Today, Ripples from the Tide Pool brings you its first interview—a conversation with Kelly Starling Lyons, author of the picture book, One Million Men and Me. I asked Kelly several questions about the craft of writing. Below, she describes her inspiration for the book, her motivation for writing the types of stories she does, and more.
Q: This October 16 will mark the 15th anniversary of the Million Man March, an event where black men from all over the country came together in a spirit of atonement, reconciliation, and responsibility. You attended the march as a reporter. What inspired you to write about the occasion as a fictional picture book, versus some other non-fictional format?
A: I’ve written about the Million Man March in feature articles and essays. But when I first began writing for children and thought about stories I wanted to share, memories of the March rushed back to me — men holding hands and praying together, children sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, drum beats in the air. Writing the story as a picture book manuscript was the only format I considered. The event was so visual and poetic. I knew that text and art could work together to bring a part of that amazing day to life. Illustrator Peter Ambush conveyed such a range of emotions in the pictures of my main character Nia and her dad. The story wouldn’t be the same without that visual layer of meaning.
Q: What made One Million Men and Me (Just Us Books, 2007) a necessary story for you to tell?
A: The Million Man March was such a transformative event. It was a day filled with beauty, unity, purpose and peace. The images I saw there will stay with me forever. Here is a quote from a teen I interviewed: “All I saw was just an ocean, an ocean of black men, not just black, but Puerto Rican, Mexican, you name it, people of color. It’s like a feeling in your soul. I can’t even explain it. Everybody was standing around giving everybody hugs. If you bumped into someone, they said, `Excuse me brother pardon me.’ There was love all around.”
I can only imagine what kind of impact the March made on the young children who attended. When I saw a wide-eyed little girl walk past the Reflecting Pool clutching her daddy’s hand, I wondered what her day was like. How did she feel to be surrounded by a tapestry of black men united in harmony? What would she always remember? That’s how the story came to be.
I wrote One Million Men and Me so that children today would learn about this amazing day in history and feel proud. So often, negative stories about black men and fathers are highlighted in the media. But on that sunny October day, the world saw a sea of black men stand together as one. I was so moved by the sight of that little girl there with her daddy, of the fathers – and mothers — there with their sons. I wanted to share the story of the March and the special relationship between an African-American father and child. It’s something we don’t celebrate enough.
Q: As we approach the 15th anniversary of the Million Man March, why do you think it’s important for educators, librarians, and parents to teach children about historical events such as these?
A: It’s important because they won’t find out any other way. The Million Man March, though it was one of the largest gatherings in U.S. history, won’t appear in many textbooks. So it’s up to us to keep the memory alive and pass the story along. Unlike some more distant historical events, the March happened just 15 years ago. There are men all around us who are living history.
Just as it’s essential for all children to have stories that speak to their every-day lives, reflect their dreams and stoke their imagination, they need historical ones that explore the struggles and successes of all people. It’s affirming for kids to learn about people who blazed a path for the freedoms they enjoy now, who stood up and made a difference. I wish I had those kinds of stories growing up. I didn’t learn much about African-American history until I was in college. I write so kids today have a different reality.
Q: You have two forthcoming picture books with Putnam, Ellen’s Broom and Teacakes for Tosh. Which did you find more difficult: crafting a story about a historical event, or crafting a purely fictional one?
A: Creating the storyline was a similar process, but historical fiction has additional demands. The characters are made up, but the background comes from history. In the case of Ellen’s Broom, I had to read historical documents and make sure I understood what happened during that time. So for me, the level of research required makes historical fiction more exacting, but it’s just as rewarding.
Q: Eddie’s Ordeal (Just Us Books, 2004) is your chapter book. Do you plan on writing more novels? Do you prefer writing in one genre over the other (pbs vs. novels)?
A: I love writing picture books. That’s the genre I read most often and the one that drew me to children’s book writing. So that will always be where my heart is. I have many picture book manuscripts in development. I’d love to see some of my fanciful ones published. But I definitely plan to write more chapter books and a novel or two.
Q: Considering all the stories you have written to date (both published and unpublished), what would you say is the common theme or characteristic that defines your body of work?
A: Like many authors, I mine my life for ideas. I write stories that explore every-day moments, memories and history. In my stories, children discover something special and important about themselves or the people around them. That’s a commonality in the stories I create.
Q: In your writing life, what’s the next step for you? Is there anything you want to write or achieve that you have yet to?
A: I have lots of ideas on my list. So there are definitely stories I want to write. I also have stories, contemporary and historical, I’d love to find homes for. But a big dream is to win the Coretta Scott King Award one day. That would mean so much to me.
The award honors outstanding contributions by African-American authors and illustrators. Too often, those treasures go unsung.
Q: Iced tea: Sweet or unsweet?
A: Definitely sweet. Peach and raspberry are my favorites.
Q: Stilettos or flip flops?
A: Depends on the day. But flip flops win most of the time.
Q: Sandcastles or snow angels?
A: Snow angels. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I have wonderful memories of making snow angels with my brother in our grandparents’ yard.
Watch the book trailer for One Million Men and Me here.
Accompany Kelly on the rest of her blog tour. The scheduled stops can be found here.
Also, visit her blog daily for many goodies, such as educational trivia about the march and downloadable coloring sheets. Leave a comment, and be entered into drawings for some cool stuff.