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George Ella Lyon (1949-)


George Ella Lyon is a prolific writer who has made a name for herself with young listeners, teen readers, and grown-up poetry aficionados. Praised for using what School Library Journal contributor Ellen Fader calls "spare and elegant text" that "creates a poetic yet childlike mood," Lyon has penned picture book titles for the story-circle set, including Dreamplace, Cecil's Story, and Who Came Down that Road? In addition to picture books, Lyon has written novels for young adults, as well as an adult novel that will appeal to teens, With a Hammer for My Heart, which reflects her own upbringing in a close-knit Appalachian mountain family.

Born in eastern Kentucky in 1949, Lyon grew up outside a small coal-mining town in the Appalachian mountains. Her parents were both "mountain folk," and all four of her grandparents lived nearby. "Family loomed large as the mountains for me, both secure and confining," as she later commented. This is also the case with Lawanda Ingle, the fifteen-year-old heroine of Lyon's novel With a Hammer for My Heart. Thirsty for knowledge and experience, Lawanda lives in "a tiny Kentucky town [that is] the center of the universe," according to Booklist contributor GraceAnne A. DeCandido.

Suffering from poor vision as a young child, Lyon compensated by developing a "good ear for a culture rich in stories." Her early fantasies took her away from her mountain home, and she dreamed of becoming everything from a neon sign maker to a tightrope walker. Her later aspirations to be a veterinarian, a folk singer, a midwife, or a simultaneous translator at the United Nations were much more down to earth, however. As an adult writer, "I try to do all these things," Lyon said: "keep a tricky balance, heal, find music in words, and translate or bring to birth the lives that are inside us."

Lyon spent her childhood in the house her grandfather built, which included a room over the garage dedicated solely to books. "Before I could read myself, I was listening to stories and building cities and mazes out of books," the author recalled. "The thing that interested me most as listener and maker was poetry, which made sense (using all the senses) to me whether I understood [the literal meaning] or not." Encouraged by her teachers, Lyon began writing poems in the third grade. After graduating from high school, she attended Centre College of Kentucky, graduating in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in English. A year later, she got married and started a family of her own. At the same time she began submitting her poems for publication. While she worked a succession of part-time jobs to help make ends meet, Lyon recalled that she was "always wary of giving myself to any career other than writing."

Over a decade later, her first book, the poetry collection Mountain, was published by a small press in Hartford, Connecticut. And the following year her career began to move more quickly, when poetry anthologist Paul Janeczko passed a letter of hers on to his editor, Dick Jackson, who asked if she wrote for children. "'No,' I said, 'but hold on.'" Jackson's interest was the impetus for Lyon's books for children. Father Time and the Day Boxes and Borrowed Children were the first of many they worked on together.

With the success of Father Time and the Day Boxes, Lyon went on to create many other picture books, each of them exploring an interesting and compelling theme. In Who Came down That Road?, for instance, she depicts a curious young boy questioning his mother about the past during a walk along an "old old old old road." Lyon spins a poetic chronology of time that stretches from the boy's own parents and great-grandparents all the way back through farmers clearing the land and Civil War soldiers, Native Americans and grizzly bears, to a time when mastodons walked North America. While Booklist contributor Stephanie Zvirin noted that the "majestic leap from concrete to abstract" might require some further explanation, Lyon's text is "brief and plainly spoken, and it is filled with an unmistakable sense of joyful respect." A Kirkus Reviews writer called Who Came down That Road? a "beautifully crafted book that makes an unusually effective response to a prototypical question."

The past serves as the focus for several other picture books by Lyon, among them Cecil's Story, set during the U.S. Civil War, and Dreamplace, which focuses on the culture of the Anasazi. In Cecil's Story, a young boy waits with neighbors while his mother goes to fetch his father, who has been wounded in battle. Published during the Gulf War in 1991, the book was praised by School Library Journal reviewer Lee Bock for addressing "separation fears" about parents going to war "honestly and feelingly, with a believable and reassuring conclusion," reminding children that life still goes on, despite dramatic change. Also highly praised by critics, 1993's Dreamplace introduces an imaginative girl who, while touring the eight-hundred-year-old Anasazi ruins, envisions what it would be like to live among the ancient tribe, as drought forces them to abandon their homes. Featuring lush illustrations by Peter Catalanotto, Dreamplace was praised by Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper as "rich with atmosphere, delicate with sensitivity, and dreamlike in its evocation of dual realities."

Like the catastrophe of war in Cecil's Story, weather can sometimes make a dramatic impression on children. In One Lucky Girl, Lyon tells her story through a young boy nicknamed Hawkeye, an energetic narrator who lives with his family in a trailer camp. When his home is literally ripped from its foundation during a ferocious tornado, his little sister, Becky, becomes lost. Lyon's ability to pace her story to retain interest "is a masterful roller coaster of roiling emotion," claimed reviewer Elizabeth Bush in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Noting that the book's ending brings "a delightful flurry of shivers, followed by the comforting relief of a family unharmed and inseparable," Bush called One Lucky Girl "the action picture book at its best."

Also praised for its pacing and plot is Come a Tide, which focuses on water rather than wind in depicting the frenzy of activity caused by flooding in the Kentucky mountains after many days of heavy rains. In weaving her tale about a small, closely knit community that rallies together during a time of disaster, Lyon "wastes not a word" in "depict[ing] two complete worlds—those of an Appalachian community and of a small child's hopes and fears," in the opinion of New York Times Book Review contributor Kathleen Krull.

As with picture books such as Come a Tide and her novel With a Hammer for My Heart, Lyon's young adult novels are frequently set in poor southern communities. Her 1988 story Borrowed Children, for instance, is set in Clay County, Kentucky, and in Memphis during the Great Depression and concerns twelve-year-old Amanda Perritt. Amanda is spending a holiday in Tennessee with her grandparents, away from the hardships of her home in Goose Rock, Kentucky, where she has to take care of her family because her mother is ill. She has come to resent taking care of her sisters and baby brother, but when she meets her mother's sister, Laura, she gains a new appreciation for her siblings and understanding for her mother. Aunt Laura, even though she is much wealthier than Amanda's mother, is unhappy because she has cut herself off from a relationship with her sister after Amanda's mother married. The relationships between children and their parents is also key in the more recent Sonny's House of Spies. Set during the 1940s and early 1950s, this novel is about a boy who tries to find out what happened to his father after he disappears from their Alabama home.

Unique among Lyon's young adult books, however, is her 2002 novel, Gina.Jamie.Father.Bear. Unlike her other, more realistic stories, this is a fantasy about a high school student named Gina, who lives in modern-day Cleveland, and a boy named Jamie, who inhabits a magical world of the past. The two are brought mysteriously together through their mutual concern for their fathers. After losing her mother, Gina is puzzled by her dad's behavior when he begins visiting a psychic in secret; Jamie's father has suffered a similar loss, but his strange behavior involves turning into a bear. When Gina tracks down Esther the psychic after one of her father's disappearances, the medium becomes her spiritual guide on a journey that causes Gina and Jamie's worlds to intertwine. Gina's adventure in helping Jamie escape from the forbidden woods of his world has a reverberating effect on her own life in Ohio, as the two teens become connected through their mutual love for their parents and by a magical gold ring. While some reviewers of Gina. Jamie. Father. Bear felt that the ambiguous, recondite mysticism in the story might "frustrate some readers," according to School Library Journal reviewer Beth Wright, it will "appeal to others." Christine M. Heppermann, writing in Horn Book, similarly felt that "the narrative gets analogy-heavy at times," but added that the story should "keep readers entranced while they try to sort through what it all means."

Several critics particularly noted the appropriately mystical writing style in Gina.Jamie.Father.Bear in what Wright called Lyon's "skillful, poetic use of language." A similar observation was made by a Publishers Weekly critic, who called Lyon's fantasy "a lyrical, memorable tale." Language use has also been important to Lyon in her picture books, and she credits her work as a poet with helping make the transition into children's stories. "As Nancy Willard [once] pointed out . . . poems are the closest genre to picture books, with their use of sound, rhythm, economy of language, and surprise," the author once noted. Also helpful was Lyon's experience raising her own two sons, and the years she spent reading books to them exposed her to many of the current children's books. "Children's questions are the questions (What is God? If I die, will I wake up again?), and they point out the shallowness of our answers," she observed. "We have a lot to learn from the wonder and vulnerability with which they approach the world."

Her sons' questions also served as the inspiration for several of Lyon's books. "Long before I was writing for kids I was recording Ben's questions and imaginings in my journal," the author recalled. "That's where I got the start for Together and Father Time and the Day Boxes. Joey, my younger son, was the catalyst for The Outside Inn. Over and over, children call us to a deeper life."

As a children's writer, Lyon goes to schools and libraries to read her work and speak about the craft of writing with her young fans. "One of the questions kids ask when I visit schools is: 'Are you rich?' Yes, I say, but not the way you think. I'm rich because I get to do what I love to do and then find readers who see themselves in it. Books are a collaborative enterprise, not just between author, editor, and illustrator, but between those folks and the reader. So when kids are excited because they're meeting a 'real author,' I'm excited at meeting real readers."

While she receives a great deal of personal satisfaction from her role as a writer, Lyon also views her vocation as "a spiritual journey." As she once commented, "Writing for me is a spiritual journey. I come to the blank page full of hope that by participating in the process of creation I will have moments of wholeness and understanding. I believe all of us are given different gifts which require that we give up our ego selves in order to receive and pass the gift on. We do this imperfectly, of course, but in the labor we feel God's presence, and in the synthesis of song or poem, dance or painting, we share in the joy of the Maker."

Lyon once commented: "I remember being fascinated by words early on. How much of this was inborn, I don't know, but my parents read to me, my grandparents told stories, and my mother played word games with me, all of which I'm sure contributed. I began writing because I loved poems—the fact that words could cast an emotional spell—and I wanted to make some.

"When I went through the transition from being an outgoing child to a fairly shy adolescent, writing offered an important way of expressing myself. It brought me delight and insight, comfort and hope. It still does. I write because it is my way of understanding and loving the world, and because I enjoy getting carried away. Willa Cather said, 'To be dissolved into something whole and great, that is happiness,' and while what I am writing may not be 'whole and great,' the creative process IS and I write for that joy. I also love the newness of it, the breathtaking moment when a piece of writing comes alive and you know it has something you couldn't give it."

Biographical and Critical Sources


America, February 10, 1996, James S. Torrens, review of United States of Poetry, p. 25.

Appalachian Heritage, winter-spring, 1985.

Appleseeds, November, 1999, Sharron A. Crowson, review of Dreamplace, p. 32.

Booklist, January 1, 1991, Denise Perry Donovan, review of Come a Tide, p. 811; March 15, 1991, Bill Ott, review of Come a Tide, p. 1483; July, 1991, Denise Wilms, review of The Outside Inn, p. 2051; September 1, 1992, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Who Came Down that Road?, p. 67; March 14, 1993, Ilene Cooper, review of Dreamplace, p. 1321; June 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Mama is a Miner, p. 1810; October 1, 1994, Janice Del Negro, review of Here and Then, p. 319; October 15, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Five Live Bongos, p. 437; May 1, 1996, Susan Dove Lempke, review of A Day at Damp Camp, p. 1512; September 1, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of A Wordful Child, p. 121; September 15, 1996, review of Ada's Pal, p. 248; September 1, 1997, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of With a Hammer for My Heart, p. 61; February 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of A Sign, p. 1014; March 1, 1998, Helen Rosenberg, review of Counting on the Woods, p. 1130; November 15, 1998, Carolyn Phelan, review of A Traveling Cat, p. 591; May 15, 1999, Susan Dove Dempke, review of BOOK, p. 1693; September 1, 1999, review of Where I'm From, Where Poems Come From, p. 121; March 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of One Lucky Girl, p. 1250; May 1, 2000, review of One Lucky Girl, p. 1677; December 15, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Gina.Jamie.Father.Bear, p. 754; March 1, 2003, Kay Weisman, review of Mother to Tigers, p. 1208.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1994, Roger Sutton, review of Mama is a Miner, p. 18; May, 1996, review of A Day at Damp Camp, p. 306; April, 1998, review of A Sign, p. 287; March, 2000, Elizabeth Bush, review of One Lucky Girl.

Children's Book Review Service, January, 1997, Lois K. Nichols, review of Ada's Pal, pp. 51-52.

Five Owls, May-June, 1995, Susan Stan, review of Come a Tide, p. 95.

Horn Book, September-October, 1989; January-February, 1991; May-June, 1991, Mary M. Burns, review of Cecil's Story, p. 317; January-June, 1993, review of Dreamplace, p. 267; March-April, 1993, Ellen Fader, review of Dreamplace, p. 199; July-December, 1994, review of Five Live Bongos, p. 45; March-April, 1995, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Here and Then, p. 193; September-October, 1996, Nancy Vasilakis, review of A Wordful Child, p. 613; November, 1998, Mary M. Burns, review of A Traveling Cat, p. 716; May, 2000, review of One Lucky Girl, p. 297; September-October, 2002, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Gina. Jamie.Father.Bear, p. 576; May-June, 2003, Betty Carter, review of Mother to Tigers, p. 369.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1992, review of Who Came Down That Road?, p. 851; January 1, 1993, review of Dreamplace, p. 64; August 15, 1994, review of Mama is a Miner, p. 1133; October 15, 1994, review of Five Live Bongos, p. 1411; January 15, 1996, review of A Day at Damp Camp, p. 138; July 1, 1996, review of Ada's Pal, p. 971; January 15, 1998, review of Counting on the Woods, p. 115; February 1, 1998, review of A Sign, p. 198; February 1, 2003, review of Mother to Tigers; February 1, 2004, review of Weaving the Rainbow, p. 136.

Language Arts, October, 1990.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 24, 1989; May 27, 1990.

New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1988; October 14, 1990, Kathleen Krull, review of Come a Tide, p. 33; May 19, 1991.

Publishers Weekly, January 12, 1990, review of Come a Tide, p. 60; March 15, 1991, Diane Roback, Richard Donahue, reviews of Cecil's Story, p. 15, 193; August 2, 1991, review of The Outside Inn, p. 71; June 29, 1992, review of Who Came down That Road?, p. 62; January, 25, 1993, review of Dreamplace, p. 86; July 11, 1994, review of Mama is a Miner, p. 78; September 26, 1994, review of Here and Then, p. 71; February 12, 1996, review of A Day at Damp Camp, p. 78; September 1, 1997, review of With a Hammer for My Heart, p. 97; February 2, 1998, review of A Sign, p. 90; February 23, 1998, review of Counting on the Woods, p. 75; July 27, 1998, review of A Traveling Cat, p. 76; March 15, 1999, review of BOOK, p. 57; October 11, 1999, review of Borrowed Children, p. 78; October 18, 1999, review of Where I'm From, p. 85; March 13, 2000, review of One Lucky Girl, p. 84; September 9, 2002, review of Gina.Jamie.Father.Bear, p. 69; December 23, 2002, review of Mother to Tigers, p. 71; February 16, 2004, review of Weaving the Rainbow, p. 170.

Reading Teacher, February, 1991, Barbara Kiefer, review of Come a Tide, p. 408.

School Library Journal, December, 1990, review of Come a Tide, p. 23; April, 1991, Lee Bock, review of Cecil's Story, p. 98; September, 1991, Jody McCoy, review of The Outside Inn; p. 236; October, 1992, Ellen Fader, review of Who Came Down that Road?, p. 92; September, 1994, review of Here and Then, p. 71; September, 1994, review of Mama is a Miner, p. 189; October, 1994, Amy Kellman, review of Here and Then, p. 124; April, 1996, Ruth Semrau, review of A Day at Damp Camp, p. 114; September, 1996, Carolyn Nash, review of Ada's Pal, p. 184; January, 1997, Anne Parker, review of A Wordful Child, p. 102; October, 1997, Molly Connally, review of With a Hammer for My Heart, p. 160; March, 1998, Ruth Semrau, review of A Sign, p. 198; April, 1998, Angela J. Reynolds, review of Counting on the Woods, p. 120; September, 1998, Julie Cummins, review of A Traveling Cat, p. 176; June, 1999, review of BOOK, p. 119; March, 2000, Joy Fleishhacker, review of One Lucky Girl, p. 210; August, 2002, Beth Wright, review of Gina. Jamie.Father.Bear, p. 194; March, 2003, Margaret Bush, review of Mother to Tigers, p. 220; February, 2004, review of Weaving the Rainbow, p 118.

Southern Living, October, 1997, Valerie Fraser, review of With a Hammer for My Heart, p. 76.

Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1998, Cindy Lombardo, review of With a Hammer for My Heart, pp. 122-123.


George Ella Lyon Web site, http://www.windpub.org/authors/GEL.htm/ (November 6, 2001).

Shepherd College Department of English, http://www.shepherd.edu/engleweb/ (November 6, 2001), "George Ella Lyon—Writer-in-Residence 2001."

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Al Loving Biography - Loved Painting from Early Age to Alice McGill Biography - PersonalGeorge Ella Lyon (1949-) Biography - Personal, Career, Sidelights - Addresses, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress