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.”
Father Time and the Day Boxes. New York: Bradbury, 1985
A Regular Rolling Noah. Scarsdale, NY: Bradbury Press, 1986
Borrowed Children. New York: Orchard Books, 1988
A B Cedar: An Alphabet of Trees. New York: Orchard Books, 1989
Red Rover, Red Rover. New York: Orchard Books, 1989
Together. New York: Orchard Books, 1989
Basket. New York: Orchard Books, 1990
Come a Tide. New York: Orchard Books, 1990
The Outside Inn (Picture Book). New York: Orchard Books, 1991
Cecil’s Story. New York: Orchard Books, 1991
Who Came Down That Road? New York: Orchard Books, 1992
Dreamplace. New York: Orchard Books, 1993
Five Live Bongos. New York: Scholastic, 1994
Here & Then. New York: Orchard Books, 1994
Mama is a Miner. New York: Orchard Books, 1994
Old Wounds, New Words: Poems from the Appalachian Poetry Project. (Editor) Ashland, KY: The Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1994
A Day at Damp Camp (Children’s Book). New York: Orchard Books, 1996
Ada’s Pal. New York: Orchard Books, 1996
A Wordful Child. Somers, NY: Richard C. Owen Publishers, 1996.
With a Hammer for My Heart. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 1997
Stranger I Left Behind. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Communications, 1997
Counting on the Woods (Poetry). New York: Orchard Books, 1998
A Sign. New York: Orchard Books, 1998
A Traveling Cat. New York: Orchard Books, 1998
Book. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 1999
Where I’m From. Spring, TX: Absey & Co. 1999
One Lucky Girl. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 2000
Gina.Jamie.Father.Bear. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2002
Crossing Troublesome: 25 Years of the Appalachian Writers Workshop. (Editor, with Leatha Kendrick). Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, 2002
A Kentucky Christmas (Editor) University Press of Kentucky, 2003
Mother to Tigers. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2003
Sonny’s House of Spies. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2004
Weaving the Rainbow. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2004
No Dessert Forever! New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2006
Trucks Roll! New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2007
My Friend, the Starfinder. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2008
Sleepsong. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2009
The Pirate of Kindergarten. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2010
Toda El Agua Del Mundo [All the Water in the World]. Simon & Schuster, 2011
Holding On to Zoe. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
She Let Herself Go: Poems (Poetry). Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2012
What Forest Knows. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2014
Voices From the March on Washington. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong, 2014
Book of the Year Award, Appalachian Writers Association, for Catalpa
Lamont Hall Award, Andrew Mountain Press (1983), for Mountain
Golden Kite Award, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (1989), for the novel Borrowed Children.
Kentucky Bluegrass Award, for Basket
Andrew Mountain Press Award, for Mountain
Jesse Stuart Media Award, Kentucky School Media Association, for body of work.