That’s me as a kid.
“I lost and found myself over and over in the pages of books.”
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, Ralph Ellison 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.
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.
My picture books with G.P. Putnam’s Sons 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.
Since then, I’ve been blessed to create many more titles including One More Dino on the Floor, easy reader A Girl Named Misty about trailblazing ballerina Misty Copeland, the Jada Jones and Miles Lewis chapter book series, the Ty’s Travels easy reader series and picture books Going Down Home with Daddy, Sing a Song: How Lift Every Voice & Sing Inspired Generations, Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon, Tiara’s Hat Parade and My Hands Tell a Story. Next year, I’ll celebrate my 20th anniversary as an author. I’m honored to be part of the Cynsations Survivors series that features long-time actively published children’s book creators. Read the spotlight here.
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.
Photo by Melissa R. Campbell
Foods: Jamaican, Soul, Thai. I love food with flavor.
Destinations: Bermuda and Montreal.
Heroes: My mom and my grandparents
Pastimes: Geneaology, Dancing, Catching up with friends and family
Colors: Red and pink
Movies: Sparkle, Mahogany, Dead Poet’s Society, When We Were Kings
Books: Native Son, Invisible Man, Daddy Was a Number Runner, Song of Solomon, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Children’s Book Authors: Angela Johnson, Madeleine L’Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, Eleanora E. Tate, Sharon G. Flake, Carole Boston Weatherford, Patricia & Fredrick McKissack
Poems: We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Old Lem by Sterling Brown, Mother to Son by Langston Hughes, I Am a Black Woman by Mari Evans
Did you know?
- I played synthesizer in a middle school jazz band.
- As a teen, I modeled for Chic clothing store.
- I was a fan of New Edition and Prince.
- I dug a huge hole in my grandparents’ backyard trying to find buried treasure.
- I won second-place in a city-wide spelling bee.
- I wrote my first poem in elementary school.
- I wrote raps in middle school.
- My high school jobs included working for a movie theater concession stand and for a crystal kiosk in the mall.
- I stank at sports.
- I have four brothers.
- My nicknames were Kelly Kel, Lady K and Encyclopedia Brown.
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