I’m thrilled to have Kelly Starling Lyons here today as part of her blog tour leading up to the 15th anniversary of the Million Man March. I asked Kelly to tell us about her experiences growing up when there was a dearth of African-American characters in books. Here’s her reply:
As a child, I loved to read. Most days, you could find me snuggled somewhere with a book in my hands. I couldn’t wait to travel through the magic of stories into other lives and lands. But on my literary journeys, one important thing was missing – people who looked like me.
In my early years, I remember reading just one children’s book with an African-American character, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Though that book was set in Depression-era Mississippi, it spoke to me in a special way. For the first time, I was reading a story through the eyes of a girl whose skin color was the same as mine. Though I hadn’t realized it until I read that story, that was something I hungered for.
I was a grown-up writer when I rediscovered children’s books. At Ebony magazine, I wrote feature articles and chose books to showcase in the Bookshelf column. One day, I opened a package from a publisher and my life changed. I saw a picture book called Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. Entranced, I read page after page until I reached the end. Then, I smiled, stroked the cover and read it again.
The story takes you on a walk with an African-American girl searching for “something beautiful” in her city neighborhood. She visits a laundromat, fruit stand and other places and learns what others consider beautiful. Then, she decides to create beauty herself by cleaning up her community. In the end, she learns who her mother considers the most beautiful person of all.
That book, just 32 pages, sent me through so many emotions. The story was told with such economy and grace. It reminded me of everything I loved about children’s literature and more.
That was the start of my mission to write for kids. Seeing picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels with African-American children as the main characters fed something inside my soul. I knew I had to add my voice.
I began writing for children because I wanted them to see their faces and hear their voices in stories. I began writing for children to help them discover parts of the world and themselves. I began writing for children to give back.
I know what it feels like to never see yourself, your family, your traditions or your history reflected in the pages of books. I write so kids today have a different reality. I love going into schools and sharing One Million Men and Me and hearing a child say, “That story reminds me of a trip I took with my dad,”or “That character looks just like me.”
As part of The Brown Bookshelf, a team that’s dedicated to raising awareness of the many African-Americans creating children’s books for kids, I continue the mission to help kids see themselves in the pages of books. Our signature initiative, 28 Days Later, shines the spotlight each February on African-American children’s book authors and illustrators who are under-the-radar or veterans of the industry. We’re taking nominations through the end of October.
Thanks so much for sharing a part of yourself with us, Kelly. It’s wonderful to know that kids growing up now have some fabulous choices of books with characters who look like them. Check out all the terrific titles at The Brown Bookshelf, including Kelly’s, of course. Her One Million Men and Me has received multiple awards.
Along with the blog tour, Kelly will be heading to several live events (more about those on the Susquehanna Writers blog):
October 15 – 4:30 p.m. Reading & Meet the Author event at All Booked Up Used Books & Collectibles
October 16 – 15th ANNIVERSARY OF THE MILLION MAN MARCH — 11 a.m. Storytime & Reading Hour at International Civil Rights Center & Museum
October 18 – 6 p.m. March Anniversary Program at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture