On Christmas Day, 6-year-old Lucy Tew opened a gift from her grandfather and discovered a doll named Kirsten dressed as a young pioneer from the mid-1800s.
But this wasn’t just any doll — it was an American Girl.
Instantly enamored, Tew removed the doll’s pioneer bonnet and began brushing, braiding and unbraiding its ash blonde hair.
“Once I got Kirsten, at every Christmas and birthday after that, I’d get a new outfit and book about her,” recalled Tew, a senior majoring in narrative studies and creative writing at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “I loved reading as a kid and was really into the books that come with the dolls.”
Each 18-inch-tall doll portrays the lives of young girls of various ethnicities and periods in American history. Each is accompanied by a series of fictional books narrated from the viewpoint of the character.
In 2012, Tew met Adrienne Fontanella, the former head of a toy division for girls at Mattel Inc., which owns the doll’s product line.
An enthusiastic Tew told Fontanella how much Kirsten and the books meant to her as a child. By the end of the chat, Fontanella told Tew she would see what opportunities might be available for her at American Girl.
A few months later, the call came. Tew was studying abroad in England when the director of human resources at the American Girl store located at The Grove in Los Angeles offered her a summer internship.
During the internship, Tew did a little bit of everything, working in retail, human resources and special events. She also took the tour of a Mattel facility at the company’s El Segundo plant, where among other things, “they test toys to make sure they’re actually flameproof,” Tew recalled.
Tew liked the educational component of the dolls and their aim to reinforce positive social and moral values for young women.
The internship also inspired Tew, an aspiring young adult fiction writer. It also led to a part-time job: Tew now works at the store while continuing her studies.
Currently she is honing her literary skills through her senior capstone writing project. Never afraid to take the initiative, she sought out Distinguished Professor of English Percival Everett as an adviser. Though she’d never taken any of Everett’s classes, she “took a chance” and emailed him.
“He’s been really helpful thus far,” she said. “He told me to stop going back and trying to rewrite, but to just push ahead until it’s done. Then I can go back and rewrite.”
Fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials and the culture of early New England, her capstone project is a work of fiction for young adults set in contemporary times but centered around the descendants of people involved in the trials.
“The story focuses heavily on girls and lines of women across generations, and about how stories can come back and repeat themselves if they don’t get told.”
Tew said her work at American Girl has taught her about all types of women — including those, she said, who “think, feel and solve real problems.” She considers this to be crucial for the inspiration of young readers, especially girls.
“With my capstone project, I want to tell a new ‘growing-up’ story in a way that values the individual for his or her talents, whatever those talents may be,” Tew said. “That is what I have always admired most about the breadth of the American Girl stories.”