Tony Rossi, Director of Communications
February 6, 2022
Authors Shine Light on African American Culture
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 planted a seed in them, however. Today, they are
both Christopher Award-winning authors, shining lights on their culture, past and present, and giving children and young adults characters they can look up to. They joined me on “Christopher Closeup” to discuss their lives, work, and the power of faith.
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. 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, 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 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.
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 Torrey saw trouble in their crime-ridden neighborhood, his mom advised him to “look for the angels, look for the helpers.” She also encouraged him to envision a better future by asking, “What do you want our world to look like? 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 coming out.”
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 talents that God has gifted you with. 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 doing it.”