author chat: kelly starling lyons on tea cakes for tosh

tea cakes cover

They’re light and buttery, a little chewy, just a touch of brown around the edges. The fragrance of vanilla and cinnamon wafts through the kitchen as they gently puff up in the oven.

Some describe it as a soft, old-fashioned sugar cookie; some say they are neither cookie nor cake, but most agree that Southern tea cakes are all about childhood, family, and a big ole batch of feel-good memories. If a bite of Southern cuisine could hug you, the tea cake would be it.

I would be lying if I didn’t confess that Tea Cakes for Tosh (Putnam, 2012) had me at the title along with the picture of the grandmother and grandson on the cover. Certainly their special bond is the heartbeat of this tender, multi-layered intergenerational tale so lovingly told by Kelly Starling Lyons and masterfully illustrated by Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Award winner E.B. Lewis.

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All illustrations copyright © 2012 E.B. Lewis

Young Tosh loves visiting Grandma Honey, eating her freshly baked tea cakes that “smelled like vanilla mixed with sunshine,” and hearing her long ago stories, especially the one about his great-great-great-great Grandma Ida, who cooked in the Big House on a plantation and made the best tea cakes around. Those tea cakes were not supposed to be eaten by Ida’s children or any other young slaves, but she always hid a few in her pocket, risking punishment to give them a “sweet taste of freedom” and “a promise of days to come.”

When Grandma Honey starts to forget things, Tosh is worried and comes up with just the right plan to make Grandma feel better and to keep their cherished family recipe and the story that went with it alive.

I’m so pleased Kelly is here today to tell us more about Tea Cakes for Tosh, which is based on her own experiences with her Grandma Ruth, also an amazing cook who stashed tea cakes in her apron pockets and shared wonderful stories with her family. I love the way Kelly has deftly woven the sensitive issues of slavery and memory loss into her story, creating a rich social and historical context tempered perfectly for the picture book audience.

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kslheadshot (2)Please tell us more about your Grandma Ruth, who inspired Grandma Honey in the story. Besides tea cakes, what other kinds of things did she like to cook? How do you think she’s influenced your cooking, attitudes towards food, and eating habits today?

My grandma was an amazing cook. She could make everything from chicken tetrazzini to Manhattan meat rolls and ham and scalloped potatoes. She created made-from-scratch dessert for every dinner. Every morning, the smell of her cooking filled our house – fried apples, cheesy scrambled eggs, potato pancakes, homemade muffins or biscuits. Breakfast is still my favorite meal.

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Kelly’s Grandma Ruth

Grandma definitely influenced my feelings toward food. Meals were about sharing dishes made from the heart and bonding with family and friends. She always had room at her dining room table for one more. She made enough food to go around.

Just like Grandma, I love enjoying a great meal with people I care about. Friends call me a foodie. I like everything from Jamaican and Thai to soul food and Italian. I got that appreciation for foods from different cultures from my grandma too. Growing up, dinners could be kielbasa with sauerkraut and cornbread, meat loaf with mashed potatoes and green beans, spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread. She pulled from different cultures when she cooked and made the meals her own.

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You’ve said that of all the books you’ve published so far, this one is closest to your heart. Describe the story’s journey from idea to published book. What was the most challenging part of writing it?

 As I thought about the stories I wanted to write for kids, I thought back to my childhood. I thought about Grandma and the fun times we shared together. I thought about the wonderful tea cakes she baked. I knew there was a story in that memory. But I also knew I had to make the story more than just a reflection of my experience. So I made my main character a boy so that I could let the story take on a life of its own.

When I wrote the first draft, I pondered what kind of challenge I could create that would involve a child, his grandma and tea cakes. In the early version, Tosh’s problem was that kids were teasing him about how his grandma’s tea cakes looked. They weren’t store-bought like the cookies his friends brought to school. Tosh felt bad about the teasing which made him look at his grandma differently. Then, his mom told him a story about how tea cakes came into their family that made his pride grow.


That story received form rejections at first. Then, I got a call from an editor who liked the story, but encouraged me to think deeper. That’s when I thought about how my grandma struggled with remembering her recipes as she got older. Sometimes when she cooked, it just didn’t taste the same. I decided to use that memory as the seed of a story that would mix a family tale with fiction.

I received great feedback at the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. Then, I got an agent and a yes. I was thrilled when Stacey Barney acquired the story. Through her editing and E.B. Lewis’ amazing art, the book began to take shape.

Then in December, nearly a decade after I first had the idea for the book, I received a box of Tea Cakes for Tosh. It was the best feeling ever. I’m so blessed to be able to share that story with kids. My grandma passed away several years ago. But I feel like she’s with me every time I read that story and show her picture.

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Can you tell us a bit more about how, when, and where tea cakes originated in this country?

I grew up hearing about my family’s history with tea cakes. But I didn’t know about the European connection until I read about The Tea Cake Roundup, a collection of tea cake stories and recipes, by Elbert Mackey. According to him, tea cakes came to America from Britain. In my story, Tosh’s great-great-great-great grandma Ida was an enslaved plantation cook and made tea cakes for the slaveholders and their children. Though my story is fiction, I believe it was in slavery that tea cakes became part of the African-American culinary tradition.

When you were growing up, were tea cakes reserved for special occasions? When did they typically make an appearance 🙂 ?

Growing up, there was always some homemade goodie around – banana cream pie, pound cake with a lemon glaze, chocolate truffles. We never knew when Grandma would make tea cakes. But when she did, it was always magic.

Everybody had their favorite topping – plain or dusted with cinnamon sugar. I loved mine topped with rainbow jimmies.

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Do many of your relatives bake tea cakes? If so, do they stick with a basic recipe such as the one included in the book, or do they like to vary it in certain ways? Do you have any favorite variations you especially like to eat or make yourself?

I have an aunt who bakes tea cakes, but she’s the only other member of my family I know who carries on the tradition. She sticks with a basic recipe too. Sometimes I like my tea cakes a little spicier so I’ll add a bit of nutmeg. Sometimes I want chocolate jimmies on them instead of rainbow ones.

kellykindergarten (2)Please share another favorite food-related family memory.

When I was little, my granddad loved surprising us in the middle of the night with homemade pepperoni pizza. While everyone slept, he’d creep downstairs and get busy. The smell would wake us up. We’d rush downstairs to have a slice and hang out with him. It was a special time.

What do you like most about E.B. Lewis’s illustrations? Do you have a favorite spread?

I love everything about E.B.’s pictures. He did such an incredible job. One feature I really appreciate is the way he used color to signal changes. Black and white indicates we’re going to the past. Blue shows that Honey is forgetting something. Then, the blue lifts when Tosh helps her remember. It’s such a masterful way to visually tell a story. My favorite spread is at the end when Honey is embracing Tosh.

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What do you hope young readers will take away from this book?

I hope kids think about the special ways they connect with elder relatives. Both generations have so much to give each other. I would love for children to ask their grandparents and older aunts and uncles to tell them family stories. I hope kids are inspired to pass these stories on.

Your first published book, Eddie’s Ordeal, was a chapter book. What’s your favorite genre to write? What do you like most about writing picture books? Which part of the process is hardest for you?

Picture books are my favorite. Something Beautiful, by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, was one of the books that inspired me to write for kids. I love the way the pictures and words work together to tell the story. I also love how picture book characters can face big issues that are boiled down to their emotional core in a way that’s just right for a child to understand.

something beautiful

When I write historical fiction pieces, the toughest part for me is figuring out how much history to include. I do a lot of research. My editor tells me to focus on the character’s emotions. Such great advice. Once I do that, the story flows.

December 2012 was a very good month for you – not only was Tea Cakes for Tosh released, but also Hope’s Gift, a touching story commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, gorgeously illustrated by Don Tate. What do you most want us to know about Hope’s Gift?

Thanks so much. Hope’s Gift is about an important time in history, but at its heart it’s about family.  

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Any current projects you’d like to tell us about?

I’m always working on something. Right now, I’m revising a middle-grade novel called The Summer of Aunt Lou. I’m also finishing up a couple of picture books.

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tea cakes mid sizeTEA CAKES FOR TOSH
written by Kelly Starling Lyons
illustrated by E.B. Lewis
published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin YRG, 2012
Picture Book for ages 5-8, 32 pp.
Cool themes: Cookery, Families, African American History, Grandparents, Dementia, Diversity
*Honors: Fall 2012 Okra Pick (Southern Independent Booksellers Allliance), Highly Commended Title (Charlotte Zolotow Award Committee), CCBC Choices 2013, 2012 Teaching for Change Staff Favorites
**Includes Tea Cakes Recipe

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♥ Enjoy the Official Trailer:

Kelly Starling Lyons Official Website: don’t miss the Discussion and Geneaology Guide and Tea Cakes Activities for Kids

♥ Kelly blogs at The Brown Bookshelf and at Kuumba

♥ Check out this recent interview at Marti Ink

♥ Professional Reviews: Kirkus, Publishers Weekly


*Spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2012 Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrations © 2012 E.B. Lewis, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


20 thoughts on “author chat: kelly starling lyons on tea cakes for tosh

  1. Just beautiful. Thank you for this, Kelly and Jama! At a 19th-century farm museum near me, volunteers make Welsh teacakes over the fire – which look a lot like Tosh and Grandma Honey’s. SImple but, oh-so-good!


    1. Those sound good, Amy, and the farm museum sounds really interesting. Just combining the two words “tea” and “cake” make me so happy :).


  2. Baking, grandmas, and books. So much to love in this post! Thank you Kelly and Jama.


    1. I’m drooling at all the things Grandma Ruth used to make. No wonder Kelly was inspired to write a book about growing up in such a loving and delicious family :).


  3. The generational connection through food is one of the most pleasant memories a child can have. It’s a tradition that can remain unbroken. I really can’t wait to read this title. Thanks for sharing this today, Jama and Kelly.


  4. When I was a child, my father made tea cakes… because his great-grandmother had. She lived in Alabama, on a sharecropper’s land, and they were the one soft thing about her – everything else had to be hard, because she was a farmer, worked early-to-late, and had nothing of her own. But, she made those tea cakes for very, very, very special occasions.

    My father used to make them, and he claims that he cannot remember the recipe “right” now, either.

    Boy, this book resonates on a number of levels!!

    I also like that E.B. Lewis drew the boy with braids. He definitely looks all boy, and just right, like the nephews, and so many other little boys I see in real life, who aren’t often reflected in books.


    1. I remember making your tea cakes recipe and your saying it was your best guestimate since your father claims he can’t remember it. They were yummy and you did a good job of replicating the recipe. 🙂

      Lewis did a brilliant job — love the blue haze representing the grandmother’s fading memory + the use of black and white for the past. And yes — those braids are wonderful.


    1. Glad you enjoyed the post — I agree that Mr. Lewis is a great artist and this is definitely a very tasty and heartwarming story. After reading it, you can make the tea cakes recipe in the back. 🙂


  5. This sounds like a special book, Jama, capturing moments that were clearly special to the author. And, thank you for the interview as well. I will share this with my students – Lelly’s journey as an author is one they will be intetested. And Imlove that last illustration, too….no one hugs like one’s grandma!


    1. Thanks for sharing this with your students. Kelly believed in her story, kept working toward improving it, and never gave up. E.B. Lewis’s illustrations really capture the love and warmth between grandmother and grandson, don’t they?


  6. Hi Jama. I’m working with a teacher who is going to do an oral history project with his students. Teacakes for Tosh will be a wonderful text for him to share with his class. I loved all the story of it, and about the process. Thanks for being so generous with the details of this book & all the others by Kelly.


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