Lyons, Mary E(velyn) 1947-

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LYONS, Mary E(velyn) 1947-

PERSONAL: Born November 28, 1947, in Macon, GA; daughter of Joseph and Evelyn Lyons; married Paul Collinge (owner of a used and rare bookstore). Education: Appalachian State University, B.S., 1970, M.S., 1972; University of Virginia, doctoral study. Hobbies and other interests: Playing Irish penny whistle and banjo, performing with the group Virgil and the Chicken Heads.

ADDRESSES: Home—Charlottesville, VA. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Atheneum, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

CAREER: Writer. Has worked as a reading teacher at elementary and middle schools in North Carolina and in Charlottesville, VA, and as a school librarian at elementary, middle, and high schools, Charlottesville.

AWARDS, HONORS: Best Books for Young Adults, American Library Association (ALA), and Carter G. Woodson Book Award, National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), both 1991, both for Sorrow's Kitchen; Teacher Scholar Award, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1991-92; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, NCSS/Children's Book Council (CBC), 1992, for Raw Head, Bloody Bones, 1996, for Keeping Secrets, and 1994, for Stitching Stars; ALA Best Books for Young Adults, and Golden Kite Award for fiction, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, both 1992, Jane Addams Children's Book Award Honor, 1993, and Parents' Choice Award, 1996, all for Letters from a Slave Girl; ALA Notable Book designation, 1993, and Carter G. Woodson Award, 1994, both for Starting Home; Books for the Teen Age, New York Public Library, 1995, for Deep Blues; Carter G. Woodson Elementary Merit Book, 1995, for Master of Mahogany; Jefferson Cup Series Award, Virginia Library Association, 1996, for "African-American Artists and Artisans" series; three Virginia Foundation for the Humanities fellowships.



Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston, Scribner (New York, NY), 1990.

(Editor) Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural, Scribner (New York, NY), 1991.

Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs, Scribner (New York, NY), 1992.

The Butter Tree: Tales of Bruh Rabbit, illustrated by Mireille Vautier, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.

Keeping Secrets: The Girlhood Diaries of Seven Working Writers, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.

The Poison Place (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1997.

(With Muriel M. Branch) Dear Ellen Bee: A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2000.

Knockabeg: A Famine Tale, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2001.

(Editor) Feed the Children First: Memories of the Great Hunger, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2002.


Starting Home: The Story of Horace Pippin, Painter, Scribner (New York, NY), 1993.

Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1993.

Master of Mahogany: Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker, Scribner (New York, NY), 1994.

Deep Blues: Bill Traylor, Self-Taught Artist, Scribner (New York, NY), 1994.

Painting Dreams: Minnie Evans, Visionary Artist, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1996.

(Editor) Talking with Tebé: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1998.


A Story of Her Own: A Resource Guide to Teaching Literature by Women, National Women's History Project, 1985.

SIDELIGHTS: Mary E. Lyons has turned a search for personal roots into a literary exploration of the South. "My way of finding home" is how Lyons explains her work. In award-winning fiction and nonfiction titles for middle-grade readers and young adults, Lyons has explored the lives of historically marginalized members of our society, both African Americans and women. Her nonfiction works for pre-teens include the highly praised "African-American Artists and Artisans" series, and her books for young adults include Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston, Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs, and The Poison Place. Her books celebrate the "triumph of the human spirit," Lyons once explained. "As corny as it might sound, that's what the subjects of my books have accomplished. As women and African Americans, they had to overcome neglect and prejudice to build creative and full lives." Lyons has thus far specialized in telling the stories of creative artists. Most important, however, most of her protagonists and subjects are of the South, and taken collectively, their tales fill in missing pieces of the social history of that part of the United States.

After becoming burned out after several years working as a reading teacher, Lyons returned to college to become credentialed as a school librarian, a position she held for the final six years of her public school career. By 1988 another impulse began guiding her. "Life has a weird way of sending us what we need to complete ourselves," Lyons noted. "When I was a reading teacher, I discovered that my eighth-grade classes enjoyed stories by women writers and African-American writers. They especially loved the humorous folktales collected by Zora Neale Hurston. There was no biography of her in the school library for the students to read, so I wrote my first book, Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston." There was also a resonance in Hurston's life with her own that piqued Lyons's interest in the black writer. "I found out that Hurston was the only southerner in the Harlem Renaissance, and I identified with that. I knew how it felt to be the only one with a southern accent, that you had to hide it sometimes because of southern stereotypes. Look at television, for example. If they want to depict an ignorant person, they often give him or her a southern accent." Hurston's forthrightness, her sincerity, and her need for honesty also appealed to Lyons.

What resulted is a book that is part biography, part introduction to the works of Hurston. Lyons traces Hurston's life from her childhood in Eatonville, Florida, at the turn of the twentieth century through her fight to become educated, her participation in the Harlem Renaissance, and finally to her collecting and preserving the folklore of both her native South and of the West Indies. Researching and writing the book was a challenge for Lyons, who stated that "history classes have always made me yawn." But now history took on a new meaning; not simply a list of dates and battles, but within the context of a person's life. "I had to relearn everything I had studied years before in high school and college," Lyons noted. "World War I, the Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement. This time I studied with Zora in mind. Now I like learning history, especially when it's told from a woman's point of view."

"I was very fortunate with this first book," Lyons recalled. "Unknown to me, the timing was perfect. Interest in Hurston was growing at the time. There was an Off-Broadway show about her, a PBS production in the works, several adult biographies were underway, and all her books were being reprinted in new editions. I worked with one publisher on my manuscript for nine months, and when they rejected it, I quickly reworked it and sent it off to Scribner. The editor there bought it almost immediately." Critical reception was as positive as that of the publishing community. Booklist's Hazel Rochman observed that the "strength of Lyons's book is that she includes long excerpts from Hurston's works, set off within each chapter by a handsome border design." Elizabeth S. Watson, writing in Horn Book, called the book "fascinating, enlightening, stimulating, and satisfying," and also noted Lyons's use of extended quotes from Hurston's writing. The biography was chosen as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association, one of several awards and honors it garnered. Most important, as far as Lyons is concerned, is the fact that it allowed young readers intrigued by the life of Hurston the means to search out the woman's writings.

Lyons used Hurston's writings as a springboard for her second book, Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural. Raw Head, Bloody Bones incorporates some of the stories and tales Hurston collected as well as others compiled by the Federal Writers' Project during the 1930s. Some of the fifteen stories of ghosts and demons that Lyons retells are cast in the Gullah dialect spoken by African-American inhabitants of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, where Lyons lived as a child. Booklist's Denia Hester warned that the "timid and fain the arted" should beware, as this "collection of African-American tales is a bone chiller . . . a scary good read." A critic in Publishers Weekly observed that the tales "derive their bewitching quality from the rhythms of the spoken word and the dancelike quality of early African-American speech" that combine to "provide a quixotic contrast to the often gruesome subject matter."

The success of her books prompted Lyons to leave behind her career as a school librarian for the world of professional writing. "I am fortunate that my husband operates a used and rare bookshop. He has been a great help in researching the books I've written and has been very supportive of my decision to become a full-time writer. It hasn't been easy financially, but I have successful women friends in the corporate world whose jobs are not as satisfying as mine." During her last year of full-time work in the schools, Lyons researched what would become her third title—one of her personal favorites and one of her best-selling books. Letters from a Slave Girl is an account of the early life of Harriet Ann Jacobs, a slave who later fled to the North and became, through her writings, an important voice in the abolitionist movement.

Lyons meticulously researched Jacobs's life, relying heavily on the woman's autobiography, and recreated her life from age twelve to twenty-nine in letters Jacobs might have written. A Kirkus Reviews critic deemed the book "a moving evocation of the tragedies inflicted by slavery." The fictional letters detail the loss of Jacobs's mother and the forced separation of her family after the death of one owner. There is a letter to her dead father after she is denied permission to attend his funeral; another letter to the man she loves describing how she has decided to accept the attentions of a relatively kind white man in order to escape those of her brutal master. Jacobs ran away from her owners and hid for seven years in a crawl space under the eaves of her grandmother's cabin, eventually escaping to the North in 1842. A Kirkus Reviews critic noted that the "style Lyons creates for Harriet—a luminous character, gentle and resolute—is graceful and direct," while a Horn Book reviewer declared Letters from a Slave Girl to be "historical fiction at its best." A contributor in Publishers Weekly also found much to praise in the book, describing it as a "searing epistolary work" that "stirringly celebrates the strength of the human spirit."

In 1993 Lyons initiated an impressive series detailing the lives of African-American artists and artisans, some of whom had been overlooked during their lifetimes. "I've always loved the decorative arts," she explained, "and in 1990, I found several scholarly books describing a group of African-American artists and artisans—from blacksmiths to quilt-makers—whose works were highly respected by folklorists and art historians. But most people, including children, were not familiar with them. . . . I began tracking down articles about the artists. I showed slides of their work to children, who loved the art. Even more, they liked the idea that a person can be artistic in many ways, that you don't have to have a degree from an art school to be creative." Lyons decided to honor the artists with books that, as much as possible, would allow the artists to speak for themselves. She also wanted to show how their art tells the stories of their lives.

The first title in the series, Starting Home, features self-taught painter Horace Pippin, whose works include many scenes from World War I, where he fought in the first U.S. all-black regiment to fight overseas. Wounded in the war and left unable to lift his right hand above shoulder level, Pippin went on to become a highly renowned folk artist. Lyons's second subject was Harriet Powers, and in Stitching the Stars she profiles this former slave who "wrote" stories in quilts with needle and thread. (Slaves were forbidden to read or write but instead told stories by sewing them.) Powers's two story quilts are now on display at the Museum of American History and are considered priceless examples of folk art. Reviewing both titles for Booklist, Rochman noted that "Lyons's sensitive commentary will draw middle-grade readers to look at the paintings and photographs." Reviewing Stitching Stars in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Deborah Stevenson remarked that "Lyons's lively writing stitches concepts together with smoothness and clarity. . . . [This] is both an unusual take on history and a reminder of the democratic possibilities of art."

In Master of Mahogany and Catching the Fire Lyons tells the stories of a cabinetmaker and a blacksmith, respectively. Born of free parents in 1801, Thomas Day became one of the most successful cabinetmakers in pre-Civil War North Carolina, and his works have become collector's items. In Master of Mahogany "Lyons does an excellent job of piecing together the sketchy details of Day's life, of which little is known," wrote a reviewer for Horn Book. In Catching the Fire, Lyons presents the life and work of Philip Simmons, a blacksmith whose gates, fences, and railings decorate the city of Charleston, South Carolina, where Simmons has lived most of his life. Based on personal interviews with Simmons and those who have worked with him, the book was dubbed "an engrossing biography" by a Kirkus Reviews critic and "engaging" by a reviewer in Horn Book. Stevenson concluded in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that Catching the Fire would be "useful not only as an introduction to a gifted professional craftsman, but also a reminder of how unexpected things can become art when executed with authority."

Other visual artists in the series include Bill Traylor in Deep Blues, Minnie Evans in Painting Dreams, and Clementine Hunter in Talking with Tebé. Lyons's personal favorite in the series is Deep Blues, which details the life and works of Traylor, who was born into slavery in Alabama in 1856 and did not begin painting until he was eighty. His works are now acclaimed and exhibited throughout the United States. A critic in Horn Book noted that "Lyons's perceptive commentary . . . points out possible connections between Traylor's life as a farmer and the subject matter of his works." Minnie Evans was forty-three before she began to draw pictures that were based on dreams that had haunted her all her life. Born into poverty and untrained as an artist, Evans did not let this stop her, nor would she be stopped by her family and friends who thought she was crazy. "Lyons has brought us the life and work of an African-American folk artist who succeeded despite community prejudice," commented Booklist's Rochman. In the final book in the series, Lyons presents the art of Clementine Hunter, called Tebé, whose work portrays the life of a southern laborer. This story is told through Hunter's own words in magazine and newspaper articles and in tape-recorded interviews.

Other books from Lyons include Keeping Secrets, The Butter Tree: Tales of Bruh Rabbit, and The Poison Place. In the first of these titles, Lyons blends her own commentary with excerpts from the girlhood diaries of seven nineteenth-century women writers; Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Forten, Sarah Jane Foster, Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ida B. Wells, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Lyons demonstrates how keeping a diary helped each of these young writers eventually develop a public voice. A critic in Kirkus Reviews noted that "Lyons writes with style and feeling, creating a strong sense of each individual life story, even as she gives us a social history of what it was like to be a woman at that time." A Horn Book reviewer called the work "a fascinating look at the public and private lives" of these writers that explores "issues of femininity, social expectations, family, and racism." In a somewhat lighter vein, Lyons has also retold African-American trickster tales in The Butter Tree. The six tales from South Carolina included here involve the usual scenario of a small animal tricking a much larger one, and as a critic in Publishers Weekly noted, "undoubtedly helped the enslaved originators of these tales endure their own oppression." "Bruh" as well as "brer" is a variant of "brother," an indication that the slaves held this wily rabbit close to their hearts. Horn Book's Maeve Visser Knoth noted that "Lyons's skilled retellings are brief and uncluttered, recalling the oral tradition. She uses few adjectives, yet her language is colorful and evokes regional flavor."

A novel, The Poison Place is by its author's account the most difficult of her books thus far—difficult in terms of researching and writing. Beginning in 1989 with the scrap of an idea, Lyons finally returned to the work years later. The book uses historical fact as its background, detailing the lives of two men. One is Charles Willson Peale, the eighteenth-century portraitist and founder of the first museum of natural history in the United States, the Peale Museum in Philadelphia. The other is Moses Williams, Peale's former slave, who became a silhouette cutter and the first black professional artist in post-revolutionary America. The novel is told through the voice of Williams on a nighttime tour with his young daughter through the museum. Williams's own struggle for survival is contrasted to Peale's story and that of his museum. As Rachelle M. Bilz noted in Voice of Youth Advocates, "Moses's lifelong quest for freedom is intertwined with the Peale family's success and failure." Through the narrator's revelations, the reader is led to wonder how much responsibility Peale himself had in the eventual poisoning of his own son, a taxidermist in the museum who died from the arsenic he used in his work. Bilz concluded that the novel was "fast paced and well written . . . sure to appeal to historical fiction fans." A contributor in Kirkus Reviews called the novel "a riveting work of historical fiction."

Lyons deals with the Irish Potato Famine of the nineteenth century in two books, the novel Knockabeg: A Famine Tale and the nonfiction Feed the Children First: Memories of the Great Hunger. Knockabeg mixes creatures and characters from Irish folklore with real-life characters. The fairy folk known as the Nuckelavees have put a curse on Ireland's potatoes, causing a famine and a war between the fairies and the mortals. A critic for Publishers Weekly found that "the action shifts between (and often intersects) both worlds, detailing the impact of famine on the human community as well as the wounded faeries' war stories when they return to heal the residents of Knockabeg." Kit Vaughan in School Library Journal concluded: "Don't expect an entirely happy ending in this story, which includes some gruesome descriptions of the effects of the potato famine on the mortals of Knockabeg."

Feed the Children First: Memories of the Great Hunger is a collection of comments made by Irish men and women who lived through a devastating potato famine in Ireland. Their accounts include descriptions of the many deaths that occurred—some one quarter of the population perished—as well as remembrances of the voyages many of them made to start new lives in North America. Diane S. Marton in School Library Journal found that these firsthand accounts "bear witness not only to unbearable suffering, but also to the humanity, dignity, and endurance of a people." "The personal voices and images in this collection bring the horror of the Irish potato famine very close," added Hazel Rochman in Booklist. Margaret A. Bush in Horn Book concluded that Feed the Children First is "a powerful introduction to Ireland's history and to the human devastation of a country in extreme poverty."

Lyons continues to pen historical fiction and to write for young readers. "I can't imagine writing for anyone besides young people," the author once stated. "They like to be told the truth and can handle complexities that adults can't." She also maintains contact with her audience by frequent visits to schools. "Teachers often expect a black author to show up because so many of my books have dealt with African-American issues. I'm always flattered that people assume I'm black; it means I'm doing my job as a writer. But now I consider myself not only a writer of black history or of women's history, but increasingly as a historian of the South." For Lyons this means giving a voice to those who have not been heard before. "Many people I write about have never had a chance to speak for themselves. In articles already written about them, you don't really hear their voices. I want to let my subjects tell their own stories in a form accessible to young readers."



Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995.


Booklist, December 15, 1990, Hazel Rochman, review of Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston, p. 866; January 1, 1992, Denia Hester, review of Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural, pp. 830-831; November 15, 1993, Hazel Rochman, review of Starting Home: The Story of Horace Pippin, Painter and Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers, pp. 618-619; October 1, 1994, Ilene Cooper, review of Master of Mahogany: Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker, p. 322; November 15, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Deep Blues: Bill Traylor, Self-Taught Artist, p. 598; July, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of Painting Dreams: Minnie Evans, Visionary Artist, pp. 1825-1826; September 1, 1997, Carolyn Phelan, review of Catching the Fire: Philip Simmons, Blacksmith, p. 117; December 1, 1997, Randy Meyer, review of The Poison Place, p. 616; November 1, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of Dear Ellen Bee: A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies, p. 540; December 15, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Feed the Children First: Irish Memories of the Great Hunger, p. 725.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1991, p. 124; February, 1992, p. 162; November, 1992, p. 79; December, 1993, Deborah Stevenson, review of Stitching Stars, p. 128; December, 1994, p. 136; September, 1996, p. 21; October, 1997, Deborah Stevenson, review of Catching the Fire, p. 57.

Horn Book, March-April, 1991, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Sorrow's Kitchen, p. 216; November, 1992, review of Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs, p. 729; March-April, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of Starting Home, and Ellen Fader, review of Stitching Stars, p. 219; November, 1994, review of Master of Mahogany, p. 750; March, 1995, review of Deep Blues, p. 221; September, 1995, review of Keeping Secrets: The Girlhood Diaries of Seven Women Writers and Maeve Visser Knoth, review of The Butter Tree: Tales of Bruh Rabbit, p. 614; September-October, 1997, review of Catching the Fire, p. 592; September-October, 1998, Susan P. Bloom, review of Talking with Tebé: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist, p. 620; March-April, 2002, Margaret A. Bush, review of Feed the Children First, p. 229.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1992, review of Letters from a Slave Girl, p. 1380; June 1, 1995, review of Keeping Secrets; July 1, 1997, review of Catching the Fire; October 1, 1997, review of The Poison Place; July 1, 1998, p. 968.

Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1991, review of Raw Head, Bloody Bones, p. 69; October 26, 1992, review of Letters from a Slave Girl, pp. 72-73; February 20, 1995, review of The Butter Tree, p. 206; September 18, 2000, review of Dear Ellen Bee, p. 112; July 23, 2001, review of Knockabeg: A Famine Tale, p. 78; December 10, 2001, review of Feed the Children First, p. 71.

Reading Today, April, 2001, Lynne T. Burke, review of Dear Ellen Bee, p. 32.

School Library Journal, January, 1991, p. 119; December, 1992, p. 113; February, 1994, Maria B. Salvadore, reviews of Starting Home and Stitching Stars, p. 113; October, 1994, Joanne Kelleher, review of Master of Mahogany, p. 136; January, 1995, p. 127; July, 1995, p. 100; July, 1996, p. 93; September, 1997, Margaret C. Howell, review of Catching the Fire, p. 233; November, 1997, Sally Margolis, review of The Poison Place, p. 120; September, 1998, Judith Constantinides, review of Talking with Tebé, p. 221; October, 2000, Patricia B. McGee, review of Dear Ellen Bee, p. 164; September, 2001, Kit Vaughan, review of Knockabeg, p. 226; March, 2002, Diane S. Marton, review of Feed the Children First, p. 254.

Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1991, p. 378; December, 1992, p. 282; October, 1995, p. 252; December, 1997, Rachelle M. Bilz, review of The Poison Place, p. 318.


Lyons Den Web site, (April 18, 2003).*