Winfrey P. Blackburn Jr. discusses writing for children and retiring with a purpose
By Mariah Kline | Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Attorney turned author Winfrey P. Blackburn Jr. is living proof that it’s never too late to take on a new job. He began practicing law in the 1960s but since 2005, he’s conceived four books for children along with illustrator Sylvia Berger. Their latest work “The Adventures of Sid, a Cirpal,” was released in December. With relatable storylines and captivating images, Blackburn’s works for kids enthrall readers both young and old, and his journey shows that anyone at any age can pursue their passions.
Born and raised in Frankfort, Kentucky, Blackburn says he comes from a long line of orators.
“My family told stories pretty well,” he said. “My father was a good storyteller and so am I, though they’re sometimes exaggerated. I majored in English and I spent four years reading and writing and then three years in law school writing.”
Naturally, this ability came through when Blackburn had his own children and began making up stories for his two daughters. Berger, an amateur artist at the time, lived nearby and had two children around the same age, who became friends with Blackburn’s daughters and experienced his tales firsthand.
“Children love an underdog,” he said. “They’re born underdogs. … I was the third out of four children, and I had two older brothers. Believe me, I know what it’s like to be an underdog. You’re trying hard, but you’re not as tall or you’re not as smart.”
Blackburn utilized his understanding of young minds and eventually, collaborated with Berger on their first book, “Putney: A Little Pumpkin with Big Ideas.” While the pair initially crafted the book just for fun, the experience led Berger, a homemaker, to pursue a formal education in art.
“I always wanted to be an illustrator or a cartoonist, but I went to the University of Louisville, and they didn’t have those courses, so I became a painter,” she said. “I created large abstractions, and I kept drawing. … Winfrey kept producing children’s books, so I kept drawing them.”
More than 30 years after initially creating the character of Putney, Berger’s daughter convinced the duo to publish the story. After a few minor updates to both the writing and illustrations, the book was released in 2005 and went on to sell several thousand copies. Today, the team has produced four books and fostered a long-lasting friendship.
“We both love children, and we respect each other,” said Blackburn. “We have really good conversations about the story and the images. Not only is she a good artist, she’s a clever person. Her wit shows in her work. She has a sophisticated sense of humor, and these characters are all likable. The children like the characters and that’s her doing. She almost reads my mind when she reads the story.”
“One of the great joys of my life is meeting Winfrey,” said Berger. “We became fast friends. He’s a lovely man – so accomplished and interesting. It’s a mutual admiration. I just value him as a person and we just seem to be in sync on a lot of things. We’ve had a long friendship, and I hope it goes on forever.”
Berger, a Louisville native who spends part of the year living in Bradenton, Florida, still enjoys illustrating and has plans to collaborate with other writers soon. Blackburn still works on the business side at the firm he founded in 1995, Blackburn Domene Burchett, but he no longer takes on cases, allowing him more time to write.
“When I wrote briefs and argued in front of the Supreme Court, I never had time to fully prepare,” he said. “When you’re retired, you can get it right.”
Blackburn has also co-written and photographed two books about Kentucky architecture with co-author R. Scott Gill. Blackburn spent months traveling to various parts of the state tracking down information about notable homes.
“These books take a tremendous amount of research,” he said. “All I would have is the name of a person – I wouldn’t have a street address – so I had to find an old timer, usually through the library. I’d ask them if they knew the owner and where the house is. Some of them were really hard to find.”
His next book of this kind, also to be co-written with Gill, will be based on the works of Gideon Shryock, who is credited with bringing Greek revival architecture to Kentucky in the 1820s and 30s. Blackburn also has a full-length legal novel and accompanying screenplay in the works, though he remains tight-lipped on the details.
Though not everyone can continue working as he has, Blackburn feels its vital to find purpose in life.
“It’s been very rewarding to me to contribute something,” he said. “I think it’s extremely important, at least for me, to have a project. You have something to look forward to and you’re solving a problem. Especially in a society that values accomplishments and achievement – you’ve been an achiever all your life and suddenly you’re not achieving anything – (retirement) is a huge change.
“One of the things that retired people feel is that they’re worthless,” he continued. “They’re not working anymore and they’re not getting a paycheck, at least as a result of their own work, so it’s difficult to feel worthwhile. But if you’re working on something, you’re not thinking about the past or when you’re gonna die. You’re thinking about getting a job done.” V
Blackburn’s books are available at Carmichael’s Bookstores and online through Butler Books and Amazon.com.
Works by Winfrey P. Blackburn Jr.
“The Adventures of Sid, a Cirpal” with illustrations by Sylvia Berger
“Putney: A Little Pumpkin with Big Ideas” with illustrations by Sylvia Berger
“Rodney the Lightning Bug and the Golden Medallion” with illustrations by Sylvia Berger
“The Mystery of Hank’s Woods” with illustrations by Sylvia Berger
“Kentucky Houses of Stratton Hammon” with R. Scott Gill. Winner of the Bronze Medal for Excellence in the national Architecture category of the 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards.
“Country Houses of Louisville, 1899-1939” with R. Scott Gill