An American Girl’s Family Tree

by Luanne

I’m a history buff, fascinated more with the minutiae of the day-to-day lives of individuals than with important military battles.  I love to study old photographs and collect dolls and textiles from the past. That’s why I have an account and am the unofficial keeper of the family archives.

All of this is kind of awkward in that I’m part of an adoptive family.  With two children and a brother who are adopted and don’t know much about their birth families, my interest in family history is something I can’t really share with them.  Long before I had children, I was a graduate student in history, focusing on local and family history.  I don’t hide this part of me, but I try not to push it on them either.

When the kids came home from school with (sometimes state-mandated) assignments to create family trees, the issue couldn’t be set aside so conveniently.  We had to deal with it as best we could.  Usually teachers were open to a more unique-looking tree.  My husband and I would talk to the kids as they worked on their projects, always keeping the lines of communication open and trying to be both direct and sensitive about the subject.  Kids often can’t put into words how they feel, even when they are asked.

Then the subject of genealogical history arose in a different way.  When Marisha was ten, she loved reading American Girl magazine.  Every month they featured a “centerfold” of a real American girl as a paper doll, with an array of outfits modeled after the clothing worn by her female progenitors.  Marisha and I would read the information provided about the girl each month.  We both enjoyed learning about a diverse assortment of girls from across the country and looking at the beautiful costumes from the various countries the girls’ ancestors hailed from.

As we looked at a Polish costume for a girl in the current issue, Marisha said, “I want to be a paper doll.”

I thought, “Why can’t she?”  I knew that Marisha’s background was certainly colorful, as she likes to call it.  Born in Korea to a Korean birth mother, she’d been adopted into an American family with Dutch, Russian, Ukrainian, German, French, and supposedly African-American ancestry.  The relatives were Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic.  Surely that would make a good story.

Marisha applied to the people at American Girl magazine and was asked to contribute information.  Because the purpose of the dolls was to teach just the sort of history that I am interested in—day to day living—Marisha was asked to interview her living female relatives about their lives growing up.

Our family learned all kinds of interesting details about the childhoods of Marisha’s grandmothers and great-grandmother.  Her maternal grandmother told her that she wasn’t allowed to wear jeans to school until college–and then only one day a week.  Great Grandma described the sleeping arrangements in their Michigan farmhouse.  The upstairs had two bedrooms, one for the parents and the other for the five children.  The three girls slept lengthwise in the one bed and the two boys slept across the bed at the feet of the girls.  They had no heat upstairs, even in the winter.

Of course, none of that addressed the background of Marisha’s birth mother (or birth father either). The editor in charge of the paper dolls spent a lot of time discussing with us how to handle the adoption angle of Marisha’s story.  Come to find out, Marisha was selected, in part, because she was adopted through an international adoption.  They were very willing to include Marisha’s unknown birth mother as one of the individuals featured by their outfits.  The magazine shared research about Korea at the time of her birth mother’s childhood with Marisha.

In short, a lot more work was done by all than what showed up in the magazine.  But I was fairly happy with the end product, which focused on Marisha’s current life and family, but made room for that very important person, her birth mother.   Marisha seemed to be happy with their handling of the family information.

Well, Marisha was actually unhappy about one thing.  In her own interview with the magazine, she had told them her career goals were to be an actor, singer, and dancer.  On the back of Marisha, the paper doll, her goal was clearly listed as “to be a dancer or singer.”  When she went to dance class the week the magazine arrived, her dance teacher took one look at it and said, “Why not an actor?”

Marisha raised her shoulders in a deep sigh. “I told them actor, too, but they said nobody could be all three things!” I knew from Marisha’s determined expression she was bound to prove them wrong.

American Girl paper doll

American Girl paper doll hanboks

American Girl paper doll American outfits

Outfit reverses and history book


  1. corinne trow says:

    Fantastic! Luanne your posts continue to be remarkable and inspiring as well!

  2. I loved revisiting these artifacts, Luanne. The American Girl magazine did a good thing by printing the article on Marisha, while you and she did much to make the article a success. Re: the editor’s idea of Marisha’s career choice: had the editor never seen musical theatre?

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  3. I loved reading this post. I am pretty sure we HAVE that AG magazine in our basement still. I remember those family history projects also. In second or third grade I guess it was Kayla did one for our family. It was an extra credit project or a choice from a couple of projects, not sure which anymore. Kayla spent a long time talking with her grandparents, creating her family tree. It was a lovely project and we all enjoyed it. Kayla was the only child in her class that did her family tree!

    • Helen, I guess Marisha and Kayla have more in common besides adoption, dance, performing. That’s pretty funny that you have that magazine.

      • We were bis AG fans. Kayla’s first paid job was as Addie in the dance performance “Dancing Through Time” which was a review of historical dances. She used most of her pay to buy another AG doll!

  4. debbie gish says:

    Very cool!

  5. Nina Schidlovsky says:

    That is so amazing that Marisha got to be an American Girl paper doll! Although, it totally isn’t fair that they told her “nobody can be all three things.” Of course you can be all three! It’s called the triple threat–duh! I loved American Girl when I was a young girl–and I probably would have been extremely envious of Marisha for getting to be a paper doll in the magazine. Ok…let’s face it…I still kind of am. Haha! 🙂

  6. Wow, this truly is wonderful. I had no idea you had another blog! Do you still write in this one?

  7. Reblogged this on Janet’s thread.

  8. This was a fascinating and exciting “page,” literally our of your daughter’s life. I like Marisha’sother name, Soo Jung. I like the idea of her birth name standing for “excellence and purity.” Beautiful, long ago post, Luanne.


  1. […] most recent post can be found here. Share this:Like this:Like66 bloggers like this. Filed Under: Discussion or Controversy, […]

  2. […] Final note: This turned out to be a great project for my daughter and for me because it was about our shared knowledge–some of what my grandmother taught my mother was taught to me and taught, in turn, to my daughter–and we both learned about history through the life of an ordinary girl. And, yes, my daughter did get to be an American Girl paperdoll. You can read the story and see the photos here: An American Girl’s Family Tree […]

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