No Ordinary Sound: American Girl gives voice to the Civil Rights Era

I heard it through the grapevine, aka my Facebook feed:

American Girl has embraced Motown and civil-rights era Detroit with the release late this summer of a 9-year-old African-American doll and aspiring singer named Melody Ellison.  —Detroit News 

According to the official press release, Melody is “a singer and loves to perform in church, with her family, and in her community. Her stories are set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, which was gathering momentum, and the music scene, including the success and popularity of Motown Records and its artists. She is inspired by Dr. King to have a dream of her own: to lift her voice for fairness and equality.” She chooses “Lift Every Voice and Sing”  for an upcoming solo competition, but the book synopsis hints at an “unimaginable tragedy in the South that leaves Melody silent,” just before she’s set to perform.


Hashtag: #Want

I’d never played with an American Girl doll before, nor had I read any of their novels. But who could resist a storyline like this. Sure, it’s earmarked for Middle Grade readers, but I read it straight through and wanted more! That’s the thing about good storytelling, isn’t it? It broadens our perspectives, and rounds out our experiences in new and surprising ways.

We aren’t twinsies, of course, and I don’t lay claim to Melody’s story. But we do share the same name. And our experiences are somewhat similar. I emailed author Denise Lewis Patrick, to say as much:

My name is Melodye, and I just now came across your book, “No Ordinary Sound.” I’m truly fascinated by the parallels between Melody’s [story] and that of my own.

I was a child of the 60s who experienced the Civil Rights movement while criss-crossing the country with my father, a faith-healing, tent evangelist. [Like Melody], I lost my singing voice when racism touched my life; I recovered it just last February, when I sang onstage with the Harlem Gospel Choir

I’m thrilled that American Girl’s giving voice to these important periods of time in our national history, and I look forward to watching them come alive again–in a positive, relatable way, for a new generation–through your words and the doll they’re introducing this summer. It’d be my pleasure to feature a Q & A with you on my blog, to introduce Melody on Facebook, and/or wherever…

Oh happy day, Denise agreed to join me in The Author’s Tent! The timing couldn’t be more perfect: Melody makes her grand debut today, as AG’s third African-American doll and newest character in their BeForever™ collection.

Without further ado, meet Melody and Denise:

In our Q & A, Denise talks with me about No Ordinary Soundchats about her writerly life, and participates in the ever-popular Lightning Round.

No Ordinary Sound:

Melodye: Let’s start by pretending, for just a minute, that we’re doing a live interview via Twitter. Denise, would you please tweet a 140-character summary of No Ordinary Sound, followed by a second tweet that describes its audience?

Denise: Okay. This is hard! I am not really a Tweeter, but here are my attempts:

1) What does one community in 1960’s Detroit hear when Melody Ellison lifts her voice in the fight for justice? #NoOrdinarySound.

 2) For everyone who hears the call for justice, and answers:#NoOrdinarySound. (The dedication for the book)

M: Did you work with a prototype doll for Melody? Or an outline, maybe, to help breathe life into her story?

D: I did create an outline for Melody’s story, which went through a few rounds with the AG editors, and then got tweaked as I fleshed out the story. My work always evolves as I write, so initial outlines change, too. The prototype came later.

M: While the novel itself is fiction, No Ordinary Sound is also based on actual events in American history. Please describe for us your research adventures, specific to this book. And a follow-up question, if I may: How much of Melody’s storyline comes of your personal observations and experiences?

D: I began by diving into background info provided by AG’s amazing research librarian. As the outline evolved, I could determine what additional sources I needed. One thing I love to work with in doing historical fiction is local newspapers from the period. That way I get a both a broad and a specific view of the community and what’s happening at the time. I could see which national events in the Civil Rights movement were impacting the city, and get a sense of how the black community was involved on a local basis in civil rights issues. I did a ride-around in Detroit with one of the members of our Advisory Board who grew up there. She another board member who’s a Detroit native gave me lots of anecdotal stuff that I could follow up on, like going to Detroit baseball games (I had to research teams and players).   

I’d say that many of Melody’s family experiences mirror some of mine, in the way she is surrounded by extended family, the way they share a big meal once a week, the way they talk about justice and injustice as a matter of course. So what’s happening on the national stage is in the context of Melody’s understanding of the black experience. She has a strong sense of community, of connection and possibility. Although I grew up in the South, I was a girl in the 60’s, and that’s very much what I was like.

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M: Though it’s set in the Civil Rights era, most aspects of this novel are timeless. What might readers find relatable – and surprising —about Melody’s story?

D: Relatable? Her friendships, the fact that she loves singing, but has shaky confidence in her own ability to take center stage.  What might be surprising is Melody’s closeness with her older brother, Dwayne. She’s his biggest supporter in his dream to become a Motown star, so much so that she sort of stands up to their father—in a respectful way, of course. [M: Want to know more? Download your Reader’s Guide here.]

M: If Melody had an Instagram account, what kinds of things could you imagine she might post for her family, friends and fans?

D: She’d post hairstyles, pics of herself and her sisters and Val posing as the latest, hottest girl group, maybe close-ups of her prized flowers or veggies.

M: So cool, that Melody loves gardening, same as I do! I’m thinking she might also post pictures of her sweet terrier, Bo.


M: Are there any other Melody books available and/or planned for the future?

DThe second part of Melody’s story is Never Stop Singing—which takes her back to the family’s roots in Alabama, and deepens her understanding of social justice. It’s out this summer. Also coming up with the release—based on the characters but written by a different author, is Music In My Heart, a Journey with Melody. Readers get to choose how the story plays out. It’s really fun. And I think there’s a Melody mystery in the works, too.

M: You can read more about Melody’s story collection here.

Questions about Denise Lewis Patrick’s Writerly Life:

M: What’s your backstory, Denise, as an author who writes primarily for young readers?

D: My backstory is that I’m a Louisiana girl who graduated with a Journalism degree. I moved to New York to write for magazines, but ended up happily editing, then writing for kids. Along the way I got married and had a family of sons. We have a very lively house when they’re all together these days. I teach, garden kind of randomly, make cloth dolls, and write poetry. I went back to school a few years ago at the same time a couple of my sons were in college. Last December, I got my MFA degree in Creative Writing. I think what’s funny about my background is that many members of my family taught elementary and middle school, and now I write for the grandkids of their students!

M: What types of books resonated with you as a young girl? Were they recommended to you, or did you discover them on your own?

D: Oh, I loved some of the classics, like fairy tales and The Secret Garden. My grandmother (third grade teacher for 44 years) gave me the complete set of The Wizard of Oz books. I also loved/love A Wrinkle in Time, which instilled a lasting love of sci-fi in me. I found many books on my own at the library or through our Weekly Reader mail-order book club. 

M: You’ve authored an impressive library of books. What can you tell us about your writing rituals and routines? What sparks your creativity, and what keeps you at the keyboard when your confidence falters or inspiration doesn’t come?

D: I admit that I don’t have a set routine. When I really get going on a project, though, I create a playlist to give me a vibe for the subject. For Melody, I found some of the songs that became popular during the marches and protests of the 50’s and 60’s. I did listen to a lot of Stevie Wonder, but much of it was from my college years in the 70’s.

I find inspiration just about anywhere. Ideas are sparked when I’m walking down the streets of New York or in a line at the bank, from snatches of conversation, or even from an unusual or interesting name. 

When I hit a wall in thinking, I sometimes jump ahead in the story, maybe a few chapters. Sometimes that gives me clarity on how to get from point A to point B. I have discovered over my career—and my husband and sons will attest to this—that I work best under extreme pressure.  What keeps me going when the going gets really tough is a deadline hovering over my head like an anvil from the old cartoons.

M: How and when did you get involved with the American Girls book series?

D: I got involved when I was asked to do the Cecile Rey character a few years ago (2012). Her story was set in New Orleans in 1853. The editor who called me had read my middle grade historical fiction novel, The Adventures of Midnight Son. I thought it was cool that my previous work sort of got me the job.

M: What writing project(s) are you working on right now?

D: I’m revising a middle grade fantasy novel and working on some short stories that might be Y/A or adult. But I’ve been spending some time with my family and have a new idea for a totally different short story collection, so I’ll probably be working on all of this at once. Then I have to choose what to focus on after I begin teaching in the fall.


M: Just for fun, but loosely based on your bio! A single word will do, but feel free to elaborate as you wish.

  1. Backyard gardening or nature hikes—or a little of both? Gardening!
  2. Argo Starched laundry or fresh-from-the-dryer? Argo!
  1. Irish brogue or Southern accent? Both!
  1. Tell us something no interviewer has ever asked about you, but you wish they had? Sorry, I’ve got nothing for this one!

M: Well then, I’ll add this additional fun fact: According to the Detroit Free Press, American Girl donated $100,000 in books (No Ordinary Sound and Never Stop Singing) to the Detroit Public Library system. Kids can pick up a free copy of either book until the end of the year. They’re also donating $50,000 in cash for children’s programming and children’s area improvements, plus $25,000 in dolls!

To learn more about Denise Lewis Patrick, please visit her website.  I’ll review the Melody doll in a separate blog post–stay tuned!