Pioneer Days: Dryden library program brings world of American Girl Kirsten to life

By Kristy Montana
Tompkins Weekly

DRYDEN – “Imagine leaving your home and everyone you know to move to a new country. What would be exciting? Frightening?”
Those questions provide the foundation for participants in the Southworth Library’s American Girls KIRSTEN Book Club. The group is focused on the American Girls book character Kirsten, a pioneer immigrant from Sweden in 1854 as she travels to America and finds her new life in Minnesota.

Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly Dryden sophomore Ellie Freeman, left, assists a student participant with a sewing project at the American Girls Book Club at Southworth Library in Dryden.
Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly
Dryden sophomore Ellie Freeman, left, assists a student participant with a
sewing project at the American Girls Book Club at Southworth Library in Dryden.

Each week, the group of 16 girls fill up a large upstairs room of the library; the gathering has a decidedly multi-generational feel, with the 7- to 12-year-old participants, as well as some of their mothers, a 16-year-old volunteer and three other adult volunteers all taking part in the conversations with Southworth Library Director Diane Pamel.
“It’s a fun crew to put together. The first time we had an American Girls club, we covered all six historical girls, one a month,” said Pamel. “It was a lot, and so we split it up, and this allows more time for focusing on activities, crafts and discussions.”
Each week, through mid-November, the group meets to discuss one of the six books in the Kirsten series, look at a different aspect of life for Kirsten, and explore hands-on a craft related to the lifestyle of a Swedish immigrant pioneering the mid-west in 1854.
Financed through the Dryden Youth Opportunity Fund, the library provides copies of the books and the opportunity for participants to borrow an American Girl doll each week.
“They really give back to the community; they should be highlighted,” said Pamel on the generosity of the Dryden Youth Opportunity Fund. “On occasion, we have other items to purchase in regards to crafts and activities.” She improvises, too; for example, cutting up out-of-date bed sheet for aprons for the 16 girls who, like Kirsten, are learning to embroidery.

Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly Southworth Library Director Diane Pamel, right, leads a discussion about heritage at a book club gathering.
Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly
Southworth Library Director Diane Pamel, right, leads a discussion about heritage at a book club gathering.

Over snacks of period-related treats such as cardamom cookies and breads baked by Pamel, the group actively engages in such activities as creating family trees and looking at globes to identify countries of ancestors, learning and reciting a Swedish poem, comparing and contrasting an 1854 pioneer schoolhouse with today’s school experience. Most recently the girls used their STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) skills collectively to imagine to-scale the size of Kirsten’s home within the library room; the exercise left a tightly packed group of wide-eyed children huddled around an imagined wood stove, kitchen table and bed– and an appreciation for the size of their own homes.
The volunteers who assist with the club – Nancy Hillegas, Ellie Freeman, Linda Storver and Stephanie Snedeker – “are just wonderful,” Pamel said, and she enjoys having the mothers who come and take part as well.
Hillegas, who lives in Dryden, had offered to volunteer at the library.
“Diane asked, ‘Do you think you could teach children to sew?’” Hillegas said. “I said, yes, I think I can. Back in the day, we all learned from our mothers and grandmothers. I enjoy this very much.”
Freeman is a sophomore at Dryden High School.
“I was an intern at the library over the summer, so I’ve volunteered (at the library) since the summer,” she said, adding there were several reasons she was helping with the book club. “I like history; I read these books when I was younger, and I like interacting with young people and helping them to understand the stories.”
Snedeker, of Dryden, has participated in previous American Girl book clubs at Southworth Library with her granddaughter. Although her granddaughter is not able to attend this current club’s meetings, Snedeker happily accepted Pamel’s invitation to volunteer.
“I have enjoyed the American Girl books, and came to several (sessions) with my granddaughter. This age group is wonderful; I love it so much.”

Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly Book club participants get help with their project from Nancy Hillegas, left, Pamel, center, and Linda Storver, right. During the sewing activities, Hillegas uses the thimble that was passed down to her from her grandmother.
Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly
Book club participants get help with their project from Nancy Hillegas, left, Pamel, center, and Linda Storver, right. During the sewing activities, Hillegas uses the thimble that was passed down to her from her grandmother.

Storver, who lives in Virgil, had been volunteering at the library already when the opportunity to be involved with the book club arose.
“I was volunteering at the library, re-shelving books, and Diane asked if I might have interest in the American Girls Book Club,” she said. “She assured me how much fun it all is – and I do enjoy it. And Diane is wonderful.”
For Dryden students, Pamel said transportation is provided from Dryden Elementary School directly to the library for the club. She noted, “lots of girls can’t make it after school because their parents work, so I called (Dryden Superintendent) Sandy Sherwood, and she and Roxanne (Saville-Hilliard), the new transportation supervisor were incredibly helpful in setting up transportation.”
Currently, five girls ride the bus to the club.
“The bus stops right here,” Pamel said, pointing out the window, “and it’s awesome.”
There will be another American Girls Book Club taking place in the new year, but those details are not yet available. For more information about Southworth Library, and its programs and events, visit its website at southworthlibrary.org.