Born: April 25, 1949, Harlan, Kentucky
George Ella Lyon is a poet, writer, teacher, musician, storyteller and social activist with Appalachian roots and a global reach. She has published 10 poetry collections, two adult novels, six novels for young people and 34 children’s picture books, plus stories, songs, plays, scripts and memoirs.
“Where I’m From,” her 1993 poem about personal identity, has become a classroom classic, art projects across Kentucky and the nation (iamfromproject.com) and a writing prompt used by teachers around the world.
“Writing, first of all, is for you,” she said when asked her advice to aspiring writers. “It’s really a tool for understanding yourself and helping yourself. Your voice matters. You have stories to tell that nobody else could tell. You look at the world in a way that no one has ever looked at it before.”
She was born George Ella Hoskins. Her father, Robert, was a drycleaner who read poems aloud and sang to her. Her mother, Gladys, loved to play imagination games with her.
Lyon’s parents were in the first generation of their families to go to college, and they had a library in their home. “That room expressed the center of the family,” she said.
Lyon started writing poems in third grade, but the main creative outlet of her youth was music. She played piano and flute. But by eighth grade, when she started hearing folksongs on the radio, she traded her flute and $10 for a guitar. She subscribed to, and later wrote for, Sing Out! magazine, the bible of the folk music revival.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from Centre College in 1971, a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas and a Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1978. She married musician and writer Stephen Lyon in 1972, and they have two sons and a granddaughter. They live in Lexington.
Lyon has taught creative writing at a five colleges and universities, but she especially enjoys visiting schools, where she reads to, sings with and inspires children.
“When I speak to kids, I hope there is joy in that experience and they see possibilities in themselves and in the world that maybe they didn’t see before and they get listened to when they ask a question,” she said.
She published her first poetry collection, Mountain, in 1983. But she said her most fortunate break came the next year when the late Richard Jackson, who would become her longtime editor, encouraged her to write for children. Her first picture book, Father Time and the Day Boxes, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker, grew out of a conversation she had with her then-young son, Benn.
Social justice has been central to Lyon’s writing and activism. Part of that came from growing up in Harlan County, a place of great wealth and great poverty. She also thinks it is a result of coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s amid the civil rights movement, Vietnam war and environmental awareness. Lyon said she doesn’t try to preach in her writing, especially in her children’s books, but “I hope if kids are moved by the story, then the concerns of the story may also reach them.”
Lyon says she writes more from feelings than ideas. “It’s a powerful tool,” she says of writing. “I love the fact that when it’s working it’s always new and there’s always a lot to learn. I never know where it’s going, except down the page.”
Catalpa. Wind, 1993
Back. Wind, 2010
She Let Herself Go. LSU, 2012
Many-Storied House. University Press of Kentucky, 2013
Back to the Light. University Press of Kentucky, 2021
With a Hammer for My Heart. University Press of Kentucky, 2007
Memoir & Plays
Don’t You Remember? MotesBooks, 2007
Braids, with Ann Kilkelly, 1985
Looking Back for Words, with Steve Lyon, 1989
For Young Readers
Together. New York: Orchard Books, 1989
Basket. New York: Orchard Books, 1990
Come a Tide. New York: Orchard Books, 1990
Cecil’s Story. New York: Orchard Books, 1991
Who Came Down That Road? New York: Orchard Books, 1992
Five Live Bongos. New York: Scholastic, 1994
Mama is a Miner. New York: Orchard Books, 1994
Ada’s Pal. New York: Orchard Books, 1996
Counting on the Woods (Poetry). New York: DK Ink, 1998
One Lucky Girl. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 2000
Mother to Tigers. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2003
Weaving the Rainbow. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2004
Trucks Roll! New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2007
My Friend, the Starfinder. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2008
The Pirate of Kindergarten. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2010
All the Water in the World. Atheneum, 2011
Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song. Cinco Puntos Press, 2011
Planes Fly! illus. Mick Wiggins. Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2013
What Forest Knows, illus. August Hall. Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2014
Boats Float! Co-written with Benn Lyon. Atheneum/ Richard Jackson Books, 2015
Trains Run! Co-written with Benn Lyon. Atheneum/ Richard Jackson Books, 2019
Borrowed Children. New York: Orchard Books, 1988
Here & Then. New York: Orchard Books, 1994
Gina. Jamie. Father. Bear. Atheneum/Richard Jackson, 2002
Sonny’s House of Spies. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2004
Holding On to Zoe. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
Where I’m From: Where Poems Come From. Spring, TX: Absey, 1999
Voices from the March on Washington. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong, 2014
Voices of Justice: Poems About People Working for a Better World, illus. Jennifer M. Potter. Holt Books for Young Readers, 2020.
Selected Awards and Honors
Kentucky Poet Laureate 2015-2016
Jane Addams Honor Book for You and Me and Home Sweet Home
ALA’s Schneider Family Book Award for The Pirate of Kindergarten
Aesop Award for Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song
Junior Library Guild Selection and Parents’ Choice Honor for Mother to Tigers
Cybils Award for Poetry for Voices from the March on Washington
Kentucky Bluegrass Award for Basket
Kentucky Bluegrass Award for One Lucky Girl
New York Times Best Books for Teens and Prinz Award finalist for Where I’m From, Where Poems Come From
Appalachian Book of the Year for Catalpa
Golden Kite Award for Borrowed Children
Lamont Hall Award for Mountain
KSMA’s Jesse Stuart Award, Chaffin Award for her body of work