Tag Archives: Kelly Starling Lyons

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!

The Brown Bookshelf: An Interview with Author Kelly Starling Lyons

As Laurie Edwards promised in her February 3 post, Daring to be Different, today we welcome Kelly Starling Lyons. She is here to talk about The Brown Bookshelf, a website dedicated to highlighting African American children’s authors and illustrators..

Kelly Starling Lyons is a children’s book author whose mission is to transform moments, memories and history into stories of discovery. Her books include chapter book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal; CCBC Choices-honored picture book, One Million Men and Me; Ellen’s Broom, a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book, Junior Library Guild and Bank Street Best selection and Tea Cakes for Tosh and Hope’s Gift, Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Her latest picture book is One More Dino on the Floor.  Jada Jones, her new chapter book series, debuts in September.

How did The Brown Bookshelf come about?

The Brown Bookshelf was founded by young adult authors Paula Chase-Hyman and Varian Johnson. As they launched their kidlit careers, they noticed a disturbing reality – many people had never heard of the wonderful books by black children’s book creators that were available. Paula and Varian wanted to start an initiative that would celebrate authors of color and be a resource for children, parents, teachers and librarians. Inspired by Readergirlz, they created The Brown Bookshelf to “push awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers.”

How did you get involved?

Paula invited me and author Carla Sarratt. Varian invited author/illustrator Don Tate. I was thrilled to join a team dedicated to saluting black children’s book creators. Together, we kicked off the inaugural 28 Days Later campaign, a Black History Month celebration of under-the-radar and vanguard authors and illustrators.

Who are the current members? 

They are: Varian JohnsonPaula Chase-HymanDon TateKelly Starling LyonsTameka Fryer BrownGwendolyn HooksOlugbemisola Rhuday-PerkovichCrystal AllenTracey Baptiste, and Jerry Craft.

 How did the 28 Days Later campaign start?

Paula and Varian came up with the idea for the campaign. We invited the public and publishers to submit nominations of black authors and illustrators with new books or those that had flown under the radar. We researched those suggestions, made internal recommendations and voted on the first class of honorees. Over the years, we’ve generally followed that model as we search for outstanding authors and illustrators to feature. The goal is to give parents, librarians and teachers a month of spotlights celebrating stand-outs in the kidlit world. We want to draw attention to black children’s book authors and illustrators and get their great books into the hands of kids.

What has been the response?

Every year, the response inspires us to keep going. Many people share our posts and use them as a resource for making sure their school, library and home children’s book collections match our diverse world. We hear from parents who longed to buy books that reflected their kids but had no idea how many existed until they found our site. We’ve received notes from students who have used our profiles for research for school projects. Sometimes our spotlights are the main source for information about a black children’s book creator outside of that person’s website. It’s heartwarming and affirming to know we’re making a difference. It’s also a challenge to keep pushing and giving back.

This is the tenth year for 28 Days. How will it be different this year?

In celebration of our tenth campaign, we’re doing a different format. In past years, we’ve honored eight picture book authors, eight middle-grade authors, eight young adult authors and four illustrators. This year, we’ve arranged our spotlights around themed weeks. The campaign opened with books for younger readers, featuring debut and under-the-radar picture book creators. The second week, we focused on books for older readers – middle-grade and YA authors. The third week, our theme was social justice. The last week of our campaign is inspiration week where we interview or pay tribute to children’s book creators who have paved the way for us.

How have the careers of your featured authors progressed?

One of the beautiful parts of being a member of The Brown Bookshelf is seeing the careers of black children’s book creators flourish and bloom. We featured Kwame Alexander before the Newbery, Jacqueline Woodson before the National Book Award, Javaka Steptoe before the Caldecott, Jason Reynolds back when Kirkus called him “an author worth watching.” It fills us with pride to see authors like these and others soar. Every award they win, every starred review, every accolade, is a lift for all and reminder that our books matter.

On the other side though, there are amazing black authors and illustrators whose stories are still not receiving the audience they deserve. There are veteran black children’s book creators who struggle to land deals, whose books lack the marketing support to grow a large audience, whose important books are overlooked and eventually go out of print. Our mission is to raise awareness of their work and make sure they’re honored too. We need equity in the children’s book publishing world. We have a long way to go.

What prompted the Declaration in Support of Children?

We had been trying to find a way to collectively express our outrage at the systemic racism and brutality that was devastating our kids and affirm our commitment to standing with them and for them. One of the ideas we brainstormed was an open letter. Team member Tameka Fryer Brown did an amazing job with the draft. We revised and added our thoughts. The election gave our letter even more urgency. It became an open declaration  letting kids know we have their backs.

“ . . . The stakes are too high for us to be silent. The stakes are too high for us to wait for someone else to take the lead. The stakes are too high for us to just hope things will get better. Each day, we see attempts to disenfranchise and dehumanize marginalized people and to dismiss the violence that we face. As children’s book creators, we feel a special connection and responsibility to amplify the young voices that too often go unheard . . .”

We invited others to join us in our mission to “to promote understanding and justice through our art; to bolster every child’s visceral belief that his or her life shall always be infinitely valuable.”

Illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

What has been the response?

The outpouring of support we received was incredible. Nearly 700 people signed the initial declaration with hundreds more signing the living document on our Facebook page. Our declaration was covered by School Library Journal, The Guardian and more. We’re inspired and thrilled at the hundreds of people who pledged to stand again hate and stand up for kids.

Brown Bookshelf member Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich has been leading important roundtable discussions called Where Do We Go From Here? about how to put our declaration into action. You can see them here  and here. Stay tuned for more.

 

What does the future hold for the Brown Bookshelf?

The future is limitless. We are always thinking of ways to amplify the work of black children’s book creators, support and honor the voices of children and be of service to parents librarians and teachers.

Our 28 Days Later spotlights are always available on our website. But our most recent project was working with TeachingBooks.net to showcase our features and their additional resources for our 28 Days Later honorees (Links here and here).

Another new project was expanding our social media presence. You can find us on FacebookTwitter, Instagram,  and YouTube.

We’ll have more news to share in coming months. We’re honored to be featured here. Thank you for spreading the word about what we do. That we’ve been around for a decade is a testament to the support of great people like you.