I grew up in a family that encouraged creativity. My mother, who sings, acts and writes plays, took my brother and me to productions at a children's theater and made up bedtime tales. She inspired us to express ourselves through the arts. My grandparents taught us old-school dances, crooned gospel tunes and showed their imagination through cooking and gardening. As if sprinkled by fairy dust, I became enchanted too and began to write. I started by penning entries in my diary. I unlocked the wooden box that safeguarded its secrets, slipped out the tattered maroon book and gave words to my feelings. Later, I wrote poems and fantasy tales. My hometown of Pittsburgh provided the backdrop for some of my earliest stories.
A canopy of trees transformed into a make-believe fortress, backyards hid treasure and tunnels to faraway lands, bridges that crossed the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers spanned distance and time. Laying on my back against the green blanket of my grandparents' yard, I stared at the cotton-candy clouds and let my mind take me wherever it wanted. I was a child who dreamed large.
My family was my first audience. I read my stories to my mom, grandparents, aunts and uncles, whoever would listen. They cheered all of my efforts, even the ones that flopped. Their compliments boosted my confidence and motivated me to keep writing. If I wasn't writing or hanging out with my cousins and neighbors, I was reading. My favorite spot to read was snuggled behind my bedroom door with my feet warmed by the heat from the radiator grate. I lost and found myself over and over in the pages of books.
I don't remember the exact moment I decided I wanted to be an author. Make that had to be an author. Because one day, nothing else would do. Not being a chemist as fun with a chemistry set once had me consider or an anthropologist (think Zora Neale Hurston) - a career I thought would be adventurous and cool. I longed to join the ranks of the artists whose writing I came to love in high school -- Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. That was my plan.
Funny thing about plans . . . Saying you want to be an author is easy. The hard part is being disciplined enough to put in the work, to clutch your desire with all of your mind and stick to it even when the words evade you like a child playing hide-and-go-seek.
I wrote a lot back then -- mostly essays for class and some (poetry, plays) for me. But more than anything, between learning the highs and lows of friendships, dealing with acne, dancing at teen clubs and dating boys, I dreamed. Some kids bought Teen and Right On! magazines. I bought those but also Writer's Digest and The Writer. That was the life for me.
I was an adult when I saw the book that inspired me to write for children, Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. It was the first time I saw an African-American girl featured on the cover of a picture book. As I read the story, I was touched in a special way.
Growing up, I rarely saw kids who looked like me as the main characters of children's books. I loved books and treasured every story I read. But after reading Something Beautiful, I knew I had missed something important – reflections of myself. Right then, I decided to add my voice.
Celebrating the launch of One Million Men and Me, Kelly signs posters and books at Just Us Books' booth at BookExpo America. Photo by Stephan Hudson/2nd Chapter
In 2004, Just Us Books published my first book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal, a title in their NEATE chapter book series. That story explores the relationship between a thirteen-year-old African-American boy who loves to play basketball and his civil rights veteran dad. A plot point was inspired by the sit-in movement led by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC was founded in North Carolina, on the campus of Shaw University.
My next book, One Million Men and Me (Just Us Books, 2007), illustrated by Peter Ambush, emerged from memories of attending the Million Man March. As I walked through a sea of men and boys, I saw a father holding hands with his little girl. Her eyes sparkled like diamonds. She looked like a princess among kings.
I have three picture books with G.P. Putnam’s Sons that celebrate freedom and family and explore the themes of hope, love and faith. Ellen’s Broom, illustrated by Daniel Minter, was inspired by a document I saw while researching family history in Rockingham County, NC and Henry County, VA. Tea Cakes for Tosh, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, was inspired by my relationship with my grandma. Hope's Gift, illustrated by Don Tate, ties in with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
I'm grown up now, a wife and mom. I never imagined that I would have such an interesting journey to publishing. I never knew that to come of age surrounded by people who believe in your vision, who encourage you to dream and do was rare and precious. I'm so thankful now for that beginning.
In a way, my life path has brought me back to my roots. I’ve returned to that dreamy girl I used to be who warmed her feet at the radiator behind her bedroom door and stepped through the pages of books into other lives. But this time, instead of looking at reflections created by someone else, I’m the one holding up the mirror so that children can see.