American Girl Stands Up for Labor Rights

Samantha Helps a Friend (American Girl: Step Into Reading) – written by Rebecca Mallary, illustrated by Emma Gillette
Random House Children’s Books, 2021

I haven’t given up on the American Girl books or dolls, in spite of Mattel’s relentless race to the bottom as they continue to downgrade the historical aspect of the project. As part of the company’s somewhat hypocritical celebration of their product’s thirty-fifth anniversary, they have reissued some of the original dolls and released some new books. The latter category includes beginning readers in the trademarked “Step into Reading” series.  For those of you who don’t remember every character and plot point, Samantha Parkington is a wealthy orphan who, in 1904, is living with her generous grandmother in New York State.  In spite of her incredible privilege, she befriends a poor Irish American girl, Nellie O’Malley, and winds up learning a thing or two about how the other half lives.  Samantha Helps a Friend, in addition to being a gateway book to the American Girl phenomenon, teaches young readers about standing up for the rights of working people.

Rebecca Mallary’s text is relatively simple, labeled “Level 3” in the series.  “Samantha always tells the truth, and she will do anything to help a friend,” is a typical sentence. Children will easily follow the plot and understand clearly who the good and bad guys are, although the worst bad guys are students who tease Nellie. Presumably, the factory owners who force children like Nellie to do adult work under dangerous conditions are much worse, but we don’t actually meet them in the book.  However, a picture of Nellie and a young boy laboring at heavy machinery is quite affecting and gets the point across about the injustices of the Gilded Age. 

The central message of the book, which is actually somewhat sophisticated, is that the definition of “progress” depends upon whom you ask.  When Samantha’s fancy private school decides to participate in a speech competition, on the subject of “progress in America,” she canvasses the adults in her life to learn their opinions. Telephones, automobiles, and factories are all suggestions, but Samantha is bright enough to think about the implications of who is manufacturing all these marvels.  In her bold address, she speaks truth to power. Since the book is part of the American Girl series, some people are shocked, but others are impressed.  There are many opportunities to talk to children about workers’ rights and other issues when you share this book with them.

Emma Gillette’s pictures are definitely kid-friendly; colorful and expressive, they help to fill out the story’s meaning, as beginning readers’ illustrations should.  (The original American Girl novels had beautiful pictures, but now these have been removed. This change was probably due to an ill-conceived theory about marketing the books to readers “too old” for illustrations.)

If you are incontrovertibly opposed to the alleged commercialism of American Girl, then you might not want to give a child Samantha Helps a Friend. That would be unfortunate, because this simple and appealing story delivers a strong message in a pleasant (no pun intended about Pleasant Company, the original home of American Girl) package.

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