A quarter-century after his death, Don Freeman's name will grace the cover of a never-before published picture book from Viking. Due in March, Manuelo the Playing Mantis introduces a lonely praying mantis who listens longingly to an orchestra performing during an outdoor concert, wishing with all his heart that he, too, could become a musician. After several failed attempts to fashion an instrument to play, Manuelo makes friends with a spider who helps him create a cello from a walnut shell, a stick and silken threads she spins herself. And Manuelo at last makes music, accompanied by a chorus of other insects and critters.

Making music was important to Freeman as well. Born in San Diego, Calif., in 1908, he supported himself as a jazz trumpeter after moving to New York City in 1929 to study at the Art Students League. One night, engrossed in creating sketches as he rode the subway home, Freeman realized at the last minute that the train had reached his stop. Dashing for the door, he left his trumpet behind; it was a loss that brought his music career to an abrupt halt. After working as an illustrator specializing in sketches of the theater and its milieu, which appeared in several newspapers, Freeman published his first children's book, Chuggy and the Blue Caboose, in 1951, a collaboration with his wife, Lydia. The artist went on to create such memorable characters as Corduroy, Beady Bear, Dandelion—and Manuelo.

George Nicholson met Freeman in 1970 when the editor became publisher of what was then Viking Junior Books. Now an agent who represents Freeman's estate and the Lydia Freeman Foundation (an organization established to help ill children that is the current recipient of royalties for Don's books), Nicholson became a close friend of Freeman and his wife and recalls visiting Lydia after Don's death to help her organize his effects. "Don had left a tremendous number of dummies, some nearly finished, some less so," Nicholson reported. "The first draft of Manuelo was written in the late 1960s, but Don had put it aside. This was an extraordinary fruitful time for him. I think Manuelo dropped off the scale simply because Don had so much else going on." In fact, between 1968 and 1970, Freeman published six picture books, including Corduroy, Tilly Witch and Hattie the Backstage Bat with Viking and three other books with Golden Gate Publishers in California.

Freeman's unpublished work was eventually assembled in Zurich, where Don's and Lydia's son, Roy, lives (and where Lydia had moved and lived until her death several years ago). Regina Hayes, president and publisher of Viking Children's Books, explained that sketches and text for Manuelo surfaced when material was being collected for Corduroy & Company: A Don Freeman Treasury, a 2001 Viking title that compiled 11 of the author's books.

"There were actually four different dummies for this book," Hayes said. "It seemed as though Don had never been quite satisfied and kept trying another approach. We also found a number of manuscripts for the book, two of which had Lydia's name on them as co-writer. One version emerged as the strongest and we were able to pull it together satisfactorily. We realized that this was a gem and was completely from the heart, since it is about wanting to be a musician and to perform. Don loved music and the theater and was such a performer."

Once the most appealing dummy was selected, the next challenge for those working on the book at Viking was, well, the state of the art. Rendered in watercolor, pastel and ink line, the illustrations for Manuelo were "in various stages of completion," according to art director Denise Cronin. "Some of the art existed as perfectly finished pieces, but we noticed that there were three places in which there were gaps—where the art was not at the same level of completion."

The publisher commissioned artist Jody Wheeler to fill in those gaps, working from Freeman's sketches. "We had worked with Jody before and we knew she was adept at imitating other artist's styles," Cronin noted. "It all went smoothly and we're very pleased with the way the book came together. The author left us a lot to work with, which made our job easy."

Nicholson reported that Freeman's son Roy, who holds the copyright on this property and worked closely with Viking on the book, "is inordinately pleased with the results. In fact he said at one point that he thought the reproductions were even better than the original art."

And are there more jewels to be mined from the Freeman archives? "It is possible that more books will emerge as Roy continues to go through his father's material," Hayes answered. "We were lucky to find Manuelo the Playing Mantis and Gregory's Shadow [which Viking released in 2000], but we don't know if we will be that lucky again."

Observing that Gregory's Shadow was a New York Times bestseller, Nicholson commented, "Don's name has certainly held up strongly as a selling point. It's extraordinary that his books remain in print, decade after decade." And now there's a new one in print, perhaps for decades to come.