The Threads of Writing a Picture Book Biography
Having a picture book biography published had been a goal of mine for years. I kept a running list of people whose lives would inspire kids. My computer held manuscripts in different stages of development. But another writing project always seemed to come first. Then, in the spring of 2017, my agent let me know that Cheryl Klein, editorial director of Lee & Low Books, was interested in seeing a nonfiction story about an architect who created the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC). Here was my chance: Philip G. Freelon, the lead architect, lived nearby in Durham. I was excited about the possibility of celebrating his journey and incredible work of which the pinnacle was NMAAHC, a dream a century in the making.
Calling North Carolina home for more than a decade, I knew Mr. Freelon’s name and some of the beautiful museums and public spaces he designed, but I didn’t know his path to his calling. I began by reading articles about life and achievements. Immediately, I was intrigued and inspired. He grew up in Philadelphia, part of a strong family that sparked and nurtured his love of art. His mom was a teacher. His grandfather was not only a Harlem Renaissance painter, but an educator and thinker. His father, a businessman, attended the March on Washington. This was a story of a Black man’s beginnings that isn’t centered enough.
I reached out to ask if I could interview him. Mr. Freelon kindly agreed. I crafted a list of questions that included exploring the sights and sounds of his youth, his struggles and motivations, journey to architecture and how the Civil Rights Movement helped shape his mission. He and his wife, Grammy-nominated composer and singer Nnenna Freelon, welcomed me to their home. They painted a picture that pulled me into his world: Early struggle with reading. Finding strength in art, math and science. Showing genius at building and rotating images in his mind. Feeling proud of being Black and wanting to celebrate our history through his designs. They answered every question and welcomed me back to continue learning. Each interview and interaction reminded me that his story could inspire all children to build their dreams and those of others.
But finding the thread that tied everything together was another matter. I transcribed hours of interviews. I took notes on articles about his life and NMAAHC. How would I hook readers and take them on a journey that was compelling, authentic and organic?
I knew I wanted to start with the idea that art was all around him as a kid. It called him to create. I also wanted to focus on how his grandfather taught him to experience the world through all of his senses and develop a special kind of sight. A theme began to emerge that Mr. Freelon could see between the lines. I liked it and wrote a draft. I revised and revised, but it lacked the spark that lets you know you’ve made magic.
I don’t have a critique group, but value the feedback and guidance of my children’s book writing mentors and friends. Award-winning author Carole Boston Weatherford looked at the story and thought it was promising, but agreed that it needed something more. She asked if I had played with the idea of structure. What if I used subheads that were related to the architectural process? All of a sudden, everything fell into place. I talked through the stages that came to mind – Vision, Foundation, Frame, Form, Dream. Then a title flashed in my head – Dream Builder. Phil wasn’t just building museums, he was building dreams. I got busy. I made tweaks to the manuscript to fit that new idea. I shared my revision with her and got her blessing.
I sent it off to my agent and editor who helped me sharpen the story and polish it. Cheryl’s thoughtful editing encouraged me to expand certain ideas and trim lines that didn’t serve the story to best effect. Along the way, I shared a draft with the Freelons to make sure everything was accurate. When the story was final, illustrator Laura Freeman blew us away with her sketches and finished art.
Looking back, having the chance to interview the Freelons was priceless. I researched Mr. Freelon’s life, but hearing him share experiences first-hand and being able to ask questions that helped me bring his world to life for young readers makes me feel like he’s part of every page. It was so rewarding to shine a light on a contemporary Black hero that could offer kids a mirror of possibility and achievement.
Sadly, Phil Freelon passed away last July from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He got to see the cover of Dream Builder, but didn’t get to hold the finished book in his hands. His brilliant legacy of centering the Black experience, creating beauty in every-day lives and blending art with utility lives on. He is there in his family, the stunning museums and public spaces he created and everyone he touched. I picture him smiling every time I share his story.
Kelly Starling Lyons is a teaching artist and award-winning children’s book author whose more than a dozen titles span picture books, easy readers and chapter books, fiction and nonfiction, standalone and series. She counts starred reviews, Junior Library Guild and Bank Street Best selections, National Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies and Scholastic Reading Club picks among the accolades her books have received. Titles include Tiara’s Hat Parade, Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon, Sing a Song: How Lift Every Voice & Sing Inspired Generations, Going Down Home with Daddy and the Jada Jones chapter book series. Learn more at http://www.kellystarlinglyons.com.
Take a peek inside of Dream Builder:
This giveaway is for a copy of Dream Builder. Many thanks to Lee & Low Books for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of Dream Builder, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, May 22nd at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Tueday, May 26th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. NOTE: There may be a shipping delay due to shipping-related issues caused by the novel coronavirus. If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – LYONS. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Comments are now closed. Margaret Simon is the winner of this giveaway.