The doll I bought on January 8th is actually the doll I'm reviewing today--and I bought her for personal reasons that I'll explain along the way. She's Miss Lea Clark, the new American Girl of the Year. I think she's really pretty, but it was her pet sloth (along with one of the new Truly Me accessory sets) that really won me over:
|Girl of the Year Lea Clark with her pet sloth.|
Before January, I truly thought I was done with American Girl. During my last trip to the American Girl store (in New York), I was underwhelmed by the 2015 Girl of the Year, and felt like I had found my perfect American Girl doll with the mini Kaya. Well, that all got turned on its head pretty quickly a few weeks ago.
I actually got my first good look at Lea while I was browsing the new American Girl catalog at the beginning of the month. My initial thought was that she'd surely stir up a pot of trouble for being yet another blonde white girl...not to mention how much she resembles characters like McKenna and Isabelle. Let's face it, though: there are very few truly unique-looking American Girl dolls at this point. However, I didn't feel any actual anger or disappointment behind these thoughts. Why? Well, Lea appealed to me immediately. She has a lot of similarity to Rebecca (a long-time favorite)...but I like Lea more. She strikes a great balance with her features. I don't know that I could have predicted how much I'd like the Josefina face with tanned skin, hazel-green eyes and sun-streaked brown hair if you'd asked me in 2015...but (for me) it all works together remarkably well.
I didn't buy Lea at first sight, though. It took a page turn to see her sloth friend (and her sea turtle friend!) and learn that their story takes place in the Brazilian rainforest. Cool! I was pretty sold on adding Lea to my collection at that point, but it wasn't until I saw the diabetes accessory kit that I was rendered unable to resist. I actively wanted to give American Girl my money. I'll get to that in a sec, but first, here's Lea:
I bought the basic set, which costs $120 and comes with Lea, her book, a compass necklace, and a messenger bag. To get Lea's camera, you have to purchase Lea's Accessories ($32). Some of the American Girl accessory sets (like Lea's) seem way, way too expensive for what's included.
I haven't read Lea's book yet (I'm engrossed in the Cinder fairy tale series...) but I scanned the first few pages to see where she's from (St. Louis, Missouri) and why she's going to Brazil (her brother is there researching the rainforest). The book begins with Lea talking about her camera. It's clearly a prized possession. This makes it even more disappointing that the camera accessory set is so unreasonably priced.
The messenger bag is made out of brown canvas and is decorated with colorful straps and a painted flower on the front:
The shoulder strap of the bag is decorated with yellow embroidery:
The bag has decorative plastic yellow clasps, but the actual closure is with velcro:
|You could fit a lot of things in this bag.|
This is a really nice accessory for a Girl of the Year. I don't think Grace had an equivalent item.
Lea's compass hangs on a black cord that can be adjusted to fit over her head and hang at several different lengths.
The compass is plastic and the arrow always points up--which just happens to be north in this picture:
The compass seems cheap. It's no better than a dollar store party favor. I wish the basic Lea package had come with Lea's camera. That would have been impressive.
Lea herself has the Josefina face (the same face as last year's Girl of the Year) and long, wavy ash blonde hair with highlights:
Her wig is glossy, silky and easy to manage. I like the look and feel of the wavy texture--it doesn't make the hair at all coarse or unruly:
I love the way the waves of hair frame Lea's face:
My other American Girl, Keira, has very dark brown eyes. These look ok in real life, but they can appear flat in photographs. In contrast, Lea has highly-detailed, realistic hazel green eyes that photograph well:
I feel like there's a lot of variability in the style of American Girl eyes. I mentioned this in my Kaya review as well. I mean, Keira's eyes are almost black, dolls like Kit and McKenna have bright eyes with very simplified details, and then the green and hazel-eyed girls like Lea and Isabelle have a lot of flecks and streaks. I like Lea's hazel eyes much better than any of the green eyes I saw at the store last winter.
Lea's colorful printed sundress is very simple, but it's appropriate for her Brazilian adventure:
The dress has a double braid belt and spaghetti straps to match. The belt does not go all of the way around the dress, it's sewn into the side seams.
American Girl dolls do not wear spaghetti straps very well because of their cloth torsos. A little cover-up would have been nice here, but the high neckline in front helps the dress look better than some of the other sleeveless items.
A fun surprise in Lea's outfit is that she has lime green underpants!
|The tops of her legs come protected with plastic wrapping.|
The shoes are fun, bright, and easy to use. The back of the heel opens and closes with plastic velcro.
The shoes have a nice molded rubber sole with the American Girl logo:
I won't do a review of Lea's body or articulation since they're virtually the same as Keira's, but I will note one change:
There's no longer a string holding the head in place--just a cable tie. The neck string has been such a hallmark of American Girl dolls, I suspect that this change will not be well received. It'll certainly be a lot harder to remove and replace the heads on these dolls now.
I'm really happy with Lea, but let's take a look at the two items that are responsible for my renewed interest in American Girl: Lea's three-toed sloth and the Truly Me American Girl diabetes kit:
These two items are very special to me. First of all, I love sloths. We actually saw live sloths (and baby sloths!) when we visited Panama in 2012. They are very neat-looking and unique creatures. Oh--that reminds me, if you are in need of a heartwarming laugh, check out this video of a sloth: video link (there's a bit of language in the comments).
The accessory set is important to me because I have a child with type 1 diabetes. It's ridiculously common in my area for some scary reason. I think seven kids at the local school have it. Anyway, type 1 diabetes is a drag for anyone to live with, especially a kid, and so I love that American Girl is acknowledging the prevalence of this condition and giving children a way to incorporate it into their play.
I'll show you the sloth first, and then take a close look at the diabetes kit.
The sloth comes in an open-faced cardboard box:
The back of the box has a photograph of a real sloth and the declaration that "Lea loves all animals!"
If Lea loves all animals, she probably loves bugs and sponges, too, but they don't make the best stuffed animals (or do they??). Incidentally, the shop I just linked also offers stuffed sloths. Etsy has the best stuff.
I bought the sloth just because he's a sloth. At the time, I was thinking that he didn't look like the most incredible plush sloth I'd ever seen (that honor still goes to Hansa), but I was in love with the idea of him. As it turns out, the catalogue pictures of this little guy don't show how completely great he actually is. He's super cute and very soft:
The fabric choice for the fur is perfect for the shaggy two-toned coat of this animal. Real sloths often have algae growing on their coats, but patches of green might have looked funny on a stuffed animal.
Also, like a real sloth, this guy has a permanent smile on his face:
|Public domain photo of Bradypus tridactylous|
(the three-toed sloth)
He has a fuzzy face with embroidered features:
And velcro on his front and back legs, so he can grab onto things...
...like Lea's arm!
Real sloths aren't at all cuddly (for one, their stinky fur often houses hordes of beetles and moths...) but these two sure make a cute pair:
Ok, now, let's take a look at this Truly Me diabetes kit and see if it has everything a young person with diabetes would need:
There are a lot of items in this set, that's for sure:
To help explain what all of these items are, I'll give you a crash course on type 1 diabetes.
The main players in diabetes are sugar and a hormone called insulin. After you eat, your food is digested into bits (molecules) many of which are different kinds of sugar.
Pictures make everything more fun, so here's my interpretation of sugar:
|For some reason I picture sugar as being|
Actually, after food is digested, the sugar is floating around in the bloodstream, so let's put sugar against a more blood-colored background so she's clearly representing sugar that's in the blood...not table sugar.
Insulin is made by an organ called the pancreas. Insulin's job is to open channels that allow sugar to move from the blood into cells. So...insulin is kind-of like a doorman. Here's my (really weird) insulin doorman:
|The Insulin Doorman.|
So...in a normal person, insulin appears after a meal and opens the door for sugar so she can get out of the blood and into a cell:
This interaction is good for two big reasons. First, cells need sugar for energy. If cells don't get the sugar they need for energy, they will die. Also, when sugar moves into the cell, it reduces the amount of sugar in the blood. This is good because too much blood sugar changes the chemistry of the blood and can lead to all kinds of problems. So, insulin and sugar have a critical relationship that is essential for life.
The pancreas can tell how much sugar is in the blood, so it makes insulin when there's a lot of sugar (like after a big meal), and stops making insulin when the sugar levels get low (after fasting or exercise). It's very clever like that.
|The very clever pancreas.|
Type 1 diabetes occurs when, for unknown reasons, the immune system attacks the part of the pancreas that makes insulin. This is really irresponsible of the immune system because obviously it should be focused on attacking germs...not an important part of the body.
|Overenthusiastic immune system.|
So, thanks to their own immune systems, type 1 diabetics lose their ability to make insulin. This means that there's no one left to open the door for sugar, and she's left out in the cold...or out in the bloodstream:
So, the blood is full of sugar, but none of it can get where it needs to go. This is bad for two reasons: first, cells don't get the energy they need to live. Second, the blood gets overloaded with sugar...which starts wreaking havoc on other parts of the body.
Incidentally, type 2 diabetes is much more common, but has a completely different cause. With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas makes insulin just fine, but the cells don't use it properly. It's like the doorman shows up, but many of the cell doors are locked from the inside. This is called insulin resistance. The end result is still too much sugar in the blood (which is what "diabetes" means).
So! How do type 1 diabetics cope with these issues? With injected insulin and lots of equipment...all of which is included in the American Girl kit. Let's take a look.
First, there's the ever-important bag. Because diabetics have to carry certain supplies with them at all times, these bags are a great way to stay organized and personalize the boring medical stuff a little.
This bag has a clear vinyl panel with an identification card inside:
The back of the bag is undecorated:
The bag has a working metal zipper with the American Girl star on the zipper pull:
Diabetics have to do the pancreas' job of deciding when it's necessary to add insulin. In order to do this, they need to know the level of sugar in their blood--especially around meal times.
The next item is critical for that job. It's called a glucose meter (glucose is a sugar).
American Girl glucose meter.
The American Girl glucose meter is made out of plastic and has a small hook on the back. The front has a sticker displaying the number 104 and a few decorative buttons. At the bottom, there's a grey rectangle strip poking out.
Here's my son's glucose meter so that you can see the real thing:
These devices come in all shapes and sizes, so it was just coincidence that the American Girl meter is the same style as my son's.
|American Girl glucose meter next to a real glucose meter.|
The little white test strip (the thing with a butterfly on it) is used to collect a very small blood sample. The strip is removable and only used one time. The grey strip on the American Girl meter is not removable...which is good because it would definitely get lost in my house.
On the real meter, the test strip inserts into a yellow hole in the front:
The machine measures the electric conductivity of the blood sample in the strip, which changes based on the level of sugar in the blood. Pretty cool, right? So...the strip goes into the machine, blood goes into the strip, there's a loud BEEP and a number is displayed.
Here's a rough rundown of the number ranges for non-diabetics:
70mg/dL and below = low sugar level
70-100mg/dL = normal sugar level (can go up to ~120mg/dL right after a meal, though)
100mg/dL and up = high sugar level
For diabetics, the goal is to stay between 70 and about 150. This can be hard.
The next item in the American Girl kit is a lancet. This is the "finger pricker" that draws blood for the sample that goes on the test strip:
|American Girl lancet or lancing device.|
The light blue knob on the left side of the lancet, above, actually twists around. This kind of knob would be for selecting the strength of the lancet's puncture action. The narrower end of the lancet is where the needle would be if this was a real device. This tip is actually spring-loaded so that it can be pressed in and pop back out again.
The spring-loaded tip mimics the needle action of a real lancet. Here's a real lancet:
Similar to the American Girl version, this lancet has a dial on one end to select the strength of the puncture, and a hole on the other end through which a spring-loaded needle will pop out (and then quickly pop back in again):
Here's a peek at the actual needle. It's tiny.
|But it still hurts a little.|
Based on the results of the blood test, diabetics might have to do one of two things:
1. Eat (if the blood sugar is low)
2. Take insulin (if the blood sugar is high)
If the blood sugar is really low, sometimes it's best to just eat pure sugar--like these glucose tablets:
|American Girl glucose tablets.|
The American Girl kit has a small pretend tube of glucose tablets (sugar pills!). This tube doesn't actually open or have anything inside, but American Girl agrees with my son about the best flavor for these tablets:
|Orange all the way.|
If the blood sugar is high, diabetics have to get insulin into their bodies somehow.
Even if their blood sugar is normal, type 1 diabetics have to calculate the amount of sugar in everything they eat and take an appropriate amount of insulin with every meal or snack.
Here's an important distinction between type 1 and type 2 diabetes: type 1 diabetics can eat anything they want...as long as they give themselves a shot with the appropriate dose of insulin. Type 2 diabetics have to control what they eat because, remember, the problem is not with the production of insulin, but with how well insulin is used by the cells. Food with too much sugar will overload the delicate system.
The American Girl kit has a little insulin pen, which represents one way that diabetics can give themselves the insulin they need. It's basically a pen-shaped syringe:
This pen has a twistable knob at one end and a removable cap at the other:
|American Girl insulin pen.|
The knob is for choosing the dose of insulin. There's a small window next to the knob. On this toy, there are no numbers inside the window, but on a real insulin pen, this would be where the dose of insulin could be read.
Here's the American Girl pen next to a real insulin pen:
|American Girl insulin pen with real insulin pen.|
Here's the knob and the window where you can see the dose of insulin as it changes:
Once the dial turns to the correct dose, the end of the pen can be pressed in like a plunger to inject that dose.
A real insulin pen also has a removable cap:
And under the cap is a chamber with insulin inside. A small disposable needle attaches to the top of this chamber so that insulin can be injected under the skin when the plunger is pushed.
Insulin shots are no fun. It's a drag to have to take a shot every time you eat and every time the glucose meter reports a high blood sugar number.
There's another way for type 1 diabetics to control their blood sugar, and this is with an insulin pump. Insulin pumps remove the need for multiple shots every day because they are attached to a person for several days at a time and can deliver insulin through a small catheter (a plastic tube that stays under the skin).
Here's the American Girl insulin pump:
|American Girl insulin pump.|
Insulin pumps are a little confusing, so let me show you the real pump first, and then you'll see what the American Girl pump is replicating.
Here's my son's insulin pump:
The pump controls the delivery of insulin. All of those buttons can be used to program the pump to do a huge variety of things. It can deliver a constant, low level of insulin all of the time, it can be used to give larger doses of insulin with meals or when blood sugar levels are too high...it can even be told to give different levels of insulin throughout the day or deliver a meal dose over a specific time interval.
The pump has a small chamber at one side with a clear window. This is where the vial of insulin would be inserted:
The pump is pretty neat and my son enjoys all of its programming capabilities. However, this is the bad part about an insulin pump:
This space pod thing is called an infusion set. It's the part that attaches to the body.
The top of the blue case comes off to reveal a lot of tubing and a big, scary needle covered with a blue tube. The blue tube is the catheter.
Here's a close-up (it's kinda hard to see the needle under the blue catheter):
The idea is that the needle will puncture the skin, making a tiny hole for the catheter. The catheter can then stay in place for a few days.
The tubing unwinds from a spool inside the case, then the section with the needle cocks back into a firing position, like this:
|Locked and loaded.|
At this point the set needs to be positioned tight up against the body, usually just above the waistline. When the sides of the blue case are squeezed, the needle snaps forwards, injecting the small plastic catheter under the skin. Once the catheter is in place, the needle can be pulled out.
The stuff on the left of this next picture (the catheter, tubing and circular white sticky patch) stay attached to the person while the blue case and the needle are discarded.
The skinny blue catheter would be under the skin at this point...delivering insulin, and the tube would be connected to the pump. Diabetics have to impale themselves with one of these devices once every few days. It's a personal decision which is better--this or the daily pen injections.
Here's the real pump next to the American Girl pump:
|American Girl insulin pump with real insulin pump.|
I think Mattel did a fabulous job of replicating the visual details of this device.
The American Girl pump has the same number that was displayed on the glucose meter (104mg/dL). This is because glucose meters often communicate with a matching insulin pump so that they can share information.
|American Girl insulin pump.|
Along one side of the pump is a clear chamber. This is where the vial of insulin would be held:
The back of the pump has a small clip and some copyright information:
Here's the American Girl version of an infusion set:
The tubing detaches from the white disk:
This attachment site is a weakness in the American Girl set. The tubing comes apart from the white piece way too easily. However, the fact that the tubing can detach is great--this is a real feature of insulin pumps. Here's the real infusion set:
With the tubing attached (left) and detached (right).
For showers, swimming, or any high-intensity activities, the pump and its tubing can be detached, leaving behind just the white adhesive disk with the catheter.
The American Girl kit also includes a medical bracelet:
I had a hard time getting this to fit over Lea's hand, but I eventually got it stretched out and in place:
One risk of type 1 diabetes is that blood sugar can get suddenly and dangerously low. This can lead to loss of consciousness or seizures...and so a bracelet like this makes it easier for medical professionals to quickly see what's going on and give the correct help.
Some diabetics like to keep a log of their blood sugar numbers, the food they've eaten, and what doses of insulin they used for each meal. The American Girl kit has a cute little log book for keeping track of these things:
The set also comes with some small adhesive disks and colorful stickers:
The adhesive disks are to stick the infusion set to the doll:
Which works pretty well:
|I didn't think it would stick so well to plastic and cloth!|
I attached the pump the way my son would attach his, like this:
|The tubing is stiff, so it sticks up in an unrealistic way.|
And then I left Lea alone for a day to see how well the adhesive would hold.
In the meantime, I was trying to figure out what these stickers are for:
|Are they bandages?|
The list of contents didn't help me.
|"Sheet of stickers." Thanks, AG.|
It finally dawned on me that the stickers were to decorate the pump. Lots of kids decorate their pumps the same way they'd decorate their phones--with colorful skins.
Unfortunately, this sticker only stayed on for about three minutes:
Also, a day later, Lea's infusion set had come loose:
I had better luck sticking it further away from the pump, so there wasn't so much tension on the tubing.
One thing I would change about this pump is to make the tubing more flexible. Even the tubing on a real pump would be an improvement. Despite the difference in scale, the real tubing is more pliable. I might also have included more adhesive disks with this set. As it is, once the pump has been applied 20 times...that's it, unless there's another product that will stick to plastic and fabric equally well.
All of Lea's diabetic supplies fit nicely into her bag...and the bag (and medical bracelet) just happen to coordinate with her tropical dress!
Even though Lea is wearing her insulin pump in the pictures, above, it's hard to tell with that dress. I re-dressed Lea in some Maplelea Girls jeans and an American Girl Boston shirt to see how other clothing works with the pump:
This looks very accurate, and the waistband of the pants even helps hold the infusion set in place!
Here are a few last picture of my diabetic Lea and her furry friend:
Bottom line? First and foremost, I love the diabetes kit. The long-term health of diabetic children is all about how well they can keep their blood sugar within a normal range. This is so important, and yet it's a tough, tiring and sometimes embarrassing ordeal. I mean, really--who wants to have a shot and a finger prick every single time they eat an ice cream cone? When I was a kid, I thought shots and finger pricks every few years at the doctor's office was torture enough. This toy is so accurate and detailed that it can be used to reenact most elements of diabetes care...but it's a toy! Toys are more fun than real medical supplies. In my opinion, anything that has a chance of infusing some fun into diabetes is awesome. This toy also has the potential to make diabetic children more interested in (and accepting of) their diagnosis. If American Girl is selling it, it must be cool. And, "taking care" of a diabetic doll might be a nice break from constantly being on the receiving end of reminders about the daily routine. The set could even encourage kids to share the details of diabetes with their friends through play. I'm sad that diabetes has become so widespread that it occurred to Mattel to create this set. However, when American Girl welcomes a disability or medical diagnosis into their mega-popular, image-driven world, that's a great example for kids to follow. I'd like to put this toy in the hands of every appropriately-aged diabetic child who wants it. That's what I'd do tomorrow if I were a fairy godmother.
The diabetes set certainly filled me with warm and fuzzy feelings about American Girl. But I think I would have been pleased with Lea Clark and her sloth anyway. Lea has just the right mix of coloring for my tastes (she's a lot like Rebecca, and she reminds me of people I love) and, for the most part, she has features and clothing that live up to the standards of American Girl: her hair is amazingly silky and wonderful to play with, her eyes are detailed and realistic, her clothes are fun and easy to use, her body moves nicely and feels well-made. My only two critiques are that the compass accessory is disappointingly cheap and the switch from a neck string to a cable tie seems like a move in the wrong direction.
The stuffed sloth is just wonderful. I'm so fond of him that I can't muster a single complaint. He's cute, reasonably realistic, super-soft...and he's a sloth, for goodness sake. Sloths are the best. I think I'll name him Clark (because of that video, and because it's Lea's last name).
Lea is lovely and her sloth makes her even more appealing...but because my Lea is a diabetic, I'm especially attached to her. Diabetic kids have a world of responsibility on their shoulders, sometimes from a very young age. All of the diabetics in my life are amazing and brave, pushing their challenging diagnosis into the background of their personality. If I'm lucky enough to have any diabetics out there reading today--or anyone else dealing with a chronic condition--this one's for you guys. You are my heroes.