Today, I am interviewing the final author in the series, the lovely and talented Gwendolyn Hooks. She is the author of twenty published books, including her popular Pet Club series. Two of her Scholastic early readers, The Mystery of the Missing Dog and Three’s A Crowd, sold over 100,000 copies each. She’s also written nonfiction picture books, including Arctic Appetizers: Studying Food Webs in the Arctic. In 2016, Lee & Low will publish her picture book biography, Tiny Stitches – The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas.
Gwendolyn blogs on The Brown Bookshelf to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing and illustrating for young readers. The American Library Association selected The Brown Bookshelf as a Great Website for Kids.
Valerie Lawson: How did you become involved in this project?
Gwendolyn Hooks: It pays to have wonderful friends like Darleen Bailey Beard. We’re in a critique group with Jane McKellips and Pati Hailey. Darleen talked about the need for younger Oklahoma biographies and we agreed.
GH: A few years ago, I went to a Christmas concert sponsored by Langston University’s music department. Leona Mitchell was the featured singer.
She was amazing. Her voice was so strong and beautiful; I sat mesmerized. She gracefully twirled around the room, sometimes a little flirty. The audience loved her.
How did this lady from Enid, Oklahoma, end up in opera houses all over the world? It was a question I wanted to answer.
VL: Excellent question! As a native from Enid, I grew up passing a street every day named after her. I never knew much about her life, except that she was an opera singer. I can’t wait to read this story!
What did you discover most surprising about researching Leona Mitchell’s life?
GH: The number of brothers and sisters.
I listened to an interview when she was asked to name her siblings. She did it so effortlessly. I think I would have stumbled and forgotten a few of those names. Maybe more than a few.
VL: Astounding! I can barely keep my siblings straight, and there are only 4 of them.
What made her a great Oklahoman?
GH: Throughout her career, Leona has always said Oklahoma was her home. She credits her family, her high school music teacher, and the music department at Oklahoma City University for her success.
And I felt her state pride when I heard her sing our state song, Oklahoma. Sometimes it was hard for her to get back to Enid, but it’s forever in her heart.
VL: If you continue with this project, whom would you like to write about next?
GH: Oklahoma has a lot of fascinating people who have made this an extraordinary state. There are libraries and schools named after people, but I bet a lot of children have no idea who they are or what they contributed to Oklahoma. A few years ago, I taught at Kerr Middle School. I bet 95% of the students had no idea why Kerr was chosen for that honor. I think that’s also true about the Ralph Ellison library.
I moved to Oklahoma when I was in high school and attended Northeast High School. One year, I went to Dunjee High School in Spencer for a Student Council conference. At that time, Dunjee was just the school’s name. It was much later that I found out he was the publisher and editor of the Black Dispatch newspaper. He published it from 1915-1955. It continued to be published until the early 1980s.
The Black Dispatch was the paper the African American community read to find out when Count Basie was coming to play on Deep Second, what social club was hosting a gala, and the latest church news. Dunjee was also known for his commitment to civil rights and wrote editorials blasting unfair laws. He questioned why African Americans were required to pay for bonds that only supported white schools. He worked with Thurgood Marshal who became a Supreme Court Justice. The more I research Dunjee, the more I’m captivated by him.
VL: That is so fascinating. And a part of our history that isn’t really taught in schools. I’d love to read that story!
What are you currently working on?
GH: I am working on another picture book biography. I really enjoy reading and writing them. I love history and I would love to bring new life to these fascinating personalities and show young readers why they are important to all of us.
My next biography is scheduled to be published in April 2016 by Lee and Low Books. Tiny Stitches – The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas is the story of an African American who only had a high school education, and yet designed the operation that allowed doctors to save the lives of babies born with tetralogy of Fallot or blue babies.
VL: I am so beyond excited about this book. I know it’s going to be amazing. You’ve worked really hard to tell this beautiful and important story about Vivien Thomas.
Thank you so much for sharing your time with us and your wonderful stories.
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