Valerie Tripp is the author of more than 30 American Girl books, featuring the characters Felicity, Josefina, Kit, Molly, and many more. She also writes for the Superkids reading program and the Boys Camp program.
Q: How did you end up writing your American Girl books?
A: Well, I really rather “started up” rather than “ended up!” A year after I graduated from college, after I’d worked as a saleslady and a copy editor in Boston, I was hired by Pleasant Rowland to write songs, stories, plays, nonfiction essays, and skills book pages for a reading program called “The Superkids.”
While Pleasant and I worked on the reading program together, we talked about the books we had loved as girls. Then Pleasant married and moved to Wisconsin and I married and moved to South Carolina.
One day the phone rang and it was Pleasant. “I’ve had a great idea!” she said. Her great idea was American Girl: books about girls who lived in different periods of history written for readers of the same age as the characters.
It has been my life’s privilege and delight that Pleasant trusted me to be the first “voice” of American Girl. In 1983, I wrote the first outlines of the stories for Kirsten, Molly, and Samantha.
As the years went on and American Girl grew, I wrote about Felicity, Josefina, and Kit as well as the characters’ best friends: Emily, Nellie, Elizabeth, and Ruthie.
So I began writing my American Girl books before American Girl existed, in a way, and it was all due to my friendship with Pleasant Rowland, the creator of American Girl. By the way, Pleasant and I still work on The Superkids; we’re revising it, which is tremendous fun.
Q: How do you research the books, and what has particularly surprised you in the course of your research?
A: I research the books by immersing myself in the time period the character lives in. I read everything I can find both fiction and nonfiction, I watch movies, listen to music, travel to where the character lived, go to historical restorations, look at art, and talk to experts as well as people who lived during the period, too, if possible.
Research doesn’t begin or end; it is a way of life. It turns out that the universe is full of the information you need – you just have to begin to pay attention to it!
Once I feel that I have a grasp on the major issue of the period I know what my character’s personality will be. That is, my character’s personality is a girl-sized version of the major issue of the time.
For example, Felicity – my Revolutionary War character -- wants more independence than a girl would have had in the 18th century. Her journey is the same as the colonies’; both learn that independence is self-governance, not self-indulgence.
Of course, my historical research is only half of the story. I love researching by observation the issues that matter to girls of today. Every story I write makes a connection between girls of today and the characters I write about from the past. Some issues have changed, but some issues about growing up are the same no matter when a girl lives.
I am not surprised, no. But I am constantly impressed and inspired by the strength and creativity, intelligence, industriousness, and kindness of the women I read about in my research.
Those women, and the girls I meet and get letters from today – my readers – are the inspiration for my stories. I think of my readers as the personification of promise.
I take them seriously, and I write my stories to say to them, “Look how cool the world is! Be observant! Dive in! Have experiences – and remember them. You are creating the world we will all live in, so be thoughtful, alert, and compassionate.”
Q: Do you have a favorite American Girl character?
A: Well, my favorite is usually the character I’m writing about at the time – IF she is cooperating with me! Sometimes a character and I have quite a tussle as I try to write the story! Right now, I am writing a mystery about Josefina, and we are having a great time together.
But the answer to your question is, no, I don’t have one favorite character. I often think that my job is a healthy outlet for multiple personality disorder; it is a great pleasure to me to become each one of my characters and live in her world and speak in her voice and give her problems to solve. I love all my girls!
Q: When you wrote your first American Girl book, did you think you'd end up writing so many more, and did you imagine the American Girl phenomenon would be so huge?
A: No. And still, when I write, I do so without thought for how many girls will read the story. I think of one delighted girl; if I can please a reader or make her stop and think or laugh or reconsider an opinion – that’s why I write.
I still have lots of time periods I’d like to write about. The beauty of the American Girl concept is that it is rich and varied and full of endless potential and possibilities.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: E.B. White, Beverly Cleary, Elizabeth Marie Pope, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and thousands of others!
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a great deal, and she has been a help to me in writing about Kit (who lived during the Depression) and Molly (who lived during WW2) and Samantha, who grew up in the same time as she did.
I was lucky enough to become fascinated with Eleanor Roosevelt when I was eleven, and I have been reading what she wrote and what was written about her ever since.
I am an omnivorous reader; I always have three books going at once. Just now, I am reading a book about Soviet Collectives in the late 1930s, the letters of E.B. White, and a novel by Barbara Pym called “Excellent Women.” I also read a lot of poetry.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a new character coming out next fall, so I am writing about her as well as the Josefina mystery I mentioned above. I also still write stories for The Superkids, and I am writing a book for “Boys Camp,” a series of books about boys at a summer camp. I almost always have about three projects on my desk at any given time.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am looking forward to the Bethesda Literary Festival because I love to meet the girls who read my books, and I love to meet their families, too.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Valerie Tripp will be appearing at the Bethesda Literary Festival, which runs from April 17-19, 2015.