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Stories of My Childhood: American Girl’s Kirsten series

In this series, I explore books that have had a special meaning to me as a kid. It can be any book that tells a story that isn’t a board book, counting/alphabet book, and that is one I remember well. Of course, it should ideally be good as well.

What are the books about?

It’s the 1850s, pioneering time in America. Families want farms of their own, including Kirsten’s, so their family makes the journey by boat from Sweden to America. But the journey is anything but smooth, and Kirsten’s best friend doesn’t even make it there alive. Throughout the series, and with the help of her aunt, uncle, and cousins, Kirsten moves to a new land, befriends a Native American girl, attends American school, has a barn-raising birthday party, and ultimately overcomes disaster to move to a brand new house of her own.

What do I like about the books?

The American Girl series were brilliant–a six-story series for each character, taking you through a year in the life of each. There was an introductory story, a school story, a holiday story, a birthday story, a summer story, and then a story that introduced big changes in the character’s life. At least, that was the format when I was a girl. They also came with their own doll and other spinoff books to add to your collection.

Favorite memory involving the books

I was in kindergarten when I received Kirsten as a gift. It was one of my favorite presents, and launched the American Girl era in my house (my sisters and I each had a few dolls). But my mom and I would sit on the piano bench in the living room, reading a chapter of one of the books each night. This was followed by a reading of one of the mini packets that came with Kirsten’s outfits. These tiny booklets had information about the clothes it came with, how Kirsten used them, and how they were important to the story.

Of course, playing with the doll was fun too–my sister and I came up with all sorts of stories, though I rarely played with her as Kirsten. She did have a toy doll that would come to life when our dolls were having sleepovers. And of course, who could forget bringing Kirsten to the American Girl store in New York and having a cafe dinner and getting her frizzy hair fixed?

How the books inspired me

There was a story writing kit that I think came with some type of American Girl product. Like the name stated, it allowed you to create your own American Girl character and tales. I don’t remember any of it, but I do remember that I had trouble settling on a girl to create and develop. There was a lot of text crossed out and space taken up!

My thoughts on the books today

I still love the idea of dolls with their own series, and I’m glad that this tradition continues. It did make me sad that she was retired before even getting her own movie like Kit, Molly, and Samantha did. I do hope that they continue to make diverse dolls from different time periods–the current dolls seem to be mostly more modern. Although I ultimately came to like Molly and Samantha’s stories better (their lives were more fun, and I couldn’t imagine myself living as a pioneer woman where life basically consisted of farm work), Kirsten will always have a special place on my bookshelf.

reviews

The Storyteller: Jodi Picoult

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
Genre: Historical/Contemporary
Published: 2013
Pages (paperback): 460

Rereview of a book read in 2018

First there was Josef, a young man being groomed to be a German officer. There was also Minka, a young girl sent to the concentration camps where Josef is working. Today, there is her granddaughter Sage, a bread baker as per the tradition of Minka’s family. When Sage encounters Josef (who asks her to kill him, believing that he deserves to die after his past), she is faced with many questions. Should she kill him? Or should she forgive him? As she embarks on a mission to persecute Josef, she explores these questions and learns about her grandmother’s experiences along the way. The story is also interspersed with snippets from a story Minka wrote during her childhood, which has some parallels to the horrors she experiences.

The Storyteller starts off with promise and a really thought-provoking dilemma in true Picoult fashion which was a great idea. Unfortunately, let’s just say that this book seems to be on one of the biggest literary suicide missions I’ve seen yet. I’ve never seen a book go from good to bad so quickly, or ever. Thus, it’s hard to rate.

It starts off great and the premise is intriguing. When a former Nazi who tortured your grandmother enters your bakery and asks to die, what do you do? He seems to be a good, kindly old man, but he has done things in the past that make him deserving of death. Sage has trouble grappling with this, too, but she knows what must be done. So she goes to meet an official named Leo to serve justice.

You can probably guess how things go from there.

One of my biggest problems with many books is how the author insists on giving their main character a romantic relationship when the book doesn’t really call for one. That is because they often a) are distracting b) add nothing to the novel or c) are really inappropriate for the story being told. The Storyteller’s annoying love story accomplished all those things. I want to discuss it in detail just because I feel like it really lessened my opinion of the book.

The relationship between Sage and Leo was random and utterly, completely unnecessary. So were Leo’s chapters detailing his dating experiences; all should have been cut. Romance can be a trope I despise when forced or not done well, and the one in The Storyteller is a prime example of why I complain so much. It’s like Picoult said, “Oh look, my main character is single. Oh look, here’s a male main character! They clearly are meant to be!” The last 25% of the novel mostly focuses on their relationship, which is jarring considering readers have just finished with reading about Minka’s experiences in the camps…just another reason why their relationship is so inappropriate here. The superficial love story also lessens the seriousness of the book as a whole. Previously, they had worked well and were intense about what they wanted to get done in bringing justice to Josef. But then we get to the last 25% of the book. Minka’s funeral is filled with them sharing flirty banter (!!!). So much for this book tackling serious issues; now going after Nazis is just a fun game to them because they are MADLY AND CRAZILY IN LOVE!!!! So much for serious, thought-provoking justice. In all seriousness, the entire novel loses its impact immediately after Minka is done telling her story. It goes from ethical dilemma to chick lit in three seconds flat. You can’t really do both at once. And the biggest part: I just didn’t care. These two barely knew each other, and I just wanted what I came for: the debate on forgiveness, Minka’s story, and how Sage comes to grips with the challenge in her life. The (poorly written) romance wrecked it.

Even if the book was going to be solely about their relationship, it still wasn’t written well. Picoult is already dropping constant hints about them starting a family on the second day they meet, and the hints appear a few times. Did I mention they hardly know each other? Is this Disney? Leo’s appearance as a significant other also automatically puts Sage in good standing with her sisters, who she wasn’t getting along with. Yep, in the book all about forgiveness, that’s how she resolves her sibling relationships. She lands a boyfriend who’s cool. This type of love story all seemed really inappropriate in a book dealing with the Holocaust, especially considering their flirty banter often occurs during funerals and their mission to bring Josef to justice.

I have never had to put a book down in fury this much before. I like chick lit, but it didn’t belong here whatsoever. My only plausible thought is that Picoult or her editor was trying to make this book “women’s fiction” and to do that, she/they felt she had to include some kind of romance. That doesn’t mean they did it right. Lilac Girls pulled off the balance between the historical/woman lit/war aspects much better.

I’ll say it one time for the authors in the back: just because a character is single does not mean they need a love interest.

Rant over.

That was a shame, because otherwise I liked this book. The historical flashbacks of Minka were the book’s strength, and it was obviously well-researched. Her storytelling allows her to thrive (better than most of her acquaintances anyway) in the camps and it’s also great historical testimony/ The dialogue about the difficult concepts was really interesting also, but Picoult still allows readers to decide for themselves. Still, I’m not sure it was resolved well. The final plot twist made absolutely no sense. It was clearly there only for shock value, much like the one in My Sister’s Keeper. I’m beginning to realize that I’m not sure I like this author’s style of endings. (Yes, the My Sister’s Keeper twist was shocking, but it also made the entire book irrelevant. Twists do not always make a good book.) There really was no easy answer, though; forgiveness is a complicated concept. Picoult explores some fascinating topics again, but like my first foray into her novels, she needs to cut the stupid romances and completely random plot twists. Then we’ll talk. Definitely worth checking out for a gripping story, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the romance.

First half: 4.5 stars
Last 25%: 2 stars
Overall: A generous 3 stars