Along with the start of the new year, tomorrow brings the debut of American Girl’s 2011 Girl of the Year, who happens to be from Kauai, the first in the popular series of dolls to come from Hawaii.
Kanani Akina is an 18-inch doll with tawny skin, dark hair and hazel eyes, and the launch coincides with the release of two books by Lisa Yee, "Aloha, Kanani" and "Good Job, Kanani," that tell her back story. This includes friends who surf; her duties at the family shave ice shop, Akina’s Shave Ice and Sweet Treats; and a cousin from New York who has trouble adjusting to Kanani’s local lifestyle.
Every effort was made to get the details correct, including consulting with local cultural experts Peter Apo and Maile Meyer.
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» Through April 15, create a Kanani-themed postcard at americangirl.com/
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Kanani dolls will be available for one year, and in addition to her "meet" outfit of a blue, floral-print cotton dress and beaded necklace, other clothing options include a swimsuit, board shorts, "Aloha" T-shirt, denim capris and a hula halau ensemble with uli uli and lei.
Other accessories include a paddleboard set, shave ice stand and plush monk seal to reflect Kanani’s love of Hawaii’s ocean creatures. American Girl will donate $1 (up to $100,000) for each Kanani plush monk seal sold in 2011 to the National Wildlife Federation to help raise awareness about endangered animals.
Prices range from $100 for the doll and book, about $28 for extra outfits, and $29 to $50 for girls’ outfits to match the doll’s.
AMERICAN GIRL is a division of Mattel Inc., started 25 years ago with a mission to celebrate girlhood. In 1992, the company launched American Girl magazine, which has grown to 500,000 subscribers.
American Girl spokeswoman Stephanie Spanos said developing a new character is an 18-month process that begins with reader surveys and focus groups that aim to gauge "who girls are today. We’re always looking for interests girls have, activities they’re into, issues they’re facing," she said.
The 2010 American Girl, Lanie, is described as a nature girl, a response to girls’ dilemma of living in urban or suburban landscapes, surrounded by technology and concrete, and feeling disconnected from nature.
When it came to determining the qualities of the 2011 Girl of the Year, Spanos said, "we started seeing that what is most important to our clientele is helping people and animals."
As for where the Girl of the Year’s hails from, "Hawaii rose to the top," she said.
Aside from the isles’ physical beauty, "Hawaii is exotic without being too foreign to young readers, while being uncommon in children’s fiction and offering something unique in aloha spirit," she said. "It’s that relaxed spirit of good will and community that we wanted to share with girls."
In the story "Aloha, Kanani" that accompanies the doll, Kanani is proud of her island lifestyle, but when her well-to-do cousin Rachel arrives from New York, with her trendy clothes and gold — not puka-shell — jewelry, Kanani starts to see everything around her, from local museums, the saimin she eats, to the peeling paint of her family store as being less charming and more shabby compared with Rachel’s experiences at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum.
Although author Lisa Yee is from South Pasadena, Calif., she had written "Good Luck, Ivy," for an American Girl historical character, Ivy Ling, a 9-year-old Chinese-American girl growing up in 1970s San Francisco.
Yee said she was thrilled to get the call regarding the Hawaii doll.
"I knew it was about a girl growing up in the islands and I should probably include an animal in the story. Beyond that, other than being about the aloha spirit, the story was pretty much up to me," Yee said by phone from her home.
"It was a dream project. Her family runs a shave ice stand, so I had to eat shave ice. They also sell sweet treats, so whenever I saw a bakery, I had to stop."
In researching the book, Yee was drawn to the plight of the honu (sea turtle) and Hawaiian monk seal, and her decision to focus on the endangered seal led her to set the story on Kauai, where she found help from members of the Kauai Monk Seal Watch Program.
Although her aim had been to find one of the creatures sunning on the beach, days of searching were fruitless. Finally, while en route to the airport to head home, she got a call about a sighting.
"I didn’t know what to do, but for me, it might have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience so I turned the car around and it was a thrill to see the seal on the beach. I was dressed for my trip to L.A., but there I was with sneakers and long pants, running in the sand!
"It was so amazing. If I had gotten the call 20 minutes later I would have missed it."
BEFORE WORKING with American Girl, Yee said , she knew about the company and the quality of its products, but considers herself to be "more of a stuffed-animal person."
She says she respects the company even more now. "The detail they put into everything they create is so amazing. They call on a lot of experts because it’s crucial to get everything right.
"I’ve been to American Girl events where I’ve met the readers, who absorb the stories, and when you see the girls with these dolls, you see how they’ve made them part of their family. The books are a way for young readers to experience different lifestyles, see different parts of the world, and they can do that sitting in their own home."
The intent of the book is not to convey an overt message or moral, but in Kanani’s case, Yee said, "It’s really about aloha spirit — thinking about others, not just yourself."