From a Single Book Cover, an Author and Activist is Launched

By Ginger Young, Founder and Executive Director

originally printed in the Durham Herald-Sun on March 16, 2016

Not every successful author can point to an “aha” moment that launched them on the path to writing. But Raleigh children’s book author Kelly Starling Lyons can.

Roll of Thunder coverIn third grade, Lyons saw the cover of Mildred D. Taylor’s Newbery-award winning Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in a book club catalog. “It spoke to me – instantly,” recalls Lyons. In a catalog full of images of white faces, this cover one stood out, depicting a young African-American girl and her brothers. Lyons too was an African-American girl with brothers. In glimpsing the image on that book cover, Lyons had a  shock of realization: if Mildred Taylor could share a story about a young girl of color and her family, there was room for Kelly to tell her stories too.

And stories were what surrounded Lyons growing up in her home in Pittsburgh – a home which had books in every room. Her mother, a playwright, made up bedtime stories starring Kelly and her brothers. Her grandmother told stories that cast family ancestors in starring roles and that recounted such sagas as the great migration from Alabama.

Those influences made a deep and lasting impact. Today, Lyons is the author of six children’s books, including award winners Hope’s Gift and Tea Cakes for Tosh. Her most recent publication, a counting book entitled One More Dino on the Floor, was released earlier this month. Lyons notes that though her books explore diverse topics, all of her work is unified by the theme of disclyons2overy.

Lyons’ identity doesn’t stop at author: she is also passionate about her roles as mentor and activist. She spends time in classrooms throughout the Triangle, sharing her gifts and experiences through writing residencies, workshops, and children’s book clubs. With all of her outreach, she endeavors to engage children in bringing history to life and in imagining themselves as writers.

And what of Lyons’ role as an activist? In an industry which remains dominated by white authors and by books featuring white characters, Lyons is deeply committed to encouraging the promotion of multicultural books. She was a founding member of The Brown Bookshelf, a website designed to raise awareness of children’s books by African-Americans (www.thebrownbookshelf.com). She networks extensively with other African-American authors and works tirelessly to promote literature which extends beyond mainstream offerings, so that children growing up today can see the diversity of our society reflected in the books surrounding them. Her inspiration for this work is that memory of her own third grade aha moment, when books depicting African-American characters were, with rare exception, simply not a part of the literature landscape for children.

Lyons also serves an inaugural member of the Authors’ Circle of the Durham-based nonprofit Book Harvest. This collection of authors has given their enthusiastic thumbs up to Book Harvest’s vision of enabling every child to own books and works with Book Harvest to help realize that vision. Lyons serves on this group alongside twenty fellow authors, including Lee Smith, Sarah Dessen, Mike Wiley, J.J. Johnson, John Claude Bemis, and Author’s Circle Co-Chairs Randall Kenan and Daniel Wallace.

Her responsibility to use her writing talents to help create a better world for young readers is clear to Lyons.  With roots as a voracious reader, she says that “this time, instead of looking at reflections created by someone else, I’m the one holding up the mirror so that children can see.”

To learn more about Kelly Starling Lyons, visit www.kellystarlinglyons.com