Book Review: Maryellen Larkin’s Series

 

I love the doll Maryellen and am fond of her books, too.  As I’ve mentioned before, a good portion of the appeal of a certain doll to me is her character and personality as portrayed by her books. Maryellen really made it great, because both the doll and her personality are sparkling. Maryellen is my mom’s doll and is probably my favorite out of her whole collection.

I’ve been meaning to finish this book review for a while now; I started back in August when I read the books, but am just now getting around to it. Maryellen is still labeled as “new” on the website and the catalogue, so I’m not that far behind. 🙂

I know from my survey a few weeks ago that a lot of people haven’t read Maryellen’s books, so I invite you to read my review, however there are some spoilers. I didn’t delve into the specifics of the plot too much (in my opinion) and tried not to divulge too much more than what can be inferred from reading the back cover. I do mention some details, though, so read at your own risk if you don’t want spoilers.

Valerie Tripp is the author of Maryellen’s books and I do like her writing style overall. She has written a number of other American Girl books: Molly, Josefina, Kit, Felicity, and some of Samantha. I think what I like most about her writing is how well she helps us to get to know the characters and their personalities. I think she has a gift for describing group dynamics; in my opinion she does this well in describing Josefina and her sisters as well as Molly and her friends, Linda and Susan. I found this to be mostly true in Maryellen’s stories, too.

I will start by saying that my feelings about Maryellen’s books are positive overall, but I do have some gripes. Maryellen is the first fully Beforever character, and the first to only have the new three book series format. There are some pros and cons, but I am not a fan to the format overall. I can get on board with having the books combined into thicker chapter books. I think that a big part of this is working to appeal to the target audience and I definitely think a ten year old is not going to be seen at school reading a thin little book with giant font. I agree with that decision 100%. The lack of pictures, however, is absolutely heartbreaking. Obviously the old characters whose stories were just lumped together for the new format get a bad deal because when their books were originally written, the author relied on the pictures to help tell the story. The needed descriptive detail was left out due to the beautiful artwork that said the unsaid. Fortunately for those dolls, their old books still exist, so when I got wind of this no picture thing, I was quick to snag up the original six book series for the ones I didn’t have. I assumed that since no such original series existed for Maryellen, the author would have to be extra sharp with providing the needed sensory detail to fill in the gaps in our imaginations even though that might be difficult for a children’s book. Unfortunately, my assumption was wrong. There are disappointingly few descriptive details of the places in Maryellen’s books, and even fewer of the people. Maryellen’s family plays such a crucial roll in her stories, but the vision I have of them in my head is created completely by my own imagination. I am certainly not complaining about the need to use one’s imagination, I just miss the “Family and Friends” introduction pages that give us a nice visual description of all the characters we are going to meet. This I think is particularly helpful for girls of the target age. I also have to chuckle a bit because the books still follow the six book formula almost perfectly to a T. You can pick out exactly where the school story, Christmas story, birthday story and changes story start. I’m ok with that, but if the stories are all going to be in one book I feel like they either need to be deliberately separated into individual stories within the book or there needs to be a more purposeful flow.

Book 1: The One and Only

I think Book One sets the tone an introduces us to Maryellen right away. The reader gets a great look at her personality and the family dynamic all within the first couple of chapters. I laughed out loud at the conversation between Maryellen and Jerry, her sister Joan’s boyfriend, when she gave him a “nudge”. I found the incident of painting the door red to be highly unrealistic…if I had done something like that as a kid, I think I would still be in my room. A thread of highly relevant history throughout the book is the influence of TV on the lives of Maryellen and her family. The 1950s were when Americans really fell in love with TV and I think Valerie Tripp does a good job at portraying just how significantly what Maryellen sees on TV affects her ideas and actions. Maryellen is concerned that Mom doesn’t look like a “TV Mom”–wearing heels and pearls when vacuuming–which shows just how influential such propaganda was at that time. It of course contrasts sharply with the teeth grinding such images cause feminists (or most normal people in general) today.

Throughout the book, Maryellen’s desire to stand out and be different is one of the main themes. Her poodle skirt was supposed to be her way of being individual and special. She likes her new friend Angela because she is unique and interesting. Her friends define “different” as “weird” which is a point that I think makes a powerful connection between then and now. Many kids are just as afraid of being different today as they were then. When I walk through the middle school cafeteria when I am at work I see shocking number of hooded sweatshirts all bearing the same name-brand logo in the same neon colors. It is disturbing to say the least. I hope that Maryellen inspires girls to think outside the box and be themselves.

The final “story” of the book is what would have been called “Maryellen’s Surprise” in the old days, and I have to admit, is probably my least favorite part of her books. I think it is a little far fetched that Maryellen’s family would put her on a train and send her to see her grandparents for Christmas by herself. Why wouldn’t the whole family go? Expense, maybe? I also am not super familiar with the mountainous regions of northern Georgia, but it would surprise me quite a bit if you could count on there being a pond frozen solid enough to ice skate. Snow, sure, but it has to be really, consistently cold to be able to ice skate on a pond.

The surprise Christmas reunion with her family at the end is very sweet and underlines the importance of family. I’m not so sure what kind of message it sends when her seventeen year old sister gets engaged. Even though that was the reality for many girls of that time period, I kind of wish the scenario sent a bit more of an empowering message to girls.

Overall I think it is a great book with a lot of historical significance. Polio, the aftermath of WWII, TV, fashion, family dynamics, the roles of women and girls, and many other important factors of the 1950s are present. I think there is a lot to learn and an lot to enjoy from Maryellen: The One and Only.

 

Book 2: Taking Off

Book Two picks up at the traditional “Happy  Birthday” story. I really like that the birthday outfit from her collection is worked into the story here. I think that pretty much all of the outfit from the doll’s collection are worked into her stories. I was actually surprised at this, thinking that since the books no longer have illustrations, there would be little connection between the collection and the books. I am pleased that my assumption was wrong.

Polio takes a front seat in this book, which I think is great because I would guess that most girls today know very little about it. Maryellen decides to creatively fundraise for the March of Dimes, which really puts the reader in a community-minded spirit. I love that Maryellen is the type of girl who makes things happen. Of course, it wouldn’t be a fundraising event without the drama and woes of a group of fourth graders, but that of course is a good connection for the target audience. Her efforts eventually earn her a special place in the Memorial Day Parade, which was a really fun scene in the book. As someone who has marched in countless parades in marching band I found myself at first thinking that the significance of the parade was a little overinflated, but when I stopped to think about it, of course riding in a convertible in a big city parade is a big deal for a ten year-old, in the 1950s and today. Probably not just ten year-olds, actually.

This book really portrays Maryellen as a bit of a superhero. I like that in a lot of ways. She is smart, outgoing, friendly, community and civic minded, a great artist, good at science, a problem solver, and an adventurer. I really love that she has several passions. I think that is a bit of the reason why I sometimes feel a little turned off from the Girls of the Year. A lot of them have such focused, limited interests that it is not realistic. I really like that Maryellen is an artist and a scientist…and that she uses her art skills in the creation of her science project! I really think Maryellen is a great role-model for girls.

I was a little disappointed when Maryellen chose to be in Science Club over Girl Scouts. Her friends even pointed out that it was something that she had done for a long time, so that would actually have been a good opportunity to depict her making a commitment and sticking with it. A very important lesson for girls to learn today, I think. Why couldn’t she be in both? I thought it was a bit of a blow to Girl Scouts…I get that the point was to emphasize she was breaking gender stereotypes by being in a co-ed Science Club rather than being in an organization just for girls, but still. Girl Scouts is very empowering to girls and teaches a lot of great skills even if being in it isn’t breaking any social barriers. It never says she quit, it just says she chose to go to Science Club meetings over Girl Scout meetings. I would absolutely love it if there was a 1950s Girl Scout uniform as part of her collection. I think I am going to make her one anyway.

I was so excited when the Larkins got an Airstream camper! I hope so badly that one will be introduced to Maryellen’s collection! The camper I think is more significant to her story than the diner, but I also understand that they’ve done a camper before and probably wanted to go a different direction. I love the cross-country road trip part of the story…but let’s have a little geography lesson. When they are at Yellowstone (I do love that part because Yellowstone is an amazing place), Scooter gets lost in the woods. They are near the Old Faithful Lodge when this happens. Maryellen says, “Scooter is heading toward the Yellowstone canyon! What if he gets swept into the Firehole River and gets swept away by the rapids?” (page 122) I know this is a small detail and doesn’t take away from the story, but I love geography and this bothers me. This is a highly inaccurate description of what might happen. First of all, the Yellowstone canyon, better known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is at least 20 to 30 miles from the Old Faithful village and that’s as the crow flies, across rugged terrain. I’m pretty sure old Scooter isn’t quite up for making that kind of trip. Second of all, the Firehole River does not flow through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Yellowstone River does. The Firehole River is in close proximity to the Old Faithful village, so that concern would be probable and the whole scenario would be fine if the part about heading for the Yellowstone canyon were left out. Small gripe, I know, but I found it irksome.

There is a lot that happens in this book, and while none of Maryellen’s books have the level of adventure that come from, say sneaking out in the middle of the night to ride a horse that belongs to Jiggy Nye, or escaping slavery and running away to a new life, it still is fun and lighthearted with lots of little mishaps, touching events, and important lessons throughout.

 

Book 3: The Sky’s the Limit

The third book of the three book series is the “My Journey” book, of which the concept I like. I always have fantasized about going back in time or someone from history coming forward in time, so I really like that added imaginative aspect. I think it’s a good way to really help girls visualize themselves within a certain time period for those who might have a hard time doing that from just reading the other books. It really helps to compare and contrast then and now and also continuously underlines the whole point of the Beforever line: girls of yesterday are not so different from girls of today. They have the same hopes, dreams, and passions and we can learn from the past to help us look to the future. I overall like the choose your own ending concept too, it really hits home the “your actions have a consequence” message, though part of me just wants to turn pages and read. I also feel like it jumps around unnecessarily. I mean, I understand you might have to flip forwards now and again, but I don’t really get having to flip backwards. It doesn’t make much sense. It also makes me feel less able to “get into” the story when I keep feeling like I have to lurch to a stop and make a choice about what to read next. Like I said, overall I think I like it when I consider the target audience, but my mom really disliked the pick your own ending thing, so I guess really it’s personal preference. I have read Addy and Caroline’s My Journey books and I really liked them both. I thought that Addy’s did a great job at providing more detail to her original stories while Caroline’s added a lot of new information. Maryellen’s took the new information route, but unfortunately I didn’t care for her’s as much. Quite honestly, I could barely finish it. The My Journey books of course have to take on a bit of a fantasy element–a magical object is transporting us back in time–but this Harry Potter fan is fine with imagining that as being possible. What I didn’t care for was the premise used to justify why Sophie (the name of the modern character in the story) was suddenly visiting the Larkins. I mean, who invites a kid they’ve never met to come stay with them? I can get on board with doing that in Caroline and Addy’s stories (war and conflict surround them, a young traveler needs a place to stay, etc.). I kept trying to tell myself to just go with it, after all, I am not the target age group for which this book was written, and maybe there is such thing as too much critical thinking.

I won’t give too much away, especially with this book since the “choose your own ending” format does lend itself to there being a surprise around every corner. The themes were making the right choices, be yourself, and even a bit of women’s empowerment. I did think it was something of a stretch to get Maryellen’s life to relate to Sophie’s….I felt like Tripp kept having to throw in awkward, pointed statements to justify the connections between the two lives she was trying to make.

Overall I am so pleased with everything about Maryellen. I didn’t know the fifties could be so much fun! Maryellen is such a huge hit with me that she makes me even more excited for the dolls that will come out next! I am bursting with anticipation for Melody Ellison (though does anyone else find it strange that that name sounds so much like the name Maryellen?). I have ordered her book an am excited to read it when it gets here!

What did you think of Maryellen’s books?

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Sharry A. says:

    I really enjoy ME’s books and when I was finished w/ all three, I found myself wanting more and wishing there were more books.

    Like

    1. Emily says:

      Yes me too! Her mystery is coming out in March, so I am excited for that!

      Like

  2. Amelia says:

    I am in the group that personally doesn’t care for the Journey books. I’m barely out of the target audience, 13, but I wouldn’t have liked it then either. I wish they kept the illustrations as well, I feel like it takes away from the story because illustrations were so essential in AG books!
    Maryellen is one of my favorites and I really like her stories, partly because it’s the same format AG always uses (6 books) except..in a different format.

    Like

    1. Emily says:

      Hmm, interesting! I would be curious to talk to other girls your age and younger to see what they think! Like I said in my post, there are definitely aspects of it that I don’t care for either.

      Like

  3. Bravo for such a well-written review! All of your likes and gripes were my own. XD
    Only I was happy she ditched the Girl Scouts for Science Club. Those girls snubbed her early on in the books for befriending an Italian girl. Ever since, my impression of that group has been sour (and anything associated with them). Of course commitment is important as well, but I think a girl should be able to change course and find new passions if she can. Still, I understand your point. I’m conflicted. lol

    Like

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