Local author Sybil Nelson calls the talk she gives in local schools “Poverty to Ph.D.”

Students at St. Andrews Middle School heard how her family waited in line for government cheese when she was living in Florida, and how she woke up to the sounds of gunshots in Washington, D.C.

Nelson writes “Priscilla the Great” books for middle schoolers. The main character is a quirky girl who can shoot fire from her fingertips. She also writes novels for young adults under the pen name Leslie DuBois.

Many of her stories are based on her experience teaching at Ashley Hall School from 2005-10.

She quit teaching to work on a doctorate in biostatistics at the Medical University of South Carolina. Biostatistics measure the effectiveness of drugs and procedures, for instance, she said.

She plans to teach statistics at a college after she finishes her doctoral thesis, unless her writing career starts to take up too much time. She also is married and has two daughters, ages 4 and 6.

“The thing that motivates me (to talk in schools) is just being able to let kids know what’s out there and what they can achieve,” she said in a conversation at a local bookstore cafe.

Nelson was fortunate to have a mother who urged her to read. Her weekly bus ride to the Daytona Beach public library expanded her horizons beyond what she could see around her.

“I think the system is broken,” she said. “But until it gets fixed, I’m the one who has to take the steps and get to where I want to be. When I give talks, I say there’s no excuse. You know where a library is. You go, you read, you figure out how to get from A to B, because someone else might not do it for you.”

She also talks about stereotypes.

“I think that’s what drove me most of my life. I hate it when people look at me and put me in a box and think they know what I can and can’t do. All of my life, I’ve always just tried to disprove stereotypes.

“That’s probably another reason why I chose math. It’s the most difficult thing, and it’s probably one of the last things that you would think a young black woman could do. Look at me, I can do it.”

She also talks about peer pressure.

“We get saddled in poor neighborhoods (with accusations) about ‘acting white,’” she said. “If you can speak properly or have a good vocabulary — or, with me, I love ballet and opera — I was trying to act white. I didn’t fit in with the neighborhood, but I didn’t fit in with the white kids because I wasn’t white.

“So that’s kind of what drives me. When I have people trying to keep me down, when I have people stereotyping me, that drives me harder to prove them wrong.”

Nelson spoke to each of the grades at St. Andrews. The kids loved her, according to Miranda Cary, the school’s media specialist.

“They checked out every single book I had that she had written,” Cary said. “I have never seen kids read so fast. They wanted her to autograph their hand if they didn’t have a book for her to autograph.”

Nelson also has spoken at Oakbrook Middle School in Summerville, Ladson Elementary School, Lambs Elementary School in North Charleston last year and Sanders-Clyde Elementary School in Charleston.

She is available to speak in Mount Pleasant schools as well.

“I love talking to kids and encouraging them to go after their dreams and their goals,” she said.

The first “Priscilla the Great” book was published in 2010 and won The Strongest Start Novel competition. It was also named a Flamingnet Top Choice Book and was voted Most Hilarious Read of 2010 by Booklopedia. Another book in the series is coming out in May.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.