Career Achievers: Kelly Starling Lyons on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

By Traci Sorell


I love books that celebrate multigenerational family gatherings and connections between family members of all ages. Going Down Home With Daddy (Peachtree, 2019) combines rich language by Kelly Starling Lyons and spectacular illustrations by Daniel Minter.

When you sit with the book, you easily see why it garnered starred reviews, effusive praise and made The Horn Book’s Calling Caldecott list.

But I wanted to know more about how Kelly came to craft this book and what advice she has for other writers.

Kelly, Going Down Home With Daddy tells the story of a family gathering at the father’s boyhood home with all of his relatives. Tell us what prompted you to write this book.

As a kid, I loved going to reunions. We would travel to different cities to connect with relatives, have fun and honor our history.

Sometimes my grandma would share what gatherings were like when she was young. She would take my brother and me to visit land in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania that used to be called “Woods Grove” after her dad. Grandma would share how special it was to live there, host family gatherings, and bring her kids back home to play.

That memory stayed with me—and planted the seed of a story.

Kelly shared images that inspired Going Down Home With Daddy at her launch party.

The idea for Going Down Home With Daddy bloomed when my husband took me to a celebration at his family home place in Colquitt, Georgia. Set on countless acres, every piece of the land held memories. Watching his family come home full of joy and love made me think of my grandma’s stories and family reunions I remember.

Then, I looked at my kids. I saw how they lit up when we got to their great-grandma’s house, how they basked in the attention, took in the history and enjoyed walking the land. I wondered what did it mean to them to go down home? What would stay with them? What would they pass on?

Down Home treats at the launch party.

What do you hope a reader will take away from Going Down Home With Daddy?

As Granny shares, “Nothing is more important than family.” I hope readers will think about the traditions and history that make theirs special. Kids can help preserve this heritage, add to the story and pass it on. I would love for readers to celebrate who they are and where they’re from.

I also hope readers will take time and savor Daniel Minter’s beautiful art. He packed so much meaning into every spread. Look up the Adinkra symbols for Sankofa, Bese Saka and Nyame Dua. Then, find them in the book and think about why Daniel used them. Just like you read the words, you can read Daniel’s illustrations.

Going Down Home With Daddy interior illustration by Daniel Minter, used with permission.

I appreciate you sharing about the Adinkra symbols, Kelly. I poured over my copy again and loved discovering how Daniel incorporated them. This speaks so strongly to the importance of African-American, co-created picture books. The authenticity that you both bring to this book cannot be overstated.

I know you’ve talked about holding up a mirror to African-American children to see themselves in your books. It’s evident in your work. But what have you not done yet that you still want to accomplish?

Thanks so much for your kind words. I often write historical and realistic fiction, but I love fantasy too. I count Virginia Hamilton and Jerdine Nolen among my favorite authors. I dipped my toe in the fantasy genre with my picture book, One More Dino on the Floor, illustrated by Luke Flowers (Albert Whitman, 2016). I have so many more stories to tell.

One day, I hope to write a fantasy novel with my oldest child who loves magical tales. I’d also love to write a board book. I’m a fan of ones by Jabari Asim and Angela Johnson. I dream of adding my voice.

Any other books from you in 2019 that we can enjoy?

I have two other books that released this summer. Jada Jones: Dancing Queen, illustrated by Nneka Myers (Penguin Workshop) is the fourth installment in the series. Jada has to do a ten dance challenge to raise money for a cause that means a lot to her and her friends.

Nancy Paulsen Books published Sing a Song: How Lift Every Voice and Sing Inspired Generations, illustrated by Keith Mallett. Inspired by the history of the Black National Anthem, it’s a picture book that imagines generations of kids who pass on the song.

In children’s-YA writing and illustration, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.  Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer-artist’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Just Us Books

Oct. 30 marked my 15th anniversary as a children’s book author. I couldn’t have asked for a better first publisher than the trailblazing Just Us Books.

From the start, it wasn’t just about business. Being one of their authors meant joining a family. They guided me through the editorial process of my debut title, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal (Just Us Books, 2004), celebrated my achievement and invested in my book’s success. They taught me about marketing and modeled the importance of giving back. What a welcome to the world of children’s book publishing.

The Hudsons published my first picture book, One Million Men and Me, illustrated by Peter Ambush (Just Us Books, 2014), too. It was the realization of a dream made sweeter by their love and support. They sent me to industry conferences, made posters of the book cover, sponsored a writing contest. I was floating.

Just Us Books

But as I began sending stories to other publishers, I got a familiar refrain. The stories I wrote had heart and depth, but they were quiet. Some suggested I consider developing my stories more and turning them into middle-grade. I value critique and the opportunity to grow as a writer. I took the feedback that resonated, tried to banish self-doubt and kept writing and revising.

Over the years, I landed a wonderful agent and deals with amazing editors, but no new titles were on the shelves. Friends and colleagues asked, “When’s your next book coming out?”

Even when you know you’re moving forward, doubts can creep into the corners of your mind. What does it mean if I don’t have a book every year or every other? Will my work endure? Will I be forgotten?

Every time I heard that nagging voice, I focused on my blessings. A new author visit invite? Hooray! Letters from a class? Time to dance. A new story idea? Plop my butt in a chair, put fingers to the keyboard and make that seed bloom.

In 2012, five years after One Million Men and Me, a trio of books entered the world – Ellen’s Broom, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Penguin, 2012), Tea Cakes for Tosh, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Penguin, 2012) and Hope’s Gift, illustrated by Don Tate (Penguin, 2012).


People said, “You’re on fire!” They cheered the honors the books won. I appreciated every gesture of support.

But I remembered the long years of grinding in between. My children’s book journey was the marathon, not the sprint. And it wasn’t over. Enter more rejections, an agent search and reminding myself that my stories would find homes.

My next book, One More Dino on the Floor, illustrated by Luke Flowers (Albert Whitman) debuted four years later in 2016.

Today, with thirteen published books and seven on the way, I’m thankful for the struggles and the successes.

This year has been a stand out in so many ways. Going Down Home with Daddy has been named a best picture book of 2019 by Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. Sing a Song: How Lift Every Voice & Sing Inspired Generations earned a Booklist star and was a SIBA summer Okra pick. Kids and teachers tell me how much my Jada Jones series resonates. But that didn’t happen overnight. Every setback was a springboard to something greater.

Albert Whitman

I’m thankful for my agent and my editors who believed in my stories and helped me bring them to life. I’m grateful for my family and friends, Brown Bookshelf brothers and sisters, teachers, librarians and the kidlit community who celebrated each victory along the way.

At every turn, there has been someone with a smile, a hug, an affirming word that lets me know I’m right where I should be.

When I visit schools, I share with kids my essentials of being a writer–creativity, hard work and faith. It’s that last one that has helped me persevere.

If you had it to do all over again, what–if anything–would you do differently and why?

I knew being published would take time and commitment. I studied the art of writing for kids. I saw every personalized rejection as moving me closer to a “yes.” When I began landing deals, I gave thanks for each blessing. But I wish I would have pushed myself sooner to dream bigger.

Every New Year’s Day, I write down my yearly goals and make tweaks to my long-term plan. I list stories I want to bring into the world. I write down awards I’d love to win one day and conferences and festivals I hope to attend. But when I consider the wonders of the past few years, I realize I’ve been playing it small.

I never thought I’d have a chapter book and easy reader series. I never imagined seeing kids dress up as one of my characters or having my books on Target shelves. I never envisioned being offered the chance to present in another country. But all of those things have come true.

Today, I push myself to dream bigger. Recently, a librarian friend reminded me of the power of naming what you want. Here goes: I want my work to inspire an animated series. I want to have a book chosen as a community read. I want to have my books translated into other languages so they reach kids around the world.

Name it and claim it. I’ve always believed in the power of intention and positive thinking, but now I’m pushing myself to dream large and out loud.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, illustration, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

Through initiatives like mentorships, internships, awards and grants, We Need Diverse Books has helped change publishing in a major way.

When I entered the field, there weren’t many programs specifically for authors of color and Native authors to break in. Today, SCBWI has an Emerging Voices Award and IPOC Women’s Scholarship. Highlights has a two-year Diversity Fellowship. Kweli has the amazing The Color of Children’s Literature conference that feels like coming home. Those initiatives are so needed. I’m thrilled they exist and hope we keep seeing more.

But it’s also important to remember whose shoulders we stand on. Generations of children’s book creators of color and Native creators paved the way for every inroad. Each victory has a long history. I’d love to see more recognition of the foot soldiers and visionaries whose sacrifices led to our hard-won progress. We still have so much to do. Their commitment can teach us how to keep pressing on.

I’d also love there to be programs that not only help children’s book creators of color and Native creators break in, but make sure they thrive over the long haul. Getting a deal is something to celebrate. But how can we help people create careers with staying power? How do we make sure mid-list writers are seen, valued and chosen for new opportunities too?

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

I would tell beginner me to know my worth. Be grateful for every opportunity, but also remember what you bring. People expect authors to give away advice, books, time. Have an open heart, but also take care of yourself. Remember that writing is a calling and a business.

Kelly, Juana Medina and Christina Soontornvat talk chapter books at the Texas Book Festival.

How about for those in their writing apprenticeships, at the start of their writing journeys? What craft and career advice could you share?

My favorite advice was shared with me at the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua sponsored by the Highlights Foundation: “Write the story only you can tell.” As soon as editor Patti Lee Gauch said those words, I nodded and tucked that message in my heart.

Rather than searching for industry trends and what has brought success to others, dig deep and let who you are inform the stories you create. That’s where magic lies.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers, illustrators, and readers, looking to the future?

I wish for books by writers of color and Native writers to be considered required reading. Our books should be among the lists of classics. Our books should be picked for all-school reads. Our books should be featured year-round not just during celebrations of heritage and culture. I want our books to be centered.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I want to continue to grow and stretch. Writing is discovery. I write realistic fiction, historical fiction and nonfiction, but my first love is fantasy. I count Virginia Hamilton and Jerdine Nolen among my favorite authors. I dream of a writing fantasy picture book and middle grade. I plan to keep pushing myself to meet new goals and trying new things.

No ceiling. No limit. That’s my new motto. I’m dreaming large and out loud.

Wado (thank you), Kelly, for this interview and for these three wonderful 2019 books. I look forward to many more from you!

Cynsational Notes

Kelly Starling Lyons is a children’s book author whose mission is to transform moments, memories and history into stories of discovery.

Her picture books include CCBC Choices-honored title, One Million Men and Me, illustrated by Peter Ambush (Just Us Books, 2014); Ellen’s Broom, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Penguin, 2012), a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book and Junior Library Guild selection; Tea Cakes for Tosh, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Penguin, 2012); and Hope’s Gift, illustrated by Don Tate (Penguin, 2012), Notable Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies and One More Dino on the Floor, a Scholastic Reading Club pick.

Her popular Jada Jones chapter book series has earned praise for its focus on friends, family and STEAM. Kelly is a teaching artist who regularly presents at schools, libraries, festivals and conferences around the country.

Traci Sorell covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She also covers fiction and nonfiction picture books.

Traci is the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), a 2019 Sibert Medal Honor, a 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, and 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor award-winning nonfiction picture book with four starred reviews.

Her newest works include: At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, 2019); Indian No More, a historical fiction middle grade novel co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, 2019); and “College Degree,” which appears in Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, edited by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Marlena Myles (Millbrook, 2019).

Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her Tribe is located. She is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram.