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Building Big Dreams with Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon

Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon

Written by Kelly Starling Lyons and Illustrated by Laura Freeman

Published in 2020 by Lee & Low Books

ISBN:  978-1-62014-955-3

A 2021 Orbis Pictus Award for Nonfiction for Children Recommended Title

Book Review

“In Philip Freelon’s world, art breathes dreams to life.” In a stunning picture book biography, author Kelly Starling Lyons and illustrator Laura Freeman celebrate the life and work of Philip Freelon, Architect of Record for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Poetic text describes the roots of Freelon’s accomplishments: his childhood interests in art and design were fostered by his Pop Pop, Allan Randall Freelon, a Harlem Renaissance Painter. It is Pop Pop who teaches young Phil to slow down and to listen, developing his “artist’s inner eye.” Organized in chapter headings that mirror the design and build process (examples include: Vision and Foundation), the text extends through Freelon’s teen years as a witness to the Civil Rights Movement and his adult commitment to designing “places that help people, that show everyday beauty, that celebrate heritage and fill hearts with joy.” Created in Photoshop, Laura Freeman’s illustrations provide an immersive collage of images that provide context, detail the design process, and illuminate the beauty of Freelon’s life and work. The concluding double page spread depicts Freelon in transcendence, standing in the Contemplative Court of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, thinking about his ancestors and reading the words of Dr. Martin Luther King,  which adorn the walls of this building of dreams.  Published in the year following Freelon’s death, this not-to-be missed picture book biography has broad possibilities for exploring art and design, featuring diverse life stories,  and inviting students to consider how they might use their own talents to be dream builders. 

Grades K-8

Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom

A Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you! 

Grades K-6

Designers and Builders: A Text Set. Share Christy Hale’s wonderful poetry collection, Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building, which features concrete poems about child created structures juxtaposed with real world buildings that share a design element. Extend your study of designing and building by learning more about the architects featured in Dreaming Up and additional architects with diverse life experiences. 

“Building Hopes and Dreams.” Throughout Dream Builder, Kelly Starling Lyons uses an extended metaphor of building dreams as a reflection on Philip Freelon’s life and accomplishments. Ask students to consider how Freelon’s early experiences and the mentoring of his artist family members led him to a successful career as an architect. Invite your students to consider what their interests and passions are. How can they dream big about what they would like to accomplish in the world? What do they dream about doing and creating? Who can help them achieve their dreams? Students can share their ideas orally, in writing, or in images. 

Look and Listen: Mindfulness and the Inner Artist. Philip Freelon’s grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon, was a Harlem Renaissance Impressionist painter. Reread the section of Dream Builder in which Lyons describes how Pop Pop encourages young Phil to sit still in nature, taking in his surroundings with all his senses. Encourage your students to slow down to notice the beauty of the world around them. Extend this focus by connecting to additional books that encourage mindfulness and contemplation. Titles that we have blogged about that fit this focus include: Here and Now, A Stone Sat Still, and Tiny Perfect Things

Researching Freelon’s Designs. Learn more about Philip Freelon by viewing online images of the buildings he has designed, including the ones listed in Dream Builder and others. Project the images so that students have time to study these buildings and create a list of what the students notice and what they wonder. Alternatively, these images could serve as a pre-reading activity: show the images and ask students to see what connections they can make across the images. Nextread the book, and then dive back in to re-examine the images and go deeper. To extend this examination, invite students to play with the design elements they identify as prominent across Freelon’s designs. Can they create a sketch of a building, monument, or recreation area that pays tribute to Freelon’s architectural style? Students can create 3D models of their ideas using recycled materials. 

Interviewing an Architect. Arrange for a video or in person visit from a local architect, so that students can interview them about their work. Prior to the visit, brainstorm a list of questions to ask and develop a plan for the interview. Following the interview, be sure to allow students time to reflect on what they have learned and what they still may want to know. 

Designing a Museum / Monument. After exploring the website for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, invite your students to take on the role of designers. Pose the following scenario: students have the opportunity to design either a new monument or a new museum for their community. Students could work in groups or individually, but can go through the steps of deciding who/what they will commemorate; why this is worthy of commemoration with a physical structure; and what/how/where the structure will be. You may find the resources of the National Building Museum useful to provide more detail about the design process. Students can create digital presentations to pitch their ideas for a museum monument to your school community or more publicly to your community’s government officials. 

Grades 3-8

Dream Builder as a Scaffold. Read Dream Builder as a scaffold text to Tonya Bolden’s How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. What do students learn about the history of the museum from Dream Builder? What more do they want to know about this museum? Next take a virtual tour of the museum by using the museum’s website. Students will now be well prepared to read Bolden’s engaging and informative book. 

Dream Builder as a Mentor Text: Language Use. Invite students to reread Dream Builder with a partner or in a small group. Ask students to read like a writer, noticing how Kelly Starling Lyons uses language to convey the artistry and commitments of Philip Freelon. Students can mark passages that they like using post-its, making notes about language use and its effects. They might notice literary elements such as sensory details, headings, and repetition. Convene as a whole class and make a two column anchor chart listing the literary elements that students noted on one side and examples from the text on the other. Invite students to go back to a piece of writing that they are working on and to use Lyon’s examples as inspiration for revising their own work. 

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Dream Builder: Publishers Website

Kelly Starling Lyons: Author’s Website

Laura Freeman: Illustrator’s Website

TheTeachingBooksBlog: Virtual Tour for Dream Builder

LA Public Library: Your Author Series: Kelly Starling-Lyons

ArchDaily: The Freelon Group

The Undefeated: Phil Freelon

Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

National Building Museum: Learning Resources

The Horn Book: Architects and Designers

The Horn Book: Architecture


Bolden, T. (2016). How to build a museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Viking. 

Carson, T. & Carson, K. (2015). In Mary’s Garden. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Going, K.L. (2017). The Shape of the World: A Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright. Ill. by L. Stringer. Beach Lane .

Hale, C. (2012). Dreaming up: A celebration of building. Lee & Low.

Harvey, J.W. (2017). Maya Lin: Architect of Light and Lines. Ill. by D. Phumurik. Henry Holt.

Isaacson, P.M. (reissue 2016). Round buildings, square buildings, & buildings that wiggle like a fish. Ember. 

Paxmann, C. (2012). From mud huts to skyscrapers: Architecture for children. Ill. by A. Ibelings. Prestel. 

Rodriguez, R. (2008). Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi. Ill. by J. Paschkis. Henry Holt.

Rosenstock, B. (2018). The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art. Ill. by C. A. Nivola. Candlewick.

Winter, J. (2017). The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid. Beach Lane Books.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.