Friday, December 12, 2008

FEATURED AUTHOR: Kelly Starling Lyons

Kelly Starling Lyons is a children’s book author and freelance writer whose mission is to transform moments, memories and history into stories of discovery. Her books include CCBC Choices honoree One Million Men and Me (illustrated by Peter Ambush) and chapter book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal. She has two forthcoming picture books with Penguin/G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Kelly’s articles and essays have appeared in many publications including Ebony magazine, The News & Observer, The Christian Science Monitor and books in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. A native of Pittsburgh, Kelly lives in NC where she facilitates a book club for African-American girls.

One Million Men and Me

The Million Man March was a movement like no other. It brought black men together for a day of inspiration and empowerment and it captured the attention of media across the U.S. and the world. Now, this heartwarming picture book shares the story of the March in a new light. In One Million Men and Me (Just Us Books, 2007) experience the strength, unity, determination and legacy of that powerful day through the eyes of a little girl who was with her daddy the day black men made history.

What would you like readers to take away from your book?
I hope readers feel inspired to learn more about Million Man March. It was such an affirming and transformative event. As Nia shares what it was like to be there with her daddy, I hope readers get a sense of the beauty and power of the day. I hope it rekindles fond memories for those who were there or who had loved ones who went. I hope it fosters pride in children. Sadly, so many young people have never heard of the Million Man March. I would love for my book to inspire children and adults to celebrate the mighty Million Man March and its place in history.

What is your favorite scene from your book?

One of my favorite scenes is when Nia and her father see the amazing view of a sea of men at the Million Man March. Nia calls them one million black kings and feels like their princess. That's one of my favorite pictures too. Artist Peter Ambush created a portrait of Nia dressed like an African princess walking with a group of African kings. Another of my favorite images is the picture of Nia snuggling into her dad's chest on the way home.

Why did you elect to write for children?

I write for children because growing up I didn't see kids who looked like me in picture books. I fell in love with stories like Miss Nelson Is Missing and Where the Wild Things Are, but something was missing. I discovered what it was years later when I saw the book Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. In the story, a girl goes around her city neighborhood searching for something beautiful. She learns what it is for her neighbors then decides to create it for herself by cleaning up the graffiti and trash around her home. That story touched me and helped me to see children's books in a new way. Children's books have the power to move, affirm, inspire, heal. I knew that one day I would add my voice. I wanted to write for kids to give them reflections of their lives and dreams.

What did you learn while writing this book?

I learned that the story will come when it's ready. One Million Men and Me began to take shape more than a decade ago when I was at the Million Man March interviewing young people about what the event meant to them. I didn't know it then, but seeing a girl holding hands with her father as they walked past the Reflecting Pool would inspire my first picture book.

A few months before the 10-year anniversary of the Million Man March, I thought of that little girl and her father again. I knew I wanted to tell their story and share the March with children. But I was stuck. The March was such a huge and important event. Where did I start? I kept pushing and trying to write something, but the story wouldn't flow. Then a while later, I went to a black fatherhood conference and saw men embracing like brothers and talking about ways to strengthen the community and I was taken back to the March. The draft for the story came together in a matter of hours.

What one thing about writing do you wish other non-writers would understand?

Having a great idea is just one part of writing. You have to do research, hone your craft, revise. I believe that everyone has a story to tell. But you have to put in the work to make it the best it can be.

What is the best lesson you have learned from another Children book writer?

Study children's books for lessons. Some of my best writing tips have come from deconstructing my favorite books. The first time I read a story, I read it for joy. The next time, I study it. How did the author put it together? What structure did the author use? What symbols and images? What language resonated most? Why did it work?

What is the toughest test you've faced as a writer?

As a children's book author, one of my toughest tests has been learning to be patient. There's so much waiting -- waiting for responses from publishers, waiting for edits, waiting for reviews. Whew. I thought I was a patient person before I started writing for kids. But publishing wheels can move so slowly that waiting it out can be a real test sometimes. I've found that the best way to keep from watching the clock is to get to work on other stories.

What is something readers would be surprised you do?

Hmmm. They might be surprised that I love to dance, especially Chicago steppin' style. I lived in Chi-town before I moved to North Carolina and took classes at the Y. I used to drag all of my friends to steppin' spots like the Fifty Yard Line and Mr. Ricky's Note. Even when I moved to NC, I kept steppin' with my husband in our living room.

Something readers might be surprised to learn that I used to rap. In middle school, I had a group with friends and cousins -- Fresh Fly Girls. At an author visit once, kids called me out on it. I shocked myself by remembering one of our raps. It was a lot of fun.

What are three things you wish you’d known before you reached where you are now?

- That even award-winning authors have stories rejected.
- That the work doesn't stop with writing the book and getting it published. Promoting can be just as hard.
- That I would feel so fulfilled writing stories for children. I wish I would have started sooner.

How do you reach new readers?

I rely on word of mouth a lot. I hope that people will enjoy my books and author visits and share my books with others. I also send information out to schools, churches and community organizations about my availability for signings and programs. I participate in book events too like the Multicultural Children's Book Festival at the Kennedy Center and African-American Children's Book Fair in Philadelphia. I also owe a lot to generous people like you who give me the chance to share my book with their readers. Thank you.

Can you give us five Children book authors you admire?

Jacqueline Woodson
Angela Johnson
Virginia Hamilton
Patricia McKissack
Walter Dean Myers

If you could have dinner with 3 authors to talk with about their writing (living or deceased) who would you invite and why?

Lorraine Hansberry - Her autobiography, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, left such an impression on me. I'd love to talk to her about her journey to playwriting.

Langston Hughes - His poetry is amazing. I've learned so much by reading his work. Langston Hughes was a poet, novelist and even wrote for children.

Virginia Hamilton- I'd love to talk to her about her books and how to create a career in the field. She wrote brilliant picture books, middle-grade novels and young adult novels. They were each so distinct and special. I marvel at her genius.

Can you give us one do and one don’t for those aspiring to be a children’s book writer?

Do put in the work and believe your story will find a home.

Don't just dream about writing a children's book. Dare to make it happen.

How can readers get in contact with you? (mail, email, website)

email -
website -

Can you give us a sneak peek of your next book

My next book was inspired by researching my family tree. I discovered a document that touched me and shined a light on an important chapter in African-American history. My picture book explores that history and a family's special journey. It will be published by Penguin/G.P Putnam's Sons. Please check out my website for updates.

Thanks so much LaShaunda for featuring me. I feel blessed to have the chance to talk about my book and writing. I wish you continued success. Happy Holidays to you and your readers. God Bless.

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