Two Authors Shine a Light on African American Culture for Children and Teens

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When they were kids growing up in Pittsburgh and Brooklyn, respectively, Kelly Starling Lyons and Torrey Maldonado rarely saw children’s books with characters who looked like them, characters who were African American. That lack of representation all those years ago planted a seed in them, however. Today, they are both acclaimed authors, shining lights on their culture, past and present, and giving children and young adults characters they can look up to.

Kelly (a Christopher Award winner for the children’s book “Tiara’s Hat Parade“) and Torrey (a Christopher Award winner for his young adult novel “Tight“) joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcasts below) to discuss their lives, work, and the power of faith.

Kelly grew up in a family where both reading and storytelling were important. Her mom was creative, and her grandparents shared stories from black history with her that she never heard about in school.

She said, “I hardly ever saw any books featuring black kids, but one day I saw ‘Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry’ by Mildred D. Taylor and didn’t need to even read the summary. I knew right away that I wanted that. Though I didn’t have the words to articulate it then, it made an impact on me: the power of seeing yourself and what that does in terms of letting you know that you matter – and your family and your history matters. I think that planted a seed in me right then that bloomed into my later becoming a children’s book author.”

Torrey’s background is a little different, being that he grew up in what he calls “a book desert.” The Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn were the largest black housing projects in the United States. He compares the crime and drugs there to something you would have seen on the TV series “The Wire.”

Torrey, however, was always a “bookish child,” though he couldn’t be so publicly because others would accuse him of being “soft” instead of tough, which is how you needed to be to survive in Red Hook. Torrey’s mom encouraged his love of reading in their home, though. But he never saw any characters who looked like him until his mother gave him the book “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats, featuring a young African American boy. Torrey thought the book was about him because he had also put a snowball in his pocket. His mother explained, “He’s not you. But he is you.”

“My mom planted that seed,” said Torrey, “but she also lit a spark in me that grew over time into me realizing, ‘That magic…of our community that’s not showing up in books, I can do that. I can share that magic.’ One of the reasons I love Kelly so much is because Kelly is one of the persons who not only is trying to do what I do in terms of putting that magic on the page, but we’re also trying to inspire others, young kids, to grow up to take our place and become the writers that the world needs.”

As she got older, Kelly followed a similar mindset, noting, “My focus was African American studies when I was a college undergrad. I fell in love with the mission of the Black Arts Movement, which is that art is not just for art’s sake, but to actually make the invisible seen and felt… One of [mine and Torrey’s] commonalities is making sure that we’re celebrating us, letting kids know they can hold their heads high, connecting them to a legacy of people who have persevered and have…demonstrated black excellence.”

That mission led Kelly to become a founder member of the blog “The Brown Bookshelf,” which aims to promote the work of black children’s book creators. That is where she and Torrey connected and became friends several years ago, after his first book, “Secret Saturdays,” was published.

Kelly has written many children’s books over the years, including “Tiara’s Hat Parade,” which earned a Christopher Award in 2021. It shares the story of a young African American girl who tries to revive her mother’s spirits after she’s forced to give up her beloved hat making business.

“Tiara’s Hat Parade” grew out of the fact that hats – both wearing them and making them – holds a special place in African American culture, including in Kelly’s family. She said, “When I moved here to North Carolina…I got a chance to meet some milliners and hear the stories of how the hat that they were creating brings such joy, brings such pride, can make women or men, the wearers, feel confident. I realized they weren’t just creating hats, but they were creating light through what they were doing.”

There is an implicit element of faith in “Tiara’s Hat Parade,” when Tiara prays for her mom to be able to make hats again. God answers that prayer by making Tiara herself the instrument of that happening. Kelly notes that she doesn’t intentionally aim to work God into her stories, but since her faith and family are the two most important things in her life, it usually works out that way. “To me, it was just natural that she’s worried about something so she takes it to God,” explained Kelly.

In addition, the tradition of hat wearing in African American culture stems from the church. Kelly said, “You have people who work all week long, some may be working tough jobs where they’re not able to show their individuality and their style. And also as a way of being humble, covering your head when you’re going into a house of worship. But we really made it our own. The hats became…known as crowns, where you could show the color and the style and the pageantry and express an important part of who you are.”

For Torrey, his mom instilled him with what he calls “mustard seed faith” and inspired the character of the mother in his 2019 Christopher Award winner “Tight.” When he saw trouble in their crime-ridden neighborhood, she would advise him to “look for the angels, look for the helpers.” She would also encourage him to envision a better future by asking, “What do you want our world to look like? Where do you want to be? What do you want to do?”

“I would open up to my mom and tell her these wild dreams,” Torrey continued. “She called them prophecies. She believed God was putting those dreams in me, in my heart and in my mind. My mom said, ‘You can do those things. You can go to those places. You could be that person. You just have to have mustard seed faith.’… Sure enough, following my mom’s wisdom I found that biblical wisdom… I applied a little bit of that faith and became the first person in my family to graduate from college. Then, everybody was turning to me and saying, ‘You can’t publish any books because you don’t know anybody in the book publishing world.’ Now I’m on my third book published, and I’ve got more books coming out.”

Torrey also recalled that, like his bookishness, prayer was also looked down on in his tough neighborhood growing up. But he credits his mother with teaching him that all prayers don’t begin with, ‘Father, grant me…’ or a phrase like that. As an example, he points to a passage in his book “Tight,” in which the main character, Brian, goes to the store and has to buy food on credit because they can’t afford to pay cash. That’s when Brian sees a young girl looking at him, and he feels like “a broke joke.”

As a result, Brian says a prayer. Torrey explained: “It doesn’t sound like a traditional prayer because, oftentimes, guys and girls growing up in neighborhoods where spirituality may be frowned upon, they pray differently. And this is what a prayer might sound like where I grew up, right here on page nine of ‘Tight.’ Brian says, ‘Outside his store, I look above everyone’s heads, I look above the laughs, the arguing, the music. I look to Manhattan and I wish’ – there’s the prayer – ‘I wish things could be different. I wish my family had more money. I wish that girl didn’t see me be broke. I wish I wasn’t in my feelings. I wish I didn’t care so much.’ There’s powers of prayer inside this book, it just doesn’t look like the King James version in the Bible.”

Kelly adds, “I love the idea of taking what you’ve survived, taking all of the trials that you’ve faced, and looking for the blessing, the people who are the helpers, the light that shines in your family, the magic that you have and the talents that God has gifted you with. I just love that. And then also the notion of prayer. When I grew up…my grandma used to say, ‘You pray with your feet moving.’ It’s prayer plus action. Love is an action word. It’s not just saying it, but it’s showing it and it’s doing it.”

Both Kelly and Torrey have numerous upcoming projects. Kelly has one book honoring Coretta Scott King coming out in January. And next month, she will have the fifth book in her Jada Jones series published, entitled “Sky Watcher.” Jada is a science-loving fourth grader, who looks up to Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman astronaut, and wonders if she can ever measure up to her. Then Jada realizes that Dr. Jemison had fears and struggles as a child, too, but still fulfilled her potential.

In addition to his ongoing work as a teacher in Brooklyn, Torrey is happy that his latest young adult novel, “What Lane?”, has gained acclaim as one of Oprah’s favorite books, been named to numerous Best Book lists, and is being read in schools across the country. He also has a new picture book coming out soon, as well as a middle grade novel.

As they continue their work, both authors deeply appreciate the meaning behind their Christopher Awards. Kelly concluded, “Thank you for this wonderful platform that you have created through The Christophers to recognize books and movies and so many different things that people can look to to celebrate hope and optimism and courage and determination and perseverance. Those things are so needed every day, but even more today. We’re just dealing with a lot as a nation. And so [we’re blessed] to have this resource through the Christopher Awards, where you can go and pull from great literature, great films, to let you know that you’re not by yourself, that others have faced challenges and made it through, and that you can too.”

(To listen to my full interview with Kelly Starling Lyons and Torrey Maldonado, click on the podcast links):

Kelly Starling Lyons and Torrey Maldonado, part 1 – Christopher Closeup
1) Deanna Witkowski, and 2) Kelly Starling Lyons and Torrey Maldonado, part 2 – Christopher Closeup

RELATED: Mustard Seed Faith, A Mother’s Love, and Racial Healing: A Conversation with Award-winning Author Torrey Maldonado