Lori L. Tharps
October 22, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Barbie turned 40 this year, and Mattel decided to update the busty blond for the 21st century. How? The toy company introduced Barbie the urban teenager, complete with multiculti friends, access to the Internet, and a cell phone. To enhance her reality, Mattel partnered with Golden Books to chronicle a meaningful existence for young Barbie in print. The Generation Girls book series — aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds — debuted in June, and a new book is released every month.

”Mattel came to me with the dolls,” says Golden exec director Sharon Gayle — who coincidentally engineered Nancy Drew’s ’90s makeover a few years ago — ”and I created their world.” Generation author Melanie Stewart is actually a pseudonym for a group of writers handpicked by Gayle.

”We wanted to bring Barbie into the new millennium and connect her to kids right now,” says Gayle. So our 15-year-old Big Apple-based protagonist has a last name (Roberts), dumps her Corvette for the subway, helps the homeless, and champions minority causes with her African-American pal Nichelle. Best of all, Barbie eats. A lot. Two eggs for breakfast, ”snacks” like bacon cheeseburgers with onion rings, and duckling with orange sauce for dinner. ”These books are not only meant to change Barbie’s image,” says Gayle, ”but to set a precedent for preteen girls to look at life.”

Barbie as female-empowerment role model? So far, young readers haven’t taken to the concept as much as they have, say, to the Olsen twins or Harry Potter. But Mattel and Golden have launched a multimedia PR campaign to change all that. A website, ads on Nickelodeon, and weekly cliff-hanger episodes on Radio Disney have resulted in additional pressruns (the first four books have 100,000 copies in print). Dare we say we’ve found the new (plastic) face of grrrl power?

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