Random House Books for Young Readers is launching a new American Girl publishing program in the U.S. and Canada, under license from Mattel, its partner for more than 50 years on books tied to Barbie and other brands. The first three American Girl titles, releasing in July and August, will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the American Girl brand, with two holiday titles to follow in the fall.
“We’re focusing on properties that will backlist and stand the test of time, and this is a beloved evergreen brand,” said Chris Angelilli, v-p and editor-in-chief of licensed publishing. “There was so much enthusiasm for this brand across the entire team here at Random House. The editor of the project grew up with American Girl and still has the dolls up in her parents’ attic to this day.” He added that the property remains relevant. “They have been including diverse characters from the very beginning, and that’s so important.”
The first American Girl dolls, books, and accessories, designed to build character and confidence, were introduced in 1986. Random House’s initial list will focus on characters from that original line as it marks the anniversary. The publisher developed a new art style for both of the core formats in the program, Step Into Reading leveled readers, for ages five to eight, and Little Golden Books, for ages two to five.
The debut Step into Reading titles include Samantha Helps a Friend (releasing July 13), taking place in the Victorian era, and Freedom for Addy (August 24), centering on the Civil War. They will be followed by Molly’s Christmas Surprise (September 7), occurring at the time of World War II. The first Little Golden Book, Happy Birthday!, comes out on August 10 and shows how 10 of the brand’s historical characters celebrate their birthdays during different eras of U.S. history, while the second, Happy Holidays! (September 7), features characters celebrating the Winter Spirit Dances in 1764, Hanukkah in 1914, and Chinese New Year in 1974.
The plans for 2022 are similar, with several more Step into Reading titles highlighting individual characters and a few themed Little Golden Books in the works. Beyond that, the program will remain centered on these two formats and on the core historical American Girl brand, but both Random House and Mattel are open to potentially adding new formats and sub-brands over time, Angelilli said.
The Little Golden Books mark the first time that the American Girl brand has officially extended to readers as young as age two. “When we were first discussing the line, we met at the American Girl store in New York City and we saw a lot of very young girls walking around with their dolls,” Angelilli said. “That convinced us there was a wide fan base. And the Little Golden Books not only appeal to young children, but there’s a huge collector following. We think they’ll do well with collectors of Little Golden Books and collectors of American Girl dolls. The brand was selling $300 million a year in dolls and other products by the late 1990s and many of the fans of that era, now millennials, retain their fondness for the property.
The American Girl brand, which Mattel acquired in 1998, has seen a resurgence in the last six months. Net sales grew 12% in the fourth quarter of 2020 and 22% in the first quarter of 2021, according to Mattel’s financial filings; prior to that, the brand had experienced decreases every quarter for four years.
American Girl previously had a license with Scholastic—its first with an outside publisher—which launched in 2016. That deal included original chapter books, middle-grade readers, and novelty formats for ages 5–12, including titles tied to the contemporary Girl of the Year product line.