Veronica, the Mexican-American girl at the center of Gary Soto’s “Barbie,” really wants a Barbie doll. Though she has an imitation Barbie, she thinks of her as ugly, and imagines that only the real doll, with her blonde hair, tiny waist, and wonderful boyfriend, is truly beautiful. When she finally receives the coveted doll from her uncle’s new fiancee, Veronica can’t wait to show her off, and she takes Barbie to a friend’s house. Somewhere between the friend’s and home, though, Barbie loses her head, resulting in extreme disappointment for Veronica.
This story would have frustrated me somewhat as a kid because it doesn’t draw its own conclusions. Soto raises a series of important issues in this very short piece - identity, beauty, family, friendship, sharing - but he does not connect the dots. The reader is left to comb through the text and figure out what is meant by it. The reader gets to decide whether Veronica’s possession of the Barbie doll was worth it. The reader is left to figure out the significance the doll’s lost head, of Veronica’s mother’s uncertainty about the uncle’s impending marriage, and the importance of the imitation Barbie doll. These unanswered questions make it a great story for teaching kids how to analyze a short story, but they make it less satisfying as entertainment.
Soto’s writing style in this story - and in others in Baseball in April - is much more literary and intellectual than a lot of children’s books I read. In fact, even though this story is about a young girl playing with dolls, I think it is sophisticated enough that older readers - middle school students, and even high school students - are the audience that will truly understand and appreciate it.
My personal favorite part of “Barbie,” aside from the nostalgia associated with my own lost Barbie heads, is the dialogue Veronica invents for Barbie and the imitation doll.
“Oh, look - boys!” the ugly doll said. “They’re so cute.”
“Oh ,those boys,” Barbie said coolly. “They’re OK, but Ken is so much more handsome. And richer.”
“They’re good-looking to me. I’m not as pretty as you, Barbie.”
“That’s true,” Barbie said. “But I still like you. How’s your sandwich?”
“Good, but not as good as your sandwich,” the ugly doll said.
So much is happening in this scene, even though the dolls do most of the talking. Not only is this authentic dialogue for a girl playing with her dolls, but through this scene, the reader comes to understand Veronica’s feelings of inferiority when faced with what the Barbie ads on television have told her is true beauty.
This story provides great opportunities for classroom or book group discussions about the influence of media on kids, and the influence of Barbie herself on American culture. Based on this story alone, I completely understand why Baseball in April turns up on summer reading lists even 22 years after its publication.
I borrowed Baseball in April from my local public library.