Jodi Norgaard had never imagined getting into the toy market. However, one day at the store with her 9-year-old daughter, she picked up a heavily made up and scantily clad doll named “Lovely Lola.”
“It really hit me super hard,” said Norgaard, of Glen Ellyn, Ill. “They were dressed so inappropriately. It was such a slap in the face to women and girls. Instead of complaining about it, I wanted to do something.”
She founded Dream Big Toy Company and developed a series of sports dolls for girls that debuted in 2008. The Go! Go! Sports Dolls have received numerous awards and mentions in the press since then, and when fitness writer Kara Douglass Thom, a longtime Savage resident who now lives in Chaska, heard about them, she reacted in an unsurprising fashion.
“I flipped out,” said Thom, “We were an active family. It was a family value in our house, so when I found a doll, a toy, that espoused those values, I was thrilled.”
The dolls sparked an idea — an accompanying book series.
“I’ve always been very lucky to write what I’m living,” she said, “and at the time, it was balancing my own fitness with motherhood, but it was also raising fit children.”
She contacted Norgaard, who loved the idea, though she said she couldn’t pay her yet. Unconcerned, Thom launched into her first book, about a soccer player named Cassie. She read up on the sport, interviewed a soccer coach, and sought help from her daughters in fashioning dialogue.
She moved on to the next book, where research involved taking swimming lessons, even though she had long been a swimmer. “I needed to be reminded about how it feels to be in the water and how it feels to struggle and learn,” she said.
Thom had written three books when, in February 2013, a group of buyers from Wal-Mart took interest. One said of the book/doll sets, “If you can get six of these, these’ll fly off the shelves,” said Norgaard.
“I was jumping up and down, and I called Kara,” she said. “I was screaming.”
Thom dropped everything and got to work, and this June, six of the books, with titles such as “Swimmer Girl Suzi’s Story: Winning Strokes” and “Runner Girl Ella’s Story: Family Fun Run” came out with their accompanying dolls in “Read & Play” sets.
The sets recently won the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio’s Platinum Award, one of the highest in the industry.
Five-time Olympian Dara Torres said her daughter, Tessa, 8, had all of the dolls and now has all their books. “The doll has to sit there with us while we’re reading,” she said.
Torres said she likes the books because of the amount of information they contain. In each of the books, which are also sold separately from the dolls and are now available in e-book form, healthy living tips and sports facts accompany the narratives.
The story lines depict characters who, in some way, “apply what they learn in their activity to their life,” said Thom. “I think that’s true for a lot of athletes that their experience in sport does help them in life.”
Dr. Diann Ackard, a Minneapolis psychologist who specializes in body image and eating disorders, said she appreciates that the dolls are “age appropriate in terms of their shape.”
Ackard said that one of the two peak risk areas for developing eating disorders occurs in pre-puberty, or early adolescence (the other is during the transition from high school to college). She likes that the dolls focus on what you can do with your body instead of body appearance.
“That was very favorable to me,” she said. “There is a need in the market for dolls that impact sports confidence, body confidence.”
However, it’s been a hard-won fight to launch the products. Norgaard had spent years building up a successful gift basket business, so she knew what she was doing. At first, though, she had difficulty selling the dolls.
One buyer told Norgaard, “They’re not mainstream enough. They’re not fashion dolls. Fashion dolls sell.”
Amy Jussel, director of ShapingYouth.org, said the majority of dolls today are “spindly, big-eyed, wafer-thin ‘fashionista’ dolls,” which “set up unhealthy, unrealistic worldviews for girls.” She called the sports dolls a “refreshingly positive, cuddly and cute” alternative.
Thom appreciates that the dolls reflect what kids are really doing with their time. “Girls play sports, and so should their dolls,” she said. “I love the stories and the characters and what they do, but I’m also proud as someone who’s part of this change to bring options to girls.”
Along with Wal-Mart putting the sets on store shelves in their Illinois stores, places like Target.com have started selling the dolls.
The recent surge of interest from retailers has caused the company to plan to release more sports dolls, new books for additional dolls, second and third books for existing dolls, and board books for younger children. Norgaard and Thom are also shopping around a children’s television series proposal, which has garnered interest from eleven different production companies.
Norgaard is also considering a line of outfits for the dolls. Thom said her daughters — a 9-year-old and a set of 10-year-old twins — are especially enthusiastic about this possibility and have sketched out some suggestions.
The only downside?
“Of course,” said Thom, “I can’t go to any sporting event now and just sit there and watch without thinking about characters and how they might play out in a 32-page early reader.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.