by Tracy L. Roberts: In an article published in Journal of the Appalachian Studies
Association, Roberta T. Herrin, professor of Appalachian and
children's literature at East Tennessee State University, writes,
"Lyon extends Appalachian experience to a universal plane"
(32). Herrin puts George Ella Lyon in a group of writers that "have
articulated the region with a new clarity and honesty, impelled by
courageous realism and a surer grasp of history." Born in 1949 in
the coal mining community of Harlan, Kentucky, George Ella Lyon has a
diverse background. She is a daughter, a mom, a wife, a poet, and a
writer. She completed a master's degree in English, and a Ph.D. in
English and creative writing. She is an incredibly prolific writer with
a list of awards attached to her many books, including the 1993
Appalachian Book of the Year Award for Catalpa. She has published
books for adults and children, and her writing spans picture books and
novels, as well as poetry and plays. Her love of books and
writing was instilled early in her childhood, and she was writing poetry
by second grade.
By 1983 she had published her first book of poetry, Mountain.
A year later a poem of Lyon's was passed to editor Richard Jackson, and
his interest served as the impetus for her to begin a career writing for
children. George Ella Lyon's writing is rich and unique. She catches the
attention of children, as well as adult critics. Kirkus
Reviews calls Who Came Down that Road? a
"beautifully crafted book."
Although Lyon's books are diverse
in their subject matter, many of her books are based in the Appalachian
region. By introducing characters that live in Appalachia, Lyon brings
the people and region of Appalachia alive for the world. Does writing
about a culture and a certain geographical region come with an added
responsibility to the writer? To be true to a region, its people and its
geography, to what extent should a writer have experienced the culture? Who
should write the books? Who should illustrate them? What should be
depicted? Who are the heroes, and what voice tells their stories? In the
following interview, George
Ella Lyon addresses some of these questions, as well as her views on
writing in the field of Appalachian literature for children.
TLR: When teaching children in various parts of this country about regions, stereotypes, and perceptions, I often start by writing the word Appalachia on the board. I then ask the students to write down all
their word associations. Next, I read a paragraph from your book With
a Hammer for my Heart as well as the entire text of Counting on
the Woods. After this, before any discussion, the students are
allowed to add words to their original list. I am curious: if you were a
student in my class and not familiar with your books, what words would
you pencil on your paper when you see the word Appalachia on the
board? What words would you add after hearing the readings from both
GEL: Iíve read
through and thought about your complex and interesting questions. As you will see, one of my answers applies to a number of areas
of inquiry. I
appreciate all the work that is going into this project and thank you
for so honoring my books. Well,
(read down one column at a time, if you want the order in which I wrote
resistant to change
hearing Counting on the Woods:
canít really say what I would add after hearing a reading from Hammer,
since I donít know what you would read. Also, since I wrote it, I canít really step outside and hear
it. (True for Counting
on the Woods as well,
but I tried.)
TLR: In your articles and essays, you often comment about being from
Kentucky, a part of the Appalachian region. You stated you keep journals
with scraps of your world taped inside: leaves, ticket stubs, postcards,
photographs. In an article by Michelle Justus Talbott, you said, "Family
loomed large as the mountains for me, both secure and confining."
You seem to have a strong personal attachment both emotionally and
physically with your world. Do you think this sensitivity and attachment
allow you to write more accurately about the Appalachian region? Is
there an element that would exist in your writing that might
not be there if you were not from Appalachia?
GEL: a) I
am too close to judge the accuracy of my own work. Obviously I have
tried to make it true to the characters, the story, the vision that I
have been given. That is my
job. Some readers will find it convincing and interesting, some
not. (One reviewer said of
BOOK, "It lacks appeal for readers of all ages," and Who
Came Down That Road? has been banned both for being too religious and for
teaching evolution.) As for accuracy about the region, who is the judge
of that? Iím not creating a sociological study. If I wrote an essay stating certain facts, we could
substantiate or dispute them. But
whoís to say if Mamaw [in Hammer for My Heart] is accurate or not? Sheís not like my grandmothers. Sheís not like anybody I ever knew. Oh, she shares some traits with some folks, but she herself is
just that: herself. A gift to me and, I hope, to the reader. I love Mamaw and have missed her intensely since I finished
writing Hammer, but I canít say sheís accurate. I hope sheís real, as Lawanda says. Do you see the difference?
When Chris Offutís book of stories, Kentucky Straight, came out, people in the region were all up in
arms about the violence, ugliness, and despair they found there. It looks bad on us, they said. Weíre not like that. They
assumed—and they were right—that people from off would think this
was the truth about mountain people. The problem here, as I see it, is in the attitude that literature
is reportage. If Kafka had
lived in Hazard, Kentucky, when he published "The Metamorphosis,"
outsiders would have praised him, saying, See, we always knew those
people were bugs. And insiders would have given him down the road for
presenting such a negative view: It
was bad enough being hillbillies. Now weíre cockroaches. Both of these
reactions miss the integrity of the story as a work of art, the fact
that it is about itself. What we need to speak out against, I think, is that reductive
attitude. It robs the
writer of her freedom and the reader of her experience of the work.
Iíll be referring back to this.
If I werenít from Appalachia (or from my family and my genetic
expression and my experience—I donít know how to separate these),
my writing—and I—might
be bolder. I might live in New York or L.A. and push it more. As it is,
Iíve chosen to stay close to home and to be somewhat restricted in
what Iíve written and/or published. I anguish a lot about
hurting or betraying family members. (This morning I heard Czelaw Milosh quoted on NPR as saying,
"When a writer is born into a family, the family is doomed.") On the
other hand, if I werenít from Appalachia, my work might not have the
same support of noncompetitive colleagues, of a community of memory, and
of strong voices from my childhood that still speak in my head.
Certainly it wouldnít have its roots in the rocky creeks and high
horizons, the enfolding spirit of trees that I call home.
Seelinger Trites says, "The effect of feminism on children's
literature is to create a corpus of literature that can speak to readers
of all races and both genders." This universal appeal to all
children to redefine conventional gender roles is apparent in much of
your writing. You created Come a Tide's prophetic
states on the first page, "It'll come a tide." Mama is a
Miner has a modern woman working in a traditional man's job (it
historically was considered bad luck to have women in the mines), Abby
from Here and Then takes on an enormous task independently, Borrowed
Children's Amanda accepts all the female role models in her life
while she maintains her own developing feminine independence. Other than
your book's strong feminine role models, do you feel the body of
Appalachian literature (to date) has addressed gender and ethnic
concerns specific to the region? What are your thoughts on conveying
more positive feminine
and ethnic role models back to the children of the culture, as well as
universal role models to readers of Appalachian books from all cultures?
How do you approach correct depictions of ethnicity and gender roles in
GEL: Ethnicity and gender —see 2 a). To
list just a few of my heroines from Appalachian literature: Gertie in Harriet Arnowís The Dollmaker, Alpha in James
Stillís River of Earth, May in Cynthia Rylantís Missing
Rowe in Lee Smithís Fair and Tender Ladies, Carrie Bishop in Denise
Giardinaís Storming Heaven, the Bear in Jo Carsonís play The
Bear Facts, and many of the narrators in her collection of "people pieces," Stories I Ain't Told Nobody Yet.
the Virginia Humanities Conference at Ferrum College in Virginia, you stated that
it is often hard to hand your manuscript over to an illustrator for their interpretations. In some books from the past, there has been an
overemphasis on stereotyped images of old shacks,
broken-down-cars, and bare-footed people in illustrations of Appalachia.
Describe the process of pairing writer and illustrator for a picture
book. Do you feel the illustrator
must have experience of the region and culture to correctly depict the
images in the illustrations? Do you, being a writer that is native to
Appalachia, have the opportunity to interact with the illustrator? What
picture books of yours do you feel best captures the culture in its
) Generally speaking, the editor or art director chooses the
illustrator. Iíve been fortunate because from the first Dick [editor
Richard Jackson] has let
me have some say in this choice. When he accepted Father Time, he had me
look at work by Diane Goode, Robert Andrew Parker, and a third artist
whose name escapes me. Since I preferred Parker, he approached him
first. Luckily, Parker
agreed. He did a wonderful job. An
artist in the region might have set the book, with its folk voice, in
the mountains, and that could have been wonderful too. But nothing else in the text asks for that, and I didnít expect
You ask if I think the illustrator must have experience of the region
and culture to correctly depict the images in the illustrations. As with
accurate, I am troubled by the word correctly. Who has the manual on
correct? Who polices?
Please understand, I donít mean to say I donít care how the books
are illustrated or that there are not things I would find offensive. But I am writing stories, not documentaries (which have a point
of view, too, of course), and I am not the illustrator. My contribution is the words, which I hope will convey emotion,
spirit, place, and will inspire a related vision in the illustrator. Depending on his or her style, s/he may come to the region and do
research (as Peter Catalanotto did for Mama Is a Miner) or s/he may just
elaborate on their usual style, as Stephen Gammell did in Come a Tide.
Some readers inside the region were offended by those pictures. The
families live in houses that are falling apart, they are too fat and too
thin and their jumbled clothes are apt to be slipping off. But if you
know Gammellís work, you
know this is not a comment on the setting of the book. Itís his style. Those are Gammell people, not my relatives. In the slide show I do for kids when I visit schools, I show the
cover of the book and then my real grandmother and the house I grew up
in. Then I talk about what
not to assume when you look at illustrations. Whether I get to communicate
with the illustrator or not depends on who and where they are.
Marguerite Casparian (Ada's Pal) and Paul Brett Johnson (A
Traveling Cat) were right here in Lexington, so I saw their work in progress.
Ann Olson and I talked about Counting on the Woods a lot and I
saw the slides as she was taking them. That was very exciting. That book is an exception to what Iíve
said above, because I wanted Ann to do the photographs before I had even
finished writing the text. In fact, I called her as I was driving over
the Rockcastle River on I-75 the day the words started coming to me. (I
was en route to Carson-Newman to receive their Appalachian Educator
Award.) I knew her work and
I know her woods, and it was crucial to me that the pictures be REAL. Other art work could be appealing for all kinds of reasons, but
wouldnít say to the reader, "This is a live place. You can go
there." So when Dick accepted the book, I requested photographic
illustration and suggested Ann as the photographer. He said heíd consider it and to have her send some samples. She
did, and that was it.
is a prevalence of drama used in Appalachian books. Poverty, murder, and
isolation seem to be a recurring theme. Richard Jackson, your editor,
states that as a reader he best attaches to Robert Frost's statement,
"Everything written is as good as it is dramatic. Dramatic
necessity is all that can save poetry from sing-song, all that can save
prose from itself." Jackson also goes on to state that your novel Borrowed
Children is "quiet yet devastating in [its] power and
tenderness." What are your thoughts on drama and strong issues used
in Appalachian books? Do you feel the use of dramatic events is
necessary to depict the culture? To what do you attribute the success of
your "quiet"' novel, Borrowed Children?
GEL: I think there are all kinds of drama. Depending on how much a writer has
made us feel for a character, there can be drama in closing a book or
getting up from sitting on a rock and walking away. Too often writers
rely on catastrophic events—murder, suicide, houses burning down or
exploding, etc.—because they canít find the inner drama. All is external and thus unsatisfying to a deeper reader. But much of our culture—the larger American culture— is
sensationalist (even The Weather Channel can fall into producing one
crisis after another— perhaps because they have no plot!) and loves
this. It sells. I agree with Dick that drama is essential in good
writing. The question is
whether the drama is intrinsic to the story or whether itís stuck in
there to make up for lack of an original story. Reviewers liked Borrowed
Children. It got Stars and
so librarians ordered it. Perhaps
they liked it because it is set in the past and made them nostalgic for
the good old hard days. I
like to think it was Mandy herself to whom the kids who read it were
drawn, to her vulnerability and curiosity and spunk. But who knows? (I
have had letters from adult women who said it brought back their own
struggle caring for younger siblings long before they were old enough
for such responsibility.)
McGillis, in The Nimble Reader, states that there are those who
believe "that literature is not above ideology, that it does not
liberate us from social codes but rather enforces these codes" (12). Morality and self-pride are often a strong feature equated with
Appalachians. Phyllis Naylor Reynolds reflects moral issues and social
awareness in Shiloh, as do other Appalachian characters such as your Borrowed Children's Rena and Jim Perritt,
who are "proud as poplars." In what degree of consideration do
you take responsibility of conveying moral and ethical issues of the
culture? Explain why or why not you would feel these issues are
culturally specific, or in fact universal to the human condition.
one of her essays in Mystery and Manners, Flannery OíConnor says that
the fiction writer must concentrate on only one thing as s/he writes,
"the demands of the thing
being made." I agree with her. I
canít set out to convey moral and ethical issues of the culture. If I
did, Iíd be writing a tract. But if my concerns are moral and ethical
and grow out of the culture, then the work will reflect them. I think
these issues are universal.
TLR: Much like the biblical Noah who was a just man and did as he was
commanded, in your picture book A Regular Rolling Noah, we meet a
simple and good child who is chosen because he is responsible as well as
capable of knowing he can do the job. He is not a star, but a child with
a gift that is recognized. He is able to express this: "I am a good
hand with animals." In your article "Gifts Not
Book), you emphasize the importance of recognizing and nurturing the
inner-gift in every child and the danger of ignoring this gift. These
gifts define the hero qualities in every soul, not only the star
qualities in the few. Appalachia is full of gifted souls that can be
heroes for every person from every culture. Who were your childhood
heroes? Why? What qualities made them heroes? Have these heroes found
their way into your books?
parents; my brother; my grandparents; Leon Lassetter, our neighbor who
made neon signs (see A Sign); Lassie; Charlotte Nolan, who lived in Harlan and had
acted off-Broadway and toured nationally (ironically, the part she was
best known for was Mammy Yokum in L'il Abner); Marilyn Unthank, my
fourth grade teacher; Mr. Mac, who waved at me from the L & N
caboose; Eva, the seamstress at my daddyís drycleaners; my aunt Ella
May, who had gotten a sewing machine needle driven through her thumb;
Marian Cawood, also from Harlan, who was an international opera singer;
Kathleen Welsh Hill Sterling, the first poet I knew, my high school
creative writing teacher and friend; Helen Martini, who founded the
nursery at the Bronx Zoo and was the zooís first woman keeper (see A
Mother to Tigers); early
astronauts; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Eleanor Roosevelt; Edna St. Vincent
Millay; Dylan Thomas; Carl Sandburg; folks I saw in local theater
qualities? Bravery, humor,
heart, compassion, resilience, ability to dream, openness to the spirit,
willingness to risk, expressiveness, curiosity, determination,
intellect, generosity. (Also helps if they love words and have
interesting clothes!) If
theyĎre not in there (certainly Lassieís not), their influence is.
And some, such as Eva, were the subject of manuscripts that never got
TLR: Nostalgic reflection seems to be found in many books for children when
telling stories based in Appalachia. In Roberta Herrin's article, she
points out that while adult literature of the region is manifesting a
historical change in its content, children's literature is not evolving
quite so quickly. She credits you among a group of Appalachian writers
(with Sue Ellen Bridgers, Jane Louise Curry, Virginia Hamilton) that have
"articulated the region with a new clarity and honesty." She
also points out that your books allow a "universal" experience to
the readers. You seem to have a solid grasp in your writing about
historical reference and detail. In your book Borrowed Children,
you artistically weave details of the lives of Appalachians in so
delicately the reader barely notices they are being reminded of a time
period. What are your thoughts on the prevalence of children's books
based in the past in Appalachian children's literature? Is there an
important bridge that exists for today's reader to the life of children
from a past era? Do you feel there is a need for more stories based in
Appalachia that reflect the cultural growth of the region?
GEL: I think Appalachians write about the past with a special intensity
because our part of the country has changed so rapidly and lost so much.
Weíre trying to hold onto who we were as an anchor in figuring out who
we are. This is un-American in a way, since from the get-go the American
way has been to forget the old and start over. The clean-slate culture. But folks in the mountains know the slate is not clean. And thereís a lot on there we donít want rubbed out. I do
hope more writers will present contemporary Appalachian life, but I say this knowing that it will be harder to distinguish it from
life anywhere else in this country than it was in work set earlier. A
great homogenization is going on. However, Silas Houseís new novel, Clay's Quilt, is set close
to the present and gives us a vibrant look at a certain strand of life
in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky today.
is a difficult aspect when writing about a region. Many problems exist
when writing in dialect: stereotyping, grammar, and isolation of
the reader. There is also the concern of writers writing outside of
their native dialect. It has been written in academic journals that
there is a false impression of Appalachian speech, and what is often
emphasized as Appalachian is most often the same phrases that are
considered incorrect. You use dialect in many of your books. In A
Regular Rolling Noah, Come a Tide, With a Hammer for my Heart, and Borrowed Children, there
are hints of dialect in the speech, but not the narration. How do you
balance the amount of dialect you use? Do you listen to your own inner
voice, or do you take on the nuances of individual dialects within the
region? Do you think dialect is necessary in depicting the people, and
if so, to what degree should it be used?
GEL: James Still, Lee Howard (The Last Unmined Veins), and Jo Carson have
been my models in recreating mountain speech. I try to follow their practice of less is more and of conveying
voice through rhythm, vocabulary, and metaphor rather than by altered
spellings, dropped letters, etc. In my experience, if it looks like dialect before you even
read it, itís likely to distance the reader so that (a) he doesnít
make the effort at all or (b) the language separates her from the
speakers, a distance she is likely to read as reflecting their
inferiority. I listen for a voice and try to follow it without
censoring. When revision time comes, I listen more critically, and
delete anything that seems false to me.
dialect comes another aspect of Appalachian culture. People of
Appalachia have a beautifully expressive language laced with imagery.
When you write of Appalachia, your characters have that same love of
language and clever word usage. In Borrowed Children, Amanda is
not only surrounded by beautiful use of the language but she also
appreciates it. She admires her Memphis grandmother's language, and has
the perception to see her mother and school teacher both have a smile
that holds a deeper meaning of understanding.
Do you feel this depth of expression is expressed in Appalachian writers
other than yourself? Is this particular aspect of the culture something
you purposely try to convey? Do you feel a non-native to the culture
could be as sensitive to this trait as yourself?
GEL: I think much of Appalachian literature springs from the richness and
originality of mountain speech. My ears and heart were tuned to these
voices, and I listen for their energy, emotion, and wisdom and I write.
An outsider might be amazed to discover this wealth, having been told
that mountain people are culturally deprived. On the other hand, if
presumptions and prejudice impair their hearing, they might miss it
TLR: You began your career as a poet and give much of your picture book
success to your ability to use words in a poetic fashion. Why do you
feel we see such a lack of poetry for children from the Appalachian
GEL: I donít know why there isnít more poetry. Maybe itís because the
storytelling impulse is so strong. Maybe itís because writing for
children is labeled "lesser," and Appalachian poets already have one
strike against them and donít want to add another one.
TLR: Richard Jackson, your editor, said his "job is to encourage
(writers) into the light." He also said it is his pleasure. He
lists a long and impressive group of Appalachian writers that came to
him as referrals from you: Paul Brett Johnson, Jenny Davis, Anne Shelby,
Tres Seymour, Ann W. Olson, Jim Wayne Miller, Marie Brady, Jeff Daniel
Marion, and Cheryl Ware. What common ground do you see in their works
that makes them successful as Appalachian writers?
GEL: I think the common ground is a strong, rooted voice with
something to say and joy in the telling (however hard the story may be).
I believe this is what drew Dick Jackson to these writers and what he
nurtured in them (and me).
TLR: Thank you for your vast and positive contribution to Appalachian
children's literature. You have heightened positive awareness of the
region to teachers, as well as children with your essays,
books, and your presence.
Herrin, Roberta. "Gloria Houston and the Burden of the 'Old
Culture.'" Journal of Appalachian Studies Association, vol. 23.1, Fall 1996, pp. 30-42.
George Ella. "Gifts Not Stars." The Horn
Book Magazine, vol. 68.5, Sept./Oct. 1992, pp. 548-555.
McGillis, Roderick. The Nimble Reader: Literary Theory
and Children's Literature. Twain, 1996.
Rev. of Who Came Down That Road? by George Ella Lyon.
"Children's and Young Adult Books." Kirkus, 1
Michelle Justus. "Southern
Writer: George Ella Lyon". Essay. Buchanan Public Library, VA.
Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Waking Sleeping Beauty. University of Iowa Press, 1997.