Samantha, Felicity, Addy, Molly, Kirsten. These are arguably some of the most recognized names in children’s fiction. Especially by girls. American girls, to be exact. The American Girl series captivated the nation in 1986 and has continued to gain a cult following, embedding its young, historical fiction characters in the hearts of fans.
The author of the series is a grown-up girl herself. Her name is Valerie Tripp, and she is the mastermind behind the literary enterprise.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Tripp 24 years ago, when she came to my elementary school, Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg, to talk about writing her series. I still remember her writing on a big green chalkboard about “sloppy drafts,” the term she coined for rough drafts, and being completely captivated by a real live author standing right in front of me.
Almost a quarter of a century later, over 155 million American Girl books have been sold, and the American Girl website is trafficked with more than 47 million visitors per year, according to www.americangirl.com.
Tripp, who lives in Silver Spring, gave me a phone call on a recent sunny Tuesday, and her chipper voice and gracious spirit were exactly what I remembered of the impression she left on me as a child. As she reflected on how she ended up in the children’s book industry after graduating from Yale and Harvard and on her new series called WellieWishers, it was evident that, after 40 years of writing, Tripp hasn’t lost the optimistic enthusiasm that is so, well, American.
Your degrees aren’t in writing. What made you decide to pursue writing children’s books?
I was way too shy in college to major in English or creative writing. And I knew I was going to happily read constantly. What I wanted was to challenge myself and major in something where I was going to need help, so I chose philosophy. And it kind of morphed into the philosophy of education — change and development, different philosophies of education, what is the best way to educate children. So I double-majored in philosophy and psychology and, also as an undergraduate, helped found and worked at a daycare center. So that was my first introduction to working with children. I just loved the way they’re not totally in the same world we are. They’re so imaginative. And historical fiction is a bridge between history and factual stuff and imagination. And I love that bridge.
Did you have to do a lot of research when you were writing the American Girl series?
Oh, I love doing the research. Wherever you go, whatever book you read, whatever movie you watch, whatever music you listen to — everything — is sort of research for you because it informs you more about a period of time that you’re interested in. Everyone you meet has a story, too. And they help inform you. So I absolutely love doing the research. Then, when I begin a new character, I do about 18 months of intense research. It’s a wonderful, rich process. I’m always aware of how lucky I am.
Do you ever write for yourself?
Yes, I do. And I sometimes I inflict those little essays on my friends. It’s kind of like cross-training. Sometimes you want to write fiction, sometimes you want to write nonfiction. I hesitate to even tell you that sometimes I even try to write poetry. I want that flexibility. And you know, as a writer, you are always saying, “Now I want to challenge myself and do something I haven’t done before.”
Do you have any advice for a writer who’s struggling to develop their protagonist?
Usually my writing advice is to begin with my reader. So I start with “Where is my reader right now? What are the crucial issues she is facing right now?” I really respect my little reader. And then just the fun of research. If your protagonist is a girl who’s 8, hang out with 8-year-olds. Go speak at Brownie troop meetings. Go to schools and libraries, and then you’ll see how they talk, how they interact with each other, what matters to them.
So you have to do some field work?
Exactly. Some of my best research used to be when I was driving my daughter and her friends around in the car to a soccer game or a birthday party, and you’d listen to them talk and you’d think, “Hmm, I see. This is what they’re worried about, this is what they’re hoping for.”
Tell us a little about your new series.
I’ve written six books in that series. I’m working on the seventh and eighth right now, and it’s called WellieWishers. It’s about a group of girls who are about 6 or 7 years old and after school they play in the garden that belongs to the aunt of one of the girls. And the overarching theme of that is kindness. It’s, ‘how can I be a good friend?’
Who are some of your favorite children’s authors?
Oh, I read voraciously. And I still read children’s books over and over again. I love E.B. White, I love Laura Ingalls Wilder, I love Beverly Cleary.
What is your favorite time period from history?
Actually, I don’t have one favorite time period, nor do I have one favorite character. I love the fact that I can sort of time travel over all of these centuries. So I don’t have one that’s my all-time favorite. I think that might be why I’m able to be so prolific: because it’s a constant variety. If I were only writing about one century, I think I might tire of that. I love the challenge of moving among all the different centuries.
So you’re pretty unbiased?
Yes, I am unbiased. One thing that helps, especially as a woman, is to look back and say, “Thank God I live in 2017,” because it’s always been a challenge to be a woman, and I think that in some of these other centuries … women didn’t have so much freedom as we have now. So in terms of when I live, I’m pretty glad I live right now.
Where do you do your writing? Do you have a spot or a preference?
Yes, and I’m in it now, and it’s a room in my house. I was saying to my husband, “I have to start my commute now, honey.” And it’s just up the stairs. I’m pretty disciplined about it, actually. I always write from 7:30 to 1 o’ clock. And then I go for a walk with my friend.
When you look over your life, what are you most proud of?
I’m proud of my family life — my husband and my daughter, we have a very happy family life. But in terms of my work, I’ve just been reflecting on that recently. I think that I’m proud of my continued enthusiasm. I’ve been writing for 40 years, and I still feel grateful and enthusiastic. I still want to say in my writing “Look how cool this is!” I think the enthusiasm feeds the patience and humility. A writer has to be patient and humble, because we don’t know when the idea is going to hit. You can’t force it. I guess that’s what I’m proudest of: the energy and the enthusiasm that fuels the drive. It gives it back to you.
This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.