If you’re familiar with the American Girl franchise, then you certainly know “Addy Walker,” the single African-American character in the company’s Historic Collection, and a former slave. Albeit educational, Addy’s story — of escaping slavery and looking for her father and brother who’ve been sold away — is interesting entertainment for the eight-and-over set American Girl created it for.
Their latest character, Cécile Rey, “a bold, confident girl from a well-to-do African-American family,” tells a different story. In a series of six books, set in 1850s New Orleans, Cécile Rey and her friend, Marie-Grace Gardner, form what American Girl calls “a unique bond through their shared love of music,” and go on to help their community during the yellow fever epidemic that sweeps through New Orleans in 1853.
African-American author Denise Lewis Patrick brought Cécile Rey’s character to life and sat down with American Girl for a brief Q&A:
What did you do to prepare to write Cécile’s stories?
The first thing I did was to read about what New Orleans was like at the time her stories take place. What did the city look like? How did the different people live together? What kinds of work did free people of color do, and where did they live in the city? I found answers to these questions in books, drawings, old newspapers, and in the narratives, or diaries, of real people who lived in the 1850s. Next, I read about yellow fever, and how that terrible disease affected everyone who lived in the city. I imagined that people must have felt in many ways the same as they did after Hurricane Katrina, or after 9/11 in New York. I decided that I wanted Cécile’s stories to show how something so big touched and changed the lives of real, normal people. But the most important thing I did was to go back and walk the streets of New Orleans, to smell the history in the old buildings and see the wonderful cast iron rails. New Orleans is more than a place to me. It’s a feeling.
What were the most challenging aspects of writing the Cécile books?
I believe the most challenging aspect of writing these books was deciding what to leave out of Cécile’s story! Almost immediately, I began to imagine this lively, smart girl and the family she came from. In my own family, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are very important, and cousins are, too! I even created a family tree for the Rey family, with details such as what Papa’s mother did (she made hats), and how Cécile’s parents met (their fathers were friends). “Building” a life for the Rey family helped me to know Cécile as well as I know any real person.
How would you describe Cécile’s personality?
In my mind, Cécile Amelie Rey is bright, curious, and has a mischievous sense of humor. She loves secrets, of course, and also enjoys learning new things and meeting new people. She’s not quite a “girly-girl,” because unlike most girls of her time, she hates sitting still and being quiet!
How would you describe Cécile’s circumstances in the story?
I would say that she’s a child who grows up fast, because she has to face some very serious events in her family and community. She also outgrows the kind of sheltered life she’s had before, in becoming friends with Marie-Grace and actively helping children who are less fortunate.
Were any of Cécile’s stories based on your own or your family’s personal experiences?
My father and my New Orleans relatives used nicknames for us, the same way her family does. Food is very important to my family, as it is to the Reys — especially when we’re celebrating anything. But on the other hand, maybe Cécile herself is a bit like I was as a girl: always listening to the grownups talk, and always asking questions!
What did you discover about New Orleans in writing the Cécile books?
What I discovered about New Orleans as I was writing these books is that there’s even more to love about this city.
What do you hope girls will learn from Cécile?
I hope that girls learn from Cécile that sometimes, true friendship finds you even when — or especially when — you’re not looking for it. It comes when you need it. She discovers an ability that all girls have — to bravely open their hearts to a bigger world than the one they’ve known.