On Christmas Day, 6-year-old Lucy Tew opened a gift from her grandfather and discovered a doll — a young pioneer girl from the mid-1800s named Kirsten.
This wasn’t just any doll, but an American Girl. Instantly enamored, Tew removed the pioneer bonnet and began brushing, braiding and unbraiding the doll’s 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 narrative studies and creative writing major. “I loved reading as a kid, and was really into the book series 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 fiction books narrated from the viewpoint of the character.
Many years later, in December 2012, Tew remembered Kirsten when she met a woman who happened to be the former head of the Girls Division at Mattel, Inc., which owns the American Girl product line. Tew met Adrienne Fontanella while Tew helping her mother out with a work event.
Tew enthusiastically told Fontanella how much Kirsten and the books meant to her as a child. By the end of the chat, Fontanella asked Tew to send along her resume and 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 that Spring when Heidi Sanders, 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. She worked in retail, human resources and special events. She stocked shelves, unloaded trucks and waitressed in the store’s café. She got to tour a Mattel facility, their El Segundo plant, where among other things, “they test toys to make sure they’re actually flameproof,” Tew recalled.
She learned that the American Girl can be high maintenance: The Grove store offers services for the dolls to get their hair done. Other services include special photo shoots and high tea service at the café for girls and their dolls.
Tew liked the educational component of the line of dolls. The mission of American Girl is to educate and reinforce positive social and moral values for girls.
The undergrad realized how much she enjoyed customer service when she helped an extended family including a little girl, her parents and grandparents find the perfect doll — Ivy, an Asian-American girl from the 1970s.
The internship further inspired Tew as an aspiring young adult fiction writer. She was able to meet a few of the American Girl book authors when they came to the store for book signings. One author, Lisa Yee, turned out to be a USC Dornsife alumna who graduated in 1981 with degrees in English and humanities. The two had an in-depth conversation about how to write for kids, and Yee told Tew about an annual seminar for young adult writers, encouraging her to attend.
The internship also led to a job: Tew now works part-time at the store, while continuing her studies.
Currently she is honing her young adult fiction writing 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 witch 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 helped to inform her project, teaching her about all types of women — ones, she said, who “think, feel and solve real problems.” She considers this crucial for inspiring young readers, especially girls, to be comfortable in their own skin.
“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. That is what I have always admired most about the breadth of the American Girl stories.”