Lynda Jones was destined to be an author. Her story breathes that truth. A love for writing shines through her responses and that’s why on this Valentine’s Day, we’re delighted to spotlight her during our 28 Days Program.
Tell us about your Journey
Raised in the gritty urban landscape that is East Harlem (aka Spanish Harlem or El Barrio), I lived for the exciting adventures I read in books. They played out like movies in my mind. I loved fairy tales and mysteries; stories set in exotic, faraway places; and family dramas. When I started high school, I began poring over my parents’ extensive and eclectic library. I read everything from Shakespeare to Iceberg Slim. Meanwhile, I wrote moody poems and short stories about my neighborhood, my dysfunctional family, and my myriad adolescent anxieties. I knew that I wanted to write, and I excelled at English and writing in school, but I had no idea if it was something that I could—or would—do for a living.
After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, I experimented with a variety of professions, from medical technology to fashion to advertising to, finally, publishing. I landed my first editorial job at Details, a lifestyle and fashion magazine for men. It was so exciting, and a great training ground for a beginning editor and writer. After Details, I worked at a variety of publications, from The Village Voice to Nickelodeon.
My career as an author began at Scholastic, where I was an editor on a science magazine for middle and high school students. I was finally putting my degree to good use! Perhaps my articles and interviews would inspire kids to consider a career in science or journalism. Besides publishing classroom magazines, Scholastic also publishes exceptional books. I was eager to write one of my own—even though I had zero experience. I was very fortunate that Bernette Ford, the then-Editorial Director of Cartwheel Books—a Scholastic imprint—agreed to meet with me. I talked to her about my interests and ideas. She was extremely kind, insightful, and enthusiastic. Then she asked me to write a story, which would serve as a writing sample. I chose to write a biography about cave explorer Stephen Bishop. She must have liked it because, about a year later, she offered me my first book assignment: to write a biography about Abraham Lincoln. She took a chance on me, and for that I’ll always be grateful. After I completed Abe Lincoln, more assignments followed, including Great Black Heroes: Five Brilliant Scientists and Great Black Heroes: Five Famous Writers. I still write for Scholastic today. So far, I’ve published eight books, including Kids Around the World Celebrate! The Best Feasts and Festivals From Many Lands (John Wiley & Sons), which won a Parents’ Choice Award.
Who Inspires you?
I’m inspired by authors who write about African American history and our heroes and “sheroes.” Kids are bombarded with so many negative images about our culture, it’s important that they learn about the positive and important contributions African Americans have made. I’m also inspired by authors such as Jacqueline Woodson, Walter Dean Myers, Angela Johnson, Sharon Flake, and Sharon Draper, who tackle the difficult subjects that kids deal with every day. And, finally, I’m inspired by every writer who has made the commitment to tell their stories and get them published—by any means necessary. It can be a very challenging process—especially when you have a day job, like most of us do— but it’s a grand achievement and extremely rewarding. It’s great that there are so many routes writers can take to get their stories to the masses—from posting them on a blog to raising funds through crowdsourcing to publish their work.
What about the Back Story
While my most recent books have been writer-for-hire assignments, which just means editors provide the story ideas and I provide the words, my most recent book idea was for Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln. The book came about because Sue Macy, who wrote for me when I worked at Nickelodeon and who publishes with National Geographic, suggested that I send ideas to her editor, Jennifer Emmett. So I did. Jennifer thought the story about Mary and her seamstress Elizabeth—a former slave—was a great idea because of their intriguing relationship and disparate backgrounds. And the subject was timely; Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday would be celebrated in February 2009, when the book was published.
The Children’s Book Council and the National Council for the Social Studies
selected Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker as a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for
Young People 2010.
Kirkus, Starred Review
Using period photographs and illustrations to expand the interest level, this account provides brief, strongly contrasting biographies of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley. Lincoln, often maligned, grew up in a family of wealth and privilege. She arrived at adulthood with few coping skills to deal with the tragedies she faced—the loss of three of her beloved children in their youth and the assassination of Abraham, her primary source of emotional support. Keckley needed strength from early childhood, growing up as a slave and oftentimes physically abused. A talented seamstress, she not only supported her owner’s family at one point with profits from her sewing, eventually she purchased her freedom. In Washington, she became Lincoln’s seamstress—and one of her few friends. Lincoln’s life has been well documented; it was a stroke of genius to contrast it with the less well-known story of this talented former slave. Including many anecdotes that provide insight into the pair and featuring impeccable research, this volume is an excellent, fascinating addition to literature on the Civil War era.
Although it’s difficult to find a fresh angle for a book in this year of Lincoln, Jones manages smartly with the story of Elizabeth Keckley, born into slavery, and her friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln…. Readers may be familiar with the ups and downs of Lincoln’s life, but details of Keckley’s story…will give them new insights into the life of a slave, in this case, one who was educated and had a profession.
Thank you, Lynda! Happy Valentine’s Day!