Author Archives: Laurie J. Edwards

Traveling Africa in Pursuit of Research

Most authors spend many hours researching topics before they begin writing. For fiction, getting details right is important, but for nonfiction it’s essential.

I recently returned from Kenya after gathering material for a story I’m writing. Yes, I saw many different parts of the country, but my goal was getting background material for a biography on one of the leaders of the Mau-Mau rebellion, when Kenya declared its independence from Great Britain.

To do this, I traveled over back roads to meet the man’s son, who was a schoolboy at the time his father was arrested. When I say back roads, I don’t mean the usual country roads. These were roads typically traversed on foot or motorbike. While we jounced along, huge chunks of rock and piles of dirt scraped the underside of the van. At times we could only pass by driving with two wheels in the ditch at the side of the road. Sometimes the van tilted so much, it seemed as if we were riding on two wheels rather than four. This harrowing ride was made more difficult when we needed to pass an occasional vehicle by a hair’s breadth.

After more than an hour, we came to the remote village in the mountains. We took a tour of the extensive farm, then settled in for the interview, while his wife cooked beef stew over coals in a small metal fire pit in the kitchen. Chickens wandered into the screened-in porch, while a goose pecked at the screen as his story unfolded. He began with the family tree, so I would know his father’s history. He rattled off names and dates. What an incredible memory! And I left his farm with a full stomach and many memories of my own.

The next day we visited the prison where many Mau-Mau revolutionaries were held. Because the prison is still in use, we had to wait for the guards to clear all the prisoners from the areas we would be touring. And we received special permission to take a few pictures. The prisoners watched from behind barbed wire fencing while we entered the older buildings on the grounds. It was an emotional day for the independence leader’s daughter because this was the first time she had seen the cells where her father was held for seven years. Throughout the tour, the guards were very respectful of the descendant of a man who’d helped secure Kenya’s freedom.

I spent one day at the area considered the “Eden” of the Kikuyu people and heard their origin story and history, and viewed historical artifacts, granaries (pictured), and homes. The fight for independence mainly began with the Kikuyu, who wanted to stop British settlers from taking over their land. Ancient and modern history combined later when I got to hear about politics from an official in the present-day government who is Kikuyu.

Another stop was the archives in Nairobi, which has a museum on the first two floors that added to my knowledge of history. My main goal, though, was to look at official records. Although they could not pull the specific records I requested, they did bring me a file from 1954 titled “Information and Propaganda,” which contained British records of the revolts, arrests, and killings. It was jarring to read the British accounts after hearing the Kenyans laud the Mau Mau as freedom fighters. The British called them “terrorists.” Interesting to see how people with opposing points of view can describe the same events so differently.

Before I’d left for Africa, I’d read books about the period recommended by my Kenyan friend, and those accounts by Kenyan writers gave me a greater understanding of the culture and history. In addition, I had a long, handwritten account of family stories from the man’s son. Armed with that knowledge, I returned home to begin my library and online research. Having firsthand experiences and good official records will add richness and detail to the story that I would not have had otherwise. When the book is written, the manuscript will be sent to all the sources to check it for accuracy.

Reading about my travels and research might give some insight into how much background work can go into writing a children’s book. Stories come from the heart, but they need to be backed up by extensive research. Once the book is written, I hope sharing this small piece of history and one man’s commitment to Kenyan freedom will inspire children everywhere to dream big.

Two Shining Stars: Kelly Starling Lyon and Vanessa Brantley-Newton

We’re excited to have Kelly Starling Lyons and Vanessa Brantley-Newton here today to discuss their new chapter book series starring Jada Jones. Author Kelly’s answers are in pink and illustrator Vanessa’s are in blue.

Kelly Starling Lyons

Vanessa Brantley-Newton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ll begin with a few questions for Kelly. I often wonder if childhood experiences prompt people to become writers. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I dreamed of being lots of things – a writer, a chemist, a teacher. But becoming an author was the vision that endured. My mom wrote and acted in plays and took my brother and me to children’s theater. My grandmother shared family stories that made me look at history in a new way. My house was filled with books. Storytelling was all around me. I wanted to create that magic too.

What an awesome background for a future author. Did you ever dream of being a writer? If so, how did you get started?

My journey toward becoming a writer began as a kid. I started by penning entries in my diary. I remember unlocking the wooden box that guarded my secrets, taking out my maroon book and writing me into the pages – my fears, my joys, my dreams. It was liberating. I began to win accolades for writing in school. I remember an elementary teacher complimenting a poem I wrote about the beauty of the color black. That meant everything to me.

My path to writing children’s books began when I discovered Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in third grade. It was my first time seeing a black child on the cover of a book. Though I didn’t realize it then, that image filled me with not just pride but drive. One day, I would write pieces of me, people I love and history I cherish into books. I would learn the power of kids seeing themselves. I would learn that writing can heal, inspire, agitate and affirm. That took reflection and study. But the seed was born when I was a child.

It’s wonderful that you’re providing mirrors and inspiration for today’s readers. I’ve often found that authors put their own fears into their stories. What things most scared you when you were young? Did any of those fears make it into your books?

When I was young, public speaking was my biggest fear. I stuttered and didn’t know if I would be fluent when speaking or get stuck on some word. Being asked to read in class or give a presentation set my heart racing. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to writing. I could express myself just like I wanted.

It amazes me that I grew up to be an author who gives presentations all the time. When I do writing residencies at schools, I usually meet at least one child who stutters. That’s why I never insist that kids read their work aloud. I encourage anyone who wants to share. I will support and stand with kids if they’re nervous, but reading in front of their peers is their choice. Jada Jones: Class Act explores Jada’s fear of public speaking. My middle-grade novel in progress, Summer of Aunt Lou, is inspired by my childhood struggle with speech.

I’ve heard some of your wonderful presentations, and it’s hard to believe you ever stuttered. I’m sure children who struggle with stuttering or shyness can relate to your life story and to your book characters. You mentioned teaching writing at schools. It sounds like you have a busy life. Can you tell us a bit about your writing life and schedule?

I write early in the morning when the house is hushed. That’s when my best inspiration comes. I have a file of ideas and often work on a couple of stories at a time. My writing life includes lots of author visits. At schools and libraries, I share the history behind my books, my publishing journey and tips for creating stories. I always leave inspired.

As a night owl, I admire anyone who gets up early and can function. What made you write Jada’s story?

A Penguin editor was a judge for a SCBWI contest. I won money to do nonfiction research, but she also invited me to submit a chapter book for her consideration. I hadn’t written one since my first book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal. But I felt a connection to the genre. I remembered my daughter’s joy at reading chapter books. She loved wonderful series that starred black girls like Dyamonde Daniel, Ruby & the Booker Boys, Nikki & Deja, Willimena Rules and Sassy, but longed for more. I thought about her and the wonderful girls I meet at schools when creating Jada. I wanted to center a smart black girl with a big heart, someone who’s unsure at times but finds her way.

There are some great series out there, but I’m so glad you’re adding to the collection of chapter books for black girls. Do the characters in your series have any connection with your real life?

Yes, the biggest inspiration for Jada was my daughter. She loves science and has collected rocks and shells for years. An adult once hurt her feelings by saying she should stop looking for rocks and find a friend. Her first friends shared her interest. They became a rock-hunting crew. I love how my daughter and girls I know are beautifully and uniquely themselves.

What is one thing you hope readers will take away from your book?

The end of each book has a list of Jada’s rules. The one that really sums up both is: “Dare to shine by being you.”

Such an awesome lesson for all of us, not just chapter book reader. Not only does Kelly’s work as an author shine, Vanessa makes the many books she illustrates shine as well. Thanks so much for joining us, Vanessa.

You’ve shared some samples of your fabulous artwork. Do you use models for your illustrations? If so, are they people you know? Or do you create them from your imagination?

Sometimes I use models, but not very often. They are often people I know or children I know. I love to create characters from my mind!! That is so much for me. I get hair from this one and eyes from that one and lips from another and bodies from yet another, and it’s a cobbled mess of ideas that become something wonderful at the end.

It’s amazing that they look so smoothly put together when they’re constructed piecemeal. You must be very talented to assemble your final illustrations from such different sources. What medium do you use? And can you tell us a little bit about your process?

I usually start with a couple of loose sketches and then scan my sketches into my iMac and then drag them into two programs that I use. One, Corel Painter and the other, Photoshop CS5. I then create another file in Corel Painter that I redraw and then color and then take into Photoshop to clean it up or add collage to it. I usually create and color all my illustrations in Corel Painter and then do any clean ups or textures or collage in Photoshop. It’s a very tedious process, but I really love the results. One piece can take up to 6 hours to finish.

Many times, publishers choose an illustrator, and the author never meets or talks to the illustrator. Did you work together on the book? If so, how was that process?

I’ve admired Vanessa’s work for a long time and dreamed of having a book with her. I was thrilled that she would be the illustrator for the Jada Jones series. We didn’t work together. But I did get to see her sketches and was blown away by how she captured the spirit of Jada, her friends and family. An exciting part of the process is getting to celebrate the release. We’re launching the books at Quail Ridge Books and Richard B. Harrison Library in Raleigh and Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC. So excited about sharing these moments with her.

You know it’s different with each publisher and each writer and illustrator. I have known Kelly for a couple of years now, and she is more like my Sister! LOL! It is not the custom for writer and illustrator to work together.  It is considered taboo, if you will. The editors don’t want the writer to influence the illustrator. They prefer a more organic approach to creating the artwork, and that is by letting each tell a story.

It’s important to give picture book illustrators room to create their own unique contributions to the book. I’m sure you prefer the freedom to generate ideas without too many suggestions from the author.

Sometimes this is very frustrating to illustrators. We really don’t like to be told what a character is supposed to look like. LOL!!! It helps me honestly. I figure let’s picture her together and see what we come up with! It can be frustrating hearing so many opinions from editors, art directors and author. This is a wonderfully told story of a young African American girl by Kelly Starling Lyons, and it was our duty as both author and illustrator to get it right.  It is not often that we see an African America child grace the front cover of middle grade readers or even picture books, and when we do a child of color whether African American, Asian, Hispanic, or Indian, they should be created with dignity and care.

You’ve both created an appealing character in Jada. What are you working on now?

I am working on historical fiction manuscripts and another chapter book. I’m excited about a couple of picture books on the way. Both celebrate family and history which are central themes in my work. They’re about children carrying on traditions and being part of a legacy. Can’t wait to share them.

I am working on three books right now: Mama’s Work Shoes and King of Kindergarten. There is also Hannah Sparkles 2, due out in 2019.

I can’t wait to see these books come out. I’ve added a few questions just for fun.

If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?

A safe and just world.

For all people to find their calling and live their dreams.

To time travel.

To be a Philanthropist, the gift of humor, to take people on trips around the world.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

I love historical and realistic fiction. That’s mostly what I write. But my favorite genre is fantasy.

I have a prophetic foresight.

What super power do you wish you had?

The power to heal everything!

Where can readers find out more about you?  (social media, but also feel free to add in-person appearances if you’d like)

Readers can learn more about me on my website www.kellystarlinglyons.com. They can join my FaceBook author page www.facebook.com/kellystarlinglyons or follow me on Twitter @kelstarly. Please also check out the blog I’m part of – the Brown Bookshelf. Our mission is to raise awareness of black children’s book creators. I’m honored to be on the team. (This is such a great resource. I hope readers will check out this site.)

Please visit vanessabrantleynewton.com or friend me on Facebook@ Vanessa Newton.

Readers can also help Vanessa and Kelly celebrate the launch of  their Jada Jones series in NC at:

Quail Ridge Books on Saturday, September 30. Details here: http://www.quailridgebooks.com/event/kslyons17

Park Road Books on Sunday, October 1. Details here: http://www.parkroadbooks.com/event/local-author-event-kelly-starling-lyons-vanessa-brantley-newton-jada-jones

And at Richard B. Harrison Library on Saturday, October 21.

If you’re in the Raleigh or Charlotte, NC area, you can meet these two extraordinary book creators. Thanks so much for giving us a peek into your work and lives, Kelly and Vanessa. Can’t wait to meet Jada!

Regrowing Tails (or Tales)

Did you know today is No Socks Day? That makes me happy because I despise socks and shoes. Researchers say creative people prefer to go barefoot, so I use that as an excuse. But I suspect the real reason is an incident that happened when I was two.

We had just moved to Africa, and I crawled out of my crib at night. My dad insisted we always wear slippers in the house, so I slid my foot into my slipper. And…

I stepped down on this slippery, wiggly thing. It squished, and I screamed. I shook the shoe off my foot. A lizard scooted out, but he left his tail behind. That skinny, green, wormlike tail wiggled and wriggled inside my slipper.

I’m still not sure what was more traumatic – the slimy surprise in my slipper, the twitching tail, or knowing I’d hurt an innocent creature.

My father tried to reassure me that the lizard was fine and would grow another tail, but I didn’t believe him. Not until he read it to me from a book. I didn’t learn until recently that it takes about 60 days for the tail to grow back. Poor lizard!

So what do shoes and lizards have to do with writing middle-grade books?

One of the hardest things for an author to do is to get emotion onto the page. Emotion is what hooks readers, and books that grab readers have heart and vividness. They make readers care about the character and immerse them in the scene.

One of the best ways to do that as a writer is not only to recall incidents from your past, but to re-live them. Investigate traumas in your life. These incidents are stored in the brain along with the many emotions connected with them. The minute I think about the lizard, my body freezes in terror, chills run through me, my foot recalls every detail of squishing down, and I recoil. All the visceral (or involuntary) reactions place me right in that scene again. I’m immersed in sensory details. Not just the wriggle, but my screams, my father’s feet pounding down the hall, the taste of bile in my mouth, the steamy sweatiness of the night. I can still see the way the moonbeams slanted through the window striping the shadows on the floor, hear the waves crashing against the shore in the distance. I can even hear the whine and buzz of mosquitoes against the netting.

All those details from one event that lasted only minutes.

Your brain is a treasure trove of memories. Tap them when you need to get more emotion on the page. Close your eyes and go back to a time when you felt the same emotion as your character. Feel the memory in your body, see it in your mind’s eye. Immerse yourself in it, and then let it flow onto the page. Readers will feel the terror or grief or joy along with you, and your books will stay in their hearts and minds long after they close the cover.