Twin Cities authors have done well to provide children such fare as Anthony Peyton Porter’s Jump at de Sun biography of Zora Neale Hurston, M. Ann Machen Pritchard‘s Phil the Pill and Friends, and Linda and Nneka Onyilofor’s My Brother Adam. These offerings, educational and entertaining, empower by encouraging, indeed nurturing a sense of self-worth. This is a powerful imperative considering today’s prevalent preoccupation with video games and other distractions that put the mind to minimal use.
Author Lehman Riley’s series The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers (www.papalemonedu.com) accordingly is an invaluable addition to your reading and your shopping lists when you want to give the gift of knowledge. This is a collection of history lessons with, naturally, emphasis on African America but, wisely, expanding to include Native Americans and, in a fascinatingly innovative turn, information on and empathy for Abraham Lincoln.
Actually, Riley’s writing, principally meant to enlighten little folk, does the same for more than a few grownups. For instance, who outside academia knew Dr. Daniel Williams performed the first successful heart surgery in 1893? Who knew that during World War II, the only way our armed forces could keep the enemy from intercepting coded messages was to enlist Wind Talkers from the Navajo nation, speaking in an indecipherable tongue, or that President Lincoln suffered from chronic depression, as did his wife.
There are seven installments and counting of The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers. Riley has, he says, “two more books coming up, one on bullying and one on Dr. Richard Green. The 1940s Northside Plymouth Avenue, the Jewish neighborhood that coincided with the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, I want to recognize.”
The installments to date are Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King; The Dangerous Escape from Slavery; The Life of Babe Didrikson — Greatness Is Never Forgotten (about the 1932 Olympics champion); World War II, The Navajo Wind Talkers; Dr. Daniel Williams and the First Successful Heart Surgery in 1893; The California Gold Rush; and Abraham Lincoln and the Battle With Depression.
The inspiration for The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers is one of family love and respect. “The timeframe was May 1992. That’s when I began my journey of writing children’s books featuring my grandfather as the main character. It’s been a long road, with interesting twists and turns along the way,” Riley explains
“I’m committed to share my books with youth and grandparents, too. I feel honored that I’m able to keep my grandparents’ legacy alive. I truly believe Papa Lemon and Mama Sarah would be proud.”
Riley deftly avoids a pitfall that too many writers fall into when trying to reach youngsters: dumbing down. His style is simple without being simplistic, employing appropriate regard for children’s intelligence.
“Children are clever,” Riley says. “They know when you are taking them on a boring adventure. So I thought, what better way to grab their attention than by using kids that look like them and have similar personalities? And I thought I would use my daughter Nareece, aka Nikki, as the leader, and my son Duvale, aka Carlos, the protector, which are two of the five diverse characters. With the help of Papa Lemon’s magical train…they will explore America’s history.”
The Papa Lemon books meet the Minnesota ELA/Social Studies standard at a third-grade reading level, which renders it quite eligible for curricula in either public or private school systems. Further, Lehman Riley is prepared to bring his cast of knowledge-seeking characters to the classroom for a two-day workshop with students.
The outline is practical. Day one, students learn how a book is created from start to finish, gain an understanding of the importance of family history, and watch a seven-minute animated DVD, after which they are asked to create a short story about a family member or an historic figure.
The second day, they share their stories. Along with appreciating and learning from books, they acquire hands-on insight so that, should they choose, they too can take on the craft of writing or storytelling.
Riley’s partner in producing The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers is illustrator Josh Wallace, who was impressed early on by classic icon Dr. Seuss. He pursued a career in graphic design at the Art Institutes International, graduating with a baccalaureate degree. Wallace provides brightly engaging imagery for this series.
Inasmuch as young minds truly are a terrible thing to waste, anyone interested in safeguarding same will look for help to Lehman Riley’s and Josh Wallace’s The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.