When I was younger, I had six American Girl dolls. I also had two Bitty Babies, dolls made by the same company. These dolls did not come cheap, but the values I have learned from playing with them are priceless.

Three of the dolls I had — Kirsten, Molly and Samantha — were from the Historical Collection. These were nothing like the Barbies I had inherited from my older cousins; each American Girl came with a story that was all her own.

When I received Molly as a present on my fifth birthday, I soon found out she was much more than a doll; she was an heirloom. She was so cool-looking, with her glasses, braided hair and blue cardigan. There was also a bonus gift with my Molly: a book.

This book, while only a few chapters, was my introduction to World War II. Reading Molly’s book introduced me to Molly McIntire, a nine-year-old girl who comes of age on the American Homefront. Molly’s father was overseas tending to wounded soldiers and her mother worked as a Red Cross volunteer. Molly is a feisty daydreamer who is not a fan of these changes, and it is not until her fourth book that she realizes the War is affecting more people than she thinks.

Then there was Kirsten Larson, a Pioneer girl who my mother won for me at a school fair. Kirsten was dressed very cozily — a red-striped apron over a blue cotton dress. From her book, I learned that Kirsten was an immigrant from Sweden who was currently living with her family in a Little House on the Prairie in the vast Minnesota plains. A tender-hearted girl, Kirsten is not afraid to try new things and loves animals. Kirsten is also quite creative, a trait that comes to her aid when she is in trouble in book five.

My father gave me Samantha Parkington during a trip to New York City. Samantha was quite popular during this time as her books were being adapted into a television movie. Samantha was definitely the most glamorous doll I had gotten thus far: she had brown wavy hair that was topped off with a plaid purple bow and had an elegant dress to match. With her black tights and Mary Janes, I thought Samantha might have been a tad spoiled.

Of course, reading about her proved me wrong. Samantha could have cared less about her appearance, preferring to ride her bicycle or climb a tree instead of having tea or sewing a doily. She also had a big heart — Samantha became friends with a servant girl and gave her a treasured doll when she moved away to the big city. The two were eventually reunited, and Samantha’s uncle decided to adopt Samantha and her friend to create the family Samantha had always wanted. Samantha learned that if you do good things for others, good things will come to you in exchange.

These dolls are now in a Tupperware bin in my attic, waiting for the day when my children are old enough to cherish them. American Girl has been a staple of not just my childhood, but also of my life. They have shaped the way I think of myself and how I treat others; with my dolls, I have discovered how learning about the past can help create our future.

As I enter my junior year of college, I’m over the moon to see the company is alive and well. As the world is constantly evolving, so have the dolls created by the Pleasant Company. Now you can get American Girl dolls with earrings, braces and even glasses. Something truly revolutionary is the bald option, which allows girls to have a doll without hair. Imagine: a girl going through chemotherapy holding a doll that looks just like her.

There are also other improvements being made to the dolls to accommodate their special owners, as shown in the video here:

American Girl dolls are unlike any other toy in the world. There has never been a doll that has the power to encourage a girl that it’s okay to be different, smart and curious.