Kelly’s beautiful and moving picture book, One Million Men and Me is the story of a young girl who witnessed history in the making. Join me as we explore the inspiration for this story by asking Kelly a few questions.
1. Kelly, One Million Men and Me is a wonderfully moving story about a transformative moment in American history. Can you tell us how and why this historic event captivated you?
Thank you for your kind words. Fifteen years ago, I attended the Million Man March as a journalist. I’ll never forget what I saw: Strangers embracing like brothers. Father and sons, friends and cousins, laughing, talking and praying together. Men standing shoulder-to-shoulder as far as I could see.
Before the March, there were people who questioned if one million black men could come together in purpose and harmony. The world saw the answer on that beautiful October day.
As I walked around the Washington Mall, listening to the drum beats and powerful words of speakers soaring through the air, peace was all around. Teens said, “Excuse me,” if they stepped too close to each other. Twenty-somethings traded head nods and dap for hugs. Men -- young and old, rich and poor -- took a pledge to be better husbands, fathers and sons. It was an incredible experience that inspired me in deep and lasting ways. As I looked around at the wide-eyed children taking it all in, I knew they were moved too. That’s why I wanted to pass the story on.
|Kelly Starling Lyons (facing the camera) |
at the Million Man March, October 15, 1995
2. Did you ever consider writing this story in another format or did you always know it would be a picture book?
I always knew it would be a picture book. So many kids attended the March. Some, including Ayinde Jean-Baptiste and Tiffany Mayo, were even featured speakers. Their messages were some of the most moving that day. One of the sweetest images I saw was a little girl walking past the Reflecting Pool clutching her daddy’s hand. Her big eyes glittered with hope and pride. She looked like a princess in a sea of kings. That picture of the two of them together stayed with me.
I hadn’t seen many children’s stories that celebrated that kind of special bond between an African-American father and daughter. So that’s what inspired me to write the story from that point of view. I wondered: What did she see in her father’s face? What images would she always hold close? What did she learn about her dad and the men who attended?
3. Sometimes authors, who are particularly inspired, say that the story almost writes itself. Did that happen with you and One Million Men and Me? How challenging was it to encapsulate such a powerful experience in so few words?
I felt overwhelmed at first. The Million Man March was one of the largest gatherings in the history of our nation’s capital. It changed people’s lives. How could I do justice to something as meaningful as that?
I struggled with how to tell the story. I tried to write it as a straight narrative at first. It didn’t work. So I began to write down images I remembered, things I thought a little girl would notice – signs some men carried, how tall the men were around her, how the clouds looked like cotton candy. Then a couple of months later, I attended a fatherhood conference and saw men hugging and talking. In an instant, I was taken back to the spirit of the March. I went home and the draft came together in a matter of hours. It flowed like poetry. That’s what the March felt like to me.
4. As an author myself, I know how difficult it is to find a publisher. Can you tell us how you found yours? How is Just Us Books the right fit for you and the stories you feel compelled to write?
Just Us Books is a wonderful family-owned publisher that has been creating black children’s books for more than two decades. I was drawn to children’s book writing because I wanted to create stories that gave kids reflections of themselves and their history. As a child, I didn’t see kids of color in most of the books I read. I want children today to have a different reality. Just Us Books is a pioneer of that mission.
When I became serious about writing for children, I sent the Hudsons a manuscript for consideration. They turned it down. But they offered me the chance to try out for their chapter book series, NEATE. I won the assignment to write a book about the character Eddie Delaney. The plot I created revolved around his relationship with dad, friendships and the sit-in movement. The Hudsons nurtured me and taught me so much.
Though my first book was a chapter book, my dream was always to write a picture book. When I pitched One Million Men and Me to Just Us Books, they encouraged me from the start. They understood the importance of that historic event and why it should be shared with kids. They helped me turn One Million Men and Me into a fully-developed story.
5. Kelly, I know you make school visits and public appearances. What is the most gratifying part of connecting with young audiences?
I love their curiosity, enthusiasm, openness and sincerity. Kids give it to you straight. When they tell me that they can relate to something I wrote or enjoyed my stories, that feedback means so much to me. The most meaningful part of what I do as an author is interacting with children. I love sharing my writing journey, teaching them that putting words on the page isn’t some mystical thing. I love letting them know that they each have stories that matter and deserve to be told. When kids tell me after a program or visit that they want to be authors too or are excited about writing, that’s better than any prize I could receive.
|Kelly, reading to students.|
Young African-American readers, like all young readers, want to read stories that entertain them, move them, affirm them, surprise them. They want to see characters who speak to something important inside themselves. Sadly, for children of color, that’s tougher than it should be. In 2009, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that out of about 3,000 children’s books received that year, just 157 had “significant African or African American content.” And just 83 were by “black book creators, either authors and/or illustrators.” That’s troubling and unacceptable.
But what makes me feel hopeful is knowing that there are many talented and caring people of all races dedicated to changing that. All kids will benefit from that hard work.
And, thanks, Kelly for being one of those very talented, caring people!
Kelly is giving things away! Anyone who posts a comment on any of the stops during the tour will be entered in a raffle. 3 winners. 3 prizes - all with One Million Men and Me image on them.
1. tote bag
2. tee shirt
3. a signed poster
And here, on Kelly's blog, is the list of stops on Kelly's tour. Visit any of them. No. Visit All of them. Celebrate!
Oh and Just Us Books is celebrating too - by making One Million Men and Me available for only 10.00 through the month of October.
Check out the book trailer!