Back straight, head high, heart and mouth open, she sang. Lift ev’ry voice and sing. (from Sing a Song, by Kelly Starling Lyons)
—article by Emilie Menzel
Kelly Starling Lyons—nationally recognized author of seventeen children’s books and respected advocate for Black children’s book creators through The Brown Bookshelf—is stepping into the leadership role of the Piedmont Laureate at a poignant time. Our country’s children are being required to navigate the grief and isolation of a pandemic and systemic racism, in addition to the already challenging task of growing up. As Kelly notes, “Around the nation, people are demonstrating to dismantle systemic racism and demand changes to ensure our freedom and safety. Proclaiming that Black Lives Matter is essential. It’s an affirmation and a rallying cry. Alongside that message, there’s another that’s building momentum – Black joy matters. It’s an act of resistance against a world that tries to set us back, divide us and push us down at every turn. In the face of that, joy is liberating. Perhaps no one needs that more than kids.”
Children’s literature, of course, plays a vital role in helping children imagine possibilities for the future. Children turn to stories to understand their histories and communities, to gather strength, to find ideas for what comes next. How we define children’s literature, whose stories we uplift and center, who we include in children’s stories, and how we include them in these next few years, then, are critical decisions. As Piedmont Laureate, Kelly will have a platform for positively shaping the Triangle community’s perceptions of children’s literature. She plans to use the opportunity to “center Black heroes, celebrate family, friendship and heritage, and show children the storytellers they hold inside.”
Kelly’s own writing does as her mission states. She herself comes from “a blue-collar family with lots of love, always family around,” who “really valued faith and heritage,” and “found power in connecting.” Her books frequently highlight family and community as grounding supports for her characters, and she aims to write in a way that helps children “see books as friends and not as strangers.” Her picture book Sing a Song: How Lift Every Voice and Sing Inspired Generations tracks the history of the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as it is passed down through family traditions. In her picture book Dream Builder, she maps the career of Durham architect Philip Freelon through the relationships he builds with his grandfather, community, and Black heritage.
Additionally, Kelly’s books repeatedly center Black joy. Her two series, Jada Jones and Ty’s Travels, feature Jada—a spunky, science-loving fourth-grader—and Ty—“a little boy with a big imagination,” “a tribute to Black boy joy.” Ty’s Travels: Zip, Zoom!, in fact, was just awarded a 2021 Geisel Honor by the American Library Association. “There’s a lot of heavy stuff going on right now, with us trying to tackle systemic racism, and police brutality, and the pandemic, just so many different things,” says Kelly. “I think joy is healing and restorative and affirming. And if you give kids this window, into this special part of themselves and know that that’s valued, too, that really makes me feel good.” She recounts with delight the moving honor of a child dressing up as Jada Jones for character day, children using her characters as touchstones for positive relationships with their schoolmates, and empathic stories of connection children tell her after reading her books.
“When I was in elementary school,” she recalls, “I only remember one book (which was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) that had a Black child on the cover. Though I love books of all kinds, and I was an avid reader, having a book in which I could see myself really meant everything to me. I think it’s important for all kids to know that they are heard and they are seen and they are loved and their history matters and their family matters and their voices matter. When you’re in a classroom or in a library, or other spaces, and you never come across books featuring kids that look like you, there’s a weight of invisibility that becomes hard to bear.”
Inequity in racial and ethnic representation within the children’s literature community persists today. A 2019 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that only 27% of children’s books feature a protagonist who is Black, Native, Latinx, Asian, or Pacific Islander. That’s less than the 29% of protagonists who were an animal. You can guess the remaining demographic. Further, just this week, a prominent children’s library resources journal published a themed issue of “Why White Children Need Diverse Books,” an approach to Black history month that oddly centers whiteness. To quote children’s literature scholar Rudine Simms Bishop, “when children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read…they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are part.”
Kelly’s goal is thus to “lift kids up, help them see themselves, as well as help them see their friends and the wonderful diversity of our nation.” Through her work with the book review and book finder resource The Brown Bookshelf, Kelly enacts this goal by connecting schools and libraries to Black children’s book creators. Such work helps Black children find stories which reflect their lived experiences as real and valid. Further, it connects Black children’s book creators to a wider audience and a supportive community of other Black children’s book creators. Kelly emphasizes that “we need to deconstruct the typical idea of what the canon is and make sure that it’s reflective and representative of who we are as a nation by including Black creators and Native creators and all creators of color on the shelf.”
Urging children’s literature gatekeepers to move their walls is tough, emotionally draining work, but work that is desperately necessary, and it’s moving to hear Kelly speak of the cause with energy. “There are so many, wonderful, just excellent, meaningful, powerful books by Black authors of all genres that go back generations that deserve to be part of classrooms,” she exclaims. “Story really unites and connects all of us. It starts as one person’s voice, and it ends up as this chorus of voices continuing to echo.” Kelly’s writing and advocacy work evoke possibility for children’s literature, and we’re lucky to call her our 2021 Piedmont Laureate.