Kentucky author George Ella Lyon participated in a women's home build in 2000 for Habitat for Humanity.
The home would be the first house of Cheryl and Sharonda Piersall of Lexington.
A writer and an observer, Lyon knew that building that house held a deeper meaning, and she wanted to tell it. It took three drafts and nearly 10 years before she crafted a book capturing the essence of what a home means to a family.
"I am no good at this kind of thing," Lyon said about her building experience. "I can carry things, hold things, and I can paint. And I can laugh."
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What she is good at is sensing a story that needs telling.
After the build, she wrote a first draft, titled Many Hands Building, which was about the people helping to build the house. "But it didn't get to the heart of it," Lyon said.
The next version, A House is Happening, illustrated with photographs, was sent to publishers. There were no takers.
It wasn't until the heart of the story became young Sharonda that the story worked, Lyon said.
You and Me and Home Sweet Home, (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $17.99) beautifully illustrated by Stephanie Anderson, was named an Honor Book in the younger-children category by the Jane Addams Children's Book Awards in April.
The award, to be presented Oct. 15 in New York, recognizes U.S. books published in the previous year with theme or topics that encourage children to think about peace, justice, the world community, and sexual or racial equality.
"It was just a matter of bridging the distance between my head and my heart," Lyon said. "My head was interested in how the house was built, and my heart was with the little girl getting the home."
Sharonda Piersall, now 23, remembers Lyon from the build, but even more so from the years that she and Lyon's son were classmates at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. They enjoyed acting then, and Piersall still does, performing as Joanne in the 2010 SummerFest production of Rent.
Piersall remembers Lyon "as a worker. She was very active and always watching."
Although she shares a name with the book's main character, Sharonda said she is older than the book's character, and the family circumstances before owning the new home were different.
Still, Lyon successfully grasped a child's perspective of seeing her home being built, Piersall said.
"It wasn't an identical story," Piersall said, "but she brought back the feelings. The spirit was the same."
The story features a young girl eager to help the adults build her new home. Diane, the build supervisor, cautions the little girl, however, that legally she is too young to do a lot. But Diane explains how important it is to make sure the workers have water, and she helped the girl hammer the first nail.
"She had me carry shingles or sanding something," Piersall said.
I remember working briefly that first day of the build. The rain was relentless, and the mud grabbed at shoes like glue.
Diane is modeled after Diane James, a faithful Habitat builder, who watched inexperience workers like Lyon and me so that we wouldn't compromise the construction. She demanded excellence and was quick to praise good work.
But more than the relationship between Sharonda and Diane is Lyon's attention to a child's worries about his or her parent.
"They worry about what their parents are going through," she said. "I see that so much."
Although the book doesn't mention Habitat by name, Rachel Childress, executive director of Lexington Habitat for Humanity, said the heart of the organization, the essence, is there.
"What struck me, from the first time we saw the galley, is how Habitat touches people and transforms them," she said. "Habitat reaches in and grabs their hearts and takes hold."
Childress said Habitat's theme this year is "Together Building a Better Tomorrow." That theme encompasses the organization's continued mission to transform streets, neighborhoods and lives, she said
"Without mentioning it," she said, "the book captures that."
Lyon said she didn't cite Habitat by name because she wanted the sense of neighbors helping neighbors to be universal, regardless of the banner they gather under.
"It is a broader book this way," she said.
And it is a winner. Things from the heart always are.
"It is a learning process," Lyon said. "It is a long way from the head to your heart."