Writer Denise Lewis Patrick shared her experience writing the book that accompanies American Girl Doll Melody.
PROVO, Utah (Mar. 9, 2017)—Writing can be a deeply personal activity, no matter the intended audience. For Denise Lewis Patrick, author of American Girl book No Ordinary Sound: A Melody Classic, her characters are often inspired by female family members from her time growing up in Louisiana. Patrick discussed her character inspirations for an installment of women’s studies lectures to celebrate Women’s History Month.
“[My characters] come from my own experience. For me that means Miss Ida’s girls,” said Patrick. Miss Ida, Patrick explained, refers to her great-grandmother, who lived across the street in a large green house with a wooden porch in front during Patrick’s childhood. “Everyone in the community knew [Miss Ida],” Patrick said. “When my mother and her sisters and cousins would walk around, the neighborhood would call them Miss Ida’s girls.”
Patrick would often spend time at Ida’s house with other female family members, including many aunts and cousins. “I grew up around lots of women,” Patrick explained “My dad and younger brother were the only men around in our family for a long time.”
Many of the characters in her books come from memories of the strong women in her life. Melody Eliasson, the protagonist of Patrick’s books and a new American Girl Doll, is an African American girl who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
“Melody’s mom in these books is probably the most like my mom than any other character that I have written, mostly because Melody grew up in 1963–64, and that’s when I was a girl. Melody’s mom was a teacher and my mom was a teacher,” commented Patrick. She wrote a scene of Melody’s mother dancing slightly to a MoTown track on the radio while cooking spaghetti sauce, a stack of papers that needed grading sitting on the kitchen table. “That’s kind of what my mother was like,” Patrick said.
She continued, describing another scene from the book when “Melody learns from her mother how to handle something difficult for her.” Melody’s sister looks for a job coming home from college for the summer and goes to the local bank to apply. She is told there are no open jobs, but when she leaves a white girl comes into the bank and is taken back for an interview.
“Melody sees how upset her sister is and that she has been treated unfairly, so she decides that she is going to remove all of her birthday money she had put in the bank, ten dollars, from her bank account [not wanting her money somewhere that rejected her sister]…her mother helping her know what to say and how to say it,” explained Patrick.
In her book Patrick also tries to help children understand the difficulties African Americans faced during this time period. When Melody goes to the doctor, rather than going around to the colored waiting room at the back, goes up to the front door and steps into the white waiting room. Melody immediately sees the differences in the two rooms. There is only an old white man who doesn’t react to Melody in the white waiting room. There she sees potted plants, magazines and comfortable chairs, a stark contrast from the colored waiting room that Patrick describes: “There’s a fan that’s dying on, rickety folding chairs, no plants, and no magazines.”
This scene was based on an experience from Patrick’s childhood when her father took her to the dentist in the ’70s and rather than going to the back waiting room, walked through the front door and told his daughter that they would not be going to the back anymore. Patrick added, “It was maybe a year or two after that when the second waiting room was gone and everyone went through the front door.”
—Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)
Hannah covers events for the women’s studies program for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.