore an interest of her own—and for McKenna to support and encourage her friend just as Josie supported her.
Drawing on inspiration McKenna's character came to life through illustrations created by an artist new to American Girl: Brian Hailes. He's known for his fantasy artwork, but it was a series of ballet sketches that made his portfolio stand out. His ability to capture figures in motion made him the perfect artist to illustrate a gymnast like McKenna. Before creating the McKenna artwork, Brian photographed real gymnasts in action at All American Gymnastics in Lindon, Utah. He then sketched scenes based on those photographs. After his sketches were approved, Brian fleshed out the art using paint and digital techniques. The finished artwork truly captured the active, determined girl McKenna was meant to be.

Before-and-after sketches of McKenna

Taking the challenge Besides the fiction titles in the McKenna series, girls can learn and grow in many more ways: Throughout the development of the McKenna books and products, the American Girl teams relied on the strengths of its members and were inspired by the lessons about teamwork that run throughout McKenna's storylines. The development team hopes that readers will also be inspired to believe in their potential—and to encourage others to do the same.