American Girl is adding a new historical character, Claudie Wells, to its line of middle-grade books and toys. Meet Claudie is written by Brit Bennett, bestselling author of The Mothers and The Vanishing Half, who is making her first foray into children’s books.
The story of Claudie came to be in an unusual way, after Bennett sent out an impromptu tweet about her love of the franchise and how she would like to write an American Girl book. “I didn’t think it would go beyond my own timeline,” Bennett said. “It was very surprising to hear from them.”
“It was certainly a unique way for us to find an author,” said Jodi Goldberg, American Girl’s senior director of content development. “The tweet spurred lots of conversations in-house, and then with Brit.”
Bennett and her sister were big fans of American Girl books and dolls in their youth, especially the Civil War-era story of Addy Walker, who escaped slavery for a life in the free North. The Connie Porter-authored book inspired Bennett to write stories of her own. American Girl introduced Bennett to Porter, and the two were able to have a conversation before Bennett dove into the project.
“I grew up reading these books,” Bennett said. “And I’ve always admired how authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote the comics based on the Black Panther movie, could do things that were so different from the work they’re primarily known for, and honor who they were when they were younger.” Writing for children also spoke to her after the frenzy surrounding her 2020 novel Vanishing Half, which was a New York Times Best Book and a Good Morning America book club selection, and was chosen by Barack Obama as one of his favorite books of the year.
Bennett had always wanted to write for young readers and had been encouraged to do so by author Jacqueline Woodson and others. “But I was daunted by the task,” Bennett said. “Young readers are very discerning. They won’t persevere just because it got a good review.” At the same time, she added, “There are not a lot of books with Black characters, and I felt a responsibility to write one sometime in my career.”
Claudie’s story takes place during the Harlem Renaissance. “I was always interested in that period because of its contradictions,” Bennett said. “There were these hugely important and influential Black artists and creative people, and at the same time there was the rise of lynching in America. The two things were coinciding. There’s this fascinating tension of the time period.”
Meanwhile, American Girl staff also had an interest in the period. They had done a lot of research for a previous series called History Mysteries and had been adding to the information because they knew someday the time would be right to revisit the era. “It was just the right match,” Goldberg said.
Once the partners decided to move forward, the process was collaborative, with the author, editors, historians, product developers, and marketers all sitting at the table. “My writing is a very solo endeavor, and this was very different from being alone in a room,” Bennett said. “It was a real shift to have a historian to ask for help. It was also exciting to see it come together behind the scenes. It was deeply surreal to see a character who had not existed and then hold the doll in my hand.”
Each Claudie doll comes with a paperback edition of Meet Claudie, which is also available at retail in a keepsake hardcover edition, something the brand had not done for a while. It has a satin ribbon bookmark and an introduction by Bennett about what American Girl and Porter mean to her and how they inspired her to write. “This is a special launch for us, and a special relationship between the author and the brand, so we wanted to have a book that reflected that,” Goldberg said.
American Girl is supporting the launch with content including a video chat and an essay by Bennett on “Why Claudie Matters” on the American Girl parenting blog; an excerpt of the book and Claudie-related activities on the brand’s American Girl play site; a music video starring Claudie on YouTube and the YouTube Kids Channel; social media content on Instagram and TikTok including a virtual tour of Claudie’s boardinghouse bedroom and a cooking demonstration of her favorite recipe; and readings and special menu items at American Girl stores, including a signing by Bennett at the New York City location on August 24.
American Girl retailers are also highlighting Claudie products, which include a plush version of Dizzy Dot, a dog that lives in the boarding house where Claudie and her family reside, and a 60-piece playset of Angelo’s Bakery, where Claudie’s father works, among other items. In addition, American Girl is partnering for the second time with Harlem’s Fashion Row, a design agency that creates a bridge between brands and designers of color. Three special-edition outfits by Samantha Black put a modern spin on 1920s styles.
A meaningful part of the launch for Bennett is a partnership with the Harlem School of the Arts. American Girl is donating $100,000 in funds and products to HSA Prep, a pre-professional scholarship program providing students ages 12–18 with advanced-level arts training. Customers can also donate to HSA at the American Girl stores and website through the end of the year.
After rereleasing the six original dolls for its 35th anniversary last year, the brand as a whole is having a moment. “American Girl is in the midst of its own renaissance,” Goldberg said. “People went crazy for it. That moment solidified that there was a whole new audience of young women who love it in a very different way.” There is even a meme trend that inserts the dolls into obscure or relatable current and historical situations, like being a whistleblower or going to Coachella.
The brand partnered with Listening Library in March, which will publish audiobooks for more than 50 classic and new titles starting this summer. It also launched a podcast channel in May, with three productions to start. American Girl 10-Minute Mysteries will premiere with a story about Molly McIntire, a 1940s girl being brought back this year; American Girl Fan Club, a behind-the-scenes look at the brand hosted by two superfans, on which Bennett and Porter will appear; and The Smart Girls Podcast, based on American Girl’s advice series, A Smart Girl’s Guide. The first of two live-action TV specials on Cartoon Network and HBO Max will also debut later this year.
As for Claudie, the story continues with a sequel in spring 2023, about a trip to Georgia that changes Claudie as a person and a writer.