After one visit, she returned with her hair in dreadlocks. Another time, her long blond locks were primly fashioned into a traditional bun. One day, she came back wearing a uniform of the exclusive all-girls Brearley School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
These have been the many phases of Kirsten Larson, an American Girl doll who sat on a shelf in the Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library, in the East Village, until a resourceful children’s librarian began lending her to girls, many of whose parents, because of financial or feminist reasons, resist buying the dolls.
Kirsten — who retails for $110 and is marketed as a “pioneer girl of strength and spirit” leading an adventurous life in the mid-1800s — was dropped off a decade ago at the library branch, in a Gothic building on Second Avenue.
She could not have been more out of her element, in her homespun frock and bonnet, in the middle of a New York City neighborhood once known for punk rock, left-wing activism and on-the-edge art and fashion, and now for its rapid gentrification.
But Kirsten has adapted to her urban frontier, traveling from one girl’s home to another’s for two weeks at a time, spending nights inside cramped apartments in public housing projects and inside luxury high-rises with sweeping city views. She also has taken trips out of the neighborhood with her temporary guardians: boat rides on Oyster Bay, and to house parties held by Mexican immigrants in Harlem.
The doll, part of a brand that is all the rage among girls and whose price tag is rage-inducing to many parents, has become one of the most sought-after items at the library. For some girls, Kirsten was the only way they could afford such a luxury item in their home. For others, it was the only way their liberal-minded parents would allow any doll into their home, refusing to indulge in gender stereotypes or what they considered to be an elitist hobby.
Suzette Seepersad had been avoiding buying her daughter Caelyn Osborn, 5, any toys geared toward girls.
But Caelyn fell in love with Kirsten, taking her to the family’s apartment, bathing her, reading stories to her and putting her to bed. After keeping the doll for two weeks or so, she had to be reminded by a librarian to return it. Now, Ms. Seepersad said, “I’m trying to get my sister to buy her” an American Girl doll.
With its limited budget, the East Village branch library could hardly be mistaken for the upscale American Girl Place, the company’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue, where reservations are often required for $20-a-head tea parties. But the excitement level , at least, was comparable in the library — and of course, there it was free to take Kirsten home.
The children began adopting Kirsten for days or weeks at a time, the way they would borrow a book. The library system does not typically lend out dolls, so Thea Taube, the children’s librarian at the branch, kept it unofficial. She did not require names or library cards from borrowers but rather relied on the honor system. Some children kept the doll for several weeks, she said.
Now after dozens of trips over the years, Kirsten is worn out and is being shipped to the company’s doll hospital in Middleton, Wis., to have her loosened arm and leg joints fixed and her hair, which has become matted from being styled and restyled countless times, replaced.
She will also receive a new wardrobe and accessories, since Kirsten’s boots, apron, knit stockings and bonnet – everything but her dress – have all been long lost, something that Ms. Taube said was a result of “a lot of love over the years.”
A group of Kirsten’s other favorite caretakers gathered recently at the library for a going-away party, drawing get-well cards and relishing one last play-date with the doll.
There was Flora Sobrino, 11, who now has three American Girl dolls of her own. There was Alondra Salas, 6, who could not afford such a doll, and whose mother, a nanny for an East Village family, knitted Kirsten’s outfit at their modest apartment in Harlem.
There was Khadija Sankara, 6, from the Bronx, who asked her mother — a Senegalese immigrant who runs a T-shirt shop nearby – for an American Girl doll.
“She wanted one, but her older sister told me: ‘You know how much it costs? As much as an iPod or something,’” the mother, Theresa Sankara, recalled.
There was Alison Newmark, 3, who would sleep with Kirsten and show her off to neighbors in the lobby of her building.
“I would not buy it for her now because it’s very expensive, but she thought it was the most beautiful doll she ever saw,” said her mother, Julia Justo. “It was almost like a real person to her – like a friend.”
Despite all the adoration she has received, Kirsten was not an overnight sensation at the library. When Ms. Taube became the children’s librarian in 2004, she found Kirsten languishing on a forgotten shelf in a library office within earshot of the busy children’s room, because library workers considered her too expensive to risk damage by displaying.
Kirsten had been donated a year earlier by the American Girl company when it opened its flagship Manhattan store and gave dolls and their biographical books to city library branches.
“I thought, ‘Well, we loan out books that are that expensive, so why can’t we lend her out too?’” said Ms. Taube, who hoped the doll would attract more children to the branch, leading them to read the doll books.
Ms. Taube began displaying Kirsten on her desk, with no sign or label or explanation. Immediately there were shy inquiries.
“If I saw a girl admiring it, I’d say, ‘Do you know you can take her home?’” Ms. Taube said. “’She likes to take trips and visit other dolls.’”
New York library officials said they knew of no other doll-lending in their system.
Flora, a sixth grader at Brearley who dressed Kirsten in her school’s uniform, began borrowing Kirsten five years ago, taking her home to her apartment on St. Marks Place, and began writing homemade books with adventure stories featuring Kirsten.
She took Kirsten to playgrounds and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with her parents, who deemed Kirsten too extravagant. At one point, Flora misplaced the doll’s apron, but later found it and returned it along with a pair of underwear she bought for Kirsten with her own money.
“When Flora was 6 we told her, ‘It’s a very expensive doll,’” Ms. Sobrino said. “We weren’t considering buying her a $100 doll.”
“We were hoping that borrowing Kirsten might quench her desire for her own doll, but actually, I think it may have turned out to be a gateway doll,” she said.
Flora saved her allowance money for a year and bought herself two dolls and received another as a gift. Now the dolls are watching Flora grow too old to play with them.
As the library prepared to close, Kirsten’s farewell party was coming to an end. The children hugged and said goodbye to the little well-worn pioneer and put her in a box bound for Wisconsin. Ms. Taube told the girls they would celebrate together when the doll returned in several weeks.
Ms. Taube said Kirsten exemplified the library as a community center that offered diverse services and lending materials.
“I tell the kids that the library belongs to them,” she said. “And I think that any child who could not afford that doll will remember the time they were able to borrow it from the library.”