Kelly Starling Lyons: Inspired Author

Picture by Zack E. Hamlett, III

Kelly Starling Lyons is a writer I know virtually through the SCBWI Carolinas message board, Twitter, and Facebook. I’ve been excited about the buzz around her new picture book Ellen’s Broom, partly because it is always exciting to see fellow chapter members achieve success, but also because it is one of those stories that holds special meaning for its author. Ellen’s Broom is the story of young girl who “finds a way to celebrate her parents’ right to be legally married and remember the past.” (This description is from Kelly’s website.) Today Kelly shares some of her inspirations for her story. She answers some of my usual nerdy chick questions too! 

Thanks so much for joining us today, Kelly. I want to ask a few questions about Ellen’s Broom first. It is a book about a girl with a strong sense of family. How did your own family influence this story? Ellen’s Broom was inspired by a cohabitation register I saw while researching family history. That document recorded the marriages of people who were formerly enslaved.

Growing up, I was the kid who asked my grandparents countless questions about where we came from. I memorized the names of ancestors and hometowns. I passed along that sense of pride in family heritage to my main character Ellen.

Her family has been through so much. They survived the horror of slavery. Now, in the story, they rejoice in having each other and hope for a better future. My family is resilient and full of faith too. No matter what obstacles we face, we give thanks for one another.

Another resonance between my family and Ellen’s are the names. All of the names in the story are ones I’ve found on my family tree – Ruby, Ruben, Noah. Ellen’s name is a tribute to my maternal grandfather’s mother. I was researching her side of the family when I came across the cohabitation register that led to the story. So there’s a lot of my family in Ellen’s Broom. 

It’s great that your curious mind as a child gave you the seeds you needed to write Ellen’s story later! Can you tell us a little about the research behind writing Ellen’s Broom?  The cohabitation register was my first piece of research. Looking at this list of husbands and wives and when they were married during slavery made me long to learn more about what it meant for them to finally have their unions legally recognized. I read slave narratives looking for clues. I read a wonderful article by African-American genealogy specialist, Reginald Washington, called Sealing the Sacred Bonds. I read Freedmen’s Bureau letters from the officers who registered the free men and women. I tried to learn as much as I could about the time and how this momentous occasion made them feel.

I love what you said on your website about reading Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and realizing that you had missed reflections of yourself in children’s literature. Can you share how that story inspired you to write?  As a kid, I loved reading and treasured every story I read. But it wasn’t until I saw Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth that I realized I missed something important – reflections of children who looked like me. I was an adult and that was my first time seeing an African-American child on the cover of a picture book. With her brown skin, pigtails and barrettes, the main character reminded me of myself, my girl cousins and some of my childhood friends. Then, I read the story and was touched by how the author created a world complete with flaws and hope. She gave the child the power to make a difference. I wanted to do that too.

Wow. What a powerful reason to be a writer. What is the best thing about being an author? The best part for me is spending time with kids. After nearly every program, a child comes up to me and shares that they create stories or passes me something they’ve written. It feels amazing to think I may inspire them to keep going or open their minds to what they can be.

I agree that students’ response to our work is really gratifying! What other stories can students expect to see from you in the future? I have two forthcoming picture books debuting in the next several months. Tea Cakes for Tosh, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, will be released on December 6. It was inspired by my relationship with my grandma. Her tea cakes and stories transported me to another place and time.

This is going to be a busy year for you! Now for the  nerdy questions. What’s something you like to do that might be considered a little bit nerdy, but is actually really fun? I love genealogy. Some people might find combing through old records and books tedious, but I’m hooked. Researching your family tree is like putting together a puzzle. You’re piecing together the story of who you are.

Do you have a favorite way to flaunt your brain power? I love sharing multicultural children’s book recommendations.  So many people have never heard of the many beautiful stories celebrating children of color. I love their reaction when they tell me they’re looking for a book about a particular subject and I can come up with titles for them to check out right away.

Your blog celebrates some of these books. I’ve linked to it through the blogroll on the right! One last question, if you could give your middle school or high school self one piece of advice, what would it be?  Back then, any challenge I faced – a new zit, a boy I liked seeing me trip, wearing glasses that weren’t cool — seemed like the end of the world. I would tell the young me to worry less and count my blessings more. I look back on that time and realize how special my adolescence was. It wasn’t storybook perfect, but it was magical in its own way and shaped so much of who I am.  With the loving hand of my mom and my grandparents guiding me, I felt so safe and valued. They encouraged me to dream big. And I did. I would cherish those days more.

Great advice. I am definitely sharing this one with my children. It is a gift to know what we have when we have it, and most of us miss out on that during those difficult years.  Thank you so much for sharing with us today. I love hearing “the story behind the story” and the story of Ellen’s Broom is inspiring!

To find out more about Kelly, you can visit her website at www.kellystarlinglyons.com. You can check out her Facebook page by clicking HERE or join it by clicking the box in the right margin on this blog.  And you can watch the Ellen’s Broom trailer right now! 


Quotable Nerdy Chicks: Maya Lin

I’m so glad I was reintroduced to the work of Maya Lin through my son who studied her recently in school. If you don’t already know this, Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D. C. while she was still an undergraduate student. When I was in college, one of my friends was among the first to visit that memorial. She found the name of another friend’s father on the memorial and brought back a framed pencil rubbing of it. I will never forget how touched my friend, whose father was killed before she could meet him, was by that gift. The Vietnam Memorial has touched countless others since its installation.

Lin has designed other amazing structures and done other amazing things. You can read more about them at her own beautifully designed website. www.mayalin.com She currently owns and operates Maya Lin Studio in New York City.

 Maya Lin Quotes

  • I loved school. I studied like crazy. I was a Class A nerd.
  • I was always making things. Even though art was what I did every day, it didn’t even occur to me that I would be an artist.
  • I try to give people a different way of looking at their surroundings. That’s art to me.
  • All my work is much more peaceful than I am.
  • To fly we have to have resistance.
  • How we are using up our home, how we are living and polluting the planet is frightening. It was evident when I was a child. It’s more evident now.

Now. Go visit her website. Move your cursor to make things happen!

In Conclusion…

View from my cabin window while at the Highlights workshop in October.

I just finished writing the conclusion for my second novel. This does not mean that I have finished the novel. I still have a lot to do.  But tomorrowI am getting on a train, yes a train, and heading up to New York for a few days. I’ll be spending one of those days with brilliant editor Patti Lee Gauch and a group of talented writers. Last year we spent two weekends together at the Highlights home place working on our novels under Patti’s direction. Now it is time for a reunion! We were invited to bring a problem chapter with us for evaluation and discussion. This inspired me to hurry up and finish my conclusion. Talk about a problem chapter!

A couple of years ago I heard Newbery Medalist Richard Peck speak. He said in young adult literature, a conclusion is not an ending, it’s a new beginning.  These words were enlightening to me, and they are oh-so-true. When writing for young adults and middle graders, it is crucial that our characters grow from their experiences. Once they have grown, we must launch them into the next chapters of their lives, newly armed with what they have learned.  Even knowing this, it is harder than it seems.

As I struggle to finish my second novel, I’ve come to another conclusion. I am going to alter my blog schedule and do Nerdy Chick Interviews every other Monday instead of every Monday. I love doing these interviews! I have learned so much about the interviewees, even about those who are my good friends. I find them all inspiring. But each interview takes me a few hours to edit, format, and upload, and I desperately need to get more writing hours in if I’m ever going to finish the novel at hand! So for now, I am altering this particular aspect of the blog. At the same time, I am looking at new ideas for Nerdy Chicks Rules.

When I return from New York, I’ll let you know if I learn anything new about conclusions. I’ll also give you an update on how my amazing editor nerdy chick Aimee Friedman is doing. We’re having lunch on Thursday! And because I already have tickets to see Seminar starring Jeff Goldblum, I’ll let you know if he nuzzles me the way he promises to on this video HERE at around 1:10. If you don’t already know, Seminar is a play about a writing professor and a group of student novelists.

It should be a very writerly working vacation. You can look forward to another great interview next Monday!

Psst: To find out more about the Highlights Foundation Workshops like the one I attended, click HERE.

Quotable Nerdy Chick: Joanna Cole

When W. H. Beck agreed to be interviewed for Monday’s post, I knew I’d just have to find a quotable librarian. I found several famous female librarians who are also writers including Ann Tyler and Beverly Cleary! But I loved that first quote from Joanna Cole so much that I decided to feature this famous creator of the Magic School Bus Series. There is a very nice biography about Joanna Cole HERE at Teen Ink.

Joanna Cole Quotes

  • People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.
  • Take chances! Get messy! Make mistakes!
  • Children’s view of the world and their capacity to understand keep expanding as they mature, and they need to ask the same questions over and over, fitting the information into their new level of understanding.

I love the fact that Joanna Cole used her gift of explaining things and storytelling to enrich my children’s childhoods through her Magic School Bus books and the cartoons they spawned. I hope to add to this quote bank someday too.

To see a compiled list of nerdy chick quotes, click HERE.

W. H. Beck: Buzz-Worthy Librarian

Becky Wojahn is an awesome writer. I say this as someone who has read her work in various forms since I met her in 2004 at the Writer’s Workshop at Chautauqua. For a while, we were in the same online critique group (until we both got swamped with work).  We sold our first middle grade novels just a few weeks apart, and they both debut this year! Becky writes as W. H. Beck and her novel Malcolm at Midnight will soon be featured at BEA as one of the most buzz-worthy new books of the year! Malcolm at Midnight is a wonderful novel about rat whose talents include solving mysteries, and of course, reading. In addition to being an author, Becky works full time as a librarian. (I don’t know how she does it.) That is a picture of her at her library on the left. If you want to see the rest of her, you’ll have to visit her WEBSITE! Thanks so much Becky for joining us today. Can you tell us a little about where you work and what you do? 

Hi Kami. I am currently an elementary school librarian in the Eau Claire Area School District in Wisconsin. I spend my days talking about books, helping teachers, and teaching research and technology skills. It’s a great job—even more so in that I work at my kids’ school (well, not Eli any more—eep!) and that it’s close enough to walk to.

In the past, I’ve taught (middle school and fourth grade), worked at a public library, and as the education librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I’m active in state (WEMTA) and national (ALA) library organizations and used to write pretty frequently for school library publications (there’s a list on my website under “other writing”).

What do all these things have in common? Throughout it all, my love of stories, especially ones for kids!

If you could give your middle school or high school self one piece of advice, what would it be? Only one? Don’t do the really short feathered haircut! Your hair is too straight to go the way you hope it will and you will look like a boy. For many months. Man, that took a long time to grow out.

More seriously? Well, this is a tough one, and I’m not sure my middle school/high school self would ever even believe it, but I’d advise that it’s okay to be quiet. I am not a very outgoing person by nature, and I’ve spent a lot of my life, especially those years, wishing I was funnier and louder and more sparkly, and feeling really uncomfortable when I tried. Somehow people think you’re not having fun if you’re not the life of the party. It’s taken me a long time to realize: how would they know? Only I know, and I need to listen to myself. It’s okay to watch and listen—and have fun doing it. Ironically, this realization has made me more willing to speak up and express myself!

So now that you are willing to express yourself 🙂 tell us one of your favorite way to flaunt your brain power! Aside from being a rocket scientist or a computer engineer, I probably have the most stereotypical job for flaunting my brain power! My day in the library is a mix of trivia (Mrs. Wojahn, what is the fourth book in Cressida Cowell’s Dragon series? [HOW TO CHEAT A DRAGON’S CURSE]), detective work (Mrs. Wojahn, do you remember that book you read to us two years ago about the colorful dirty squirrels and the vacuum cleaner? [RHYMING DUST BUNNIES]), and “fixer” (Mrs. Wojahn, why won’t this formula work in Excel??).

What aspects of your career (writing or being a librarian or both) are most stimulating to your brain? Part of the reason I went into teaching and libraries (and probably why I write, too) is that I LOVE learning new things. I am curious about so many things and writing, teaching, and working in a library positions me perfectly for uncovering all sorts of great tidbits of information.

It seems like loving to learn is a recurring theme on this blog. For good reason! What is one of your favorite achievements that you can credit to being a nerdy chick? Well, when I was a kid, I always felt like I wasn’t never THE BEST at anything—and I desperately wanted to be. The closest I came was in reading. I tied my best friend for doing the most book reports in the second grade, and I never stopped reading after that. Eventually, even my reader friends slowed down, but I kept going. (I was the epitome of nerdy chickhood, walking home from middle school with a clarinet case in one hand and an open book in the other.)

But if you keep doing something long enough, you get good at it, and when you’re good at something, you usually enjoy it. So even though I was never THE BEST writer or student growing up, I’m proud of where I’ve ended up—with not one, but two jobs that I love.

That is super rewarding! Do you ever give nerdy traits to any of your characters? One of my favorite characters in Malcolm at Midnight is Amelia Vang, the fifth grade girl that Malcolm bonds with. She’s one of those hyper-organized students that I’m guessing many teachers will recognize.  She’s totally color-coded and labeled—notebooks match folders; socks match hair elastic—and she’s also the class schedule keeper. However, despite (or perhaps because of) this, she has trouble connecting with other students in her class. Malcolm ends up helping her with this.

Amelia is a wonderful character! Did you do any particular research when writing Malcolm at Midnight? For being a funny mystery starring a talking rat, I did a lot of research for Malcolm! First of all, I’ve never had a rat as a pet, so I had to learn about rats—what they could do (swim through plumbing!), their strengths (resilience) and weaknesses (food). It was really fun to twist those around into Malcolm’s character traits and actions. The same was true for the classroom pets’ “slang.” I figured that if food was really important to them, then their vocabulary would reflect that. So I got to get out my trusty thesaurus and looked up alternate words for eating and snacks and crumbs and turn them into sayings the animals could use.

Working with an illustrator (Brian Lies) also opened up a whole new level of research for me. Malcolm at Midnight is set in an old school, and when I write, I like to use a lot of visuals, so I spent way more time than I needed to clicking around on the internet, looking at aging schools and clock towers. But this all came in handy later on, when Brian had questions about the school’s layout. I forwarded him a lot of my links and sketches and photos for his illustrations.

And finally, because I’m a nerdy chick, I did a lot of research in planning and plotting a successful mystery—what parts are necessary? How do you hide the clues in plain sight? I really loved learning about how to fit the pieces of the story together.

I love hearing the ways that authors bring their stories alive with research! Very nerdy. And I love interviewing my friends because I always find out something new about them. Like, I didn’t know Becky could draw. But look at this early sketch she made of Malcolm. Pretty great, right?

To find out more about Becky, you can visit her website HERE, or check out her Facebook page, her Goodreads page, or follow her on Twitter.

Becky and I are both in a group of debut authors called the Apocalypses. Check the Apocalypsies blog for updates on our books and other books debuting in 2012.

Thanks again Becky joining us. I’ll be posting more Malcolm news here as it rolls in! Readers, you can look for Malcolm at Midnight in bookstores in September!

The Quotable Nerdy Chick: Annie Oakley

Back when I was in middle school I found a book on my Grandmom’s bookshelf called Annie Oakley and the Wild Wild West, which I read from cover to cover. I loved the idea that a girl like Annie (1860 – 1926) could do something so remarkable that she stood out from everyone else. Annie was, in fact, the first female in America to achieve wide-spread fame.

So, can a sharp shooter who was most famous for touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show really be a nerdy chick? Well, she definitely flouted social norms! (See first quote below.) And she worked very hard at her skill, first as a young girl to kill game to support her family, and later to win shooting competitions.  She continued to win competitions into her sixties. She also championed women’s rights.

To find out more about Annie Oakley (born Phoebe Ann Moses), click HERE.

Annie Oakley Quotes:

  • My mother…was perfectly horrified when I began shooting and tried to keep me in school, but I would run away and go quail shooting in the woods or trim my dresses with wreaths of wildflowers.
  • For me, sitting still is harder than any kind of work.
  • Aim at a high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, not the second time and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect. Finally you’ll hit the bull’s eye of success.
  • After traveling through fourteen foreign countries and appearing before all the royalty and nobility I have only one wish today. That is that when my eyes are closed in death that they will bury me back in that quiet little farm land where I was born.
  • God intended women to be outside as well as men, and they do not know what they are missing when they stay cooped up in the house.

My personal favorite is the one about sitting still. I can only sit if I am actively doing something.

The photo of Annie Oakley above is in the public domain because its copyright expired.

Lisa Clancy: Creative Chick

I think I can safely say that everyone who knows Lisa Clancy feels inspired by her enthusiasm for learning and life. I met her shortly after we moved to Beaufort while she was my son’s creative arts teacher. We became friends almost instantly, bonding over a love of creativity and a desire to see creativity nurtured to a greater extent in the education of our children. Together we have written grants to help fund creative endeavors in our schools, started an after school program called The Creativity Club to foster creative thinking, and bounced countless ideas off of each other about all manner of arts related topics. I have never met anyone who loves learning about new things more than Lisa does and my inbox can attest to this! Lisa is also a glass artist, a cake artist, a director of school plays, a performer, a teacher, and a mom. She currently works at Riverview Charter School where she serves as the Creative Arts Teacher.

Thanks for taking time from your super busy schedule to talk to us Lisa! Now that you work in a school and have children in middle school and high school, if you could go back and give your middle school or high school self one piece of advice, what would it be?

1.) Simply said: This too shall pass….

2.) More profound: A friend summed it up perfectly in one of his books: ““It is better to be respected than it is to be popular. Popularity ends on yearbook day, but respect lasts forever.” (John Bytheway)

Middle and High School can be pretty tough years. I lived them in a way that I was respected, but I probably could have benefited more emotionally knowing deep in my heart that I was perfectly OK being ME.

Hey that’s two things! (Actually, Lisa gave me the option of picking, but they were so good that I included both.) Now, what is your favorite way to flaunt your brain power? I’m in my element when I’m doing anything creative – painting, drawing, glass work, photography, or doing anything musical or theater related – you name it. (Even cake decorating – I’m pretty good at that!!) Overall, I just love learning! I usually lean towards those more “creative” opportunities, however, I love exploring new places and meeting people from all walks of life. It makes life worth living!

How is brain power an asset to your career? Any teacher has to use his/her brain power daily to be successful but my personal job title- Creative Arts Teacher- gives me ample opportunity to use my brain power to its fullest – (sometimes even on overload). When I am inspired creatively it fuels the work I do. You can’t underestimate the value of a great support staff as well. I am very fortunate in that way. Sometimes it starts with just a small idea and grows from there. Just recently, my second grade teachers and I collaborated on a poetry project. The original plan was to have the kids recite poetry but the grand event, our Poetry Palooza was a total hit. Along with poetry recitations, the children wrote and decorated poetry for a display, they created a poetry book for their families and we made (my fav part) two videos showcasing idioms and another highlighting tongue twisters. It was fun taking a small idea to new heights!

You’re right about teachers having to use brain power daily! Can you tell us a story about a time when nerdiness turned out to be an advantage for you? When I got the tutoring job for the Bob Zemeckis’s son, when they were in town doing the movie, “Forrest Gump”.

That really is a unique opportunity! What is one of your favorite achievements that you can credit to being a nerdy chick? I’d prefer FUNNY ACHIEVEMENTS to favorite! In my high school (the olden days) girls were required to take Home Economics. I was MUCH more interested in taking Woodshop and learning how to use a jigsaw and sander. I was told by school administration that couldn’t take the class, so I fought it and won! I was the first young woman in my high school to take woodshop and metal shop, and a few other previously “male dominated” courses – loved them all!!

Stick with me – there is more to the story! Fast forward – Senior year. I decided that I would like to – after all – take a few classes in the Home Ec department (there weren’t many options in those days!) So I took two classes – which I enjoyed immensely. Come graduation day when the awards were being presented I was hoping (praying) that the coveted music award would be mine- after all, I had had leading roles in multiple school productions, been in band, choir, madrigals – you name it! Sadly, however, it would not be mine. I resigned myself to the fact that there would be no “special awards” for me! Oh well. I sat back and began to daydream- till someone started nudging me –  “And the Home Ec award goes to Lisa Chirco” (maiden name). I was confused, startled – it couldn’t be – no way…what the heck?? I only took two classes in four years…” Sure enough – it was me! I got up and sheepishly took my award while keeping my head down from the rotten stares I was getting from all the girls who had taken Home Ec for years – sewed prom dresses, cooked gourmet meals, planned their weddings, etc… It was tough! I was certain there must have been a mistake. There wasn’t. The Home Ec teacher called me later that day to compliment me on my values and my desire to always learn more about life and motherhood. It was real!

The award was deserved. Lisa made this cake for my book launch party.

My husband and I STILL joke about the award almost 30 years later especially if someone asks me to cook. He assures them all will be well. “She won the Home Ec award in high school!”

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the gumption to buck the system back in high school. That’s pretty cool!  What else is cool about being nerdy? You have friends from all walks of life that don’t use tight “rules of acceptance.” Therefore my world is a unique place! My friends color my life in so many interesting ways!

 Can you share a favorite song, quote, or movie that speaks to your inner nerdiness?When I was a kid my mom and Dad loved Barbara Streisand. I grew to love her voice and became particularly connected to the lyrics of one of her songs. It’s not one of her more famous songs – in fact – I have not heard it in years. I like this part of the song:

Iʼd like to plan a city, play the cello/Play at monte carlo, play Othello/Move into the white house, paint it yellow/Speak Portuguese and Dutch/And if itʼs not too much

 Itʼs not a song about wanting everything in a selfish kind of way but rather the theme of endless learning that makes life rich and whole.

Favorite quote:  “Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” –Henry Van Dyke

You are very creative! How does brain power help your creativity? Thanks for the compliment! I have been reading a book Steal Like an Artist (10 Things Nobody Told you About Being Creative by: Austin Kleon. Anyway…I appreciate this quote from the book: “Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything.” Jonah Lehrer

It’s true. The more I fill my life with interesting things, books, visual images or people that inspire me, the better prepared my brain is when I begin to create. The more connections I make, the more vivid life becomes – the more ideas can be generated. Sometimes my mind works a bit like an explosion though- ideas going right and left. It definitely fuels my creativity and it has obviously blessed my life in many ways.

The quote above will remind Catcher in the Rye fans about the gasoline rainbows, am I right? Either way, thanks for sharing the quote, Lisa! Well said!  And thank you for sharing your love of creativity here today.

You’ll find out a little more about Lisa soon. We are working on a YouTube Video (another learning experience) for Nerdy Chicks Rule that we hope to premiere in the next week or so!

 

Lisa's glass work in the gallery at ARTworks.