The Story Behind WINGS OF AN EAGLE: A Tale of Collaboration

As the July 2024 publication nears for WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS, co-authored with Billy Mills and illustrated by S.D. Nelson, it seems fitting to share the story behind the story:

Donna and Billy. January 2020

Where did the idea come from for WINGS OF AN EAGLE?

In 2014-2015, while researching The Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota (often referred to collectively as the Sioux) for a different project, I learned about Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) for the first time. A hero to Indigenous people around the world, especially in the United States, Billy’s early life had been full of hardship, poverty, and the loss of both parents. Then came lifelong health challenges and systemic racism that would have emotionally crippled most people. He overcame these obstacles by running toward an Olympic dream. He then used his achievement to lift others through a life of service. His was the ultimate underdog story. I was awed and inspired. At the time, Billy’s story vaguely reminded me of an 80s movie I had seen, Running Brave. I searched for it and discovered that it was about Billy. Why weren’t there books about him? It’s worth noting that, as of today, he is still the only American athlete to win gold in the 10,000-meter event and one of only two Native Americans to win gold in ANY track & field event, after Jim Thorpe (1912).

Simple curiosity compelled me to dive into research about Billy. I filled a binder with newspaper articles about his athletic involvement and achievement, as early as 1955 when Billy was in high school at the Haskell Institute boarding school. I gathered U.S. census records, Indian census records, and six decades worth of print, audio, and video interviews and articles about him. I read, watched, and listened to Lakota history, which dispelled the myths and lies of the history books from my youth. When I began my first semester as an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2015, Billy’s story was already nudging me. In November of 2015, I wrote the first draft of a picture book as part of my required packet work. That’s all it was supposed to be at first, but when it hit the page, I knew it had potential. My literary agent agreed, but we both knew that, though I had the First Amendment right to write anything, it would not be appropriate for me, a white woman, to publish a story about Billy unless I had his blessings and input. Native stories and symbols have been appropriated for too long!

The long road to connecting with Billy

At the time, the most I hoped for was an interview with Billy and a chance to discuss my participation in a book about him. I didn’t yet know that he was in almost constant travel mode, speaking around the world about the complex subject of Native American history, generational poverty and trauma, and the critical importance of unity through diversity. I scrolled the web for any phone numbers and email addresses I could find and sent my first nervous email through a speaker’s bureau in late 2016. Nobody responded. Next, I emailed and called his nonprofit, trying to get a message to him. Still no response. I widened my search, even turning to social media direct messages. I won’t bore you with the tedium of my lonnnnng, persistent outreach. There were sporadic positive responses from Billy’s wife and team, but their travel schedule made it impossible to schedule a real conversation. Then, finally, in December 2019—49 months and 43 messages after my 2015 first draft — I was told that Billy had TWO DAYS available in January 2020. I booked flights immediately.

By the time my college athlete son and I arrived at the Mills’ home, I was as nervous as can be. After all these years, I would finally meet the man who had inspired my dogged pursuit. And I would finally meet his marvelous wife, Patricia, who I already adored after email exchanges. As soon as the door opened, my nerves disappeared. There were hugs and smiles, as if we had known each other forever. For the entire day, Billy shared his life story—far beyond the scope of my picture book manuscript. He was so generous with stories and background information, I barely glanced at my pages of questions.

At one point, Billy led us to his “cabinet of curiosities” to see the memorabilia from his athletic and Olympic career. There were the running shoes he wore during his Olympic win, minus one shoelace that he gave to one of his daughters decades ago because she needed string for an elementary school project. There were photos of him with Jesse Owens, Mohammed Ali, and other sports icons. There was an Olympic torch from a later Games, and so much more. And, of course, there was his gold medal, which, without prompting, he slid over my head and rendered me speechless. Fittingly, these cherished artifacts that speak to his public success are displayed next to treasures and sacred items from his Native culture, including exquisite headdresses, which speak to his internal compass and roots. Each of these distinct identities is intrinsic to the other.

The big question

Late in the day, as light filled the cozy living room where we chatted comfortably, I tip-toed toward the question that would determine the fate of the book I had written. I told Billy that I would understand if he chose to work with a Native writer instead of me, a white woman. Though I could promise to pour my energies and expertise into getting the book as right as possible, I have never walked in his shoes, so I would not proceed without his approval. I told him that, even if he preferred to work with a Native writer, his story had already enriched my life, and I was grateful. I meant it! I was prepared to walk away from the book with the blessings of his and Pat’s friendships instead of a publication. The decision was his.

But Billy and Pat had discussed it. They had been contacted by other authors, they said, but they believed that I was meant for his story. I felt beyond humbled. This was a responsibility and honor that I took seriously. And I still do.

We decided to collaborate and share authorship. I would handle the hands-on writing, revisions, editing. Billy and Pat would be available to brainstorm, answer my seemingly endless questions, provide photos, and give feedback on every little change, deletion, addition. Billy would have final approval over every word, anecdote, fact, etc. There was one hurdle that they had to scale in order to clear the way for our book. Though this hurdle temporarily threw a kink into our plans, it was soon remedied.

I returned home energized. Billy’s voice was now in my head, and I had a better understanding of who he was, the journey he had lived, and the message he wanted to convey to young readers. We were now a team. Many phone calls and Zoom calls ensued. Some of those calls were quite emotional for both of us. Our collaboration deepened the story in profound ways and ensured authenticity.

What was the publishing process like?

Early in 2021, WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS was submitted to the big five publishers plus one more. Most were immediately interested in acquiring it. An auction was being planned when Little, Brown Books for Young Readers swooped in with an irresistible pre-empt and the perfect editor, Andrea Spooner. Andrea’s keen eye and expertise helped us finesse the narrative until it sparkled.

Sensitivity readers and fact-checkers

To make doubly-sure that we represented Billy, the Lakota culture and spirituality, and historical facts, accurately and with sensitivity, the text and art were vetted by tribally-enrolled Native writers, a senior historian at the National Museum of the American Indian, and two highly-respected cultural leaders and activists—one Dakota and one Lakota. Most are gratefully acknowledged by name in the final book, but I am not naming them here because I have not asked permission to do so.

How was the illustrator chosen?

When I first conceptualized the book in 2015, I immediately envisioned S.D. Nelson’s (Lakota) extraordinary art. Once the manuscript was under contract, I shared my preference with Andrea. But she and the art team believed in due diligence, so a talent search was begun, and a list of impressive Native artists and art samples was compiled. They were all so good! But the text in WINGS was poetic and needed just the right complementary art style. Ultimately, the Little, Brown team decided that one illustrator’s style stood out as a perfect match: S.D. Nelson. Huzzah! It rarely happens that an author gets her illustrator wish. We later learned that Billy was one of SD’s “all-time heroes,” so his involvement in bringing Billy’s story to life, visually, is meaningful for many reasons. Oh, friends, wait til you see SD’s spectacular illustrations in WINGS! They are sublime!

Now the story is in YOUR hands

It took a team of champions and cheer-worthy endurance to produce WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS. We are now nearing one finish line and rounding the corner toward a new starting point (publication). We, the WINGS team, hope that Billy’s story inspires you to pick up the mantle and chase your own dreams.

Click here to return to the website where you can learn more about WINGS OF AN EAGLE, Billy Mills, Donna Janell Bowman, and speaking opportunities.

One Response to “The Story Behind WINGS OF AN EAGLE: A Tale of Collaboration”

  1. Nikki Loftin

    What an amazing story! I can’t wait to celebrate this beautiful book making it into the world… And I don’t think I’ll ever forget that little tidbit about the missing shoelace. 💕