|Kelly at Mt. Nebo Primitive Baptist Church in Eden, N.C.|
Sometimes you need help realizing that a moment or experience holds the seed of a story. That’s just what happened to me at The Writers Workshop at Chautauqua.
When I told my mentor Clay Winters about researching family history and coming across a cohabitation register – a document that registered the marriages of formerly enslaved people – he said I had a picture book in there. It was up to me to find it.
I went back to my room and thought about everything I shared with Mr. Winters. I told him how during slavery some enslaved couples jumped a broom to signify their leap into life together. Though their marriages meant the world to them, their unions had no legal protection. Husbands and wives could be sold apart at any time.
What would it mean to a child, I asked myself, to have her parents’ marriage made legal so they could never be forcibly pulled apart again?
At that beautiful retreat, I wrote the first words of my new picture book, Ellen’s Broom (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012). I’m so excited that it’s now a story to share. I flip through the pages and marvel at Daniel Minter’s gorgeous illustrations. You feel Ellen’s pride as she carries her parents’ wedding broom on their march to the courthouse. You rejoice with Papa and Mama when their marriage is finally registered. You smile when they jump the broom again at Ellen’s urging. It’s a celebration of family, freedom and love.
Cohabitation registers were recorded by Freedmen’s Bureau officers during Reconstruction. I had to learn about what that process was like and what it meant to freedmen, women and children to have those marriages legalized.
I started by reading Freedmen’s Bureau letters available in an online resource created by the Virginia Center for Digital History called The Valley of the Shadow. I read slave narratives and an amazing article called "Sealing the Sacred Bonds of Holy Matrimony: Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records" by African-American genealogy specialist Reginald Washington. I read the Circular which gave instructions to Freedmen’s Bureau officers on how the registry was to be done.
Then, I focused on the feelings. What emotions would Ellen, her parents and siblings experience? Was it a bittersweet moment – heartache for the past mixed with joy for the future? Where would they get the news about this new law?
I was thrilled when Dwyer & O’Grady pitched Ellen’s Broom and it was acquired by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. But the journey didn’t stop there. Nancy Paulsen and Stacey Barney helped me shape it into a real picture book manuscript.
Now, seven years after I wrote the first words, it’s ready to share. Amazing.
My launch party at Quail Ridge Books & Music was the moment when it all hit me. Surrounded by a loving audience, I talked about the research, read an excerpt, watched children make their own brooms out of pencils and signed copies of my new book.
To think Ellen’s Broom came from a historic document I saw in a North Carolina library, wow!
So grateful for Clay Winters encouraging me to find the story within and for everyone who helped bring it to life. Feeling blessed.
|King Choir at Kelly's launch party|
Ellen’s Broom by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Daniel Minter (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012). To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with "Ellen's Broom" in the subject line. Deadline: Feb. 13. Publisher sponsored. U.S. entries only.
A Companion Craft and Discussion Guide for Ellen's Broom, guide created by Debbie Gonzales. Learn more about Debbie's Discussion/Activity Guides.
28 Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children's Literature from The Brown Bookshelf. In celebration of children’s authors and illustrators of color, during the twenty-eight days of Black History Month, The Brown Bookshelf profiles a different artist each day. See Day 1: Kwame Alexander. Note: The team behind The Brown Bookshelf is Paula Chase-Hyman, Varian Johnson, Don Tate, Kelly Starling Lyons, Tameka Fryer Brown, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Gwendolyn Hooks and Crystal Allen.
Virtually attend Kelly's launch party!