Fashion and Beauty in Barbie Novels from the early 1960s

Look for vintage clothes for Barbie from the1960s and you’ll find more ensembles that can fit in the closets in her dream house.  Search for reviews of the pioneering novels about the girl who is the living doll and you’ll come up price and identification guides plus some cover designs for the thirteen novels Random House issued between 1962 and 1965.

Cynthia Lawrence and Bette Lou Maybee collaborated on the majority of the volumes, but they seem to have left few traces behind, except for entries in the copyright records and a single box in the Random House archive at Columbia University.  A romantic explanation for the gaps in the record would be that these novels were written for money under assumed names by people who did not want to connected with them in the future, should their careers take off.   A more earthbound one is that they found employment elsewhere in publishing or in another industry altogether.  A really satisfying and completely unproven possibility is that one of them had been a Stratemeyer Syndicate writer in the Nancy Drew mill.

Whoever Lawrence and Maybee were, the world of difference between their presentation of the iconic character and in the later publications such as the 12-volume Barbie and Friends Book Club (Grolier, 1998-1999, pictured at the end) seems to have passed unnoticed.  In comparison to those later titles  promoting the well-established hydra-headed money-making brand, the short stories and novels of Lawrence and Maybee function something like a courtesy book for early sixties girlhood, a successor and competitor with the Nancy Drew mysteries.   Barbie is clearly a real girl and her connection to the doll is really not developed or exploited, although it is impossible to forget it.

“The Size 10 Dress” in the first volume, Here’s Barbie, is cringe-making. “Big Bertha,” a size 14 blonde damned to wear slimming shirtwaists, goes on a diet, determined to become like Barbie so she won’t sit at home any more.  Barbie encourages her to step out and join in, knowing that Bertha’s father is too busy and clueless to guide her in the womanly arts, but finds it embarrassing at being copied down to her lipstick color.  Bertha breaks down when the home-economics teacher won’t let her model the dress  identical to the one Barbie made, but she takes to heart Barbie’s advice “I’m just an ordinary girl, no better or worse than you or any other girl!  But I’m me.  And you should be yourself too.  When you try to become me, you’re just half a person and you make me less than myself.”  With Barbie’s coaching, a new hair cut, and the power of accessorizing, the new Bertha steps out on the stage with Barbie at the school fashion show.

The play in the same volume, “The Easter Hat,” shows Barbie the candy-striper volunteering in the local rest home, with a tip of the hat to the classic Hollywood film with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.  One of the residents, who had been a Broadway star in her youth, gives Barbie the Easter bonnet she wore when her husband proposed to wear in the Easter Parade.   Barbie denies herself the joy of buying a smart new chapeau with her own money to show off on Sunday and instead organizes a surprise parade at the facility, where she and Ken bring up the rear in vintage costume, much to the delight of the ladies.

Barbie’s New York Summer is a whirl-wind account of her Teen Magazine internship, during which she effortlessly picks up the fundamentals of modelling and of fashion journalism.  In the evenings, she is driven to the Village in the red Jaguar of the adoring Latin trust-fund baby Pablo, who does his best to replace the faithful, steady All-American future lawyer, Ken in her affections. He’s a powerful temptation, who wouldn’t have any trouble being a playwright and keeping her in filmy frocks, matching pumps, gloves and tiny evening bags that Grace Kelly might wear.  (It’s surely no coincidence that Mattel has issued Grace Kelly dolls from Alfred Hitchcock’s films To Catch a Thief and Rear Window in their Barbie line).  The chic editor who bears no resemblance to Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, offers her a permanent position before she graduates from high school.  But in the end, Barbie’s head isn’t turned because she realizes that she loves and misses her life in Willows too much to leave home for the big city–she still has a lot of growing up to do and that process might take her down other paths before she returns to the industry she has come to love.   The editor thinks that Barbie has made the right choice and reassures her that the job will be there when she is ready.  And so will Pablo, which is just too good to be true.

It’s easy, for example, to find evidence of a fixation on thinness in the three books–the adjective “slim” is always a compliment and the most attractive characters, like Barbie’s mother and her Latin lover Pablo, conform to that body type. “The Size 10 Dress” concludes with a chart in which to record the reader’s measurements and more.  Overall the co-authors indirectly emphasize inner beauty as more important as outer, show that kindness to others is more satisfying than indulging personal pleasures, and suggest that listening to ambition without checking in with the heart and head may not lead the way to the best path forward.  Barbie Millicent Roberts in these books may be blonde, pretty and well-dressed enough to turn heads wherever she goes, but she is not a terrible role model, being  a thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic teenager instead of an airhead clotheshorse.   Of course she is too nice to be believable, when she should by all rights be the queen of mean girls.    Where on the scale of role models will the Barbie(s) in Greta Gerwig’s hot pink star-studded extravaganza fall?

Documenting the LGBTQIA+ Community’s Concerns in Children’s Books

Historian Susan Stryker has defined transgender people as those who “move away from the gender they were assigned at birth,”  a phenomenon that can be documented in many societies and cultures long before medical technology allowed these individuals to bring their bodies into alignment with their identities. Writing transgender history from the perspective of the marginalized is a challenge when the chief sources until recently tended to be produced by medical professionals, psychologists, law enforcement officers, etc. belonging to institutions with an interest in controlling them as outsiders. Autobiographers had to brave enough to risk inviting readers, whose intentions and sympathies could not be known, into their confidence.

With many prospective buyers of children’s books wanting ones that promote diversity by showing child characters that look and live in accordance with their identities, there has been an explosion of books for families with transgender members, many of them by people with lived experiences or by sympathetic activists. Reviews and recommendations are relatively easy to access because so many lists of resources are available on the webpages of medical schools and psychiatric associations, specialized independent bookstores and blogs.  to mention just a few.

Cotsen is assembling a cross-section of illustrated books about transgender childhoods and history for young readers which researchers can consult now, but even more importantly, in the future.  With increased pressure on public and school libraries to discard or severely restrict access to controversial books for children, the responsibility to preserve these materials as historical sources falls on collections whose primary constituents are not young people and their families, the teachers, and librarians who engage with them.

I Am Not a Girl by Maddox Lyons and Jessica Verdi with illustrations by Dana Simpson is a project published in 2020 by Roaring Brook Press, one of the most prestigious imprints in the Macmillan Children’s Book Department. “Based on a true transgender identity journey” of co-author Maddox Lyons, who wrote this after he came out to his parents because they could not find books “for and about kids like him.” Simpson the illustrator considers this assignment “an honor and a privilege” for a transgender woman like herself who hopes the book will foster mutual understanding between parents and their transgender kids who “should get to be who they are.”   The best incidents in the main character Hannah’s story are surely based on Maddox’s experiences—the pirate queen denying she’s a girl on Halloween, rehearsing his coming out speech to his parents in front of an audience of stuffed animals, admiring the boy’s haircut he’s always wanted for wear for class picture day.   A list of transgender individuals, male, female, and non-binary, from  Renee Richards “eye surgeon, veteran, athlete, and tennis coach who won a landmark case for transgender rights” to Jonathan Van Ness “nonbinary hair stylist, podcaster, and television personality” are included for inspiration.

If LGBTQIA+ parents want to be able to introduce their pre-school-age children to inspirational role models in transgender history, Little Bee Books , an independent publisher of progressive and inclusive children’s books in New York City, has started an uplifting series board books called “People of Pride”  featuring biographies of  television star Ellen De Generes, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in California, and drag queen, activist, and media personality, Ru Paul Charles.  Victor Chen is credited for the illustrations, but no one lays claim to the pedestrian text about a “trailblazer” (defined in the glossary as “a person who makes it easier for others to succeed”) surely called for a lot more sparkle.  Even if the text had more juice, it probably could not have helped a toddler grasp anything about the contributions AIDS activists and drag queens have made to society.Sarah Savage, author of She’s My Dad: A Story for Children Who Have a Transgender Parent or Relative (2020) illustrated by Joules Garcia is good example of the positive children’s books about difference that British publisher Jessica Kingsley  is known for.  The picture book shows without judgment a child’s joyful acceptance of her father’s transition to a changed body, new identity, and happier life. Reviewer Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir, writer and co-director of My Genderation, praised She’s My Dad as “a sweet, gentle book that doesn’t make being transgender a big deal at all. It’s presented as a part of everyday life and will allow kids to connect to the characters and at the same time learn about different types of families.”

This book seems to present an ideal scenario of unconditional love fulfilled, which the community hopes will someday be the norm. While the account covers the issue of pronouns cogently, it glides over other equally important difficulties inherent in the characters’ situations.  The father is presumed to be a single parent, supported by his parents and brother, his Black wife, and mixed-race daughter.  Mini’s mother is never mentioned and her daughter expresses no sadness at her absence from the family group, the perfect daddy’s girl. The process of transitioning from “he” to “she” covers the surgery and recuperation at home, which disrupts any family’s routine in tiring and unexpected ways, in a page about to a hospital visit, where Mini gives her dad a card and favorite stufftie for comfort.  The chief markers of transitioning are  changes in clothes and hair styles: Mini in her overalls and rainbow tee and her dad in a long layered bob and summery white dress bond over doing their nails together. How honest is six-year-old Mini’s perfect acceptance of her father’s decision, over which she has no power, yet impacts her enormously?  Does Mini as an exemplar set up impossibly high standards for other children, who may be intimidated by Mini, when they compare their divergent thoughts and confused emotions to hers?

If one takes the long view of these books, they are as old as time, no matter how controversial the contents. Their purpose is to train children how they should go, so imagination and art are powerful tools to make the presentation of the values the community wants internalized compelling.