Books

Character Counts at American Girl, which is why each and every character is crafted with attention to detail and a commitment to accuracy and authenticity. The development of our characters, books, and products relies on the expertise of a knowledgeable staff, including a full-time, in-house historian. In the fall of 2017, American Girl was delighted to welcome Boston University doctoral candidate Tessa Croker to that role.

Having grown up in England in the 1990s, Tessa first discovered American Girl in 2010. A few years later, a character launch introduced her to the position she has now made her own—a role that could not be more fitting for a woman whose own personal and professional trajectory, insightful perspectives about history and culture, and dedication to storytelling are perfectly complemented by the joy that drives her.

History and storytelling have always been central to American Girl’s mission. From your perspective, why are these uniquely important for girls?

There is so much that is unwritten about girls and history—and historical fiction can really help us get at those voices. For as long as those stories remain unwritten, it will impact the way girls see themselves today and in the future. If you do not see yourself in the great stories of the past, how do you see yourself in the great stories of the future?

I am now a professional historian, and I got my start by reading historical fiction as a child. I’ve never forgotten that, truly. The narratives and the characters—the people I was exposed to as a child—they’ve shaped who I am today. They shaped the kinds of possibilities I saw for myself. They shaped how I see my world.

Can you point to any particular moments in your childhood that shaped or informed your love of history and culture?

Many moments, really. When I was about 7, my family and I used to watch a program called Time Team, which was an archaeology program. Every Sunday we’d watch as team of archaeologists, historians, and other specialists would, for example, find a bit of pottery during a dig and do a computer simulation to reconstruct it as a vase. It was fascinating.

But . . . if you ask my mother, she will definitely date my early love of history and culture to when I was about 8 years old. I did a speech at school about Queen Victoria. I was really into it and learned it all by heart—I did quite a dramatic reading. And luckily for me, it was recorded. And at my 18th birthday party, my mother played it back for everyone. I was a small girl with very long brown hair, obsessed with Queen Victoria. And I still kind of am—just an older girl with long brown hair obsessed with Queen Victoria.

Both of these moments, age 7 & 8—this is right about the same age as some of our younger readers, yes?

Absolutely. And as a young reader, I was really into historical fiction—particularly WWII. When I was in the middle grades, so age 8-11 maybe, everything in the library that was historical fiction I would delve into.

In my job now, I know I am writing for girls who are, in effect, my younger self. Although I never had AG growing up—I had the equivalent love of character in a novel and that similar friendship.

You’ve been with American Girl since September 2017. What does your work look like?

It’s a lot of creative thinking, writing, and creative exploring. It’s a bit like being a detective in that you have to piece together these bits of various things and work out what the story is and where you need to go next—and that kind of investigative research really appeals to me. And there’s also a lot of fact-checking and collaborating.

My favorite bit of the job is that it doesn’t look like any one thing, in the best way. I spend a lot of time reading books, looking at collections and online auctions. With this work, American Girl asks me to go down those many rabbit holes and invest time finding the interesting stories.

So with each new area or subject, it’s a full immersion.

Absolutely. When I’m into something, I’m really into something. Definitely.

And that’s where I was very lucky in the way my parents, and indeed my school, encouraged me to look at the world: I never had the experience of history as being dry and dead. It was always “Let’s look at the people. Let’s look at the items.”

By trade, I’m a cultural historian, so I’m a collector of things. For me, history is all about the dresses, the items, the fragments . . . the material culture. These are the things that carry our stories. Even a piece of pottery has a story to tell.

I love what you have to say about the storytelling, that the various materials and fragments all have a story to tell. How do you piece these things together in to a narrative, so that you can trust the narrative and not just your imagination?

After ten years of grad school education, the biggest thing I learned is to doubt myself, in the most positive way. I can look at a source, and I don’t assume my first interpretation is correct—self-awareness and awareness about the materials you have is something a liberal arts education gives you. The ability to reason and think.

You also have to have a good grounding in the fundamentals: you’ve got to know what happened when, and who said what. If you don’t have that base foundation, it is ever harder to find “the truth.” So you do need your training and a good knowledge of the subject. If you are secure enough in your knowledge, then you get the freedom to explore other possibilities and tell different tales.

Finally, what would you like parents to know about you and the work you are doing here at American Girl?

Working as a teacher and young scholar before I joined the company, American Girl always impressed me. When I looked at a character and her story, I could see, “Oh! This character relies on this historian’s research,” or “That is using that person’s scholarship and narrative.”

We’re not teaching simple stories about the past, here: we’re teaching the kind of information that graduate students are learning, but in an age-appropriate manner and through play. American Girl books don’t simply give facts and dates: the actual work of history we’re doing with these characters is really impressive.

If you can get girls interested in history at such a young age, you get them to see beyond just dates and events. You get them to a) enjoy it and b) gain the skills of it. I’m very lucky that I’ve gone on to become a professional historian, but I’ve worked in government roles; I’ve worked in office roles; and always my ability to research and analyze rises to the top, straightaway. Our world is changing, the jobs we’re going to do are changing, and there’s this sense of “History? Why do we need history in that world?” We absolutely need history in that world because it makes you sharper. Knowing how to determine credibility, being able to analyze in our era of noise and inaccurate, unverified, or even “fake” news, being able to navigate the internet, being able to find the flaws in an argument—that stuff: universal. I so value what the experience of exploring history through creativity did for me as a child, and I take very seriously what such imaginative play and storytelling can do for children.