American Girl’s latest doll/book character, a 10-year-old 1960s-era African-American girl named Melody, is not the company’s first foray into multiculturalism, but it is one of its most ambitious. The series will feature three books targeted towards readers ages eight and up telling Melody’s story of growing up in Detroit while Motown grew in popularity and the civil rights movement was gaining traction throughout the country. Stephanie Spanos, an American Girl public relations executive, promises that the series “won’t shy away from sensitive issues” associated with that era, such as the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. on September 15, 1963 that killed four African-American girls.
The first book, No Ordinary Sound, was released in February to coincide with Black History Month. The second book, Never Stop Singing, which continues Melody’s story, will be released in June, when the accompanying doll will go on sale. The third book, also released in June, is Music in My Heart: My Journey With Melody, a multiple-endings story in which a contemporary girl steps back in time to the 1960s, where she meets Rosa Parks and sings backup in a Motown recording studio. In a first for American Girl, there will be a guide for parents to discuss with their children both the issues raised in the series and issues today relating to discrimination. American Girl typically creates guides for educators supplementing the books, but not for parents until now. “We wanted parents to have conversation points to share with their kids,” explained Teri Robida, the American Girl editor in charge of the Melody project.
American Girl is printing 125,000 copies total of the three books. Additionally, an undisclosed number of books will be printed that will be packaged with the dolls.
While Denise Lewis Patrick, who herself is African-American and grew up in the 1960s in Natchitoches, La., wrote the series, American Girl conceptualized it with assistance from an advisory board of scholars and activists, including the late civil rights movement leader Julian Bond, who, in 1960, helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; New York University history professor Thomas J. Sugrue; JoAnn Watson, former executive director of the Detroit NAACP; Juanita Moore, the president of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit; Gloria House, director and professor emerita of African and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn; and Rebecca de Schweinitz, associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, and author of If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
“Everyone we asked said yes,” Robida said. “They were not just willing, but enthusiastic about talking to us. They all want kids to know about this element of history.”
Robida noted that Melody was in development for “many” years, even before the calls for more diversity in children’s publishing erupted in the past two years, with the March 15, 2014 publication of an op-ed by the late Walter Dean Myers in the New York Times calling for more diversity in children’s book publishing, followed a few months later by the emergence of the grassroots group, We Need Diverse Books.
“The civil rights movement is an important chapter in American history,” Robida said. “It’s a story we’ve wanted to tell for a while.” American Girl decided to set Melody’s story in Detroit, rather than in the South because, Robida explained, “it’s easy” for people to think that racism and segregation, and the civil rights movement itself, occurred only in the South.
“We shifted the lens of the camera,” Robida noted. “Racism and segregation were not simply a Southern experience: it just existed differently elsewhere.” Melody does, however, have ties to the South; her grandparents are from Birmingham, Ala., and in the second book in this series, Melody will travel there from Detroit because Patrick and the advisory board wanted to spotlight not just the different forms of discrimination African-Americans faced in different parts of the country, but also the difficulties in travel, when African-Americans could not even stop along the way to eat in restaurants or sleep in motels.
Patrick told PW that besides speaking at length with the advisory board members before writing these books, she did extensive research by reading, among other materials, Detroit periodicals from that era, including local African-American newspapers. Disclosing that a photo of the Hudson’s flagship department store that anchored downtown Detroit , taken during the 1960s, helped her write a scene set there and that she also toured the Motown recording studios, Patrick said, “I like to immerse myself if I can visually as well as emotionally.”
Of course, Patrick listened to plenty of Motown music as well, as well as the protest songs popular with those who marched and demonstrated during the ’60s. “Listening to that music made it real,” she said.
One of the reasons that Patrick “jumped on” the Melody project, she explained, is that she was about the same age as Melody during that same time period. And she incorporated some autobiographical elements into the stories, such as the memory of her older sister coming downstairs one evening sporting an Afro. “We were about to have dinner and my father almost dropped his fork. It was kind of a fun scene to write in,” she said.
Reflecting on the different ways that the various generations in her own family responded to the world during her youth, Patrick said that she made Melody’s family as multi-generational as she could to illustrate the evolution of attitudes, such as older people calling themselves “colored,” while younger people referred to themselves as “black” or “Negro.” Much later, Patrick said, people started referring to themselves as “African-American.”
“I wanted a scene in which Melody questioned it,” Patrick said. “I hope to inspire in readers a sense of possibility and hope for molding society in the way it should be.”