American Girl, the brand known for bringing history-based 18-inch dolls to bunches of kids over the past 30 years, has been releasing a special Girl of the Year each year for the past decade or so. Each of these characters generally has a specific interest, such as baking or dance. Over the course of two to three books (it varies from year to year), her story related to that interest evolves, and she overcomes various challenges along the way. Naturally, a doll of that character is available to buy, along with various outfits and accessories, so that children can continue to explore the story through their play.
The character for 2018 is Luciana Vega, an 11-year-old girl who dreams of being an astronaut and the first girl on Mars. Her two books focus in on opportunities she has to explore her dream while also dealing with a couple of extra challenges and lessons. The book details Luciana’s trip to Space Camp, which she wins by entering an essay contest; the second tells of her trip to a (fictional) underwater astronaut-training facility. In both, she deals with her family’s attempt to adopt a baby girl from Chile, where both of her parents are from, along with lessons that are vital to anyone looking to do anything STEM related: leadership, perseverance, how to balance creativity and imagination with vital rules, and how to handle suspected sabotage.
Luciana and her story speak to me. When I look at her, I can’t help but see myself at that age—I was desperate to go to Space Camp and bugged my parents to letting me go to the nearest science- and space-related museum, which was 250 miles away, at any chance that was available. When I managed to win a trip to the real Space Camp (thank you to what was then called the Sci-Fi Channel and your Star Wars marathon!), I was over the moon. As I grew older, though, life chipped at my aspiration until it disappeared, and now, as an adult, my old dream now seems fairly unlikely based on choices I’ve made along the way.
However, Luciana was created to inspire. The advisory board used to create and shape the character included, among other members, Dr. Ellen Stofan, past chief scientist of NASA. The main question the board kept in mind was how to solve the various reasons why girls are so underrepresented in STEM. As education historian Dr. Kim Tolley put it, a “complex web of social and cultural influences have facilitated and hindered the participation of girls in science.” The board’s hope was that many girls would see themselves in Luciana, creating the all-important aspect of visibility.
As soon as I was able to find a few hours, I took my daughter out to the Mall of America so we could hit up the American Girl store. Ideas and intent are great, but if Luciana didn’t appeal to grade-school-aged girls, then she’d only be a missed opportunity. Though my daughter is two years under the declared target age range for the Girl of the Year dolls, she was drawn to the store displays like an astronaut to freeze-dried ice cream.
The line of accessories for Luciana ranges from a set of doll-sized souvenirs from the US Space and Rocket Center Visitor Center to a Mars habitat for mission training. She also has, among other things, a space-camp flight suit, a workbench for making robots, and, if you’re an American Girl Rewards member, a spacesuit. My daughter loved each and every item, and I did too. It was very difficult to walk away from the store without buying the entire collection.
We did purchase both of Luciana’s books, though the American Girl store only had the second one available to buy on its own—the first book was only available with the doll. There does happen to be a Barnes and Noble a little bit away from the American Girl store, and I was able to find the first one in stock there. I also picked up Luciana’s flight suit and accessories, and only a lack of stock kept me from purchasing the spacesuit.
As soon as we made it home, my daughter put the flight suit on her doll, and Samantha started having adventures rocketing between the earth, the moon, and Mars. She’s only six and deeply passionate about everything she tries, so it’s entirely possible that her dreams of space exploration will stay in dramatic play; it’s a little early to tell where her deepest interests lie. However, Luciana helps normalize STEM interests for young girls, so maybe she’ll provide the inspiration for one of the many other things that have piqued my daughter’s imagination. If nothing else, Luciana is a great example of a creative soul learning how to thrive and follow her technical interests, and I can’t think of a better role model for my similarly inclined daughter.
If Luciana inspires your kid to check out Space Camp in real life, you can find the website at spacecamp.com. The organization offers a variety of camps for a variety of ages, from the traditional week-long programs for kids to shorter family camps for ages seven-plus. And if you’re an adult, you’re in luck, because there’s a camp for you too!
And if you or your kid dreams of space, but you find the space-camp rates out of reach—the week-long programs are about $1,000 per kid, not including travel—there are a number of organizations that offer scholarships. Space Camp itself offers a number of scholarships; the Mars Generation, founded by Minnesotan Abigail Harrison (also known as Astronaut Abby), offers a yearly scholarship; and Minneapolis’s Geek Partnership Society does as well. Unfortunately, the application deadlines for all three recently passed in December and January, but all should be available again later this year and early next, so you have plenty of time to prepare!