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Asian Dolls: Representing our World

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Asian Dolls for Kids

In decades past, there was the Japanese Jan doll, providing at least a token acknowledgement that little girls of different ethnicities sat in classrooms together (with their hands up). But mostly little girls, whatever their race, got white baby dolls from the K-Mart. At best, there was a little brunette My Friend Jenny for girls who were neither black nor white to hold and say, "This is me."

Times have changed. Here's one little face that I recently found looking at me from a store display. Her eyes are rounder than some, but she has features that we associate with Asian ancestry.

Now there's a variety of dolls that have features that are recognizable Asian, but very different from one another -- much like real children in the nations where we live. The realism on some of today's dolls blows me away. I'm not just talking porcelain collector's dolls. I mean dolls that children can handle and cuddle.

Whether a little girl hails from Asia herself, or has ancestors who have lived in the U.S. since the 1800's, she can find a doll to relate to. There are first dolls, eighteen-inch companion dolls, and realistic vinyl toddler dolls that do double-duty as playmate and keepsake.

Note: Except where otherwise noted, the photography is mine.

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Selecting and Outfitting a Realistic Play Doll

These vinyl dolls look like collector's items, and it can be hard not to look at them that way -- as if face and outfit were a package deal, and those pony tails were to be forever held up by the same spotted pink bows. Ah, but they're not! And so you're free to focus more on the features than on the accessories.

These dolls are also large enough that they can wear real baby clothes, whether it's your girl's own baby clothes, something that represents the culture, or something from the local thrift shop.

Image: Amazon

Asian Baby and Toddler Dolls from Adora

Realistic enough for a collector, but safe enough for a kindergartner... That's Adora. I have seen several dolls in Adora's realistic baby and toddler line that appear to have Asian features. "Black Velvet" has mild Asian features. Her black velvet party frock is removable.

Many of the outfits you see on these Adora dolls are also sold separately. You can buy this little tyke here as is, but if you see a doll with features that look more like your little girl, and you think she would love to dress her up in these polka dots and bows, that’s an option.

Video: A Realistic Toddler Doll

The woman in this video says that if you take your little girl out with this doll, people are apt to think you have two little girls. Pretty close, I think. This video shows a stunningly realistic Asian baby doll that, believe it or not, is appropriate for fairly small children.

Traditionally, the dolls that have the most realistic ethnic features have been marketed to adults. I commend Adora for not only making theirs play-safe, but marketing them for little girls.

You can feel safe giving her to a three-year-old, but realize that she's heavier than those baby dolls that are advertised as "first dolls".

The doll isn't apt to break, though. She's made of vinyl and cloth (as are high-end play dolls like the American Girls). As videos in the Adora series conclude, "Let's play dolls!"

Another Realistic Baby Doll

Here's another very realistic big baby doll -- all dressed up! This one is from Paradise Galleries. She's also made from soft vinyl and cloth with an outfit can be changed.

Paradise Galleries is another maker to keep in mind if you are looking for very realistic Asian baby dolls. I think the facial features are a bit more distinct. More so than Adora, Paradise Galleries markets their realistic vinyl dolls to the adult doll collector. When I read the reviews, though, I see that some parents do give them to little girls.

Asian Baby Dolls from Paradise Galleries

There are more vinyl baby dolls from Paradise Galleries: some slightly more petite at 17 inches. This tutu-clad cutie is 'Nischi's Little Sister'. You might also want to take a look at "Panda Twin". Both have Asian features, but they're distinct and different from one another.

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I don't believe Paradise Galleries sells clothing for these dolls. The Zapf company makes a lot of economical doll clothes that fit seventeen- to nineteen-inch baby dolls, though.

Taking Care of an Heirloom Quality Play Doll

We want children to have dolls they relate to and cherish, but realistic play dolls are a bit of an investment. They don't break easily, but they can be mussed and damaged. And, ah, the hair! I am including links to a couple good resources on doll care and cleaning.

  • Just Magic Dolls
    Here are multiple articles on doll care as well as restoration.
  • Paradise Galleries
    This is an article on taking care of various collector quality dolls -- look particularly at the sections on vinyl dolls and synthetic hair.
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Eighteen-inch Dolls with Asian Features

Companion Dolls

Eighteen-inch dolls are versatile, largely because they're so popular. The one you see here is American Girl Ivy, pictured with her good friend, Julie. Ivy represents a Chinese girl growing up in San Francisco in the 70's -- and yet she doesn't have to have that identity. American Girl dolls are easy to fit; there are a lot of makers designing clothes for them.

Eighteen-inch companion dolls don't have quite the realism of the Adora baby dolls. This is true of virtually every line. I think that Today's Girl Leah is one of the most realistic. Other dolls that may be Asian: Journey Girls Callie, Paradise Galleries Olivia, Adora Lily, FAO Schwarz Avery. Ling, from Karito Kids, is taller, but can wear some of the same fashions.

Avery

FAO Schwarz Avery has beautifully realistic ethnic features. The shape of her face is so realistic. Closeup, she has a wide button nose and striking almond-shaped eyes. I have seen several editions of this 18-inch play doll -- this little girl with her modern holiday ensemble is my favorite.

There is also a baby doll version of Avery in little footed pajamas.

Image: Amazon

Image: Amazon

  • Moe Photos of Avery
    Here are more photos of Avery including some showing her posing in AG Ivy's Chinese New Year's dress. These photos really play up her features.

Today's Girl

Just because they herald from the same continent, it doesn't mean they look the same! Today's Girl Leah has realistic ethnic features, but very different from Avery's. With Avery, the button nose and small chin are dominant features; with Leah, it's the slant to the eyes.

One nice bonus to this set: Leah comes with lots of spare clothing. She is ready to play!

BFC Yuko

BFC Yuko

BFC Yuko

Yuko: a Big Kid Doll

Companion dolls are popular with many girls who see themselves as too old for baby dolls. Yuko is an eighteen-inch Asian doll with a slim build, designed to represent a child of about 12. She's intended for girls six and over. She has been very well reviewed, and face to face she is indeed a charmer. (You don't even have to be face to face with that doll -- she can exude charisma from a sealed box well above eye level. I made her acquaintance at the Grocery Outlet in Seattle. Did you ever see a doll that looked that pleased to have her picture taken?)

One thing to note about this doll: She has a lot of joints. For an older kid, this increases the play possibilities. You may want to check out the short video clip below, which was, I think, made by a young person .

A young child, though, might find her joints a little hard to manage and fragile. Some parents have reported that their six-year-olds loved these dolls; others didn't feel they were quite right for a child that young. Yuko's accessories have rather a middle school feel.

Video: BFC Yuko in Action

Here is BFC Yuko, showing off some gymnastics moves. I doubt that many children have seen her dance independently, as she seems to in this video. However, one thing about the video that is quite realistic: That doll is not only beautiful -- she's flexible.

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A First Doll

For Asian Preschoolers

There are several good doll lines that make first dolls appropriate for children with Asian features. The American Girls Bitty Baby you see is for children three and up.

This American Girl Bitty Baby is not billed as Asian -- none of the dolls in the line are identified by race -- but she appears to be designed with the Asian child in mind. She was more even appealing in real life than in the promotional materials I had seen.

Boy and Girl Asian Dolls from American Girl

The Bitty Babies -- Asian or otherwise -- are all little girls and have the usual girl baby accessories. You'll find boy and girl dolls with Asian features, though, in the Bitty Twin line. They are sold two by two, but you can mix gender and ethnicity however you like. If you have two little ones who don't look at all alike, you might want to have a look.

  • American Girl Shop
    This leads to the main doll page of the shopping section at American Girl. Use the sidebar on the left to locate the line of dolls that you're looking for.

Toddler-Safe Asian Dolls

Most play dolls are for ages three and up. Even the Bitty Babies are not designed for real-life bitty babies -- they have small accessories. Here are a few, though, that are recommended by the manufacturer for very young children. I looked for ones that had some degree of realism and didn't look too stereotypical.

From what I've seen, JC Toys offers the most options. However, the one that seems to consistently get the highest ratings is Corolle Calin Yang. (I don't believe I have read any critiques of the ethnic features on the JC Toys dolls; the most common issue seems to be the clothing. There are some economical choices, but realize that they may show up at your door in a different and cheaper outfits.)

Do be cautious of dolls you find when searching Amazon. If you search for "Asian dolls for toddlers", you will get some that look like toddlers but aren't designed for toddlers.

Should Dolls be Listed by Feature or by Ethnicity?

Some doll lines make dolls in different colors and face molds, but don't list them by race or ethnicity. I can see the point. Asian children don't all look alike. There's not one set of features that all share. Perhaps it encourages stereotypes to say "This is Asian," or this is "This is Latino".

Also some children have features that may be more common in a race or ethnicity other than their own. If the company makes dolls with a range of features, children can select the one that seems the best match for their own features, not the best national poster child.

On the other hand, parents often search for dolls by ethnicity. Some dolls that fit the bill aren't turning up in the search.

How should the toy company list dolls with ethnic features?

'My American Girl' Display - This Display Shows Half of the 44 dolls.

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Most of the American Girl pictures are my photography -- with thanks to the lovely doll models at Alderwood. The above photo is an exception. It's by mestdagh and is shared under an attribution, share-alike license.

Just Like Me Dolls?

I noticed at the American Girl store that the Bitty Babies had more striking Asian features than the My American Girl dolls. In this thread, a group of moms with adoptive Chinese daughters discuss that issue. One notes that the dolls who may be intended to represent Asian children use the "Jess" face mold -- the face of a biracial Doll of the Year. Jess was designed to be half Japanese.

As compared to their fair-haired companions, these dolls do appear to have broader noses with slightly more of a button shape. (The fair-skinned dolls tend to have narrow noses with high bridges.)