‘Papa Lemon’ author visits Newport Elementary
Before he was Papa Lemon, the main character in a series of children’s books, he was
the beloved grandfather of a boy from Minneapolis named Lehman Riley.
Riley paid tribute to the man’s legacy by writing a series of children’s books titled “The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers.”
The wanderers in this case are young readers who travel back in time via a lemonade-powered locomotive. Papa Lemon, their tour guide, introduces them to Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Babe Didrikson and other famous people of color.
Riley, now 53, shared stories of his grandfather with second-graders at Newport Elementary School.
“All the stuff he taught me, it’s still inside me,” he said during his Nov. 16 visit. “It’s like he’s with me every day.”
His grandfather, whose real name was Walter, was born in Mississippi in 1896.
“In 1898, he was 2 years old,” Riley said. “He was really cranky. His mother said, ‘You’re as sour as a lemon.’”
“No one ever called him Walter after that.”
His grandfather worked as a “gandy dancer,” the name for laborers who laid railroad tracks by hammering in spikes. He would sing in order to provide a rhythm for the crew, Riley said. Later, he became the first black man in the county to own a car, a Ford Model T.
Riley wrote the first of his Papa Lemon books in 1992.
“When I was your age, I loved to read, but I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” he told the students.
Another family story inspired him to write about Daniel Hale Williams, an African-American who was the first doctor to perform successful open heart surgery. Several years ago his niece, Naomi, suffered a massive heart attack at age 30. She died on the operating table before surgeons revived her and successfully repaired the damage. She has since fully recovered, he said.
In another of his books, a little girl afflicted with depression travels back in time with Papa Lemon to meet a fellow sufferer, Abraham Lincoln.
“Back then, they didn’t call it depression,” Riley said.“They called it melancholy.”
“What?” said one student.
“What?” said another.
“What?” said a third.
Before answering questions from students, Riley urged them to discover the stories of their own kin.
“I want you guys to go home and ask questions about your family history,” he told the class. “Call your grandparents up. Ask them what it was like growing up, who was president.”