Kelly Starling Lyons was inspired by her husband’s family gatherings in Colquitt to write “Going Down Home With Daddy,” which was named a 2020 Caldecott Honor Book for Daniel Minter’s illustrations. CONTRIBUTED BY PEACHTREE PUBLISHING COMPANY

Caldecott honors Georgia artist for book about family reunions

Luminous, multilayered images created by Georgia native Daniel Minter to illustrate a children’s picture book about the African American tradition of family reunions has been recognized by one of the publishing industry’s highest honors.

“Going Down Home With Daddy” by Kelly Starling Lyons was named a 2020 Caldecott Honor Book by the American Library Association in recognition of Minter’s illustrations.

A Maine-based painter and creator of assemblages from wood and metal, Minter has exhibited his work at the Portland Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum and Atlanta’s Hammonds House Museum, among other institutions. He’s also illustrated 11 children’s books, including “Ellen’s Broom,” also by Lyons, which won a Coretta Scott King Illustration Honor Award in 2013.

Although he left in 1979, Minter’s hometown of Ellaville, a town of 1,800 about a two-hour drive south of Atlanta, always informs his work, he said.

“I enjoy the fact that I grew up there,” said Minter. “I learned a lot there. I learned a lot about social connections, community connections, family connections and the importance of those things. The ways in which a small community works is sort of a microcosm of how larger communities work. Most of the things in my work reference, in some form, Ellaville.”

Artist Daniel Minter grew up in Ellaville and attended the Art Institute of Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: For the AJC

Minter isn’t the only Georgia connection to “Going Down Home With Daddy,” which tells the story of Lil Alan’s family reunion and the lessons he learns about the importance of family and its ties to the land. The story was inspired in part by Lyons’ experience visiting the southwest Georgia town of Colquitt for her husband’s family gatherings.

“My grandmother grew up on rural land in Pennsylvania that her parents owned, and she always talked about how special it was and how people would come together there and what it meant,” said the Pittsburgh native, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. “But by the time I was born, the land was no longer in the family. We would go by and see it, but I didn’t get to see in real time the gathering she would talk about, so when I went to Georgia, it was like her stories had come to life.”

The book was published by Atlanta-based Peachtree Publishing Company, which specializes in children’s, middle grade and young adult books. It is the company’s first Caldecott recognition.

“When the art arrived, it was so stunning that it overwhelmed us,” said Margaret Quinlin, president and publisher of Peachtree Publishing. “We thought it was a beautiful book in both the terms of the text and the art, and the marriage between the two, which is so important in a picture book.”

Minter created the images by applying acrylic paint that had been thinned to large pieces of watercolor paper — some measuring 3 by 4 feet in size. First, he created large stamps of Adinkra, which are Ghanaian symbols for concepts such as abundance and the presence of God. These were stamped on the paper to create a background for the detailed images of Lil Alan and his family. The technique gives the illustrations a layered effect, and it speaks to the themes of the book, said Minter.

“Going Down Home With Daddy” was published by Atlanta-based Peachtree Publishing Company. CONTRIBUTED BY PEACHTREE PUBLISHING COMPANY
Photo: For the AJC

“Our culture in the South grew out of West African culture. It’s an extension — a branch,” he said. “That’s a lot of the ideas that the book is about — the branches and the roots. There’s even imagery that relates directly to that in the grandmother’s dress. Every time you see her, the patterns change. In one of them is all the branches.”

Traditionally, children’s picture book authors do not select their own illustrators. The publishing house is responsible for pairing the author and the artist, and “Going Down Home With Daddy” is no different. But Lyons did suggest Minter to Peachtree Publishing because his work actually helped inspire her story.

“When I wrote ‘Going Down Home With Daddy,’ I was thinking about (Minter), hoping he would be the illustrator,” said Lyons. “I was looking for ways our interests intersected. I went to his website and was reading about his feelings about home and about roots and about family. I had in my computer files some notes for a story I hoped to write someday about going down home, but it was visiting his site that really sparked the inspiration to go deeper and see if I could turn it into a story.”

The final results exceeded Lyons’ expectations.

“He brought so much more than I could have ever dreamed of,” she said. “I thought he would be a great person to illustrate it, but I had no idea how many layers of meaning he would actually put in that book — the Adinkra symbols, the patterns on the clothes with the different food. He just really elevated the story in a major way.”

Minter, in turn, was inspired by Lyons’ story, but he approached it from a different perspective.

“We had relatives who moved away to Northern cities, and they would visit in the summertime,” he said. “It would always be a huge reunion getting to know each other again, getting to know cousins and aunts and uncles you only heard about. Ellaville was a small, little place. We were not able to connect with a lot of different places. We didn’t really go anywhere. To have the world come to us was huge. I totally understood what Kelly was trying to bring across in the story. And I saw a way of telling my side of the story.”

Receiving the Caldecott Honor didn’t come as a complete surprise, said Quinlin. The book had already landed on several lists of best books of 2019, and it was in its second printing when the awards were announced, which prompted a third printing for a total of 40,000 books. Caldecott winners, including the top prize Caldecott Medal winner “The Undefeated” by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, will be honored at a luncheon at the American Library Association Conference in Chicago in June.

“It’s been like a dream deferred for us,” Quinlin said about the honor. “We were always hoping. We have won a lot of awards for our books, but the Caldecott is the highest award that we’ve won. There are a lot of reasons people end up getting a Caldecott. The books have to have some resonance and, of course, the art has to be transcendent in a way. This book does that.”

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