Are you one of the many adults frustrated by the lack of good children’s books on the market that feature African-American characters? So was Kelly Starlings Lyons. But instead of just complaining about the problem she decided to do something about it.
A Creative Spirit and former writer for EBONY magazine, Starling Lyons is the author of five children’s books. She has received rave reviews for her work, including one of her recent picture books – the beautifully illustrated – Tea Cakes for Tosh, a tale that celebrates the bond between grandchild and grandparent and the stories that strengthen a family from one generation to the next.
Starling Lyons was kind enough to take part in a Marti Ink Q&A to share her motivations for writing, her view on ebooks vs. traditional books, the best advice she’s received on her publishing journey and much more.
1. What was your inspiration for Tea Cakes for Tosh?
Tea Cakes for Tosh was inspired by my relationship with my grandma who was an amazing cook. Tea cakes were one of my favorite treats. They were special because of their taste, but also because of the story Grandma told about her grandmother carrying them in her apron pockets. She would pop them into her grandchildren’s mouths when they complained about working on the farm in the hot sun.
When I started writing for kids, I thought back to those delicious cookies and that family story. I thought about how close I was to my grandma and how she couldn’t always remember all of her recipes when she got older. Those memories were the springboard for my story about Honey and Tosh. The story is fiction so I let my imagination play too. That’s how Tea Cakes for Tosh was born.
2. Approximately how long did it take you to complete Tea Cakes?
From idea to finished book, it took about a decade. At first, I got form rejections. Then, I received a call from an editor at Children’s Book Press. She complimented the story, but encouraged me to try a different plot point. That led me to the memory thread that’s in Tea Cakes for Tosh now. After that revision, I attended the Highlights Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. I received more guidance there and started receiving personalized rejections. Then, I got an agent and a yes. I feel so blessed that Stacey Barney acquired Tea Cakes for Putnam. E.B. Lewis’ illustrations are beautiful. They bring a deeper meaning to the story.
3. In your book you touch on the effects of aging. Why do you feel this is an important topic to be discussed with children?
Children form important relationships with grandparents and elder relatives. Picture books are a great way to explore tough topics and help kids get a greater understanding. When parents and teachers explore picture books about sensitive topics, they’re creating a safe space where kids can voice their thoughts and concerns.
4. In your books Ellen’s Broom, One Million Men and Me and Tea Cakes for Tosh the theme of family as well as moments in black history are highlighted. Do you consider this to be your niche in the publishing world? Why or why not?
When I grew up, I didn’t see any picture books celebrating African-American history. I use my work to give back and help make sure kids today have a different reality. But I don’t only write about history. I write contemporary stories. I love fantasy. I think my niche is celebrating African-American family relationships whether they’re in the present or the past.
5. What made you want to become a children’s book writer?
In my 20s, I saw the picture book, Something Beautiful, by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. It was my first time seeing a picture book with an African-American child on the cover. Right then, I knew I wanted to add my voice.
6. In general, where does your inspiration for a book idea come from? Is this source of inspiration your most effective go-to source? Why or why not?
My inspiration for books comes from memories, experiences, history, observations. I rely on all of those sources at different points in the writing process.
7. What type of research did you do for this book?
Tea Cakes is a contemporary story which goes back and forth through time. I didn’t have to do research for the present-day sections, but I did for the parts which take place in slavery. I read slave narratives, talked to curators of historic sites. I wanted to make sure the story rang true.
8. What do you do when you’re not writing books?
Family means everything to me. So I cherish the time I have with my family and friends. Work-wise, I’m doing author visits and presentations, marketing and brainstorming when I’m not writing.
9. What book project are you working on now?
I’m working on my middle-grade novel and a couple of picture books.
10. How has your latest book Hope’s Gift been received so far?
Not many reviews are in yet. But we received a good review in Kirkus. Hope’s Gift was also chosen as a winter/spring 2013 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA).
11. Do you ever see yourself writing books for an older market such as young adult or adults? If yes, in what genre?
I have a middle-grade novel in development. So I definitely see myself writing for that age range. I have an idea for a young adult book. It isn’t calling me as strongly as some of my picture book projects. But I hope to explore it one day.
12. What are your thoughts on ebooks vs. traditional paper books, particularly for children’s picture books and middle grade books?
I love traditional books. I don’t think picture books will be threatened by the e-book revolution. Historically, many picture books are lap books. A child sits on a parent’s or caregiver’s lap and listens to the story being read. That’s a special experience you can’t duplicate with an e-reader. There’s something about holding the book and turning the pages that’s just magical. E-books and games could become a cool complement to traditional books because of their interactive elements.
13. Who are your favorite authors to read?
Three of my favorite children’s book authors are Jacqueline Woodson, Eve Bunting and Angela Johnson. I love the lyricism of their books.
14. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Remember that writing for kids is a marathon not a sprint. Take your time and learn as much as you can about the field. Work hard and write the best story you can. Have faith that your story will find a home. All it takes is one yes.
Special thanks to Kelly Starling Lyons for stopping by Marti Ink!
To learn more about the author and her latest projects visit her blog at www.kellystarlinglyons.com.
Until next time…