Never Stop Singing

Published in 2016; author Denise Lewis Patrick; illustrators Michael Dwornik and Julie Kolesova


It's New Year's Eve, 1963; the day before Melody turns 10. She's finally old enough to attend Watch Night at her church, a remembrance of when free and enslaved black people waited for New Year's Day 1863, when President Lincoln would officially announce the Emancipation Proclamation. At the service, the pastor encourages his congregation to use the gifts and talents God has given them to change the world for the better. (Speaking of gifts, one important gift she gets is a pouch of heirloom seeds, from Miss Esther, an older family friend.)

Maybe Melody will have a chance to teach people about her heritage when her teacher announces they'll be celebrating Negro History Week in February (the name and duration for it at the time). Maybe she can do something related to how her cousin's family is facing discrimination in their house search. Maybe the community meeting about businesses that snub minorities will give her ideas. Then inspiration hits: fixing up a nearby playground, so it can be a gathering place for everyone.

Melody's sister Yvonne encourages her and gives her some tips, and Miss Esther helps Melody prepare a speech to give to the Block Club, a group of adults committed to advancing civil rights in their community. She ends up president of the Junior Block Club, but finds leadership more difficult than she anticipated. The opportunity to sing back-up on her big brother's singing group's first recording. And Melody's cousin and her family find a great house they can make an offer on. Things start looking up as spring marches on.

But then Melody gets a letter from the parks department: there's not enough available funds to replace the aging swingset. When Melody expresses her disappointment to Miss Esther and her parents, they discuss the possibility that the funds aren't available for parks in black neighborhoods. They also encourage her to continue making the park a beautiful place, even if she's not able to get everything she wants. After all, there are those heirloom seeds...

Just when Melody's gotten her team excited to beautify the existing playground, the parks department locks the gates. Apparently the swingset is too dangerous. The Junior Block Club composes letters to the department: they can't ignore the club forever. A letter from Melody's oldest sister inspires her to spread the word, to get even more letters sent. Melody even gets a local radio show to mention the letter-writing campaign. After a flurry of letters and phone calls, the parks department removes the broken equipment--and the lock. So summer begins with the project in full swing, Melody's sister Lila completing a year of her private school program (she won a scholarship), her oldest sister Yvonne securing a teaching job in the south during Freedom Summer, and Dwayne finally getting the official album of the song he and Melody recorded.

Melody and her parents take a summer trip with her cousin's family to her grandparents' old farm in Birmingham, for the Fourth of July holiday. Despite the shadow cast by the suspicious disappearance of three civil rights workers, celebrating freedom is extra-special for African-Americans this year, with the signing of the Civil Rights Act (one character points out that the real trick will be getting everyone to follow the law). In the midst of the festivities, the family learns that Yvonne's been arrested, for "disturbing the peace" and has broken her wrist during the arrest. Her parents are able to get her out, and while they're very worried for her safety, they agree that Yvonne's an adult who can make her own choices. Yvonne spends a little time with her family before returning to Freedom Summer.

Back at home, the seeds planted at the playground have sprouted and are mostly doing well. Melody needs to teach her team a bit about gardening (for example, the best time to water), but they've done well in her absence. A summer storm threatens a setback, but the Junior and original Block Clubs spruce it back up.

Soon the park is ready for a grand opening party. The radio show host herself shows up, with a proclamation from the mayor announcing the park reopened and named for the Junior Block Club! She also gives Melody a check to buy some new equipment ($75, almost $575 in 2016). The book ends with Melody and her brother singing the song they recorded earlier, onstage for the crowd.

Inside Melody's World

June, July, and August of 1964 came to be known as Freedom Summer for civil rights activists. Volunteers toured the country to educate about the contributions minorities had made to society and to champion equal rights, especially registering African-Americans to vote. Not everyone was welcoming of their presence. Some were heckled or arrested on false charges. Three young men, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, disappeared in late June. Their bodies were found in August. Despite the high profile of the murders and the widespread belief that the perpetrators were members of a conspiracy rooted in the KKK, only one man was ever convicted of the murders. In 2005. Forty-one years after the fact. The crime was part of a large resistance to the Civil Rights Act, a resistance which continues today.


This book is dedicated "in friendship to Sharon Shavers Gayle and in gratitude to the unforgettable Mr. Horace Julian Bond."

Melody's birthday is January first, same as my best friend. And a very convenient birthday, as I discovered when calculating the ages at date of death for several deceased family members. "19xx-18xx is--wait, had she had her birthday yet?"

So we skip not only the winter holiday story, which is always my favorite to read about, but also the assassination of JFK, a huge historical event.

Funny story related to JFK: when I was about Melody's age, my mom asked my dad where he was when Kennedy was shot. Of course, she was asking because it's one of those moments almost everyone who lived through remembers, just how people can vividly recall how they found about September 11, 2001. But I didn't get that at the time, and thought she was asking because she seeing if my dad had an alibi!

Several prominent African-American figures are name dropped. My favorite of the innovators is Charles Drew, who had a profound influence on blood transfusion. I donate blood, so that one's close to my heart (literally). (His death was not the result of discrimination, contrary to popular belief; his injuries were too severe for that to have been a factor) Jesse Owens, too; as I did track and field. Another athlete, Tommie Smith, would rise to fame for giving the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics--and I have his autograph.

The letter-writing reminds me of Andy Dufresne's strategy in The Shawshank Redemption. He writes a letter a week to secure funds for a prison library, and his persistence is eventually rewarded with some money and letter than ends, "Please stop writing."


No Ordinary Sound

Published in 2016; author Denise Lewis Patrick; illustrator Julie Kolesova


Melody Ellison is a happy nine-year-old growing up in 1965 Detroit. She's the youngest of four, with two older sisters and an older brother (Yvonne, Lila, and Dwayne). She's also close with her cousins--one of her best friend is her cousin Valerie (the other, Sharon, isn't related to her). Every Sunday after church, her parents and siblings meet at her grandmother's house for dinner. This particular Sunday in May, she can hardly wait to tell everyone that she's been picked to sing a solo for Youth Day in October. Big brother Dwayne, already 18, is more excited than she expects (he's normally hard to impress) and says she should write to Yvonne, off at college. Melody doesn't want to be a Motown star like Dwayne (the whole Ellison family is musical), but the spotlight at her church is small enough that singing there is exciting instead of scary.

The next day brings more happy news: once the school year is over, Melody's cousins are going to move from Alabama to Detroit! Yvonne's back from college, too. She's gained a lot of confidence, and a clearer understanding of how unjust segregation is. She's refused a job at a bank simply based on her skin (Melody, in a heartwarming show of solidarity, closes her account at the bank to protest), and instead of chemically straightening her hair or keeping it in tight hairstyles, wears loose and natural. When the cousins arrive on Mother's Day, Melody's hair stylist aunt, Tish, is excited to offer Yvonne's style to her future clients.

The move isn't all happy though. They were prompted to come north because of the worsening racial tension in the South. Yvonne wonders what will happen to the fight for equality if everyone leaves, but Aunt Tish and Uncle Charles argue that they can't risk losing their jobs by protesting--they have a family to support. Furthermore, the protests and counter-protests are becoming more violent. They hope to be able to enjoy less segregation and better jobs in Detroit. Right away, Melody gets to show Valerie how things are better up north: the library is for everyone, and anyone regardless of skin color can enter through the main doors.

Of course, things aren't perfect. Dwayne has a music audition coming up, and when he and Melody go shopping for the perfect suit for him to wear, they're followed by store clerks and accused of shoplifting--that's all "their kind" would be in a fancy store for anyway. Melody wonders if Dwayne would still face this sort of prejudice if he were famous. The siblings also discuss how different people fight for equality in different ways. Melody ponders this while going with Valerie and her parents on their house search--and encounters more prejudice. Some people don't want to tell them, only to whites.

Incidents like this inspire Melody's choice of song for her Youth Day solo: "Lift Every Voice and Sing" originally written by James Weldon Johnson as a poem and now a song called by many the Black American national anthem. Seeing Martin Luther King Jr speak cements the choice in her mind.

As summer continues, Melody's parents find out about Dwayne's music plans, just before his (ultimately successful) audition. They've been dreaming for him to go to college at Tuskegee like Yvonne (he was accepted for the fall term) but instead he's going to be a singer. It's hard for them to watch their son follow a different path that they worry won't open as many doors as college, but to their credit they realize he's an adult who can make his own decisions.

Soon it's almost time for school to resume. Melody's best friend Sharon returns from her summer vacation just in time to celebrate the opening of Aunt Tish's hair salon, and is pleasantly surprised to learn that Diane, the star singer who seemed stuck-up, has been helping Melody learn her song for Youth Day. A lot seems to be changing for the better, from the large-scale marches for equality in the nation's capital to small things like friendships that once seemed impossible.

And then it's September 15, 1963, the day of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. This was a real historical event, and a tragic one. Four KKK members blew up a church with dynamite. Twenty-two people were injured. Four died. They were all children: Addie Mae Collins, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Carol Denise McNair, 11. No one was prosecuted for the murders until 1977, when one of the four conspirators were sentenced to life in prison. Two others were tried, convicted, and sentenced in 2001 and 2002. The fourth never faced charges. In 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded the four girls the Congressional Gold Medal, recognizing their impact in the Civil Rights movement.

Melody and her family are horrified and in shock. How could anyone have so much hatred as to murder children? At church? Melody is so affected by the news that she can't sing. Her mind is a whirl of fear and sadness and confusion. Singing at church, when four girls only a little older than her were murdered while getting ready to sing in the church choir, is just too overwhelming.

Melody's family gives her gentle encouragement though, and she finds her voice again. But she's still afraid to go inside her church, where the Youth Day concert will be. Church is supposed to be a safe and happy place, but four girls were murdered viciously in theirs. Yvonne tells her how a woman was inspired to register to vote despite pressure from racists trying to keep her away from the booths, Dwayne writes to her about being on the road and still facing prejudice but also seeing less in some areas, and the rest of her family rallies around her. Val, Sharon, and Diane help her too, and when it's time for the concert, Melody is able to sing her song--in honor of the four girls who will never sing again.

Inside Melody's World

While Melody had more freedom in 1965 than Addy did a century before, she was still denied many things available to her white contemporaries. Detroit itself was a city where many black people could find good jobs and even own their own businesses, but schools were still segregated and persons of color were denied services for no reason other than their skin. People rallied around public figures like Dr. King and other civil rights leaders. While some were able to make their voices heard on large scales, like Rosa Parks or Malcolm X, others fought the fight on personal levels. But every bit counts toward the larger whole.


This book is dedicated to "everyone who hears the call of justice, and answers."

Just before the first chapter is a note explaining that in 1965, "Negro" and "colored" were acceptable terms to describe people of African descent, but today are considered offensive. They're used in the text for authenticity. In the second chapter, Melody and her family discuss the best way to describe themselves, along with the progress her family has seen since her grandparents and parents were growing up, and how much still needs to happen (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 hasn't happened by that point in the book, and it will be enforced inconsistently).

My great-grandmother used to serve Sunday dinners too, into her nineties. Speaking of family, Melody is almost two years older than my mom.

Melody has two nicknames: Dee-dee and Little Chick.

The Ellison family has a dog named Bo.

I like how Melody's parents deal with her feeling a little put out by another girl's superior music talents. Melody's siblings start to talk about what the other girl (Diane) can't do, but her parents instead focus on what Melody can do. I like that they don't need to disparage Diane at all, but instead shift the focus on making Melody feel good about her own talents. I see this "Oh, sure, X is the popular quarterback now, but in ten years he'll be flipping burgers" a lot and...what if X ends up really successful? You don't want your happiness dependent on someone else's misfortune.

Yvonne is attending Tuskegee University in Alabama. A year after this book is set, it will be designated a national historic landmark. It was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881.

Melody's father was a Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.

Dwayne is able to attend the Youth Day concert, and offers Melody a chance to sing some back-up vocals for his band.