Into the Lyons' Den
Born on November 28, 1947, in Macon, Georgia, Mary Evelyn Lyons came from a family where reading was a part of everyday life. Her family moved around a lot, and Mary found a way to stay centered was by keeping her nose in a book or even a comic book. She liked to read different kinds of things. She read all the time, but she especially enjoyed "Katy Keene" fashion comics, and the Newbery-winner Hitty, Her First Hundred Years was definitely a favorite. This story of a beloved doll being passed down and loved by generations of girls had much history woven into it—something Mary would learn a lot about as she got older.
She kept a diary as a young girl, and when it came time to write some of her historical stories she chose to use a diary-format as in Keeping Secrets: The Girlhood Diaries of Women Writers. In this way her characters shared their personal feelings with the readers and Mary edited the book so she shared her insights as well. It seems that most every part of Mary Lyons' life has played into her writing. By the time she attended Appalachian State University she knew she was good at her craft—perhaps a little too good. One professor thought her work was unbelievably good and accused her of plagiarism.
Mary went to college in the turbulent 1960s. After Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death, she became more interested in civil rights issues. She studied to become a teacher and had a part-time job tutoring a black child who lived outside the town limits, where most of the black families lived. In that neighborhood, there was no running water or sewage. Mary believed the town had drawn the boundaries that way deliberately, to make things harder on the black families.
Straight out of college, she went to teach at an all-black, inner-city school in the middle of a housing project. Books and supplies were hard to come by but that didn't stop Mary from teaching her science classes. She soon went back to school to earn her masters degree so that she could work as a reading specialist, a job she held for 17 years.
At last she was ready to move on to another career. Her new job as a school librarian kept her in the teaching world she loved, but it wasn't quite so demanding as working intensely one-on-one as a reading specialist. During her years of teaching, she discovered that the students were fascinated by the tales collected by Zora Neale Hurston, a Depression-era novelist, playwright, and folklore collector.
She decided to write a book for young adults on Hurston as she could not find one in the school library. Mary spent nine months writing and researching Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston. The first publisher she sent it to rejected it, but Mary quickly sent it off to yet another publishing house who bought it almost immediately. Sorrow's Kitchen went on to win ten awards, including the National Council for the Social Studies' Carter G. Woodson Secondary Book Award and the International Reading Association's Teacher's Choice Award.
Mary Lyons has written many books that blend good storytelling with the black experience in folklore and history. When she visits schools, the teachers and students are often surprised to discover she is not black although so many of the characters and so much of the history she writes is drawn from black culture. Mary has also captured an important part of her own family's history in the Emerald Isle with her tales of the Irish potato famine—Feed the Children First: Irish Memories of the Great Hunger and Knockabeg: A Famine Tale.
Mary told in an interviewer with Authors and Artists for Young Adults that she focuses on "the triumph of the human spirit." "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."
Besides folklore books such as Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural and The Butter Tree: Tales of Bruh Rabbit, she has also combined her love of black culture with a passion for art and artisans. She created a series entitled "African American Artists and Artisans" which tells the stories of people who worked with their hands to create things of beauty, be they cabinetmakers, quilters, blacksmiths, or artists on paper.
Mary has also taught writing at the University of Virginia, near her Charlottesville home. Her husband and fellow book lover, Paul Collinge, owns Heartwood Books, a used book shop with many rare volumes located just across the street from the university. Fun fact: in her spare time, Mary enjoys playing Irish penny whistle and banjo with a group called Virgil and the Chicken Heads. Their motto: "We play for chicken feed."
Sources for this article (and places to find more information on the author):
"Mary E(velyn) Lyons," in Contemporary Authors Online
"Mary E(velyn) Lyons," in Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults
"Mary E. Lyons," in Authors and Artists for Young Adults
The Lyons Den: Books for Young Readers
The author's own site has information on each of her books, a bit of biography, a full listing of awards, and a link to an interview conducted by Fairfax County Public Library.
Simon Pulse Blogfest: Mary E. Lyons
Mary answers readers' questions on her writing and other interests.