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You Can Call Her a Living Doll

June 17, 2010 By:
Erica Brooke Fajge, JE Feature
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Author Jacqueline Dembar Green gets ready to autograph books from the American Girl series about the Jewish character Rebecca Rubin. Photo by Scott Weiner

"What number do the years in which the American Girl stories take place end with?"

"Four!" came a loud reply.

It was uttered by a young fan of the Rebecca Rubin character and books, part of the American Girl series, calling out in response to a question asked by author Jacqueline Dembar Greene.

This enthusiastic elementary-school student was not the only young fan present. On Sunday, Dembar Greene, the author of the new Rebecca Rubin series, part of the larger American Girl franchise, addressed a packed auditorium at Gratz College in Elkins Park.

A book-signing followed the event, where readers were given the chance to meet and have a photo taken with the author. A second program was planned later that day at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School in Wynnewood.

These days, in a world where innocence seems to have flown out the window -- what with young girls everywhere idolizing everyone from the likes of Britney Spears to Miley Cyrus -- it's almost refreshing to see children gathered together for a literary event. And in this case, it's for an event that actually touches on history and some of their own personal backgrounds.

Dembar Greene is a writer of more than 30 books for young readers; in addition to her award-winning, six-book Rebecca series, she is recognized for her historical novels Out of Many Waters, a Sydney Taylor Honor Book and a New York Libraries "Book for the Teen Age"; and One Foot Ashore, also a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, as well as an American Booksellers "Pick of the Lists."

She created the Rebecca Rubin character in 2009 after being approached by an editor from American Girl, who asked her to submit a proposal for a Jewish girl who had moved to the United States with her family during the early years of immigration.

Dembar Greene decided that the character should be a 9-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant named Rebecca Rubin, living in New York City's Lower East Side with her family in 1914, as it was a "vibrant time when immigrants were making contributions to transform America."

She decided on a family that was intergenerational, with grandparents -- living upstairs -- who speak Yiddish on a regular basis and who are intent on enjoying the "freedom of America, yet keeping their customs and traditions."

The family of Rebecca Rubin focuses on their traditions just as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" was intent on holding onto his traditions, especially concerning his daughters.

"Rebecca is a product of the times," the author stated; in fact, "all books I write use history as background."

Those in attendance at the event were mostly girls between the ages of 5 and 12, accompanied by family members. (And, yes, there were even a few boys.)

Many of the young readers even brought their very own Rebecca dolls.

Shoshi Rosenstein, 10, attended the presentation with her grandmother. "I've been read- ing the American Girl books for a long time," she said. "I like the stories and the characters, and I think the new Rebecca books are really interesting."

Arielle Goldberg, 11, agreed. A fan of the series for a while now, Arielle can also connect with the doll's background: "Rebecca is the first Jewish character, so a lot of people can relate to her."

'Draw on Personal Experiences'

The author herself can relate to the character she created. The third book in the American Girl series typically focuses on a Christmas story. As a Jewish author writing about a Jewish character, what did Dembar Greene come up with?

The author wrote about her experience in the third grade, when she was asked to work on a Christmas greeting-card project. Upon its completion, she worried about what her parents would say.

However, her mother told her that she did a "nice job," and encouraged her to give it to a neighbor who could use it. In fact, the neighbor was so appreciative that Dembar Greene remembered "walking home feeling like a million bucks.

"Every time I write a book, I draw on personal experiences -- not just as plot elements, but more as how the characters would feel," explained the author.

Just by the show of fans at the event, it is obvious that the Rebecca books have caught on. A lucky audience member was selected to win Dembar Greene's latest Rebecca book, a mystery entitled Secrets of Camp Nokomis: A Rebecca Mystery.

Dembar Greene said that the experience has been gratifying, and that she even meets a lot of immigrant families who enjoy her writing. She said that she's often told that something in these books sparked some sort of experience for families to talk about.

"Now, with these books, it opens up a dialogue," she said. "Writing is a private job -- you and your imagination, and a stack of books."

So, she continued, "when you see how people respond to your books -- that is when you feel like you've done your job."

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