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North Minneapolis author writes children's book on grief

After losing his daughter, author Lehman Riley aims to help kids and teens cope with grief through his newest book, "Losing Lizzy."

MINNEAPOLIS — Since 1992, author Lehman Riley has written multicultural historical fiction for young people. 

He started with books on Dr. King and Harriet Tubman. Then, he wrote about the Navajo Code Talkers and Babe Didrikson. Eventually, topics expanded to include heart health, mental health and bullying. In every book, Riley has included his grandfather, Papa Lemon, as a character.

"My grandfather is the wise neighborhood grandfather with all the history questions with his magical train that allows kids to go back and revisit different leaders and events in history," Riley said.

Papa Lemon passed away after a successful career in the railroad industry.

"He was born in 1896," Riley said. "He had his own land in Mississippi, over 200 acres … He had such an impact on my life."

Riley's newest book features another family member – his daughter, Tianna Elizabeth.

"She joked a lot and we had fun," Riley said. "She would always go into her mom's closet and find something out of her closet."

But he never imagined his daughter's story would be a story of grief. "The Adventures of Papa Lemon's Little Wanderers: Losing Lizzy, A Story of Grief" is in honor of his daughter, who died in 2020 at 23 years old.

"It's about my youngest daughter," Riley said. "She was murdered due to a dose of fentanyl that was given to her, and getting that call in the middle of the night was like a horrible nightmare that's still going."

According to NAMI Minnesota, grief isn't a straight path and it isn't over in a year. You will be OK on some days and not OK on others. 

"Every morning, I wake up thinking about my baby girl," Riley said. "This was not therapeutic. I cried writing this whole book and still to this day I haven't opened this book up to read it after I finished writing it. I can't get the courage to open it up. I can talk about my baby girl but I can't read the words that I wrote."

Between several different violent incidents, it's been a difficult last couple of months for Twin Cities families affected by tragedy.  Riley says North High School has already purchased copies as students are coping with the February 2022 murder of star student and athlete Deshaun Hill.

"They need to understand it takes time," he said. "Let kids understand it's OK to scream if you have to. It's OK to just cry. It's OK to be alone."

At the end of the story, there are a couple of blank pages for readers to write down their feelings of grief. Riley is also going around to schools metro-wide to inspire young people not only to read but also to write about the Lizzies and Papa Lemons in their lives.

Each book costs $12. Riley says $2 from each sale will go to the Lizzy Scholarship Fund for African-American girls to further their art education because Lizzy loved to do art.

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