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An Interview with George Ella Lyon

Spring 2001
Interviewed by Tracy L. Roberts

Additional AppLit Resources:

Bibliography of Books by George Ella Lyon  
Lesson Plan on Mama is a Miner - by Brenda Muse 

This interview was conducted by e-mail for a presentation at the Children's Literature Association Conference, Buffalo, New York, June 6-10, 2001.

Introduction 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.

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 texts?

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, here goes!

List (read down one column at a time, if you want the order in which I wrote it):



























resistant to change  











After hearing Counting on the Woods:




I 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.)

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?

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.

b) 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.

Roberta 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 "grandma" who 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 your writing?

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 May, Ivy 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.

At 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 illustration? Why?

a ) 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 it.

b) 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 Come a Tide cover by Gammellwriting 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.

There 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?

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.)

Roderick 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.

In 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 moralRegular Rolling Noah cover and ethical and grow out of the culture, then the work will reflect them. I think these issues are universal.

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 Stars" (Horn 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?

Childhood heroes: my 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 productions.

What 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 published.)

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?

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.

Dialect 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?

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.

With 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?

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 altogether.

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 region?

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.

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?

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).

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.

Lyon, 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 July 1992.  

Talbott, Michelle Justus. "Southern Writer: George Ella Lyon". Essay. Buchanan Public Library, VA.

Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Waking Sleeping Beauty. University of Iowa Press, 1997.

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