Monday, November 22, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the BARBIE: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us, by Tanya Lee Stone (Viking, 2010) ISBN 978-0-670-01187-2

Recommended for ages 10 through adult.

I'm not embarrassed to admit it in this blog or elsewhere---I love Barbie, still the world's best-selling doll, over 50 years after she was introduced by Mattel.  When I grew up in the 60's and 70's, I spent hours with my sister and various friends playing with Barbie and her many sisters, friends, boyfriends and accessories.  I still have my Barbie collection from when I was a girl, as well as some that probably belonged to my sister, although I now regret dumping at some point Barbie's very cool peach Corvette.

But I digress--I do plan actually to talk about this new release from award-winning author Tanya Lee Stone, whose prior books for young people have focused on women astronauts, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, and other topics dubbed more "serious" by most people.  Being a Barbie fan, I was familiar with much of the basic biographical information outlined in this book: how Ruth Handler and her husband founded Mattel, how she spotted a sexy adult Bild-Lilli doll on a family trip to Europe, and took it back with her to Los Angeles to become the model for the first Barbie doll, envisioned as a teen fashion model and named after her own daughter Barbara. Stone places Barbie's birth firmly within the social and cultural context of the 1950's, comparing the early Barbie to the famous pin-up photograph of Betty Grable.  When Barbie debuted in 1959 at the New York Toy Fair, she was not an immediate hit; in fact male buyers thought Mattel's executives were out of their mind because of Barbie's prominent breasts.  Of course, Barbie soon caught on, and a legend was born--a legend with a fabulous wardrobe.

But Barbie's not just a fashion plate--she's had over 120 different careers, from stereotypical female roles such as teacher and stewardess to male-dominated fields such as surgeon, astronaut, computer engineer, pilot and president.  These career Barbies spark passionate debate among women as to whether these dolls actually encourage girls to pursue male-dominated careers.  But Stone notes that "It is Choice--with a capital C--that women have fought to have.  It doesn't matter what the choice turns out to be, as long as it is your own."

Stone discusses many aspects of Barbie's history, including the evolution of Barbie's body type, and whether she encourages little girls to have unrealistic body expectations, as well as the development of black and Hispanic Barbies.  I learned that a few years ago, a Muslim competitor to Barbie named Fulla was introduced by a Syrian company; she wears a hijab and comes with her own prayer mat.  Stone touches on Barbie's appeal as a sex object as well as her use in literature and art.

Stone fills in her facts and reflexions about Barbie's evolution with a myriad of quotes from celebrities and ordinary women and girls about their relationship with the famous icon.  Some, like author Meg Cabot, love Barbie, while others, like author Anna Quindlen, hate her with an equal passion. Stone asks in her conclusion whether Barbie is positive, negative, or both?  Her book will not answer this question, but it will certainly provoke debate, critical thought, and discussion among those who read it. 

The book is lavishly illustrated with both color and black and white photographs of Barbie through the years and other archival photos, including Barbie art.  This is a volume likely to appeal as much to adult readers as to the teen audience at which the book is targeted.  

This Barbie biography has been well received by the usual library journals, receiving starred reviews in School Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus.  For blog reviews of this title, check out some of the following:

Bookish BlatherBecky's Book Reviews, Before I forget, Cynsations, Young Adult Books Central, and Librarian by Day

For teens or adults who are interested in learning more about Barbie, here are a few noteworthy titles:

M. G. Lord.  Forever Barbie:  The unauthorized biography of a real doll (Walker & Co., 2004)
Robin Gerber.  Barbie and Ruth:  The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her (Harper Business, 2009)
Jennie d'Amato.  Barbie All Dolled Up:  Celebrating 50 Years of Barbie (Running Press, 2009).

If you, too, have fond memories of Barbie but haven't looked at what Mattel is making these days, check out the Barbie Collector store for adults, where you can buy not only elaborately dressed designer dolls (including an especially stunning Barbie as Cleopatra, unfortunately sold out) but also Barbie-themed adult clothing, purses, and jewelry.  Here's the link.

Barbie Video Girl
And wouldn't you know it, Barbie has her own blog.   Mattel continues to innovate with Barbie--a new 2010 release (not in Stone's book) is Video Girl Barbie, who comes now with a video camera in her necklace, and a little screen on her back--she's her own movie-making machine, letting you see the world through Barbie's eyes.  Movies can be uploaded to your computer and edited and then shared with friends or posted to  One blogger calls her a "Bionic technologically advanced Barbie who was meant to hang out with the soon to be released Computer Engineer Barbie."  (see a review at  

Faberge Imperial Elegance Barbie
And, I can't resist, here is a photo of my favorite Barbie from my own personal collection, Faberge Imperial Elegance Barbie from 1998.  This is one of those "adult collectibles" that are definitely too fancy to play with--when my daughter was younger I dubbed them "shelf dolls" because they stayed on the shelf!

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Anonymous said...

I WANT that Video Barbie - it's just so WEIRD, right? Isn't it funny that most of us can't review this book without bringing up our own history with her? I am so glad to have this book in my library: the Barbie context is a great opener for discussing some of these topics with girls.


Fourth Musketeer said...

I know--that video Barbie borders on creepy, with her science-fiction-like locket camera and that little screen on her back! I think we could write a YA novel around that formula, somehow...

Shawn said...

I'm a boy, but I played with Barbies as a kid. Shhh, don't tell. I used to -- 1. Make them fight each other in elaborate WWF type matches. 2. Pull off their legs and heads and re-attach them, sometimes on to other dolls. 3. Set up my cousin's Barbie house perfectly, then have an earthquake destroy it. Does this count as playing with Barbies?