Thursday, October 21, 2010

How the Million Man March Inspired a Picture Book, by Kelly Starling Lyons

As soon as I heard about the Million Man March, I knew I had to go. My mission as a writer was to give voice to people whose stories too often go unsung. Here was the chance to feature young, African-American men and talk to them about what this March meant and why they wanted to come together and be counted.

At that time, there was so much negative news in the media – stories about gangs, about young men going to prison. I was excited about the chance to highlight something positive and show people a different picture. Everywhere I went, I heard men and teens asking each other: Are you going? They would show the world that one million black men could unite in peace, purpose and love.

Some journalist friends and I drove to Washington, D.C. from Syracuse, NY. We knew the March would be special. But nothing could have prepared us for what we saw. My skin tingled as we walked onto the Washington Mall and Black men covered the grounds like a beautiful tapestry. Rich and poor, young and old, men sang, hugged, laughed, rallied and prayed together.  There was peace all around.

The teens I interviewed told me that this day would stay with them forever. In school, they said, someone might be ready to fight if you bumped into them. But at the March, they told me, everyone said, ‘Excuse me, brother.” They talked about feeling inspired to go back home and make a difference. They were filled with so much hope.

I watched fathers – and mothers – walk with their arms around their sons. Those boys looked so proud to be part of history. Then, I saw a little girl walk past the Reflecting Pool clutching her daddy’s hand. Her eyes glittered like diamonds. She looked like a princess in a sea of kings. Those images spoke to me. I felt that fostering that closeness between father and child was part of what the March was about.

Years later when I began writing for children, the memory of that little girl and her dad came back to me. What if I imagined what the March was like for her? What if the little girl was the storyteller sharing the story of her dad and all of the men who made history that day? I named my character Nia, because I felt that she was there for a reason, just like me.

I was moved to write the story because all kids need positive images. Even today, there are too few stories that celebrate African-American dads and too many black history stories that remain untold. These are American stories that speak to the rich and diverse fabric of our people.

Writing One Million Men and Me was magical and meaningful. At first, I struggled. The words just wouldn’t flow. I second-guessed myself and wondered if I could do justice to something as amazing as the March. Then, inspired by black men I saw hugging and talking at a fatherhood conference, I gave it another try. I sat down at my computer and let Nia be my guide. Something electric happens when you surrender to the story. All of those feelings of pride, hope and love surrounded me as I saw the March and my character’s father through her eyes.

Today, I love going into schools and sharing One Million Men and Me. Often, I start with a slideshow of images from the March. Kids can’t believe how many men stood together. They point and gasp. They smile when they see the pictures of kids who were there too.

Then, before I read the story, I ask the children to share with me special times they’ve spent with fathers and father-figures. They talk about sweet moments like dancing with daddy, going for a ride with grandpa or fishing with an uncle. Then, I read the story and they get how wonderful Nia must have felt to be there with her father the day one million black men united as one.

To hear an excerpt on One Million Men and Me in French, click here! For Spanish, click here! :)
One Million Men and Me Book Trailer

About today's guest:
Kelly Starling Lyons, a Pittsburgh native, is a children's book author whose mission is to transform moments, memories and history into stories of discovery. One Million Men and Me was her first picture book. She is also the author of  NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal and has two forthcoming picture books with G. P. Putnam's Sons. The first, Ellen's Broom, debuts January 2012. The second, Tea Cakes for Tosh, comes out that fall.

For more information on Kelly Starling Lyons, click on the following links:
Kelly’s Blog, Kuumba
Kelly’s Website
Kelly’s Facebook Page


Zee said...

This sounds like a great book! Thank you for highlighting it!

Nathalie said...

Thanks, Zee!