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Meet Denise Lewis Patrick, the Writer Behind the New American Girl “Melody” Doll

October 25, 2016

Last year I had the privilege of interviewing Valerie Tripp, the author of many of the beloved American Girl doll stories, including MaryEllen. I learned SO MUCH about how the dolls’ backgrounds are formed, as well as the writing process for each girl.

As I’ve said before, I’m a big believer that books and reading helps kids learn about the world and hone their writing skills. Stories are key to unlocking creativity and imagination. One of the reasons I like the American Girl doll concept is because it’s not just about owning a doll. The product encourages reading and the dolls each come with a book (and have multiple books written about each of them).

I was given the opportunity of interviewing Denise Lewis Patrick, the author behind the newest American Girl doll, Melody Ellison. I could not be more thrilled because I LOVE Melody’s story!


Melody is a civil rights, chorus leader, and daughter of Detroit—hits the scene and inspires girls and their families to be a force for positive growth and change. At 9-years-old, she provides a glimpse of life during the 1960s and the civil rights movement that defined the decade. Melody is inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and influenced by her oldest sister, a college student who is taking action to make things fair for all African Americans. As Melody experiences discrimination herself, and as she hears about the atrocities happening throughout the country, she discovers that her voice is her mightiest strength and, when joined with the voices of many, it can bring about monumental changes.

One of the aspects of Melody’s story that I like so much is how it bridges the past and present. Every day, we witness racial tensions and a continued struggle for equality and justice. I appreciate that Melody and her story can help kids learn about these important issues and America’s history, while also teaching how individuals (even young kids) can make a difference in the world.

I cannot tell you how excited I am that Denise took the time to answer questions about what motivated her to write Melody’s story. And for this interview, I asked Sophie to help write the questions for Denise.

Denise Lewis Patric, the author of American Girl Melody’s story

What inspired you to become a writer?

I talk a lot! No, really… Everyone in my family can tell a good story. I grew up around my parents, grandmothers, aunts, cousins and family friends who were always involved in lively conversations. We kids sat around listening and laughing and learning from them. I also love reading, and have since I was a small girl. Reading opened up my world. I think that, and playing with dolls and creating entire stories for them, started me on this path. I heard somewhere once that “words have power.” I believe that.

Tell me about the process of writing Melody’s story. How much of Melody’s story is informed from your own background?

When American Girl asked me onto the project, they had set the time frame (1963-64), the location (Detroit) and the major historical event (the Civil Rights Movement). Even with those decisions made, I still had plenty of work at the start. I began by doing research: reading about the city and what was happening there, refreshing what I already knew about the Civil Rights Movement.

One thing I like to do in researching historical fiction is to see the place I’m writing about and to visit it, if I can. I had a wonderful ride around Detroit with one of our advisory board members, JoAnn Watson, who grew up in the city. That was the best—she sort of recreated the sounds and life of 1960s Detroit for me. I began to get a feel for it. Then I could imagine a little girl growing up there, her family, how she felt about her world. I guess both Detroit and Melody are characters in the books. As I figured them out, I began to shape an outline. Some of the questions I asked myself were: “What’s happening in the country that African American families might be concerned about? What would ‘Civil Rights’ or justice mean to a nine-year-old? What is Melody’s family and community like? How do her family and community help her (and readers) understand what the Civil Rights Movement is all about?”

Of course, there’s a bit of me in everything that I write. Most often, I base characters’ family relationships on those that I had growing up, and on the way I’ve raised and interact with my own children. When I grew up we had a strong sense of community, and I think that is so important to a child. I also try to imagine how I would feel or react in the situations my characters are in. Sometimes that can get pretty emotional.

I love the idea that Melody’s voice – through singing and words – can bring about change in society. How would you encourage girls to use their voice in today’s society?

Wow. To slightly change what I said earlier, words are power. I’d first remind girls that each of us has the power to make things better in some way, large or small. Sometimes your voice is quietly powerful—you can say “Hi” to a new kid at school and make her day brighter. You can learn about an issue and take a stand, then write about it—using the power of the written word. Or sometimes, your voice and your words can be incredibly powerful in a big way—like if you are courageous enough to speak to a teacher, parent or other adult about something that may be hurting you or someone else. And then, like Melody—you can always lift your voice in song! As Melody discovers, music can bring about change as well.

Why did you make Melody a singer?

Detroit is where the famous Motown music business was born, and we wanted to work that into the story. The most natural way to do it was to make Melody’s entire family musical (which I am not, by the way). They all love music, play instruments, sing privately and publicly. It made sense to have one of Melody’s older siblings interested in becoming a Motown “star.” That way Melody gets the inside scoop on the music business, and has a few pretty cool music experiences of her own.

What do you hope Melody will do for girls?

Oh, I hope Melody gives girls today the courage to use their voices—in song, in writing, and in speaking—to stand up for what’s right and what’s fair. I also hope readers will take away a message from Melody’s story to think about themselves in terms of their community and what they can do to help—to change—their community for the better.

What of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and speeches inspired Melody?

Without giving away too much, all I can say is that Dr. King was still perfecting his famous “I Have A Dream” speech when he visited and spoke in Detroit in 1963. His words help Melody understand something, and make an important decision. There! No spoilers.


Denise, thank you SO MUCH for answering my questions and for bringing these girls to life!

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Disclosure: This is NOT a sponsored post. I received a Melody doll and book from American Girl as part of the research for this post. The idea for interviewing Denise Patrick Lewis, the questions asked, and my thoughts about children’s literacy and the American Girl dolls and books are entirely my own.









Religion, Politics and the Great Pumpkin

October 20, 2016

Recently Sophie came home from school and asked me an odd question.

“Mom, is it true Hillary Clinton killed four people?”

I asked her where she heard this statement. I mean, it’s not as if Sophie is a frequent viewer of Fox News or CNN, nor does she spend time perusing the Internet for news.

She said a friend asked her who she is voting for president. Sophie clarified to her friend that she herself can’t vote, but if she could, she supported Hillary Clinton. It was then the friend told Sophie that she’s voting for a murderer.

After hearing this, I decided to give Sophie some sage advice from Linus of the Peanuts fame:

There are three things I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.

I echoed Linus’ words and encouraged Sophie not to engage in those discussions, no matter who is talking about which presidential candidate.



I’m not writing this post to scold this little girl, nor am I here to bash Trump. I’m also not here to convince you to vote for Clinton (I’ve already written about my feelings about that here). And really, whether you think Clinton is shady is really none of my business.

I believe different opinions are fine. But hate is not fine. And 8-year-old calling another 8-year-old a person who supports a murderer is not okay.

I wrote this post because I’m sad for our children. In this case, elementary school kids are burdened with these feelings and discussions. I’m sad this little girl felt the need to tell Sophie she’s voting for a killer. I’m sad Sophie has to hear these things in the third grade.

Needless to say, like most of you, I cannot wait for Election Day in less than a month.


A few days later, Sophie told me the little girl brought up the subject of Hillary Clinton again. So I asked what she said to her friend.

Sophie said, “I told her, let’s not get into a conflict. Let’s not talk about this. And [my friend] agreed.”

I’m glad Linus Van Pelt’s advice could help Sophie and her friend resolve their political differences.

Monday Musings ~ October 17

October 17, 2016

Hello, Monday!


1. October in Indiana is beautiful! The leaves are turning gold and red, and the weather is cooler (especially the evenings). Fall has always been my favorite season, although  autumn in San Diego wasn’t much different than summer, spring and winter in San Diego. So now that I can experience a real fall season, I’m in heaven and enjoying every moment of it.

2. In case you missed my post on Friday, I reviewed a great writing book called Author in Progress by the writers at Writer Unboxed, one of my favorite websites. Writer Unboxed always has thought-provoking articles about the process of writing. For example, this article on why books written by women get such audience-limiting covers was fascinating and full of truth.

3. Speaking of book covers, you have to read this interview with a creative director for Penguin Classics. I had no idea how much goes into designing book covers. Fascinating stuff, including his favorite (and least favorite) book covers.

4. Loved this article about a blogger who ate all the pumpkin spice items in the grocery store, and then ranked them all. My pumpkin spice sampling has seriously lacked this season. Mainly because I haven’t been able to get my pumpkin fix since I’m over an hour away from the closest Trader Joe’s. That’s the one thing I miss about San Diego (no Trader Joe’s close by). But I did finish off a box of the pumpkin spice Cheerios and they were quite tasty.

5. Speaking of fall, remember when September meant all the television shows returned and new series premiered? I guess that’s still the case, although now there are so many great programs on cable during the year it doesn’t feel as exciting. We just finished watching “11-22-63″ on Hulu. I’m not a big fan of science fiction or fantasy, but I really liked this miniseries. I also binge-watched the first three seasons of “Rectify” — good, but not my favorite. The big surprise was “This is Us,” a new drama on NBC that I fully expected to hate because I thought it was trying to be the next “Parenthood.” But I ended up really liking it!

6. Finally, 2001 doesn’t seem that long ago … until you read these 17 things we were doing on our computers in 2001. I’d forgotten about Clippy the Paperclip in Microsoft Word, LiveJournal and waiting for videos to buffer. Ahh, so much progress in 15 years!

What’s going on in your life? What are you thinking about this Monday in October?

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Are YOU an Author in Progress?

October 14, 2016

Back in January I told you one of my goals for 2016 is to work on my novel. I achieved this to some extent. I took a class and have the first and last chapters written. I also have several scenes sketched out and different pieces written here and there.

But the reality is this: writing a novel is HARD. My struggle is two-fold: making the time to write and figuring out the “guts” of the story. I know how it starts and how it ends, but I’m kind of missing that big chunk that’s required for storytelling. The good news is I’ve come across some great resources to help me focus. One of those is Author in Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What it Really Takes to Get Published.

author-in-progresAuthor in Progress is the first book by the editor and team at Writer Unboxed, which is hands-down one of my favorite websites for writing advice. If you are not reading Writer Unboxed, go over there now and subscribe.

The book guides writers through the process of creating a novel — covering pre-writing considerations, and working through each of the most critical stages before reaching the end (and even beyond the end). It’s designed for all writers interested in producing the best book possible while evolving their own work habits, craft, and goals for themselves.

There are three main things I loved about Author in Progress. First, it covers the entire process. So many writing books focus on one specific angle (e.g. character development, starting the novel, plot, etc.). But this book covers it all. The entire first section is devoted to starting and coming up with the idea. Then there are the chapters devoted to the writing, revising and the actual book release. For me, this is all really helpful because all the resources are in one place.

The second reason I recommend Author in Progress is the variety of topics covered. I already mentioned how the book covers the processes of writing a novel. But it also contains these great point-counterpoint chapters titled “Debatable” that discuss “controversial” (dare I even call them that) topics in writing. Examples of these “Debatable” chapters include: “Do You Need an MFA?,” “Plot or Pants It?” and “Do You Need a Professional Editor?”

The third reason is the variety of voices included, with some of my favorite writers contributing chapters. My “real life” friend and wonderful writer Margaret Dilloway contributes a chapter, as does Erika Robuck, Jane Friedman, Julie Munroe Martin, Lisa Cron (I’m also reading her amazing book, Story Genius), and so many others. Do you see what I mean? These are actual, published authors who know what they’re talking about. And you get a multitude of different voices and expertise.

So if you’re even thinking of writing a novel — or perhaps you’re already working on it — I highly recommend ordering yourself a copy of Author in Progress. You won’t be disappointed!

I received a complimentary copy of Author in Progress to review for this blog. However all opinions are my own and I only endorse books I am comfortable recommending to others.









The Top Holiday Recipes on Leah’s Thoughts

October 6, 2016

Back in March, I began perusing Leah’s Thoughts and decided to curate groups of old posts from time to time, in order to give new readers a chance to see old posts. The first post was The Most Popular Blog Posts on Leah’s Thoughts. Those were the posts that received the most traffic, according to Google Analytics. Since we’re getting into the holiday baking season, I thought I’d round up my holiday recipes (and I have A LOT of recipes).

As I look back at all these old posts, I noticed how much more time I used to spend baking and photographing all my cooking adventures. I still do cook nearly every night, but I don’t blog the recipes here anymore. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s having less time, or I didn’t want this to become a food blog. Either way, looking at all these recipes inspired me to bake some fall treats. We’re hoping to go apple picking this weekend and I’ve been craving apple butter. I also bought pumpkin to make pumpkin bread and muffins.

So here you have it: A roundup of holiday recipes, starting with apples and pumpkins, of course!

apple desserts collageApple Desserts — Apple butter jam, honey apple cake and my grandmother’s apple cake

pumpkin recipe collage

Bounty of Pumpkin Desserts — Pumpkin muffins, pumpkin snickerdoodles, pumpkin praline dessert and pumpkin roulade cake

halloween treats collage

Quick and Easy Halloween Treats — Pumpkin brownie bites, candy corn mini cupcakes and candy corn bark

Thanksgiving Dishes and Desserts

Thanksgiving Dishes and Desserts — Crockpot stuffing, matzo stuffing, leak and mushroom bread pudding, Brussels sprouts with mustard sauce, Brussels sprouts with pancetta, creamed corn, butternut squash gallette, cranberry zinfandel sauce, cranberry crumb bars with mulling spices

holiday cookies

Christmas and Holiday Cookie Baking — peppermint cupcakes, chocolate kiss cookies, Christmas shortbread cherries, toffee squares, lemon truffles, chocolate candy cane cookies, sugar cookie bars, peanut butter buckeye balls, candy cane fudge, cranberry bliss bars, hidden peppermint kiss cookies, mint chocolate brownies, fantasy chocolate fudge

Hanukkah Latkes — Yukon gold potato latkes (also one of the most popular posts on this blog)

cashew chicken

Chinese New Year — Cashew chicken, steamed shu mai

cupcakeExplosion of 4th of July Desserts — Patriotic cupcakes, flag cake, red-white-blue cookie bars, patriotic cake batter ice cream, red-white-blue Jello stars

Clearly I need to get my act together and start treats for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Passover and Easter. I have dozens more recipes, including popular crockpot creations, soups and other desserts. You can check out all the recipes I’ve posted on this blog on the Cooking and Recipes page.

Happy baking and eating!







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