By Leonard Freeman
Safe in a Tree, Imara and Me, started out, as many stories do, with an image. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories came out of an image he’d had in his head for years, of a lamppost in a snowy wood. Similarly, my wife Lindsay and I had been discussing doing some sort of book for Imara for quite some time, when I came back to an image Carol Erickson had shared that stuck with me: of a young woman up in a tree protecting herself and her baby from hyenas after she had fled her village. I started to back that up to the image of a young woman, now safe in a tree, sitting there with her child in her arms, on a lower, safe-height branch, at Imara House.
Sitting in our living room with Lindsay, I began talking the story out in children’s book rhyme, much like a Dr. Suess book. As I did so, and we went back and forth, I could hear the story unfold, and a sense of the images to go with it, in my head.
We realized that a children’s version of the story might well give us a way to tell the story without getting too corporate, and at the same time in a way that children could get a feel for the good work that God is doing with Imara. And of course, as any preacher knows: if the children can get it, adults will too.
I went back then to an opening image of this young girl, who would tell us her story looking out at us from up in a tree with her baby. Initially we would see her up close and not be able to tell at what height or danger she was in. Eventually in the story, we would see her up in that other tree of her journey with hyenas around her. In the end, we would pull back to the full shot of her (from that first opening image), where she and her child were now clearly very happily and safely there in the Imara Village.
Talking it through, I took the journey with her. From the village she had to flee, to her trust in God to get her through, to that hyenas tree, to town, to being found by Carol, and then on to Imara where good things happened for her and her child, to the final Up in A Tree panel. I felt some freedom, because it was based on a true story, but I didn’t have to be slavishly tied to total detail.
Working with an artist is an important part of any children’s book. My good friend and colleague Paul Shaffer, with whom Lindsay and I had worked on some previous books and theatrical productions (Paul is an excellent set designer) agreed to help. I asked if he’d be willing to do this pro bono, and he said absolutely.
The writer of a children’s book typically either does the images himself, or thinks through what images he wants. I envisioned the book as each piece of text on one page, and the matching picture on the opposite facing page. I then wrote out what images I had in mind — what I basically wanted in each shot, the emotional feel of it, possibly the constraints or background — and then sent them along with the text pieces to Paul.
Paul then created draft images on his computer and sent them to me. We then went back and forth to get the right feel. For instance, we wanted to show the girl having to leave the village, but not too much of the nastiness of the villagers. We decided to tone down how close and vicious the hyenas were, and how the girl would look (old enough, but still a child herself). Along the way, Paul also contacted people who’d been to Imara and Kenya to get the images as accurate as possible without breaking up the story line.
We sat down together and put the pieces up online into a book text. One of our constraints was that the publisher needed a minimum of twenty-four pages to produce a book, so words, pictures, and other material had to fit those technical aspects.
In the end it all worked. We saw proofs, ordered copies, and were delighted to have them there as our gift to Imara. God bless us every one, especially the young mothers and children of Kenya.
Poet, priest and writer, Leonard Freeman is the former head of communications for Trinity Church Wall Street and Washington National Cathedral. He is the author of Safe in a Tree, Imara and Me, available on Amazon.com. The author is donating the proceeds from every copy sold to Imara International.