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Writers Against Racism: Kelly Starling Lyons

Kelly Starling Lyons is the author of One Million Men and Me (Just Us Books, 2007), NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal (Just Us Books, 2004) and two forthcoming picture books with G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 

Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.

 (photo credit is Zack E. Hamlett, III) 
I grew up in a predominantly white, working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Along with my cousins, my best friends were two girls who lived nearby. Those friends and I dug for treasure in the yard, played jumprope games on the porch, chased each other in Freeze and TV Tag. Their mom and dad treated me with kindness and love. Then, one day, one of their cousins called my brother and me niggers. 
That word burned. It made me flash to the time my brother came home upset, saying a boy at school called him the same slur. In an instant, my 115-pound mother marched my brother and me up the cobblestone hill to the boy’s home. She demanded an apology. And she got one. But on that summer day, I didn’t need my mom to have my back. Before I could say a word, my friends told their cousin to shut up and ran to tell their mother. Her reaction was immediate and strong. He got a talking-to and a spanking. Right there. On the spot. 
When I think back to what happened, I realize he was just repeating what he heard from others. He may not have understood how horrible that word was. But back then, little-girl me was thankful for the clear message that racism is wrong. 
Those were isolated incidents. I didn’t deal with much in-your-face racism back then. But I did face institutional challenges. My mom told me how she and my grandma fought to have me tested for the scholars program. In elementary school, I remember reading just one children’s book featuring African-American characters — Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I bought it from Troll book club. I wished it and others had been part of the curriculum. I had wonderful, caring teachers, but I didn’t learn about the body of children’s books by African-Americans until I was in my early 20s. A new world opened to me. I felt affirmed.

Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?

In college, African-American Studies professors introduced me to history and literature I had never been taught. I learned about the richness of Africa, the realities of slavery, the beauty of the Harlem Renaissance, the power of the Black Arts Movement. As I thought about how often the experiences and stories of black people were marginalized, I pledged to do what I could to help change that.  
Writing became my way to give back. As a journalist, I made it my mission to write stories about people whose voices were too seldom heard. I wrote about young African-American men who attended the Million Man March, Native American elders passing on important traditions, a Latino mom who scrimped to give her daughter the quinceanera she never had.
That’s part of my mission as a children’s book author too. I write to turn moments, memories and history into stories of discovery. I write to give children reflections of their lives. I write stories that I never read growing up.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
Literature can move and inspire, heal and help.  Consider a book like Lily Brown’s Paintings by Angela Johnson. In it, an African-American girl creates art from her heart. That celebration of creativity and wonderment speaks to children of all races. Now, think about Jacqueline Woodson’s The Other Side. Annie and Clover cross the color line and become friends. That’s a universal story too. But it’s also a safe space where children and adults can discuss tough issues like racism and build understanding.
Children’s books, contemporary and historical, can help create a better world. I watch my daughter beam when we read books like Mama’s Saris, Jingle Dancer and Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crabcakes Later) and know she’s learning so much. She gains appreciation for the beauty of different cultures and sees the ways we’re all connected too. 


Kelly is a member of  The Brown Bookshelf and lives in NC. Visit Kelly at and watch her book trailer

(photo credit is Zack E. Hamlett, III)


  1. B Herrera says:

    When racism is treated just like any other form of bullying and bad behavior, it soon loses its superpower features. Here’s hoping that more friends and parents will stand up to racist bullies and let them know that their behavior is unacceptable. I know my mother and father never allowed us to put another person down, and they taught us not to tolerate such behavior in others without speaking out. Thanks for an uplifting story about your life and your dreams.

  2. dita.dita says:

    Agreed B Herrera, this story is quite moving and I’m glad it’s being brought to the forefront in a forum like this.

  3. Excellent post, Kelly

  4. Olugbemisola says:

    thanks, kelly for refusing to let us ignore those oft-unheard voices. great post!

  5. George Edward Stanley says:

    The Reading List Crime: Why are so many of the W.A.R. writers not represented on the reading lists of America’s public schools? Why are so many of America’s young people being denied these great writers? This isn’t just a mystery, it’s a crime that needs to be solved. Thank you for telling your story, Kelly!

  6. Amy Bowllan says:

    George, hopefully the “publishers” are reading this series. I have been researching blogs and looking at the catalogues I receive from publishers. It’s amazing how few writers of color are represented. I am not stopping this series until THEY change. It’s a crime, indeed.

  7. I really appreciate all of the kind comments. I feel honored to be featured in this important series. Amy, thank you for creating this forum and thank you for all you’re doing to change the face of publishing.

  8. Kelly’s a great interviewee AND a great interviewer–don’t miss her posts on The Brown Bookshelf, a site that always features writers & illustrators of color.

  9. Kelly,
    Thanks for sharing your life experiences with us. This forum is allowing us as a group to come together with our thougths, which can be a beginning for change.
    Thanks to everyone!

  10. Paula Chase says:

    Kelly, I value how diligent you are about reflecting the many different cultural experiences through literature. And we just bought Princess Bea, Lily Brown’s Paintings at her school book fair about three weeks ago. I loved the story!