Cecile and Marie Grace by Denise Lewis Patrick and Sarah Masters Buckley

★★★☆☆

Cecile and Marie-Grace are ten year old girls in New Orleans, 1853 — the year of the big yellow fever outbreak. The girls pull together to help where they can and build a friendship at the same time.

The story itself is fine. I don’t have any beef with the characters (except that they’re almost never together). Switching their perspectives from book to book shows the reader what life was like for a white girl and a free person of color. I didn’t honestly see much of a difference, except for some pretty hard segregation. I’m sure there was more to it than that, and it would have been interesting to learn about. It was interesting to see how primitive their knowledge of medicine and disease were in 1853. If this were just a book for middle-grade kids to read to make history fun, I’d move on and probably never thing about this series again.

But it’s by American Girl.

The characters are supposed to be so vibrant and beautiful, I’m gonna want to want to part with all my money to buy their entire collection in 1/3 scale.

Trust me, I do want to buy their collections. I’ve already got Cecile under my Christmas tree.

I didn’t feel it from the books. Not only did I not feel compelled to buy the whole collection, the descriptions in the book barely made me want to look at it. Don’t get me wrong, the dolls and accessories they released alongside the book series was gorgeous, and I always wondered why it sold so poorly they pulled the characters in only three years.

A few theories:

  1. The illustrations.
    My god. It’s the first thing you see when you pick up the book, and they’re not only supposed to get you hyped about buying THAT DRESS, but also
    to pull you into the world of the story. The illustrations are what made me love Pleasant Company/American Girl in the first place. Come on, Felicity sitting on the rooftop eating an apple? Molly getting sprayed with the hose in her hula costume? Kirsten and Singing Bird? They were charming and magical and captured me.
    But with Cecile and Marie-Grace, the illustrations showed poor connection from character to character (often with no one really making eye contact), in scenes so vague I can’t recall what was going on in any of them.

    Since the stories overlap with the two girls switching POV, there are duplicate illustrations too.
    This is especially upsetting because I looked up the artist, Christine Kornacki, and her work is gorgeous. She really does seem like a shoe-in for American Girl illustrations but … what happened?

    And you’re gonna see the vignette of that bird like five times.

  2. The descriptions.
    Remember, these books are supposed to sell toys — much like Saturday morning cartoons. Even as an adult who apparently has more important things to do than add to a doll collection, when I read Kit’s series earlier this year (largely unfamiliar with her collection), the author described not only what the character was wearing, but how she felt about it. How she felt about how her room was decorated. The descriptions plus the lovely illustrations made me dive into the back catalogue where I was thrilled to see things I recognized from the books.
    With Cecile and Marie-Grace, it wasn’t like that. Ok, Cecile has a desk where she wrote letters to her brother while he was still in Paris — the desk is gorgeous (I bought it), but it wasn’t in the books anywhere (or maybe a cursory “Cecile sat at her desk”). They have a plate of beignets, beds with mosquito netting, a banquet table, and a table and chairs for the courtyard. I mean, it’s all gorgeous, but it’s not in the book. And I understand that the dolls’ run was cut short, but some of the dresses in the (few) illustrations weren’t even manufactured.

Don’t get me wrong: nostalgia plays a huge part in the enjoyment of these books. I love re-reading about Felicity, Molly, and Kirsten the most because I devoured them when I was a kid. But as an adult when I read about Kaya and Kit and Josefina and Julie, they all felt like I’d always known those characters and those stories even though it was my first read through. That’s so special.

But in saying that, Cecile and Marie-Grace’s series would have fared much better as a continuous novel instead of six books. Dividing it up gives the reader hope that the next book will be different, but they act like episodes in a show — and it got monotonous. In previous series, each book focused on one aspect of the character’s life (school, holidays, summer vacation, etc). If the company had released the characters when they did the Beforever rebrand (where the 6 book series is mushed into two books, and the story reads like one big novel), without the illustrations, the collection might have done better. They went out on a limb to try something different (they’ve never paired two girls before — always focused on one), and it didn’t work.

If you have a middle-grade kid who wants to learn a little about the olden days and yellow fever, and meet some decent characters, this would be a good series for them. For the adult collector who misses Pleasant Company, you could probably skip it.