Denise Lewis Patrick author of the Cecile American Girl Books comes from a family of women who have propelled themselves forward for generations. Not to be outdone, Denise is following their lead with her own successes. Drawing from her life growing up in Louisiana, Denise adds a little bit of herself in each of her books.
She wrote and illustrated her first book when she was ten, stitching the pages together on her mother’s sewing machine. Armed with more than 35 books, Denise has publishers waiting in line to stitch together her latest words. Whether it’s poetry, board books, picture books, historical fiction, middle grade, young adult, or biographies Denise has written it. She is filled with a generous nature which shows as Denise shares her expertise with the young writers she mentors at a local middle school.
Denise is married and the mother of four sons. She writes from her home in New Jersey.
Today, the second day of our fifth annual 28 Days Later campaign, we’re honoring Denise Lewis Patrick for her writing successes and her contributions to the world of children’s publishing.
When people ask me what I do, I say, “I’m a writer.” If any of my family is around, they quickly remind me to say, “author.” But that’s never how I think of myself. I’ve always wanted to tell stories. When I was very young, I made up stories about my dolls, or even the people in magazine ads… I still find stories everywhere. I started writing poetry when I was eight or nine. So, from early on, I knew writing would be a part of my life.
Growing up in a small town Louisiana, though, I never thought of writing as a career choice. My parents, a grandmother, aunts and cousins were all teachers. I didn’t plan on that, but it was a possible way to go. Then in high school, I worked on the newspaper, and the literary magazine. I took journalism courses. I discovered that people could get paid a living to write. Wow! My first real fight with my parents was over my decision to major in just Journalism, and not Journalism Education. I went to the state college three blocks down the street, and somehow I ended up with an internship at Essence magazine in New York during senior year.
That internship turned into my first publishing job. It didn’t last long, but there I met and was introduced to other African American writers and authors, and joined the Harlem Writers Guild. In my spare time I wrote poetry, and none of my short stories ever quite got finished. Workwise, I hopped and skipped around, landing at Scholastic.
That’s where I found my voice writing for young people of all ages. The challenge, which I eagerly accepted, was learning to write about real life topics—news—for kids in a clear and non-condescending way. I also got the opportunity to have fun there, writing both original plays and adaptations, creating puzzles and games, and educational activities for teachers to use with the magazine content. After five years at Scholastic, I was hooked on the children’s publishing industry.
It took a few more years and the urging of my best friend and my husband for me to stop fiddling with other people’s words, and start working with my own again. I eventually did freelance in educational publishing, and various work-for-hire book projects. I got the idea for my first trade picture book, Red Dancing Shoes (1993), while I was watching a dance sequence at the Metropolitan Opera. The dancers’ red shoes reminded me of the red patent leather Mary Janes I had and loved as a little girl. I wrote a draft in about a week. I am still shocked at the longevity of that book. I moved up to middle grade historical fiction with my novel, The Adventures of Midnight Son, published in 1997. Since then, I just let the ideas take me where they want to go, so I’m writing everything from poetry to long and short fiction for pre-school, middle grade, Y/A, as well as adult readers.
My inspiration over the years has come from many different sources, including the gossip and stories I heard from the grown folks around me when I was a child. But I’m most turned on by the use of words and language—the rhythm of language, I guess. That’s probably why poetry was my first love. I spent hours as an adolescent, reading Nikki Giovanni and Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan and Amiri Baraka—sixties revolutionary stuff. I started emulating their styles, playing with words and ideas and rhythms.
I’ve always loved reading, and that has shaped me as a writer for sure. As a young poet, imagery became important to me: Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton… they layered story between their rhythms. My reading tastes expanded to fiction, and I started paying close attention to story, and how the best stories play on our emotions through the writers’ use of imagery.
Imagery is, of course, tied tightly to description. I became fascinated by Southern women writers like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston. Then dove into British classics by Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen. As a young adult, I found Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers with different world perspectives. The way these authors recreated their own worlds and created entirely new ones with their storytelling amazed me! And the beauty of even their individual sentences sometimes moved me so much that I had to read the lines over and over again out loud.
All of these writers and more inspired me to try layering all these elements—imagery, description, rhythm—in my work, be it poetry or fiction; be it for children or adults.
Red Dancing Shoes recreates the community of my childhood in its names and dialogue and textures. Another of my picture books, Ma Dear’s Old Green House, does this too, using visual imagery and the smells and sounds of a certain kind of childhood. In my latest published work, Meet Cécile, Troubles For Cécile, and Cécile’s Gift (three American Girl historical fiction novels), I created something new: the world of a free girl of color in 1853 New Orleans. I think I called on all of my muses to come up with imagery and description that’s vivid enough to make Cécile Amélie Rey real to readers.
The Back Story
Believe it or not, the American Girl project came about when I got a phone call “out of the blue,” as they say. I was sitting in my kitchen and my parents were visiting from Louisiana. The phone rang during lunch, and the caller ID said “American Girl.” That was curious to me because we’re not exactly a girly household—I have four sons. I couldn’t imagine what the call was about.
The American Girl editor had a copy of The Adventures of Midnight Son in her hands. I was very surprised, because at that point the book had been out of print for a year or so, and my and my agent’s attempts to get it back in print hadn’t worked out. It was hard to find, but she’d found it. And she loved what I’d done—put all those layers I spoke about into this story of a young African American escaped slave who becomes a cowboy. You know, for an author to hear unexpected praise for her work like that is humbling (and sort of other worldly, to me!). She said reading it made her think I would be right for one of their projects, and asked if I’d be interested. When I answered that I would, she told me I had to sign a confidentiality agreement before she divulged anything. I agreed, and it took another day for that to happen. When I told my parents, my mother—who is very hip—was very excited, maybe more than I was.
The next day I discovered that the story would be set in New Orleans, my Dad’s hometown, and that one of the two historical characters would be a free girl of color. I said, “Yes!” before she could even give me more details. I was in.
It was only later that I realized what a huge deal the project was, and is, in American Girl world. It’s the first time they’ve introduced two new historical characters at once, the first time they’ve had two authors on one series, the first time they’ve done an interwoven storyline.
The company flew Sarah Masters Buckey, the other author, and me out to corporate headquarters. She and I planned and plotted out all six books, then returned to our separate homes to write three books each. Both characters appear in all the books. The project was challenging and thrilling, like completing a difficult puzzle.
Because my three books are part of a six book series, most reviews and press coverage include all six titles, and sometimes the dolls which represent the characters. The anecdotal “buzz” from our ten-city book tour (September through November 2011) was great from American Girl fans, who seemed delighted to have another historical character of color. All were intrigued by the New Orleans location, and the idea of the two characters’ stories being so interconnected.
The Cécile doll and book was named one of Parenting Magazine’s Best Toys for 2011
The Cécile and Marie-Grace Best Friends Collection received a National Parenting Publications Association (NAPPA) Gold Award (their highest honor). As part of this award, the Gold-winning product is highlighted in over 50 regional parenting publications in their November and December issues.
Find out more about Denise Lewis Patrick at www.deniselewispatrick.com.