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American Girl Doll Joss: Providing a Mirror and a Window—for Children of All Hearing Abilities

5 min read

We spoke with seven individuals as part of our Power of Representation series about what it means to see deaf and hard of hearing experiences in popular culture. In addition to reading the series in Clarke Speaks, join the conversation on social media with #LSLRepresentationMatters.

Joss Kendrick, American Girl doll. “Joss’s hearing aid is just a part of who she is, along with her flip-flops and board shorts,” says Erin Falligant, American Girl author of Joss stories.

American Girl’s 2020 “Girl of the Year” was Joss Kendrick—a surfer girl who is partially deaf—and the first doll with a physical disability. 

Using Dolls to Empower Children

American Girl was founded in 1986 with the goal of creating strong female characters who would inspire girls to build confidence, learn history and do good in the world. As the brand has grown over time, they’ve expanded their line of stories, dolls and toys to include a wide range of experiences and perspectives featuring girls with various skin tones, bone structures, hair textures, ranges of ability and more.  

“From the start, it was the goal of our founder [Pleasant T. Rowland] to create an inclusive line of dolls to help represent girls growing up in America,” says Susan Jevens, associate public relations manager for American Girl. “She wanted to show all girls that they matter and their stories matter.”

In 2020, American Girl doll Joss Kendrick—a surfer who wears hearing aids—was selected as “Girl of the Year.” American Girl selects one character each year to highlight a diverse range of experiences through relatable characters, and to generate awareness, build acceptance and foster inclusivity. In the stories that accompany the Joss doll, readers encounter various themes like open-mindedness, teamwork and breaking down stereotypes. For instance, in Joss: Touch the Sky, Joss steps outside her comfort zone as a surfer to join the cheerleading team, which she’d assumed was only about “big hair bows.” She discovers that it’s physically difficult, presents new hearing challenges, offers a lesson in teamwork and most importantly… it’s fun.

Creating Joss Kendrick

Erin Falligant, author of Joss and Joss: Touch the Sky, earned her master’s degree in child psychology and soon realized she had a passion for writing children’s stories. “Having a background in child psychology helps me think about where readers are developmentally, what issues matter most to them, what they might be struggling with and how they can overcome those struggles,” she says. “It helps me create characters that are believable and stories that resonate with kids.”

Erin Falligant, author of Joss and Joss: Touch the Sky.

To create the world of Joss, Erin and her American Girl colleagues collaborated with a six-person team of experts, including an educational audiologist, a Gallaudet professor, cheer coaches, an activist for women’s equal pay in surfing, and surf champ Crystal DaSilva, who won the 2009 biannual World Deaf Surfing Championships.

“Jennifer [Richardson, AuD, educational audiologist] worked with us from the start of Joss’s development, providing insight into Joss’s daily life and how she would communicate in different situations as a person with hearing loss,” says Susan. “Jennifer also helped advise our product designers on the hearing aid Joss would wear. Based on her feedback, we chose the behind-the-ear earmold hearing aid as it is the most common in kids. The Joss doll’s ear was constructed a little bit differently to accommodate her hearing aid and give girls the ability to remove and replace it.”

“The team of experts shaped Joss’s stories in so many ways,” adds Erin. “They showed me the tools Joss might use, such as her behind-the-ear hearing aid and a microphone teachers and coaches could wear to transmit sound to that hearing aid. The team helped me better understand when background noise might make communication tough for Joss, like in a crowded school lunchroom or at a noisy surf break.”

Erin also discovered ways to adjust her writing style to best depict Joss’s experiences. “The biggest and most challenging learning for me was describing Joss’s world from a visual point of view rather than an auditory one,” she says. “Joss’s stories are written in first person, from Joss’s point of view. So, while I was writing those stories, I couldn’t rely on auditory cues to describe what was happening—because Joss wouldn’t have relied on those cues.”

She shares an example: “If one of my characters is angry, I might convey that by saying her tone of voice is ‘sharp.’ But our experts reminded me that Joss might not be able to pick up on tone of voice. She’d be more likely to focus on visual cues, such as the way a character narrows her eyes or scrunches up her eyebrows. I had to continually remind myself of that while writing, and I relied on our experts to keep those sorts of descriptions in check.”

While striving to create an accurate portrayal of a child who is partially deaf, Erin and Mattel’s American Girl team also worked diligently to create a multidimensional character with a range of qualities, experiences and challenges. “Our goal in creating the Joss books was to create a character with hearing loss but not a story about hearing loss,” says Erin. “Joss’s hearing aid is just a part of who she is, along with her flip-flops and board shorts. Her hearing loss can be a challenge, but it doesn’t define her or limit her. I hope that message resonates with readers with hearing loss who are riding their own waves and chasing their own dreams.”

Among the important messages that the doll, her accessories and stories convey, the Joss Kendrick character serves two important purposes: She is a representative for children who are deaf or hard of hearing, and she offers an entry point into that experience for children with typical hearing.

“There’s a quote that says books should be both ‘mirrors and windows,’” says Erin. “For readers with hearing loss, Joss is meant to be a mirror, reflecting their own experience. For other readers, Joss serves as a window. Her stories give them a peek into someone’s life or experience that may be different from their own… Not every reader will relate to Joss’s hearing loss, but most will relate to the friendship struggles she faces or to the challenges she has to overcome when trying something new.”

To access educational resources and children’s content, Susan recommends visiting www.americangirl.com, where they host a free online library, as well as helpful advice and information, crafts, recipes, activities and more. For children, there is also an “AG Play” page with games, quizzes, free book excerpts and more fun ways to engage with American Girl’s historical and contemporary characters.

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