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.
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!
Other Posts You May Like:
- Meet Valerie Tripp, the Writer Behind the Famous “American Girl” Doll Stories
- “Did I Miss Reading Time?” … The Moments That Mean the Most
- Drawing Her Own Story
- Live Lobsters and Hail: The Simple Things in Life
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.