There’s a new member of the American Girl squad.
The company’s latest “BeForever” doll, Melody Ellison, was released late last week, and she’s bringing with her a new era for young readers to explore.
Adding Melody to American Girl’s lineup is a big move: She’s only the third African-American doll in American Girl history, following Civil War-set Addy, one of the original dolls, and 1850s New Orleans-set Cecile, who is no longer available. But Melody brings with her a different aspect of history to explore: She’s the first black doll whose story is set in the 20th century.
Melody lives in Detroit, and the books see her in the years 1963 and 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement.
To ensure historical accuracy, American Girl employed an advisory board of five experts. Horace Julian Bond, chairman emeritus, NAACP Board of Directors; Juanita Moore, President and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit; Rebecca de Schweinitz, a history professor at Brigham Young University; Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North; and JoAnn Watson, former executive director of the Detroit NAACP. The board worked with the author of the Melody books, Denise Lewis Patrick, to create a true-to-history world for Melody – and one that tackles the events of the era.
Though Melody is just a child (9 years old at the start of the books), Lewis Patrick didn’t shy away from depicting the racism and activism going on around her in that time period.
“Children were participating in marches and sit-ins all over the country,” she says. “That was a very important part of the movement. So a child like Melody would have known.”
Melody’s story has a personal touch, too: Lewis Patrick drew on her own experiences growing up in the time period to craft her story and the family dynamics – though she says Melody is not autobiographical.
“We talked about this stuff,” she says. “We watched the news together as a family. We were impacted by the civil rights movement in our family.”
It is the same for Melody. Throughout the books, she participates in several demonstrations in Detroit, in particular, ones having to do with housing and education, issues that Lewis Patrick says would have direct impact on her life.
A focal point of the first book is the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Though the event occurred far from Melody’s home, Lewis Patrick says it undoubtedly would have had an impact on her – especially because multiple young girls were killed.
“Yes, it’s a weighty topic, but it’s immediately something that a child would be impacted by,” she says.
And, Lewis Patrick says, it’s a topic that still resonates today.
“Much of what was being fought then is still being fought,” she explains. “I hope these stories give parents a springboard to talk about what’s going on today, and why we are still in the place that we are today.”
Melody sees racism impact her on a personal level, too: When visiting a favorite store that recently came under new management, she and her brother are followed around, and come to the realization that they are being profiled. Later on, Melody marches in front of the store alongside her classmates, protesting the racial profiling going on at the store.
The Civil Rights movement isn’t the only aspect of the time that plays a role in Melody’s world. The early ’60s in Detroit was the time of Motown. And with Melody’s brother hoping to break into the industry, Melody is even able to visit a studio (and has Motown studio-inspired accessories available for purchase). Lewis Patrick also incorporated a few real-life Motown references too, including Stevie Wonder’s first hit, “Fingertips,” of 1964.
At their core, though, Melody’s books are simply stories of a young girl growing up. She loves music, gardening and spending time with her friends, parents and three siblings. She’s shy, but learning to come out of her shell more.
Lewis Patrick says: “I think she’s just a real girl.”
The Melody doll, accessories and books are all available at AmericanGirl.com.