American Girl dolls on loan at Northland Public Library

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They are dolls that remain wildly popular with girls across the nation, so it seems appropriate they are called the "American Girl" dolls.

The dolls were created in 1986 to provide an educational component to play and include dolls from various eras in American history. Supporting products such as books and historically correct clothing and accessories also have been created by the company. But the dolls are a bit pricey $110 -- excluding accessories.

Realizing the importance of the dolls, but also understanding the costs, Willa Neil, librarian in the Children's and Young Adult Services at the Northland Public Library in McCandless, decided to create a doll lending library -- and pay for it herself.

"These dolls open up imaginations and interest little girls in history," she said. "Since they are out of reach financially for a lot of families, I wanted to give any girl the opportunity to play with them."

Mrs. Neil's daughter, Katie Johnson, now 36, played with some of the dolls when she was younger.

"She had them when they first came out -- her grandmother had bought them for her," Mrs. Neil said.

After Ms. Johnson moved out on her own, Mrs. Neil said the dolls stayed behind and she kept dusting them. Soon she thought there had to be something else she could do with the dolls.

"I looked for them online to see if they were still being offered. When I found out they were, I started thinking of what I could do with them," she said.

Since her own granddaughter, Chloe Johnson, now loves the dolls, Mrs. Neil started thinking of ways to share them with other little girls. And as a librarian at the library, it made sense that she thought of the doll lending library.

"I thought, 'What if I did traveling dolls?' " she said.

Ms. Neil started researching the dolls, and the more she researched, the more she became fascinated with them. Soon she had the original nine dolls, each from a significant time period in American history, and many of the accessories and items offered with them.

"It became a hobby of mine. Just like some folks collect trains or other things, I started collecting American girl dolls," she said.

Some of the dolls that Mrs. Neil purchased were used and they needed what she called "a bit of TLC," to get them back into shape. Using her research, she found methods to fix hair, clean doll skin and repair clothing.

Mrs. Neil also started collecting other items to travel with the dolls such as a backpack or canvas bag to transport the dolls and accessories. Each doll with the lending program comes with the introduction book and movie, the introduction outfit, a journal for the little girls who borrow the dolls to record their thoughts about the dolls, a summer outfit, a nightgown and a collapsible bed with quilt.

"They also come with wipes so the little girl learns to wash her hands before she plays with her, a hairbrush and a care manual," she said.

The children must live in the in the Northland Public Library circulation area, which covers McCandless, Franklin Park, Bradford Woods, Marshall and Ross.

The borrowers also must be in first grade or 6 years old, have a library card and a parent's or guardian's consent to borrow the doll for a week.

Mayzie Bonfili, 6, a frequent visitor to the library with her grandmother, Flota Drent, borrowed the Felicity doll.

"It is such a cute program -- plus, it came with so many things like the book and movie, it isn't just a doll," said her mother, Jan. Mrs. Bonfili and her husband, Chris, live in McCandless with their three children.

Mayzie has one of the modern American Girl dolls already, but the program allows her to play and learn about the other dolls, Mrs. Bonfili said.

"They are wonderful dolls, but quite expensive. This gives Mayzie the chance to play with other dolls. You can only buy a limited number of dolls," she said.

Mayzie loves taking care of Felicity, her mother said, and is being careful to keep her out of the hands of her little brother and sister. She also pretends to read the chapter book that came with the doll and watched the movie with Mrs. Drent.

"I asked her what she learned after we watched it and she said, 'Felicity was kind,'" Mrs. Drent said.

Mayzie said she liked learning about Felicity's tea parties.

"She liked to drink tea a lot. And I like her little hat," she said.

Mrs. Bonfili said Mayzie has learned more than just history with the doll lending program.

"It is really helping her learn about responsibility, too. She is taking really good care of the doll. It is a great program," she said.

Susan Claus, librarian and manager in the children's section at the library, loved the idea that the dolls will not only be fun for their younger patrons but also spark their imaginations.

"Some people may be skeptical about the usefulness of toys and dolls in a library setting, but play is the serious work of children. Simple, open-ended play brings lots of benefits," she said.

"Willa's American Girl dolls bring children an appreciation of American history. There are also literacy benefits to doll play. Pretending stretches the imagination, builds narrative skills and increases vocabulary," Mrs. Claus said.

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer:

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