Associated Press Writer

There's a certain amount of grumbling each holiday season as parents and grandparents search for toys, books and DVDs that they think will serve as positive influences on their children -- and can't find them.

Instead, they're facing seemingly endless rows of the bare-bellied Bratz and their imitators on everything from plastic dolls to bedspreads to videos.

This year, however, there are some alternatives. Two characters from generations past have been resurrected, updated and packaged as hip yet wholesome little girls.

They are Holly Hobbie, who in 1980 was the No. 1 licensed character in the United States, and Eloise, the girl who turned Manhattan's luxurious Plaza Hotel into her personal playground in a series of books that thrived from the 1950s through the 1970s.

"We saw an opportunity with Holly Hobbie, not as part of an '80s revival, but there's still a lot of equity with the name Holly Hobbie," said Tamra Knepfer, senior vice president of AG Properties at American Greetings.

"She's associated with 'wholesome' and 'friendship,' pure attributes that resonate with kids today and with the moms."

Actress Lynn Redgrave, who provides the voice of Nanny, caregiver to that precocious hotel guest, in the new DVD "Eloise: Little Miss Christmas," said she was eager to work on something her grandchildren will enjoy.

She has fond memories of her children and their Eloise moments when they lived in New York in the 1970s.

"We had the book, we did the Plaza," Redgrave said. "They'd go in and say, 'Where is Eloise?'"

Country music star LeAnn Rimes lends her voice to the new animated Holly Hobbie DVDs, including "Christmas Wishes."

"Holly Hobbie was before my time, but some of my friends in their mid-30s knew who she was and clued me in," said Rimes, 24. "As I found out more, I just really wanted to get involved and bring her to life."

Rimes said she sees a bit of herself in Holly: They both have a pretty clean public image and are considered role models. Plus, each is sort of tomboyish.

"She's a really cool girl, and I respected what she stood for as a character," Rimes said. "I don't have children of my own yet, but I feel like I'm laying the groundwork so I'll have positive messages to send my kids. I look at what's out there and I'm just blown away about what kids are subjected to."

Moms -- or, in Rimes' case, would-be moms, -- do seem to be the key to these old characters getting a new life.

Some 90 percent of mothers believe there are not enough wholesome role models, celebrities, characters and brands for young girls to emulate, according to a survey of 1,010 moms with daughters 4 to 9 years old. It was conducted by market researcher Synovate on behalf of American Greetings.

It also helps that today's moms were the girls hoarding Holly Hobbie paraphernalia 25 years ago.

American Greetings also has capitalized on modern mothers' nostalgic feelings toward Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake, and Hasbro relaunched My Little Pony in 2003. Its rationale: The girls who loved the Ponies then were shopping the toy aisles now.

A potential problem surfaced with Holly Hobbie, however: With her patchwork clothes and her blue bonnet, she looked dated.

"We needed to create a Holly Hobbie that resonates with today's girls," Knepfer said, "so we gave birth to the great-granddaughter. We recreated Holly Hobbie as a new character. She looks totally different but has a lot of the same attributes -- caring, sharing and friendship. But instead of a blue bonnet she wears a newsboy cap."

Rimes thinks it's Holly's holdover qualities, including her emphasis on family and friends and her strong sense of self, that girls will appreciate most.

They'll also like that Holly doesn't talk down to them, Rimes added.

Regina McMenomy, a graduate student researcher specializing in female pop icons at Washington State University, noted both Holly and Eloise embrace their girlishness while being strong, independent thinkers.

So many of the newer girl characters focus on power and gender equality that they've lost their femininity, she said.

Holly is "supremely feminine" and is "tomboyish without being tough," while Eloise is a playful trickster, McMenomy said.

These are all qualities that seem to have been purposely excluded from the next generation of girl icons.

"Maybe we're coming into a place where it's OK to be girls and not to be so much one way or another," she said. "These characters don't see being a girl as working against them."

Eloise, a character developed by Kay Thompson and illustrator Hilary Knight, treats her young fans as co-conspirators in her plans to wreak a bit of fun havoc upon the Plaza's stuffy souls.

"She's kind of a female Bart Simpson, in a way. She's not mean-spirited, but she's playful; she's not evil, but she's mischievous," said Wes Archer, creative director of her DVDs and a former director of The Simpsons.

Initially, he wasn't familiar with the little blonde who wears suspenders with her short pleated skirt.

But once Archer saw the illustrations, he knew she'd be a blast to work with in animation. "It's a nice pen-and-ink style.

It has a bit of rendering in it, and it has a lot of life and funny expressions and poses."

The creator of Holly Hobbie, now a grandmother who lives in Massachusetts, was apprehensive about what would be done to update the girl's look.

In the end, though, Holly Hobbie -- that is indeed her real name -- liked what she saw.

"I think she's really cute. She has a lot of energy," Hobbie said. "It's a wholesome alternative to the edgy, smart-alecky stuff out there in the marketplace today."

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