New children's book 'Dream Street' celebrates a childhood neighborhood Meet Mr. Sidney, who's always sharply dressed. Belle, who catches butterflies in jar. And the Hat Lady, Ms. Sarah. They're just some of the residents of Dream Street, the best street in the world.

2 cousins celebrate their childhood neighborhood in 'Dream Street'

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many of the people we hear from for Picture This, our series of conversations between children's book authors and illustrators, are complete strangers before they're paired up by an editor. But author Tricia Elam Walker and illustrator Ekua Holmes have known each other for years.

TRICIA ELAM WALKER: Ha, ha.

(LAUGHTER)

ELAM WALKER: We're cousins. We're two of a kind, like they used to say...

EKUA HOLMES: Right.

ELAM WALKER: ...In "The Patty Duke Show." We kind of grew up together, played a lot together and created a lot together.

HOLMES: Yeah, about eight or nine months apart, I think.

ELAM WALKER: I'm older.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Tricia Elam Walker and Ekua Holmes also grew up together in Roxbury, Mass. And Elam Walker says their neighborhood was the inspiration for their first children's book together, "Dream Street."

ELAM WALKER: "Dream Street" is based on our neighborhood - the beauty of it, the community of it. We really wanted to write a book where children could see themselves in it as well as know that their dreams are important. And also we wanted to show that the adults have dreams, too. So this is just a place where creativity abounds, and imagination and dreams are celebrated.

HOLMES: We kind of approached this book differently. We wanted to do something together. Here we are. We're mature adults. And Tricia has become the writer that she wanted to be. I've become the artist that I wanted to be. And we thought we should make a book together. Like, it just is the perfect next thing for us to do. And we threw around different subjects. And we couldn't find - we couldn't land on one that satisfied both of us. So I said, well, I'm going to send you a bunch of collages, images of collages. And see what you can do. See if you can find something.

ELAM WALKER: When Ekua sent me those collages, at first, it was a bit daunting for me to try to figure out a story from them 'cause I was, you know, so used to creating the story in my mind. But when I started looking at her work, which I've always loved and admired so much, I realized how much of a storyteller she is. And so the stories were embedded in the art. And then - and once I got that, I was like, OK, this person has a story. That person has a story. And then it just came together that they're all on the street, and the street is Dream Street.

SIMON: Tricia Elam Walker and Ekua Holmes filled "Dream Street" with characters from their childhood neighborhood - Ms. Sarah, the hat lady who's lived on Dream Street longer than anyone and who has stories between the lines of her face, Belle, who catches butterflies in a jar, two cousins who draw and write together on a bedroom floor.

ELAM WALKER: (Reading) Ede lives at the top of the hill and searches for treasures that others throw away. She collects smooth rocks, broken jewelry, leaves and feathers and adds them to her drawings of people on Dream Street. Meanwhile, her cousin Tari pays attention when new folks come around so she can make up stories about them.

HOLMES: (Reading) In her notebook, she scribbles down the things she hears when they don't know she's listening. The cousins dream that someday they'll create a picture book together about everyone they know and meet on Dream Street.

ELAM WALKER: So who else was - I mean, I think we thought about some of the church ladies. The librarian's based on my mother. And that was actually Ekua's idea, although we named the librarian Ms. Barbara. And then some of our cousins are in there. But we also wanted to show people in the neighborhood who were reflections of people that we knew. Like, Mr. Sidney, we didn't really know that person, but we knew people like that. So he's very dignified. He wears a fedora. He dresses up every day. And that's similar to how the people that we grew up with were.

HOLMES: He's like a composite of Tricia's uncles and a gentleman that used to do work on a street where I lived in the South End. And one day he showed up all dressed up in this fedora and this black jacket, and he looked really sharp. And I said, can I take your picture? You look so different 'cause normally you'd have on overalls. And so there was already a story in there. And I don't think I told Tricia that, but somehow it kind of bled through into what she wrote, that this man is having a moment of pride and a moment where he's expressing something that he's always wanted to express through his fashion. But every piece that I sent her, there's a story. There's a reason why I made those pieces of artwork.

ELAM WALKER: I did not know that story at all about that gentleman. For that one, I really thought about my grandfather who used to clean white people's houses. And he would pack his cleaning clothes in his - in, like, a briefcase and wear a suit to take the train out to where he had to work and then, at the end of the day, change his clothes back. And I didn't understand it when I was little. But as I grew up, I was like, wow, that's amazing.

HOLMES: Many men did that in that era.

SIMON: "Dream Street" is vibrant. Mr. Sidney sits on bright orange and purple stairs. Ms. Sarah's hat is covered in flowers. And each page is full of texture and patterns.

HOLMES: Collage simply means to paste down. And so the art is made from cut and torn paper. It may be a piece of poetry that I found in an old, discarded book that seems to fit right in to tell a story. It might be a piece of wallpaper from the 1950s that is in the background of a little girl reading a book. So I used lace and fabric and things like that. I love things that have been used before because they already have a life. They already have a story. And now I'm assembling it with other details that make up another story. I think of it as, like, creating a quilt of shapes and color and form and text. And that is how I tell my stories.

ELAM WALKER: And she's always been like that. I just remember as a child her picking up things, like, outside or - I don't know - maybe things that were in the trash that, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

ELAM WALKER: ...That she saw the beauty in. And I was like, wow, what is she going to do with that?

(LAUGHTER)

ELAM WALKER: But now I understand that. And so sometimes when I'm thrift stores, I'm looking at things thinking, I wonder if Ekua could figure out something to do with - I wonder if that's something she'd want.

HOLMES: I'm dangerous to myself, (laughter) yeah. And I got a little pushback about how beautiful the neighborhood was in terms of the illustrations. But we grew up in a neighborhood full of parks and trees and gardens and flowers. And Boston's a very old city, so you can imagine some of the houses are mansard style. Some are Victorians and then some of the more modern ones. So it really is a reflection of how we grew up. And I would imagine there are other children whose neighborhoods don't fit the stereotype of what a Black neighborhood might be like.

ELAM WALKER: And we had - I remember we had a big - we used to think of it like a forest in the back of my house. And it was a urban neighborhood, but we could go in there and discover all kinds of things.

HOLMES: I was talking to another artist recently about - I think there's a part of us that gets frozen in childhood because that's the time in our lives when we are the most free, the most imaginative, the most curious, and the most willing to take risk. So I feel like there's a part of me that stayed 8 years old and that that is the part that I'm trying to give voice to in my work. So you might see as - we were talking about the church ladies. I was always fascinated with them and their beautiful hats and flowers and how regal they were and their gray hair, or just people at the bus stop and this sort of tableau of how people arrange themselves at a bus stop, or a little girl who loves butterflies and how she might be looking out the window and watching that. Those are the moments that we may walk by every day and not realize how precious they are until an artist, a photographer, a songwriter holds it up to us in the light and we say, oh, wow, what a gift.

SIMON: Illustrator Ekua Holmes and author Tricia Elam Walker, cousins talking about their new children's book, "Dream Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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