New American Girl doll is from ’60s Detroit

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

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.

The BeForever doll grew up in a mid-1960s Detroit entrenched in “great energy, optimism, and change for the African American community,” according to an announcement on the company’s website. She will retail with a paperback book for $115.

No official release date has been announced, but the doll-centered company is planning at least one Detroit-based event this summer to unveil the doll, spokeswoman Stephanie Spanos told The Detroit News.

“We’ll be planning a pretty big campaign and launch when she’s closer to debuting at the end of summer and we do have plans to do some kind of launch event in Detroit for her,” Spanos said. “We’re just starting to meet and talk details about where we would have it, and what it would entail.”

Spanos also gave a nod to the doll’s debut in the midst of Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy and during the nation’s focus on racial equality.

“One thing I should point out is that she’s been in development for about two years,” said Spanos, adding it is typical for the company to spend years creating a new historical doll. “But the timing does seem to sync up.”

Vice president of marketing Julia Prohaska spoke to CBS This Morning about introducing the doll on the eve of the company’s 30th anniversary this summer.

“I think it’s that we’ve stayed true to our mission and our purpose,” she said of the brand’s lasting influence. “While it would be really easy to call us a doll company, we’ve always seen ourselves as storytellers.”

Melody’s story starts in a Detroit church choir. According to the company’s online unveiling of the doll, her character started out singing with her congregation while gaining awareness of the racial inequality around her as discrimination directly affected her and her family. Her “sense of community” grew from her family to envelope her neighborhood and all African-Americans, according to the company. The girl was inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to “have a dream of her own: to life her voice for fairness and equality.”

Melody is the brand’s third African-American doll, after Addy Walker and Cécile Rey.

Each American Girl doll, including Melody, comes complete with countless accessories and a series of novels. The Detroiter’s first story, featured and already for sale on the company’s website, involved a upcoming singing solo for Youth Day at the girl’s church. In “No Ordinary Sound” by Denise Lewis Patrick, the young girl must choose a song to sing, and drew upon King’s words to help her make a decision.

The book synopsis also hinted at an “unimaginable tragedy in the South that leaves Melody silent” right as she was set to perform.

Melody’s debut will come two years after the brand came under fire for discontinuing four BeForever dolls, including two minorities: African-American Cécile Rey and Asian-American Ivy Ling.

Asked why it took until 2016 to re-visit an African-American character, Prohaska detailed a lengthy development process for each doll.

“We do approach every character very thoughtfully, so this isn’t something we rush into,” she said. “We’re not looking to address critical demand, we’re looking to tell stories in the most authentic and genuine way that we possible can.”

The unveiling also comes on the heels of dipping sales for the 30-year-old brand, according to CBS. Annual sales have dropped more than 9 percent since 2013, prompting the company to call on young girls to pledge to empower each other and the company. Around 50,000 girls participated, according to CBS News.

When she is released this summer, Melody will have her own bed and a recording studio that plays Motown music. The doll also will feature multiple outfits, including a blue and yellow houndstooth dress with a blue ribbon headband and shiny blue patent leather shoes. The outfit will come complete with a red, white and blue “Equal Rights in ’63” lapel pin.

The American Girl team worked with a six-person advisory panel to develop the doll. Included on the panel were former Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, the late civil rights activist Julian Bond, and Juanita Moore, president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

The panel helped nail down each detail, including the texture of the doll’s hair.

“I was born in Detroit, greatly influenced by Motown, by the church, by my parents, my grandparents, by the community, which all helped to shape me,” Watson said in a statement released through American Girl. “So, this is a story that touches me in every way.”

Moore, the museum CEO, also related her own upbringing to Melody’s character.

“I love using history to tell stories and to teach people about life lessons,” she said in a statement. “I grew up during this period and so the stories of Melody are really my stories.”

Among civil rights giants like King, girls like Melody played their own vital roles, according to the company.

“When we learn about the civil rights movement, we learn about a handful of really important people,” senior historian Mark Speltz said. “But the movement was led by average and ordinary Americans, like Melody.”