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 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! 

4 comments on “Kelly Starling Lyons: Inspired Author

  1. Cathy Ballou Mealey says:

    Hi Kelly –
    I loved reading this interview and I can’t wait to get my hands on your book! At close to 1,400 words, did you have a hard time getting editors and agents to look at your manuscript? Thanks!
    – Cathy

  2. Great interview Kami! Kelly, I love all the background geneological research you did to create such a feeling-driven book as Ellen’s broom. I think that often people who don’t write picture books don’t realize how much research and planning goes into one.
    I’m looking forward to reading both this book and “tosh.”
    For those who haven’t read Kelly’s prior book “One Million Men and Me” I highly recommend it.

  3. kamikinard says:

    Oh, thanks for mentioning “One Million Men and Me” Janelle! Cathy, I’ll let Kelly know you asked a question. 🙂

  4. Constance Lombardo says:

    Great interview. I loved reading about your process, Kelly. And really look forward to reading Ellen’s Broom!

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