Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Ninja Susie Kralovansky Interviews Donna Janell Bowman

 Today we are talking with one of my friends and favorite authors, Donna Janell Bowman, about her

newest book
WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS, co-authored with Billy Mills and illustrated by S.D. Nelson. Donna, I was blown away by this wonderful story which will be released on July 2nd.

 How did you come to collaborate with Lakota Olympian Billy Mills on WINGS? 

 In some ways, like Billy’s Olympic journey and ultimate gold medal, my own journey with WINGS has felt like a long-distance test of endurance, stamina, and metamorphosis. Our collaboration, even more than the book itself, was my reward.

 I learned about Billy about ten years ago while researching for a different book. I couldn’t stop thinking about his remarkable come-from-behind journey to the Olympics. He had overcome great odds, from losing his parents as a child, life on an impoverished reservation, health challenges, and systemic racism. His was the ultimate underdog story, and it resonated with me deeply.

 At about the same time, I entered VCFA’s MFA writing program, focused on children’s and young adult literature. As part of my creative work, I drafted a picture book about Billy that showed promise. But I couldn’t consider submitting the manuscript until I reckoned with whether it was appropriate for me, a white woman, to tell Billy’s story. There was no legal reason why I couldn’t. But was it right? My agent and I agreed that the answer was no unless I had Billy’s blessings and input. But reaching Billy proved more challenging than I expected.

 Long story shortish, 49 months and 43 emails, phone calls, and social media direct messages after my 2015 first draft, my college athlete son and I sat in the Mills’ living room for an interview that lasted all day. During those glorious hours, Billy and his wife, Patricia, shared stories, photos, cultural artifacts, sacred items, family history. At one particular display case, Billy recounted memories attached to his Olympic souvenirs and memorabilia. He even slid his gold medal over my head and rendered me speechless.

 Ultimately, Billy not only invited me to tell his story, but he agreed to collaborate with me to ensure a narrative that was authentic to his truth. That moment, and the countless phone calls, Zoom calls, emails, and texts since then, have been the honor of my career. The rest, as they say, is history.

 This book is beautifully written. Why did you choose to write the narrative with a lyrical style and metaphors? In other words, how did you choose the voice?

 First, thank you! I think about voice a lot when I begin a new story. My goal is always to use voice as a soundtrack, of sorts, to set a tone and reflect the story subject. Even before Billy and I began our collaboration, I had been immersed in decades of his interviews and speeches that are preserved in print, audio, and video, so I had a base to work with. At the same time, I read a lot of Native literature and poetry. Native storytelling has some of the most evocative and powerful metaphorical language that I have ever seen. To honor Billy and his Native culture, it felt right to blend his voice with lyricism. At every step, I ran the text by him for approval. Well-placed metaphors and similes are used to stitch the highs and lows of his life together as throughlines. For example, the term “wings of an eagle” is attributed to an episode from Billy’s childhood. After his mother died, his father told him he had broken wings, but if he chased a dream, he could have wings of an eagle. That inspired the bird-related metaphors that evoke struggle, freedom, and flight in the story. Likewise for the Lakota prayer, “we are all related,” and the motif of footprints, which Billy often refers to in his speeches. Metaphorical language has layers that can pack an emotional and thought-provoking punch in few words.

 What is the research process like for a collaborative project like WINGS OF AN EAGLE?

 My initial pre-collaboration research was fairly typical: newspaper and magazine articles about Billy, U.S. census records, military records, Indian census, video and print interviews, witness accounts, books, broadcast footage of the 1964 Olympic race, etc. But that wasn’t enough. When I started communicating regularly with Billy and Pat, they filled the gaps that external sources couldn’t by helping me understand what made Billy tick as a young person, and by offering historical information not available elsewhere. Billy also reminded me that we are all shaped by the people and events that came before us. Among other discomforts, I needed to face the beast that caused generational trauma and generational poverty. That meant getting real about United States history: colonialism, western expansion, Manifest Destiny, Doctrine of Discovery, repeated broken treaties, etc. None of that is part of the WINGS narrative, but it all shaped the child from the Pine Ridge Reservation who grew up and chased his dream to the Olympics. For me to be a worthy collaborator, I owed it to Billy to personally peel back the curtain that had insulated me from uncomfortable truths for most of my life. In doing so, I realized just how deeply my generation was deceived. The history textbooks, curriculum, and media of my youth presented falsehoods, racist stereotypes, and revisionist history about Native Americans that persist today. I was/am appalled by the compounded injustices and the perpetuated ignorance about them.

 On a personal level, I’m surprised by how much I have changed since working on this book. I like to think that I have always been open and compassionate to the perspectives of others, but my journey with Billy and WINGS has changed me. I’m still a white woman who was invited into his world, but I now feel more connected, informed, aware, and sensitive. That, I think, is a benefit of deep research and close collaboration. It’s impossible not to be changed when we make concentrated efforts to listen, learn, and empathize.

How does Billy feel about the book and what does he hope young readers take from the story?

Billy and his family are delighted with the book! They are already actively promoting it globally and in association with Billy’s seemingly endless speaking engagements. With a bit of luck, he will even sign books in Paris while he is there for this summer’s Olympic Games. Which, by the way, will mark the 60th anniversary of his gold medal win. How cool is that?


The first prominent theme in the story can be summed up with Billy’s quote from years ago, “Follow your dream. Every dream has a passion, and every passion has a destiny,” even when the destiny doesn’t reach Olympic proportions. Also, he encourages kids to embrace their cultures, honor the past, and use their voices and their choices to make the world better, because we are stronger together when we lift each other up. When we collectively do that, we can reach global unity.

Donna Janell Bowman is an award-winning author of books for young readers, including Step Right

Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness; Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words
King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara; and Wings of an Eagle: The Gold Medal Dreams of Billy Mills, co-authored with Billy Mills. Donna’s books have garnered such accolades as starred reviews, state book awards, and honors from NCTE, NCSS, ALA/ALSC, and more. Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When not writing at her central Texas home, she enjoys speaking at schools and coaching writers.


  1. What an amazing backstory - and outcome!

  2. This sounds amazing. I'm so happy you were to connect with Billy so his story can be told truthfully. I, too, am appalled by so much of the "history" we were taught and how biased, slanted, and frankly, untruthful it was/is.