Barbie and Ken By Cynthia Lawrence and Bette Lou Maybee

How these popular high school classmates solve their dilemmas makes for many hours of entertaining reading!

Upon her introduction in 1959, Mattel’s Barbie doll was intended to be something of a blank slate: a glamorous avatar on which girls could project there future fashion dreams and career aspirations. Not until the doll became a massive hit (and Mattel started licensing various ancillary products in Barbie’s image) did her creator, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler, consider what kind of personality she should have.

This was mostly done through the pages of Barbie: The Mattel Barbie Magazine which was published starting in 1961, and included short stories featuring Barbie, her boyfriend Ken, her BFF Midge (and eventually Midge’s boyfriend Allan) along with various characters who did not appear in doll-form in the Mattel line.

Beginning the following year some of the stories that appeared in the magazine were published as a series of hardcover books by Random House, which ran 12 volumes (plus a cookbook) through 1965.

The stories are set in Barbie’s fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin, and feature extremely mild teenage hijinks: while Barbie and her pals are depicted as high school upper-classmen, the stories are pitched to a younger audience. The best thing the stories have going for them active female main character (frankly, Ken comes off as kind of a doofus) and, with some digging, some messages about how boys and girls can enjoy the same kinds of activities. Free to Be You and Me this isn’t.

And about those personalities: there isn’t much to them. Like I said, Ken often comes off as kind of a dum-dum; Midge is unceasingly loyal and a little impulsive (and boy-crazy); Barbie is… nice? A go-getter?

The non-doll-based supporting characters are a little more interesting, as most of the negligible plots have Barbie and the gang dealing with drama caused by a snobby classmate who may or may not get their comeuppance. The six stories collected in this volume are:

“My Friend The Pioneer” Midge has accepted Bob’s Varsity pin, but her parents insist she is too young to go steady and insist that she return it. Midge puts off doing so until the senior class’s week-long hiking trip, for which Midge has let on that she is much more of an outdoorswoman than she actually is. Barbie urges her friend to tell Bob the truth, but her inexperience keeps getting the friends into various jams as the day progresses, until the two friends get separated from the group and menaced by a bear, which turns out to be Ken and Bob coming to help them.

Shut Up, Bob Department:

“She brought soda pop in her knapsack. No wonder it’s so heavy!”

Uh, Bob, you are happily drinking that soda pop 2 pages later, so shut up.

“The Friendship Club” Barbie, Midge and a flotilla of non-doll-based girlfriends decide to start a Friendship Club, but Barbie and Midge start to have their doubts when snooty Jane adds an amendment to the club’s constitution that it will be an EXCLUSIVE club. Then Barbie’s mom starts meddling in her business by insisting that Barbie hang out with wet-blanket Helen. Barbie reluctantly agrees to put Helen up for membership (it isn’t clear what, exactly, this club does except eat cookies at their meetings, which is actually pretty relatable). At the meeting Midge gives Barbie the 411 on how Helen and Jane are having DRAMA over a book report on Abraham Lincoln, so Helen’s membership is voted down and Barbie quits the club in a fit of pique. I feel like I’ve already said a lot of words about this story, so: eventually Helen and Jane work things out. Sort of:

Shut Up, Jane Department:

“Well,” admitted Jane frankly. “We don’t want you very much yet. But I think we’re willing to try and be friends- if you will. There may be some hope for you yet, Helen.”

Helen, feel free to tell Jane to shove it.

“The Boy Next Door” Dog-based antics. Notable for the inclusion of Willows’ only ethnic family, the Romanos, who are both Italian AND Catholic.

Oh, also it has a five year old who talks to his dog, who talks back to him, which seems very Son of Sam.

“The Rose And The Thorn” This gets my vote for the best/weirdest story in the collection. New kid in school Thorn Savage (!!!!) has arrived from the wilds of Oregon, 7 feet tall with “a shock of red hair”, right out of the cast of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. He excels at English, and has many words about the low quality of poetry published by the school newspaper, which gets him into a feud with Rosemary Emma Milton, the poetry editor, that lasts all semester until they admit they are madly in love with each other based on their mutual interests: Thorn is writing a novel about Oregon lumberjacks in order to apply for a college scholarship and Rosemary is helping him edit it. Ken has to butt in and complain about how Rosemary is making Thorn into a sissy (he quit the football team!) but all is resolved with a pretty decent message about how boys AND girls can like BOTH poetry AND hunting and you can try new things without giving up the things you already know you enjoy.

Sublimated! Department:

“Ken gulped and shook his head at the first sight of Thorn in a tie.”

“Sing Along With Ken” Barbie is the director of a benefit show for the PTA, and her best act is a monologue from Romeo and Juliet performed by the school’s resident diva, Jenifer. Desperate for new acts Barbie “tricks” Ken into performing folk songs at the talent show, and he gains the notice of a visiting talent scout who wants him to come to Summit City to audition for a spot in The Candy Mountain Boys (!!!) Jenifer sees her chance to ride on Ken’s coattails, blah, blah… Ken is chosen for Student Achievement Day to serve as Attorney General For A Day, which conflicts with the audition… Jenifer urges him to do the audition, Barbie doesn’t say anything… ugh, why do we even care about Ken anyway? This guy is so boring. Ken decides that he would rather be fake-Attorney General of Wisconsin instead of a folk singer, Jenifer learns zero lessons and moves on to the next guy who can help her career ambitions.

There Is Something About A Soldier” Male wet-blanket (and Ken’s next door neighbor) Sonny Carpenter has recently left Willows High to attend a fancy military academy, and sends many mopey letters to Ken about how he has no friends. Ken, Barbie and Midge agree to write him and help cheer him up, although they all agree that Sonny is boring. Barbie is the only one to follow through on the idea, and Sonny is a presumptuous sort and assumes they are in love, L-U-V.  He asks Barbie to the high school dance when he is home on vacation, and when she is too flustered to respond he takes it as a yes. Ken is a good sport about everything and takes Midge, but Sonny is a giant pill, bragging about his fancy new school so much that Barbie accidentally-on-purpose dumps ice cream down the front of his fancy uniform, which makes him freak and go home to wash it. A few days later Sonny shows up at the local malt shop wearing a Willows HS sweater and having learned lessons about showing off. I guess?

Shut Up Sonny, Department:

“No, no! Don’t make it worse by rubbing it in,” he said crossly. “I’m sorry, Barbie, but we will have to leave. This chocolate will set in the fabric if I don’t attend to it properly.”

Also included are two one-act plays (!!!) that I can’t imagine any actual pre-teens performing. The first, “Happy New Mr. Christmas!” involves The Gang meddling in the business of Pop Shoppe proprietor Mr. Christopher when he plans on closing the shop(pe) because business is bad; Barbie and Ken turn his store-room into a membership-based Teen Club, which it really seems like they should have checked with him to see if he wants to supervise all of that rocking and rolling.

“House Of Cards” gets meta, as it presents a play about behind the scenes of a play, after snooty rich girl Sue Carol pulls her daddy’s funding from the costume budget for a production at the local orphanage. Barbie and Midge’s creativity saves the day and a chastened Sue Carol asks if she can have a role in their next performance.

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4 Responses to Barbie and Ken By Cynthia Lawrence and Bette Lou Maybee

  1. Susan says:

    Hilarious! I totally missed these while growing up. So many of the recurring themes of the day. Soda pop shops, exclusive clubs, quitting the exclusive clubs because they won’t let someone in, plays, fundraisers for orphanages, pretending to have expertise on something and then either being shown up or having to confess, being allowed/not allowed to go steady/accept a boy’s pin or ID bracelet.

    I have always liked short story collections. It seems in recent years though that so many written to be published as a book aren’t very good. The ones that used to appear in magazines first seem to be better — maybe because other people had some editorial control before publication, and maybe because only the best were chosen to reappear in books?

    My favorite doll was Francie, Barbie’s teenage cousin. She had the long smooth brown hair that I hoped my Long-and-Silky shampoo would produce for me 😉 .

    • mondomolly says:

      Vintage short story collections are so much fun, I feel like there is always one in every collection that is super-weird (THORN SAVAGE, RUSTIC POET!)

      I love Francie, too- her wardrobe was the wildest!

  2. Uly says:

    Thorn Savage!? What a name!

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