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Dolls, books give glimpse of historic New Orleans
New Orleans’ rich melting-pot history has always been a big draw for authors.
But telling it through the eyes of two antebellum 9-year-old girls — one black, one white — offers unusual perspectives on life’s challenges in the mid-19th century.
American Girl Brand LLC, a subsidiary of toy giant Mattel Inc., usually introduces its dolls (and the book characters based on them) one at a time.
In August, the company launched two — called Cecile Rey and Marie-Grace Gardner — along with a six-book series set in New Orleans that details their fictional lives, friendship, and tests they and family members face in dealing with the spread of yellow fever in 1853.
Denise Lewis Patrick, who wrote the Cecile stories, said the books gave her a chance to reconnect to her New Orleans roots.
“I grew up in Natchitoches, but my grandmother was from New Orleans,” she said. “And I love history and storytelling, especially in terms of family. So this was a natural.”
Sarah Masters Buckey, who wrote the Marie-Grace books, said she has always been fascinated by New Orleans. The city was the setting for her first book, “The Smuggler’s Treasure,” an American Girl mystery set during the War of 1812. She’s also written three other titles for the company.
As she was developing Marie-Grace, Buckey said she discovered the flavor of antebellum New Orleans, a melting pot of cultures and races.
The challenge, she added, was “making sure that the characters were presented realistically for their times.”
Patrick said her research included learning about yellow fever, the mosquito-borne disease that killed thousands in New Orleans in the 19th century.
“I imagine that people must have felt in many ways the same as they did after Hurricane Katrina, or after 9/11 in New York,” she said. “I wanted Cecile’s stories to show how something so big touched and changed the lives of real, normal people.”
Cecile is portrayed as the child of free parents, not as a slave.
The women said they coordinated the series, working together on outlines.
“The stories get more intertwined as you get into them,” Buckey said.
In 1986, American Girl introduced characters like Samantha, whose journey covers the turn of the century; Felicity, whose life is set just before the Revolutionary War; Addy, an escaped slave; Kaya, an American Indian; and Molly, whose experiences include life during World War II. More than 135 million books, touching on issues like racism, women’s rights, workers’ rights and death, and nearly 20 million dolls have been sold since then, according to the company’s website.
Asked if the idea of dolls and books had become too old-fashioned for a generation more in tune with social networking and the Internet, Patrick and Buckey quickly dispelled the notion.
“I have a soft spot for books and believe they will be around forever,” Patrick said. “There are certain types of people who thrive on the tactile. You can’t replace that experience with the other, especially for young kids. Part of reading and enjoying the story is the tactile experience. It makes the stories more real.”
Buckey said the books allow her to fulfill her love of research while sharing it in an entertaining way with kids.
“Finding out what New Orleans was like way back when and putting that in a book gives the kids a more nuanced view of what happened then and how that relates now,” she said.
Cecile and Marie-Grace are also linked to release of the song, “A Lot Like Me,” written by Harry Connick Jr. and sung by his 13-year-old daughter, Kate.
“The song has a good message — just like the books,” said Kate. “It’s about knowing that it doesn’t matter what skin color you have, it’s what’s inside that’s important.” Some of the lyrics mirror developments in the book series.
Connick, 43, said although he wrote the song, he looked to his daughter for perspective.
“She has a much better indicator of what is pop music now and what her generation might like,” he said.
Kate and her father performed together on an earlier Christmas album, but this is the first time she’s been a featured singer.
Father and daughter said the American Girl project gave them yet another opportunity to bond.
“We’re already pretty tight,” Connick said, smiling. “But this gives us just one more thing to talk about.”
Proceeds from the song, available exclusively on iTunes, will benefit after-school programming at the new Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, located in the heart of a New Orleans Ninth Ward neighborhood that Connick, Branford Marsalis and others helped rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.