The Woman Behind American Girl
Hundreds of girls packed into Bethesda, Maryland’s Strathmore Hall for the matinee performance of “American Girl Live” Sunday, March 3, each clutching an American Girl doll. Among those in attendance was Valerie Tripp. Without a doll or child in tow, Tripp said she was more interested in watching the large number of women and girls who flooded into the auditorium.
Later that same week, she received a gift from her friend, Pleasant Rowland, with a note that read, “Valerie – could we ever have expected this?”
“American Girl Live” was performed near Tripp’s home for a brief period to accompany the opening of a new American Girl store in the area. The musical serves as one of the many mediums through which the stories of historical and modern characters produced by American Girl are told. For 33 years, the company has produced 18-inch dolls, accessories, and movies on girls living in different historical periods, each accompanied by a book series. Tripp has authored the majority of these.
“It’s probably a good thing I’m a little oblivious about how big American Girl really got,” Tripp said. “I think I’d get nervous if I thought about it too much. We didn’t even expect it to last this long. Now, grown women tell me they’re reading my books to their daughters!”
Though Tripp lives a quiet life writing children’s books from her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, her story embodies the hard-working, pioneering spirit she has tried to instill in girls through her work.
Born in 1951, Tripp left her small-town upbringing in Mount Krisco, New York, to be part of the first co-ed graduating class at Yale University. In the midst of upheaval with the Black Panthers in New Haven at the time, Tripp remained committed to her education.
“My parents were both raised by single mothers during the depression, so they took me and my sisters very seriously as girls,” Tripp said. “My mother said education was our ‘job’ because it would make us able to support ourselves and our families if need be.”
Tripp moved to Boston with a friend after college with hopes of working in publishing. Finding themselves rejected form every company in the yellow pages, however, they settled on working in a department store. Then, Tripp got a call.
“Boston Educational Resource called me up asking me to interview as a writer for a beginner reading program called ‘The Super Kids,’” Tripp recalls. “That interview was where I first met Pleasant Rowland, and we just hit it off.”
Rowland and Tripp formed an instant bond through their abundant similarities – from both having many siblings to sharing the same favorite books – but it was their differences that made them work well together.
“Pleasant is an entrepreneur. She likes the impossible challenge,” Tripp said. “I just wanted to write stories. We balanced each other out – it was a great example of how friendships between women can thrive in the workplace. I’m grateful that I’ve only had one real boss in my whole life and that’s Pleasant.”
In 1978, Rowland got married and moved to Wisconsin. Tripp also married and moved to South Carolina, but the two continued to work together from a distance.
Not long after both their weddings, Rowland called Tripp pitching an idea of a doll and a corresponding book about a girl the same age as the reader in a different historical period.
“Pleasant had the whole vision in her head – the stores, the accessories, the catalog, all of it,” Tripp said. “I loved the idea of the books, but when she told me about the dolls I said, ‘Oh, Pleasant, don’t be ridiculous. That’s a terrible idea!’ Luckily, she paid no attention to me.”
Tripp sent in descriptions of three characters (Kirstin, Molly, and Samantha), but chose to write Molly’s books first because she wanted the challenge of making the era of the second world war appealing to nine-year-old girls. Having majored in philosophy at Yale, Tripp drew from her academic experience to write Molly’s story.
“Even though philosophy doesn’t seem like a useful major, it turned out to be a very useful major for me,” Tripp said. “I would have to translate for myself very complicated things all the time and it turned out to be excellent preparation for translating rather sophisticated historical concepts into a language young girls would understand.”
“Pleasant Company” launched in 1986 with the release of the Molly doll and her three books. The company gained momentum quickly. Rowland soon called Tripp asking for more characters and three more books for Molly’s series. Recognizing their power, Tripp constantly looked for ways to make the books both more relatable and educational.
“It wasn’t until I had been working on these stories for a while that I understood the key was to have my character’s personality be a metaphor for what was going on in her time period,” Tripp said. “Felicity, for example, wants more independence than a girl was allowed in the 18th century, and she’s impulsive. Like the colonies during the revolution, she has to learn that self-governance means self-discipline, not self-indulgence.”
Tripp describes using her young daughter as an “initial editor” for her work.
“I would read my stories to Katherine and she would say sometimes, ‘Mom, you think girls will like that but they won’t,’” Tripp said. “She helped me keep the stories lively and short!”
Any girl who owned an American Girl doll will remember the word “Pleasant” written on the back of the doll’s neck. Tripp recalls the Pleasant Company not only empowered women through their products, but through corporate life, too.
“We functioned at a meta-level of encouraging girls and women,” Tripp said. “Pleasant especially always had faith in the women who worked for her. She had more faith in my writing ability than I did, and I saw her do that for many women. It was a matter of friendship in some ways – she just decided that you were able, and you did it.”
At the height of their success, Mattel bought Pleasant Company for $700 million. Tripp recalled supporting Rowland’s decision to sell since the company had grown too large for one person to handle alone and it had taken a toll on Rowland’s health. Though Tripp said she misses the comfortability of working for her best friend, her role in the company did not change dramatically because of it. Tripp and Rowland remain close today.
“Mattel has done great things, and the message of American Girl is, sadly, even more important now than when we first started out,” Tripp said. “Girls are bombarded with images all the time now that tell them they should be rushing through girlhood to be a teen. We want girls to take themselves seriously, not to rush, because they are more important than the historical characters. They are real girls shaping history right now.”
American Girl has now published 905 books and sold over 157 million copies.
Today, Tripp speaks at schools, encouraging children to write and be creative. She continues to write children’s literature, but refers to the characters she developed in the American Girl series’ as “good, sturdy friends.”
“It’s Women’s History Month, so I’ve been thinking about the girls who grew up on American Girl books and are young women now,” Tripp said. “To them, I would say the message is the same as it was when they were nine – take yourself seriously! The decisions you make now will contribute to how you influence this world we all live in. Everyone has influence, so make the world better.”