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Kai Ryssdal: If you don't have a daughter, a young daughter, you may never have heard of the American Girl Dolls. If you do have a little girl, then you may know more about those dolls than you care to. All of them come with books that tell their life stories. They're full of triumph over evil, like mean girls at school and can-do spirit. But not too long ago the company, owned by Mattel, came out with a new blonde-haired doll with a hardluck story we haven't heard from American Girl before. Sally Herships reports from New York, she's raised quite a ruckus.
SALLY HERSHIPS: Barbie has her dream house, and Disney princesses have their castles. But Gwen, a new doll from the American Girl Company is homeless, at least for a little while. And she's been causing an uproar with a lot of help from the media.
Announcer 1: In the breakfast buzz this morning she is no Barbie -- that's for sure.
Announcer 2: She is homeless apparently. And lives in a car.
Announcer 3: I think if you're going to raise awareness of homelessness, with your kids, if that's the goal, maybe you can just give money to your local homeless shelter.
No one from American Girl would go on tape, but the company says people are overreacting. That homelessness is an issue a lot of kids are facing right now. And the company hopes Gwen's story will raise awareness. Every American Girl doll comes with a book. Gwen is a minor character in another doll's story. And American Girl says, you don't even learn she's homeless until close to the end of the book.
Mary Brosnahan is executive director of New York City's Coalition for the homeless.
MARY BROSNAHAN: I don't think it's that bad. I don't think it's something for people to get that twisted about.
Brosnahan points out that homelessness is on the rise: more then 1.3 million children don't have a home. So she says Gwen is a good way for kids to learn about the problem. Kids with a roof of their own, the ones who are more likely to have a $95 American Girl doll.
BROSNAHAN: I don't like that everything's become so commercialized, but if there is some way for a child to identify with another homeless child more power to them.
But will shoppers agree? American Girl wouldn't discuss sales so I headed to Manhattan's enormous American Girl store to find out.
AMERICAN GIRL STORE: Momma, can I have both of these someday for Bitty? Maybe some day.
HERSHIPS: Do you know what it means to be homeless?
HERSHIPS: How would it make you feel if you had a doll that didn't have a home?
NOEL: I guess kind of sad.
HERSHIPS: Do you think it would be OK to sell a doll like that?
NOEL: Yes, because there's nothing really wrong with that.
Most parents agreed they're fine with a homeless doll, but the $95 price tag not so much.
PARENT: $95 a lot of money for a doll. Even a Disney doll, even Cinderella.
Some other parents were concerned that Gwen's story might be too upsetting for young girls.
But not Deirdre, who lives with her 7-year-old daughter, Keelie, in a New York City homeless shelter.
DEIRDRE: If you're homeless you're homeless. You can be homeless from 2 to a 100. I mean, if that's your situation, that's your situation.
I asked Deirdre and Keelie what they think about a homeless doll.
DEIRDRE: I think it's OK, it's not a problem, because it basically portrays what's really going on out here. It's just basically putting it up front and center, letting you know that these things do happen.
HERSHIPS: What do you think? Do you think you would like to have a doll like that?
KEELIE: I don't know.
HERSHIPS: If you got a doll, what do you think would be important about the doll?
KEELIE: That I get to dress her up.
Some things about little girls and dolls are universal. No matter where you live.
In New York, I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.