This week’s “Each One Teach One” Interview is our first Picture Book author in the series, Kelly Starling Lyons. Kelly is a blogger on the “Brown Bookshelf” a wonderful blog that showcases children’s books for and about African American children. Her first picture book “One Million Men and Me,” based on images she saw as a journalist at the Million Man March on Washington in 1995, tells the story through the eyes of a little girl accompanying her father on the march. The book was met with rave reviews and shined the spotlight on an important day in recent U.S. history. Kelly’s other picture books all highlight interesting aspects of African American heritage or history. Her 4th book, “Tea Cakes For Tosh,” will debut December 6, 2012 from publisher G.P. Putnam and Sons. She has great book trailers on youtube for her book "Ellen's Broom" and "One Million Men and Me" which are good examples for writers wanting to make trailers for their picture books.
Please tell us who the author was who helped you when you were just starting out in the profession of writing for children?
When I first became serious about children’s book writing, I reached out to award-winning author Eleanora E. Tate to ask for advice. To my delight, she met me at Richard B. Harrison Library in Raleigh. She asked me if I had read any of the Coretta Scott King Award-winning books. No. Newbery titles. No. Had I studied books in the genre I wanted to write in? Not really. As we talked, I realized how much I had to learn.
She gave me lists of award-winning titles so I could brush up on what was out there and what had been recognized. I was so grateful that an accomplished author took the time to pass along gems of wisdom. After leaving our meeting, one of the first books I read was her classic, Just An Overnight Guest. What a treasure. Her advice helped me not just become a better writer, but ignited in me a passion for multicultural children’s books that continues to this day.
What a wonderful story about Eleanora Tate reaching out to a new writer. Reading award-winning book and reading in the genre you want to write in are definitely great suggestions for all of us as we hone our own writing skills!
How would you say her advice about that has helped you?
Studying what’s already out there not only teaches you what kinds of books sell and win awards, but it also helps you develop as a writer. You begin to read not just for the pleasure of the story, but to analyze elements like plot, character, structure, voice. I recognized the type of writing that spoke to me. That helped me develop my style. One Million Men and Me was the first picture book story I wrote that really felt like me. I used repetition and imagery to tell the tale of a girl attending a historic march with her dad.
That repetition in the voice of One Million Men and Me is one of the things I’ve found most compelling about that book, Kelly! Developing your own “style” that people recognize in all of your books is a great tool in the writer’s toolbox!
Are there other stories you’d like to tell that highlight how other authors have helped move you along on your writing career?
Yes. My next book is Tea Cakes for Tosh (G.P. Putnam’s Sons). It’s illustrated by E.B. Lewis and debuts December 6. It’s a story that was inspired by my relationship with my grandma. Here’s a summary:
Tosh loves his grandma Honey and her delicious golden tea cakes. When she tells the story of how the cookies became part of their family, he feels like he’s flying back in time. But then one day, Honey starts forgetting things, even an ingredient for the tea cakes. Inspired by his love for his grandma and respect for his family’s heritage, Tosh finds a way to give Honey and himself a special gift that keeps the memory alive.
Tea Cakes for Tosh is another book that has grown through the help of others.
Years ago, I sent an early version to Children’s Book Press. Editor Ina Cumpiano called me to say she liked the story, but my plot line – teasing – was a bit overdone. She asked me to consider raising the stakes for the character and pointed me to Chachaji’s Cup by Uma Krishnaswami for inspiration. Not only did I read and love that book, but later I was blessed to take a picture book writing class with Uma. The story kept growing through feedback I received at the Highlights Writers Workshop, a master class with Carole Boston Weatherford and comments from writing friends. I was thrilled when the book was acquired. Now, it’s almost here. I feel so blessed.
It really is amazing, Kelly, how we all learn from each other in the writing profession. Thanks for sharing that! So now that you’re publishing your 4th book, and speaking at writing events yourself, what are specific ways that you reach out to help new authors “one on one”?
When an aspiring author reaches out to me or someone mentions a dream of writing a children’s book, I think back to all of the people who helped me along the way. I do my best to pay it forward. I tell them about SCBWI. I recommend they pick up Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market. I suggest they take a writing class and start making that dream reality. I pass along tips and links to resources. So many people looked out for me. It’s my duty and honor to give back.
So, now for a couple of fun questions: J
I know you worked as a journalist before moving into the field of children’s writing. How old were you when you first started writing and will you tell us about a few of your early projects?
I’ve dreamed of being a writer for a long time. I wrote my first poem in third grade. It was about the beauty of the color black. I tried to sell my first essay in high school. Back then, I read Writer’s Digest as much as I read Right On! I sold my first article in college. Children’s writing called to me in my late 20s. One of the first stories I wrote, Isaiah’s Cake, didn’t land a deal, but it did get some kind comments from Eileen Heyes, another writer who paid it forward by helping me, and editors at Lee & Low. That encouraged me to keep going.
Wow Kelly! Congratulations for getting that initial sale so early on, in college. It seems you started shooting for the publishing life earlier in life than many other authors and you clearly had a vision for making writing your career from childhood. That’s great!
I want to ask one final fun question. Since you got the “writing bug” so early in life I suspect you were inspired toward that dream by some of the books you read as a child. So, who was your favorite author when you were a kid? And what other authors inspire you today?
My favorite author as a child was Madeleine L’Engle. I fell for A Wrinkle in Time. I can’t wait to share those books with my fantasy-loving little girl. As an adult, my favorite picture book authors are Jacqueline Woodson and Eve Bunting. I love how they tackle big subjects, ones that seem almost too much to broach in a picture book, and break them down brilliantly to child level. Their use of lyricism and character development is masterful. I read their books again and again.
Thanks Kelly! You’ve highlighted a number of great authors in this interview, and I hope that we’ll all run off to read not only your great books, but also many of theirs as well!
Thanks for sharing your story and wisdom! It’s been great to have you.
See you all next week for our next “Each One Teach One” interview, Saturday morning!