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2021 Piedmont Laureate aims to increase representation in children's literature


Author Kelly Starling Lyons is 2021's Piedmont Laureate, a program co-sponsored by the City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County. Photo courtesy of Melissa R. Campbell.

Children’s book author Kelly Starling Lyons is serving as the 2021 Piedmont Laureate, a program based in the Piedmont region of North Carolina with the goal of increasing awareness and recognizing excellence in the literary arts.

The Piedmont Laureate is co-sponsored by the City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County.

Each year, a Piedmont Laureate is chosen for a one-year period where they conduct activities across Durham, Orange and Wake counties. These activities range from reading at libraries to hosting writing workshops, but this year's activities are all being hosted virtually due to COVID-19.

Lyons, who lives in Raleigh, said connecting virtually has been a pleasant surprise.

“I think even more kids are being able to be heard through being able to just type their thoughts like a stream of consciousness when we're going through certain lessons,” Lyons said.

Lyons' passion for children’s books developed at a young age and later inspired her to find her voice through writing.  

“I really loved storytelling,” Lyons said. “I would spend a lot of time at the library, and we had books pretty much all around.”

As a Black woman, Lyons said she rarely saw characters who looked like her. She said she remembers the first time that she saw a book with a Black main character.

“It wasn't until I was in third grade that I saw a book called ‘Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,’” Lyons said. “That was my first time seeing a Black girl on the cover of a children's book.”

Lyons said she was too young to fully understand how meaningful the book was to her back then, but now is able to reflect on its significance in her life.

“It planted a seed in me that later ballooned into being a children's book author and wanting to make sure all kids can see themselves in books,” she said. “All kids should know they deserve to be the stars of stories.”

After 17 years as a writer, Lyons has published over 15 children’s books with people of color serving main character roles. As Piedmont Laureate, Lyons said she hopes to highlight her mission for children everywhere.

“My mission as an author is to center black heroes, to celebrate family, friendship and heritage and show all kids the storyteller they hold inside,” Lyons said.

Emilie Menzel, an Orange County Arts Commission assistant, said Lyons has been an advocate for representation in children’s literature.

“The idea that everybody should be able to see themselves in children’s literature is really powerful, as well as its ability to shape our perceptions of ourselves,” Menzel said.

UNC 2020 graduate H’Abigail Mlo had a similar experience to Lyons as a child, as she gravitated towards books with Asian-American characters like herself as a child. Mlo remembers the significance these books had on her.

“Even as a kid I saw that need to feel connected to a protagonist in a story, even if it was a cute, light-hearted story,” Mlo said.

As a child, Mlo said she would often have to actively seek books with representation of characters who looked like her.

“In school, those weren’t the books being read aloud,” Mlo said.

Since she works with children across the Piedmont from a variety of backgrounds, Lyons is using her role to highlight diversity in children’s literature.

“I get to build bridges, and to really celebrate it in different ways," Lyons said. "And so one of my goals is to make sure that we're celebrating the beautiful diversity of who we are through children's books.”

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As she continues to empower others through her mission, Lyons is placing an emphasis on the often overlooked lack of representation in children’s literature.

“When you don't see yourself, when you feel invisible in books, when you feel that books are strangers instead of friends, that can be really devastating,” Lyons said. “So I want to make sure that kids know that they matter. And their voices matter.”