[Book Review] Meet Kirsten: An American Girl (American Girls: Kirsten #1) by Janet Beeler Shaw

In the summer of 1854, after a long and dangerous journey on a small ship, Kirsten Larson and her family arrive in America. Everything in the new land is different from the small village Kirsten left behind in Sweden. The way people dress, how they talk, and the ways they travel all seem strange to her. Will she ever feel at home in this new place? Getting lost in a big city and parting with her best friend make her wonder. It is only when the Larsons arrive at a tiny farm on the edge of the frontier that Kirsten believes Papa’s promise--America will be a land filled with happy opportunity for all of them.

Kirsten Larson, debuting in 1986, is one of the original American Girls (the other two are Samantha Parkington and Molly McIntire). Meet Kirsten: An American Girl is her debut children's novel, which introduces her as a Swedish emigrant turned Minnesota pioneer girl. Unlike most of the American Girl novels, which focus on a single major event in a given year of the children's lives (usually sometime between their ninth and twelfth birthdays), Meet Kirsten tells the story of the Larson's months-long journey from Sweden to their new home, with each chapter focusing on a particular "chapter" of the trip: chapter one tells about the Larson family's sea voyage; chapter two tells the story of Kirsten becoming lost in New York City while the family saves money to go west; chapter three skips to three months later, telling how Kirsten and her friend Marta part ways on their journey to Minnesota and fear they will never see each other again; chapter four introduces greater conflict, what with the Larsons travelling on a cholera-stricken boat up the Mississippi, and deals with grief; chapter five, the final chapter, deals with loss of physical possessions as the family approaches their relatives' farm, and Kirsten bonds with her newly introduced family. And, as always with American Girl historical series, the book ends with a nonfiction chapter about what life was really like in Kirsten's era.

It's a sweet story, but, as the above implies, it's very disjointed. It comes across more as a scrapbook than a novel, and though there are mature themes present in the story, little time is spent on exploring them. Compared to the majority of American Girl novels, I'd say the writing of Meet Kirsten is quite weak; I'm happy to say, however, that it's a one-time deal. The next book in the Kirsten series, Kirsten Learns a Lesson, settles into the typical American Girl novel format, and it's a much better story.

Meet Kirsten definitely works to set up Kirsten Larson's life; it successfully shows her transformation from Swedish peasant to Minnesotan pioneer. But it could certainly have told the story in a more cohesive and compelling way, and I have to say that as an introduction to the American Girl franchise, this isn't the greatest. I haven't read Meet Molly or Meet Samantha yet, so I can't say for sure whether or not they're written in the same, very sectional style. If they are, I highly suggest starting your child's (or your own!) American Girl experience with Meet Felicity, and then moving on to the original three and eventually the later girls. I'd hate to think of anyone getting turned off of the franchise because of Meet Kirsten's abundant Early Installment Weirdness.

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