Dallas resident Courtney Kelly has not only brought awareness to STEM-related careers with her new book but showcased her life story through the portrayal of the main character, Celeste. 

“The book is actually based on my life,” Kelly said. “I realized that civil engineering was a way that I could learn the things that would be needed in order to help the city of New Orleans prevent another disaster like Hurricane Katrina from happening.” 

Celeste Saves The City follows Celeste, a young African American girl growing up in New Orleans who had to evacuate with her family because of Hurricane Katrina. Celeste decides to become a civil engineer in order to help her home of New Orleans with flooding issues during threatening storms and hurricanes. She restores and protects the wetlands along the coast of the city and builds barrier islands. 

A page from Celeste Saves the City

“It teaches them what civil engineers do, the types of impacts that civil engineers can have on our cities and encourages them to pursue careers not only in civil engineering and construction, but in STEM in general,” Kelly explained.

Illustrated by Erin Nielson, the autobiographical fictional narrative encourages readers to recognize and make efforts towards bettering coastal cities during horrific and damaging natural disasters. 

Kelly’s inspiration came from her family’s evacuation from New Orleans during the time of Hurricane Katrina when she was just a sophomore in high school. After being involved with various STEM camps and programs, Kelly chose to pursue civil engineering as her primary study in college to find effective ways of limiting natural disaster damages that plague Louisiana’s Crescent City. 

Kelly graduated from Southern Methodist University in 2012 and started working in construction, and after working for some time, she noticed there weren’t many African American women in the field. 

“I realized that there weren’t too many people that looked like me in the industry,” Kelly said.

After getting involved with various outreach events to try to encourage kids to think about careers in civil engineering and construction, Kelly also realized that many of the children had not even thought about those options as possible careers. 

A page from Celeste Saves the City

With over 2,000 books sold in 10 different countries, Celeste Saves The City provides children aged five to 12 with a story that ignites conversations about youth pursuing a potential career in civil engineering in their early stages of educational development while also paying homage to the “Big Easy.” 

“Instead of kids thinking about civil engineering when they’re in high school, they can start thinking about it when they’re younger,” Kelly said. “The idea of civil engineering or construction is already in their vocabulary, and it can carry with them as they get older.”

Kelly came up with the book idea in 2017 after visiting her parents in Louisiana. Lacking an agent and experience in book writing and publishing, Kelly utilized her knowledge and skills with her construction projects to do the necessary probing she needed with finding the resources and getting the answers that would benefit her.

“So I started researching: How do you get books printed? How do you get an ISBN number? How do you find an illustrator? How do you get your books into the source? So I spent a lot of time researching,” Kelly said. “And I knew that I had the cards stacked against me as a self-published author. I just kept pressing on; either someone would give me the answer, or I’d go find the answer.”

Kelly was in the process of spreading the book to the public while she was earning her MBA from Lamar University, working full-time managing construction projects and running a small business selling baked treats for rabbits. 

Along with working as a licensed professional engineer, Kelly engaged in a range of national and international speaking engagements with children in New Orleans, Detroit, Dallas, Plano, Fort Worth, Boston, and most recently, Germany.

In Germany, Kelly interacted with over 1,250 American military-connected students and engaged in enriching activities that led each student to learning more about not only civil engineering, but also New Orleans. The three-day tour in Stuttgart, Germany involved three schools: Stuttgart Elementary School, Robinson Barracks Elementary and Patch Elementary.

During the sessions, Kelly would read the book to the children and then engage in an activity where the children would make barrier islands as discussed in the book.

“These kids just took it and ran with it. They’re recreating the signal lights, saying ‘we need to have a place for shelter’ and ‘the water’s gonna go here, and then it’s gonna go there,  and I’m gonna create this mechanism.’ ‘I’m gonna use these materials.’,” Kelly said.

The Parent Teacher Association and Harriet R. Tubman Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star gifted 550 students at Stuttgart Elementary School with their own autographed copy of the book. 

At Patch Elementary, the fourth and fifth graders completed a writing workshop with Kelly, where they got the opportunity to create an original story with the topic of their choice. 

According to Kelly, the stories ranged from a bittersweet story about being a military kid to a story about a ukulele. 

A page from Celeste Saves the City

“She missed her dad. She talks about how sometimes she just wants to cry, and she has to cheer up again…then we had kids that were writing stories about playing a ukulele,” Kelly said. 

Kelly also emphasized that despite having the main character as a young girl, she encourages young boys to also read it to learn more about the industry and recognize how to respect women, especially when they are in positions of power. 

“It doesn’t take away from you being a boy, or eventually being a man to woman and see that woman as an equal or see that woman as a subordinate that needs to be respected or see that person as a superior to you or supervisor to you,” Kelly said. 

The book has now been translated and is available in German, Spanish and French. People can purchase the book on Kelly’s book website, and they can also find it online at some major book retailers like Target, Barnes and Nobles and Walmart. 

“She’s not someone working underneath someone, she’s actually in charge of the project…You see the beauty of New Orleans and the culture of New Orleans. And then also you touched on this historic event, so that people don’t forget that that happened. Not only did it happen, but look at the impact that it’s had on my life and on the lives of other people. And how do we do things to keep hurricanes like it says in a book from wreaking havoc on our cities and our lives and how do we be resilient in that when it does happen,” Kelly said.