In tribute to slain student, graphic novel workshop continues at Lexington school

What started out as a short-term Saturday volunteer effort at Winburn Middle School for Shawn Pryor, a young adult graphic novel and comic book author, is turning into an ongoing workshop and a tribute to a slain student.

Graphic novels often have stories that include superheroes and focus on such topics as sports, drama, science fiction and fantasy.

Pryor has been recognized with a Fayette school district award for community members — the 2023 Golden Apple Award — for hosting a series of graphic novel workshops for Winburn Middle School.

Miranda Scully, Fayette Public Schools director of Family and Community Engagement announced the honor at the Fayette school board’s May 20 meeting.

Pryor said the biggest issue for continuing his workshops is funding.

Money for art supplies, snacks for students and printing costs all comes out of Pryor’s pocket, he told the Herald-Leader in an interview Sunday.

Pryor plans to work with school district officials and others in Lexington in coming weeks to develop a fundraising effort

“Graphic novels and comic books are a gateway to reading. It’s a gateway to learning art. It’s a gateway to learn how to process information,” he said.

Through the workshops, students discussed the writing process and designed their own graphic novels.

Following the first year-long workshop in 2022, Pryor worked with professional illustrators to make conceptual art based on student designs and created copies of the resulting graphic novel for students and staff, Scully said at the May 20 school board meeting.

Pryor has been writing professionally for over 17 years, most often as an author of graphic novels and children’s books. By day, he is a computer support specialist for the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center.

Pryor’s efforts with Fayette students started in 2022 when a representative of Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy asked him to go to Winburn Middle School for four Saturdays to talk about comics, graphic novels and writing stories.

At first, he had a class of about 12 students, “and quickly those kids became a community,” he said.

“This gave a bunch of these kids an opportunity to get together .-- feel confident in themselves as I taught them the basics of comic books, how script structures are set up, how sequential pages are put together.”

In the first year of the workshops, Pryor said he focused on being able to get kids to open up and learn how to be expressive, “and that was an absolute blessing. “

Tragedy in midst of blessing

In the midst of that blessing, came tragedy.

After about three workshops, in May 2022, one of the students, Deon Williams, 13, and his 5-year-old sister, Skyler Williams, were allegedly killed by their mother, Nikki James, according to Lexington police.

James was arrested after police responded to her apartment building to find her covered in blood, according to court testimony. Her children, Skyler and Deon, were inside the apartment suffering from multiple stab wounds.

They were pronounced dead by the Fayette County Coroner’s Office after being taken to a hospital, police and the coroner said. James has been charged with murder.

Her attorneys have said she has serious mental health needs. A June 14 hearing in the case has been set in Fayette Circuit Court.

“Deon was a fantastic kid. He reminded me so much of myself when I was little, shy, quiet, had creative ability and talent, but didn’t know how to express it.. I saw all of that in him, and we were able to get him to open up to be creative, to start to tell stories,” Pryor said.

Pryor teaches the class for free, dedicating his work to Deon, Deon’s sister, and the students at Winburn.

An earlier fundraiser through the GoFundMe platform to purchase graphic novels, comics and other types of books in tribute to Deon and Skyler raised $3,500. Part of the school library with those books is called Deon’s Corner, Pryor said.

Continuing the work

In 2023 workshops, Pryor helped students learn how to create characters. With the help of professional artists, he created a book with the student’s work, and each student received a copy.

“It was just a lot of fun to be able to see the looks on those kids’ faces as the ideas that they had came to life.” Pryor said.

In spring 2024, the students in the class began to illustrate comic books. Next academic year, the goal is to have two classes, one at Winburn and one for other students in Fayette County, Pryor said.

Eighty percent of the students at Winburn are economically disadvantaged, according to the Kentucky School Report Card. Winburn is also home to one of the school district’s Gifted and Talented Accelerated Programs.

Pryor is now teaching about two workshops each month on Saturdays at Winburn from January to April.

“The bigger the class, the more money spent,” Pryor said, “ I’ll do anything for these kids, but I can’t break the bank.”

School board member Marilyn Clark told Pryor at the May 20 school board meeting the district would look for some grants to help continue the work.

“The arts are very important to students’ development, and I will continue to keep this class at Winburn going for as long as I possibly can,” Pryor told the Herald-Leader Sunday.