Writing from the Heart, Local Children’s Book Authors Share Their Stories

By Susanna Hickman Bartee

Read to a child, and you give a gift of love. Write for a child and you give that same gift.. Spend some time with Albemarle’s local authors and you quickly learn that writing for children comes from the same sweet place in the heart that every parent who has shared a bedtime story knows so well. Each author’s own story is one of spinning a tale for a beloved child and bringing wonderful characters to life. Their first books grew out of those stories. For many of them, getting published was just an extra bonus.

Mary E. Lyons had been sharing her heart and her love of stories with children long before she wrote her first book. Now one of our area’s most prolific children’s authors, she was also a librarian and reading specialist for 23 years. While teaching Charlottesville middle schoolers, she lamented the lack of information on important women and minority writers. She decided to do something about it and began doing her own research. Learning that Zora Neale Hurston was a class favorite she decided to write a short biography of the author to use in her own classroom. Eventually, Mary submitted the manuscript to publishers and it became “Sorrow’s Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston”, published in 1990. The book earned national acclaim and Lyons was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities 1991 Virginia Teacher/Scholar Award. This allowed her a year off from her work as a librarian at Venable Elementary School to research and write. She has gone on to write 16 more books, primarily aimed at middle schoolers, covering both American and world history. “Dear Ellen Bee: A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies” is on the 2002 Virginia Young Readers Award list. Her most recent books concern the Irish Potato Famine. Look for new projects, a picture book and what she calls simply “a scary book”, to be released soon.

Mary loves writing in Charlottesville because the region is steeped in history and rich in research opportunities. In addition to the University of Virginia she also has access to books in her husbands used and rare books business giving her to a depth of history not often found in children’s literature. She is keen on children knowing about the people being studied at the college level. “Kids can grasp a lot of things,” she says. Creating future readers and students is important. Perhaps the best advice, she says, is to fill your house with books. “There is nothing like holding the book,” she says. Parents should push the idea of books as aesthetic objects, she adds, having children explore not just the text itself but the paper and binding and the care with which it was created. “You know, every part of a book was touched by someone,” she points out.

Kathy L. May says it took her whole lifetime to write the 900 words that make up “Molasses Man”, her children’s book published in 2000. Ironic words from someone who still treasures the collection of original stories she wrote and illustrated at age 10. “I knew I wanted to become a writer from a very early age,” she says. The road she took to that goal led her to attain a masters degree in Fine Arts and Poetry Writing and gave her opportunities to teach at several colleges, including Virginia Tech and Piedmont Virginia Community College. Her poems were first published in 1983, but it was in 1989 while traveling with her husband that she witnessed the inspiration for what would become her first book. Driving near Lynchburg, relates Kathy, she saw a crowd beside the highway and begged her husband to stop. What was meant to be a brief roadside pause turned into a full day of molasses making with a local family and the patriarch known to all around as “Molasses Man”. She was so curious, she laughs, that the workers eventually handed her a tool and taught her how to help. Fascinated and remembering stories of her own great-grandfather making homemade molasses, she took many photographs and even returned the next day for more research.

But the wonderful story of “Molasses Man” would have to wait a little longer to be told. Kathy’s son was born the next year, followed quickly by her daughter, and she explains that the following few years were reserved more for reading picture books to her children than for her own writing. After attending a seminar on stories for children at a writer’s conference, she began thinking again about the molasses experience. She worked on the picture book for two years, “picking it up and putting it down and picking it back up again,” before she submitted it to a publisher in 1996. The sixth try was successful and the book was ready for young readers three years later. Happy with the success of “Molasses Man”, she is now working on a non-fiction book for older children about Thomas Jefferson.

“Charlottesville has changed my life,” says Kathy, as she describes the view of Monticello from her home. “I have a very active imagination,” she says, chuckling “and I can’t help but make up stories about what it may have been like when Jefferson was here.”

Before he became a writer for children, there was not much left untried by Buckingham’s Joseph Anthony. His smorgasbord of life experiences includes hitch-hiking to Alaska, working on a farm in Finland, traveling as a U.S. Navy musician, working in a natural food store and serving as a corrections officer. But it was becoming a father gave Joseph a story to share, and an important reason to share it. When his daughter Alina was born with Downs syndrome. Joseph wrote a series of stories called “The Little Blue Library” about a book without a cover. In the stories, Joseph explores the reactions of other “normal” books to the new one. He uses dialogue to illuminate the reality that, like people, all books are special because of what they contain, not because of how they look. Joseph’s wife Cris Arbo illustrated the series, which have yet to be published. But they are Alina’s treasured favorites.

A few years later, Joseph and Cris collaborated on “The Dandelion Seed”, which won the 1998 Benjamin Franklin Award Silver Medal for best children’s picture book. The book reads like a parable about a flower fighting against growing up. “Just like people do,” describes Anthony. “I wanted to tell the story without forcing the moral down the readers’ throats.”

Their 1999 book, “In a Nutshell”, concerns the life cycle of an acorn and is full of symbolism about life and death. Both author and illustrator say it was easy to be inspired by the beautiful countryside of Central Virginia. In fact, Cris’s art studio in Buckingham, built by Joseph, looks out on oak trees bearing a strong resemblance to the main character of “In A Nutshell”. The generous shade of the trees is a favorite spot for the couple’s four daughters to relax on sunny afternoons. “In a Nutshell” l was chosen by the Parent Council as an Outstanding Selection for 2000 and was listed on the Virginia State Reading Association’s Young Reader’s Program for 2002-2003.

Recently, Joseph changed pace somewhat and published a young adult fantasy novel called “Innerspace”, about a teenage girl who gets trapped in her own consciousness.

When long-time journalist Beverly Van Hook’s three children were almost grown and leaving the nest, she was inspired to begin a children’s book series to entice young readers with wit and excitement. She was concerned about the decline in reading among young people and the violence that filled so many books geared to the upper-elementary school readers.

The “Supergranny” detective series debuted in 1985. The unlikely heroine is a silver-haired grandmother who drives a red Ferrari. In the seven award-winning books, Supergranny confronts mysteries and solves crimes with ingenuity rather than violence. Her sidekicks include three children, a gumdrop chomping robot, and an Old English sheepdog.

Beverly based the main character on an elderly aunt who was great fun while remaining “terribly proper” and the shy Old English sheepdog was inspired completely by the Van Hooks’ own beloved house pet. The children in the series bear many similarities to Beverly’s three kids. The author says she chose the middle child as the narrator for the series in order to appeal to all ages.

“I wanted to celebrate friendship between generations,” Beverly says of her variety of characters. “And I hoped to hold eager readers through humor and subtle characterizations.”

Beverly’s books, which eventually led to dozens of national appearances and more than 400,000 kids attending her reading and writing workshops, have been awarded The Cornelia Meigs Award for Children’s Literature and The Isabel Bloom Award for the Arts. Now writing more for adults, Beverly says she still enjoys meeting her young fans and recently appeared at a Charlottesville mother-daughter book club to discuss “Supergranny”.

As for those kids who inspired the whole thing, they are all grown up now and have given Beverly three grandchildren of her own.

“So I’m a real Granny at last and, boy, do I love it,” she enthuses.

Now that she’s busy writing more for adults, Van Hook says she still enjoys meeting her young fans. She recently appeared at a Charlottesville mother-daughter book club to discuss “Supergranny”. She sometimes visits local schools, too.

“Living in Charlottesville is wonderful,” she says. “I love to read and it is a joy to be around so many writers.”

Picking up a book written by someone from your neighborhood is a wonderful way to introduce your children to the excitement of words. Even better is attending a reading or book signing by the author so children can see the person behind the story. Check the AlbemrleKids.com Calendar for author appearances and support our local writers by enjoying the tales they share from the heart. You will be planting a seed in your child’s heart that will likely grow into a lifelong love of reading and writing.

Susanna Hickman Bartee lives in Charlottesville with her husband and four children. Her favorite time of the day is reading to the kids at bedtime.

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