The launch of Bitty Baby books marks American Girl Publishing’s first steps into the picture book market. The line, aimed at girls ages 3–6, will launch on August 27 with five titles and a 125,000 total print run: Bitty Baby and Me, Princess Bitty Baby, Bitty Baby at the Ballet, Bitty Baby the Brave, and Bitty Baby Loves Snow. The books are written by 2007 Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson (Hattie Big Sky) and illustrated by Sue Cornelison. The hardcover books retail for $14.99 each.
While American Girl is best known for its line of 18-inch dolls and companion books for girls ages 8–10, “a lot of people are introduced to American Girl through Bitty Baby dolls” for younger girls, ages 3–6, said publicity manager Stephanie Spanos. The 15-inch dolls, which were launched in 1995, are being re-introduced this fall. Eleven versions will be available, with varied complexions, hair colors and textures, and facial features. Each doll sold will be accompanied by a copy of Bitty Baby and Me, which will be released in four editions, each featuring a visually distinct narrator and her doll. American Girl hopes to publish multiple editions of its subsequent Bitty Baby releases as well.
American Girl representatives explained that the decision to expand into picture books to accompany its updated Bitty Baby line was made after extensive consumer research that included focus groups and online surveys. “We wanted to understand what our customers were looking for, and what they expect from American Girl,” Spanos said.
While American Girl’s books for older girls feature the dolls as real-life girls, the Bitty Baby books are “more magical,” editor Jennifer Hirsch said, explaining that she studied the conventions of picture books for the 3–6 age group while conceptualizing the new line – with a particular focus on “anything involving an interaction between a child and a doll or stuffed animal.” In the Bitty Baby books, the narrator’s doll comes to life within the narrator’s imagination while she grapples with a real problem or challenge that would be common to a child this age. For instance, in Princess Bitty Baby, the narrator learns patience while waiting for her father to read her a bedtime story by telling Bitty Baby a story.
“There’s a lot of role-playing with this age group,” Hirsch said, explaining that each book includes a story within the real-world framing narrative. When the narrator tells her doll a story, Hirsch explained, “a creative solution emerges” to the problem she faces. Each book also includes two pages aimed at parents, relating the topics raised in the book to a child’s social and emotional development. The guidelines are written in-house by American Girl editors, and vetted by a child psychologist.
After the initial relaunch with five titles, two Bitty Baby books will be released in spring 2014, and one or two every season following that. Larson, who told PW that she has just completed writing the eighth title in the series, will continue to write the books, and Cornelison will continue as illustrator.
“It’s so much fun trying to channel my inner four-year-old,” said Larson, who is best known for writing six middle-grade novels, but who has also written, with Mary Nethery, two nonfiction picture books: Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival, illus. by Jean Cassels, (Walker) and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle (Little, Brown).
Larson was selected to write the Bitty Babies series after submitting a proposal to American Girl for the project. “It’s been a lovely challenge, trying to develop this character and writing tight,” she said. “In a novel, you have space to develop a character or a scene. You don’t have that luxury in a 700–800 word picture book.”