My 16-year-old daughter sorted through her old picture books last night, the dozen or so that are still in her room and not in cardboard box in the attic. I wish I could say she was in need of the distilled wisdom, or the simple joy, that a picture book can offer. No, she was on assignment. Vanessa is a junior, which means nearly ever waking moment is dedicated to schoolwork. She was looking for a childhood favorite to talk about in Spanish class. She considered A.A. Milne (the unforgettable When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six) and the Narnia books. Then she found it. The one book to rule them all—hidden and lost, until now.
Barbie: The Holiday Gift.
It begins like this.
One sparking winter day, Barbie hurried to the home of Mrs. Jenson, the town seamstress, to try on her gown for the Holiday Snowflake Parade. Barbie had been voted the parade queen, and her friends were the princesses. They were going to ride together on a float in the parade. “Your dress is almost finished,” Mrs. Jenson said, as she led Barbie into her sunny sewing room. “Oh, it’s lovely,” Barbie exclaimed when she saw the dress of rich, green satin. “I can’t wait to try it on.”
Barbie’s a queen of a girl, in more ways than one. Mrs. Jenson’s young niece, Laura, is shy, but she happens to have a beautiful singing voice. Barbie comes up with an idea: Laura could join her and her friends on the float and sing a song. In no time, she wins the mayor’s approval to go ahead with the singing (yes, the mayor has to get involved!), and the teens pool their money to buy fabric for a dress for Laura—pink velvet, no less. The ever talented Barbie designs the dress, which Mrs. Jensen makes in secret. On the day of the parade, Barbie surprises Laura with the dress and her idea. Laura is suitably thrilled, and ends up wowing the crowd with her voice. Laura can’t thank Barbie enough. She tells her:
“You not only gave me new friends, you helped me overcome my shyness. Those are the best gifts I’ve ever received.”
But Barbie has the last word.
“You gave those gifts to yourself, Laura, by sharing your voice,” Barbie replied. “And what’s more, you also gave all of us a very special holiday memory.”
Oh, so many special gifts!
I read this book over and over to a rapt Vanessa. So did her beloved babysitter, Carla, who gets the credit (no blame!) for buying the book.
The stilted language, the lackluster story line—Vanessa never noticed. She couldn’t get enough of those dresses. Oh, the dresses. Aside from Barbie’s blindingly green dress, there was Laura’s. That might’ve been Vanessa’s favorite. It had ruffled tulle-ish sleeves, gold ribbons and—gasp—a rose at the waist. Barbie’s four princesses also wore gowns on the float, each a different hue—pink, yellow, blue, and oops, another pink, a deep, dusty color that I can’t seem to find a better way to describe. Which was the prettiest? We pondered this endlessly. (Unbeknownst to her, I thought they ranged from hideous to only slightly less dreadful.)
“I think this book made me think about fashion for the first time,” Vanessa said, with only a hint of sheepishness.
Barbie, a fashion inspiration? I guess that’s not so hard to believe, when the person being inspired is all of four years old. Vanessa did not fall in love with Barbies, though. Not like I did. I spent years happily playing with Barbie and like dolls. Many experts argue that Barbie’s outrageous proportions give girls the wrong idea about what’s a healthy body size. That could well be. I don’t remember thinking about Barbie’s body—except to be amused that she had leg hinges where her butt should be. I didn’t care to see her naked; the whole point of having a Barbie was to dress her. My grandmother used to make clothes for my Barbie. (She wasn’t Barbie herself, actually; she was a brown-haired chick with bangs, quite pretty ’til I dabbed lipstick on her and the lipstick rubbed off, staining her face.) Putting clothes on, taking them off, putting something else on—it was all so deeply satisfying and enjoyable.
What I suppose I’m saying is: I had a positive Barbie experience, and my daughter did, too. As to The Holiday Gift: Now that Vanessa’s rediscovered it, I’m clearly going to have to save it for her. Who knows—it could end up being something she passes down to her daughter, this little board book, published by Fun Works in 1997. It’s still out there, in a small way. I found it selling for a buck, used, on amazon. There’s a whole new line of Barbie books, I see. Now she’s a modern-day princess with…super powers! And also a vet, a pediatrician, a teacher and a ballet dancer. I’d like to see Barbie the engineer, or Barbie the astrophysicist, or Barbie the head of Goldman Sachs. Perhaps I’ll find our Barbie book again when I’m, say, helping Vanessa pack her things to move to her first house. That’s got to be a good eight, ten years from now. We’ll see what Barbie’s up to then.