Whoa, baby. I feel really fortunate to have snagged Kelly Starling Lyons for a chat, because this is one. busy. woman. Prepare to be INSPIRED, people.
JE: Welcome, Kelly! After watching your recent SCBWI Zoom, I knew you were perfect for this OUTSIDE THE BOX feature. In that presentation, you mentioned how, when you started writing, you believed you’d be writing picture books — and only picture books. You have been (and continue to be) very successful with those, so first of all, congratulations!
KSL: Thanks so much. Picture books will always be my heart. I was drawn to writing them through reading powerful books like Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson. I loved the lyricism, meaning and intention. Through them, I learned the power of telling stories that empowered kids, showed a range of emotions and left readers with hope. I was hooked. Back then, I thought picture books were the only kind of children’s books I would write. But life had other ideas.
JE: Life tends to do that, doesn’t it? Are there themes you return to again and again in your picture books? Why do you feel strongly about those?
KSL: Yes, many of my stories focus on family and heritage. It’s important for kids to know that who they are, whose they are and where they’re from is enough. I want them to hold their heads high and know that the story they hold inside is the one that deserves to be heard.
JE: I love that answer, Kelly. So…what happened that got you thinking beyond picture books? Tell us how you came up with science-loving Jada Jones.
KSL: Coming up with Jada was a happy opportunity that I didn’t expect. I submitted a nonfiction picture book manuscript to try to win a SCBWI’s work-in-progress award. I was thrilled to receive that prize. Avery Briggs, one of the editors who judged the contest, was looking for early chapter book manuscripts. She invited me to submit an idea.
Though I had dreamed of writing picture books, my first children’s book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal, was a chapter book. Just Us Books gave me that break. I learned so much. It was a fun and rewarding experience. I thought about that process and trying a new writing challenge and said yes to the editor and to me.
Jada came from thinking about my kids and the children I meet when I visit schools and libraries who should be the stars of stories too. Jada has a big heart and is proud of being smart. She loves STEM, her friends and family and dares to brave. I initially had rock star, the title of the first Jada Jones book, in my picture book file. I imagined celebrating a girl who shined through her love of science. I realized that exploring that idea in a chapter book would give readers a chance to get to know her character more deeply by showing her fears and victories in detail.
Writing the series has been such an honor. I love how kids have connected with Jada and her friends. Readers send me pictures of kids dressed up as Jada for character day or holding the books with big smiles. It means everything to me. To them, Jada is a friend. I’m excited that two more of her adventures are on the way – Sky Watcher in November and Nature Lover in March.
JE: Terrific! Kelly, you are also the 2021 Piedmont Laureate! (Readers, go here for more info. https://piedmontlaureate.org) What kinds of activities do you have planned?
KSL: You did your research. Thanks so much for asking about being Piedmont Laureate. I’ve done lots of virtual events designed to celebrate diversity in children’s literature, showcase NC children’s book authors and build a bridge between the community and children’s books. I did my first in-person programs as Piedmont Laureate for Juneteenth. It was wonderful to share with a live audience.
Due to the rise of Covid, I think it’s important to still be cautious about face-to-face gatherings. I’m envisioning outside events over the next few months, but will still do mostly virtual programming. I want to continue to lift the voices of children’s book writers in the state, show the importance of diversity and remind young readers that their stories matter.
JE: I know we all wish you the best in this endeavor. Your latest early reader series is TY’S TRAVELS. How did Ty come to be?
KSL: Ty came from another happy chance opportunity. I was on a chapter book panel at Kweli: The Color of Children’s Literature conference. Editor Tamar Mays was in the audience. Later that day, we chatted. She appreciated how I say yes to opportunities that resonate and shared that there needs to be more diverse voices in easy readers. Hearing her talk made my mind spin with possibilities. I knew I wanted to write one before she asked if I’d be interested in submitting.
Like creating Jada, coming up with Ty brought me so much joy. I drew again from my own kids and those I know, particularly those in the Black Boys Book Club I co-facilitate in Raleigh. I wanted to celebrate their joy, big imaginations and love of family. It has been another amazing ride. The fourth book in the 8-book series with award-winning illustrator Nina Mata will debut in January. It’s called Lab Magic. And talk about magic, that’s what I believe Nina’s art is. She has brought Ty, his family and world to life with brilliance, wonder and intention.
JE: That’s for sure. I don’t know how anybody could resist these bright, engaging covers! Your books have won many accolades and awards, Kelly. Which are you proudest of?
KSL: I’m touched by each award and accolade my books receive. Having Ty’s Travels: Zip, Zoom receive a Geisel Honor was a special thrill. It means a lot that a book that celebrates Black boy joy was honored in this way. Likewise, I was overjoyed that Going Down Home with Daddy won a Caldecott Honor and Ellen’s Broom won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. Those books were inspired by my family history. I love that illustrator Daniel Minter extended and enriched the meaning through his visual storytelling in such profound ways.
Tiara’s Hat Parade being chosen as the featured book for Read Across America Day and winning a Christopher Award are other stand-out moments. That book, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell, debuted near the beginning of the pandemic and was under the radar. Having it brought into the spotlight and saluted means everything to me. Nicole’s artwork shines. I’m overjoyed that it has reached more readers.
The best reward though is the response of readers to my books. Every sweet note, picture and comment makes me smile. I’m so blessed to be doing something I love.
JE: Amen to that. What’s up next? Do you have more surprises up your sleeve?
KSL: I love surprises. So we’ll keep those quiet for now. But I’m always working on something new. Books on the way include more Jada, more Ty, a new chapter book series that debuts next summer, picture books and in January, She Persisted: Coretta Scott King. I’m excited about being part of the She Persisted chapter book series and honoring such an important woman and leader.
Thanks for this great interview and all you do to support picture book creators.
JE: You’re so welcome! Thank YOU for taking the time to hang with us awhile. And readers, keep your eyes peeled for Kelly’s books!
Kelly’s website: https://www.kellystarlinglyons.com