I have the pleasure of knowing Gwendolyn Hooks as part of our close-knit tribe of SCBWI Oklahoma members. She works tirelessly to perfect her craft until her work shines, and she has such a beautiful soul. All of which comes through in her writing. I just love her.
The road to publication for her latest book, TINY STITCHES: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, was a long one. Some of us who have witnessed the progress of this journey are so thrilled to see this beautiful story finally come to light.
One lucky reader will win a signed copy! So stay tuned!
She was born in Savannah, Georgia. Her father was in the Air Force, so Gwen and her family moved a lot when she was a child. Her first stop in every new city was the local library where she got her new library card. Gwen now lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with her husband and their three children.
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.
Tiny Stitches – The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas illustrated by Coretta Scott King Honor Award winner Colin Bootman (Lee & Low Books 2016) is her first picture book biography.
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.
Before the interview, let’s learn more about Gwen’s latest book:
Release Date: May 15, 2016
Publisher: Lee & Low Books
Vivien Thomas’s greatest dream was to attend college to study medicine. But after the stock market crashed in 1929, Vivien lost all his savings. Then he heard about a job opening at the Vanderbilt University medical school under the supervision of Dr. Alfred Blalock. Vivien knew that the all-white school would never admit him as a student, but he hoped working there meant he was getting closer to his dream.
As Dr. Blalock’s research assistant, Vivien learned surgical techniques. In 1943, Vivien was asked to help Dr. Helen Taussig find a cure for children with a specific heart defect. After months of experimenting, Vivien developed a procedure that was used for the first successful open-heart surgery on a child. Afterward, Dr. Blalock and Dr. Taussig announced their innovative new surgical technique, the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Vivien’s name did not appear in the report.
Overcoming racism and resistance from his colleagues, Vivien ushered in a new era of medicine—children’s heart surgery. This book is the compelling story of this incredible pioneer in medicine.
This book has already garnered rave reviews:
Booklist STAR review
“It is the work Thomas achieved, however, in spite of these enormous challenges, that will pique reader interest as they learn about his design of tiny operating tools and his role guiding surgeons through neonatal operations. Bootman’s lifelike watercolor illustrations beautifully and vividly evoke the carpentry shop, research labs, and the auditorium where, years later, Thomas was finally honored for his work and appointed to the faculty at Johns Hopkins.”
“. . . a rousing tribute to a man unjustly forgotten.”
I can’t wait to read this book! And the illustrations are just gorgeous.
Valerie Lawson: What inspired you to tell the story of Vivien Thomas?
Gwendolyn Hooks: Thank goodness I have generous and talented writer friends and Anna Myers fits into that category. She called one night and in an explosive voice she said, “I just watched a movie about the man who saved my grandson’s life!”
Whaaat? Was all I could sputter.
The movie, Something the Lord Made, was the story of Vivien Thomas. Anna ended the conversation with, “You need to write a children’s book about him.” I watched the movie, too—several times. I kept thinking, why didn’t I know about him. There are probably plenty of kids who don’t know his story. After a lot of encouragement from Anna, I took on the project and I am so glad she called me that night!
VL: What a gift! And maybe a pretty big challenge. Good thing she knew you were up for it.
Tell us about the creative process of bringing this story to life. How was it different from your previous books.
GH: The creative process was extremely demanding for me. The beautiful phrases in my head did not magically appear on my computer screen. I have a stack of drafts about two feet high. I read other biographies and marveled at how the writing seemed so effortless. I worried what an illustrator would say after reading my manuscript. “Seriously. You expect me to illustrate this?” I doubted every step I took. But I did not give up. I kept reading picture book biographies and read everything I could find about how to write them.
When I write early readers, I always feel I can do it. I can visualize the whole book in my mind. With Tiny Stitches, it was a long time before I could see it. Before I could feel it. But I kept trying. I wanted to succeed. I couldn’t let Anna down. Or myself.
I don’t know what Colin Bootman thought when he first read my manuscript, but I’m so glad he accepted the project. I was excited when my editor told me he would be the illustrator. He’s very talented and his books are gorgeous. Colin won a Coretta Scott King Honor award, so he’s got talent! I think he really brought my words to life.
VL: You didn’t give up. Exactly. And we’re so glad you kept trying. What a beautiful book!
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?
GH: It took six years from idea to publication. During that time, I learned that I have a patience-gene and a determination-gene. I would finish it and find an agent and an editor who believed in it as much as I did. I had the encouragement of my family, friends, and critique partners.
And I had Vivien Thomas. A few years ago, I traveled to Baltimore and had a chance to see Vivien’s portrait that hangs directly across from Dr. Blalock’s in Johns Hopkins Hospital. I felt his energy. I felt his passion. He urged me to tell his story. And I did.
VL: Ooooh! How inspiring! (That gave me chills.)
You’ve also written a series of Early Readers, the Pet Club series, did you ever have a clubhouse or a secret place of your own when you were a kid?
GH: In 3rd grade, my friends and I attempted to build a fort during recess. The school was next to a wooded area and every day, we added branches and anything else we could find. I don’t think we ever finished it. But one day, I took off my jacket so I could work better. Well, I forgot to put it back on and didn’t remember it until I got on the bus. I was a nervous wreck riding home. I knew my mother’s first words would be, “Where is your jacket?”
Somehow, I got to my bedroom and out the house the next morning before she had time to think about it. I jumped off the bus, ran to our fort, and found my jacket. I never forgot my jacket again. I never built or half-built a fort again either.
VL: Kids always sweat their parents’ reactions, don’t they? My leg could be broken from jumping out of a tree, but I’d be more worried about, “Did I rip my new pants? Mom’s gonna kill me!” I wish I could’ve seen that fort. Sounded pretty cool.
What was the most embarrassing thing you experienced?
GH: I still remember it like it was yesterday. I had to present a math lesson in one of my college education classes. I practiced it until it was perfect. But when I stood in front of the class with all those eyes staring at me, I blanked out. It was as if my brain had disappeared. Evaporated. Vanished. Finally, the instructor suggested I present at our next class. I slunk back to my seat. I have never forgotten that.
VL: Wow. That is truly awful. I think I’ve had nightmares of that happening.
What was the most memorable adventure you had with your family?
GH: My two sisters who are also my best friends and I had a fantastic time on our trip to Belgium. One sister is adamant about luggage. We were restricted to one carry-on bag and she sent instructions on how to pack. No waiting for luggage. No crying over lost bags. Plus you must be able to handle your bag without help. Apparently, my other sister forgot that part. When we arrived in Brussels, we took a train to the car rental agency. The forgetful sister couldn’t get her luggage situated and we had to stay on the train until the next stop. So we decided to walk to the rental agency instead of waiting for another train.
It wasn’t as close as we thought and we were not happy with sister #2. As the luggage obsessed sister was signing the rental papers, she realized she had not specified automatic transmission when she reserved the car and there weren’t any available. There was a little eye-rolling from the luggage challenged sister because the luggage obsessed sister is the only one who could drive a stick shift. I’m the middle sister and peace maker so I volunteered to serve as navigator. Which turned out okay except for a few instances of driving in circles multiple times in circle intersections. It was hard to stop gawking and look at street signs.
We toured buildings that were centuries old. We ate chocolate and more chocolate. Then we took side trips to Bruges and Antwerp. Bruges was a fairy tale city with live chickens for sale in the market square. At a restaurant, I ordered a ham dish that appeared in front of me as a huge ham hock in a soup bowl. It was delicious! In Antwerp we visited the diamond center. I was blinded with all the glitter. Then it was time to drive back to Brussels and fly home. I loved that trip!
VL: That certainly was memorable! How fantastic!
What’s been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
GH: I can’t just pick one.
I met Christina Gonzalez at the Nevada Reading Week conference in Reno. She gave me a copy of her The Red Umbrella, so of course I had to read it. It’s a great book set in Cuba. I love reading about other cultures and countries.
Recently, I read Thunder Boy by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. It’s a beautiful picture book with a fun, but powerful message about the importance of a name.
The other day, I complained to a friend that I wanted to do a better job with setting. She suggested I read The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County written by Janice N. Harrington and illustrated by Shelley Jackson. Janice does a fabulous job of showing setting through her language. I will probably read it 10 more times before I return it to the library.
I read two adult nonfiction books over the last year that I really enjoyed for different reasons.
The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain by Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow. Who doesn’t want to free their genius!
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. Not only was it an epic story, the book was epic at 622 pages! But I love history and I learned so much about the migration of African Americans from the deep south to the north and west. I also liked Wilkerson’s narrative nonfiction style.
To-Be-Read: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. She feels that exceptional achievement is a result of passion and persistence and not genius or talent. That means I can achieve something exceptional because I’m passionate about books and writing and I can be persistent when I set my mind on it.
VL: Ha! You’re so like me! I can never pick just one book EVER! And my nightstand has about ten books covering it right now. Thanks for some excellent reading suggestions.
What would your dream assignment be? What would you most like to write about?
GH: I’d love to have an all-expense paid assignment with a six-figure advance that required traveling to another country for research. One of my favorite television shows is Mysteries at the Museum. One Saturday, while eating breakfast, I watched an episode about Sir William Henry Perkins. He was an English chemist who accidently discovered a purple dye in 1856. Up until that time only royalty and the rich could afford purple clothes. Soon all the ladies were strutting around town in purple frocks. And since I love purple, it only makes sense for me to visit England and work on that project.
VL: Now that’s an excellent dream assignment! And of course you’ll need a co-writer to help you…carry your luggage. I’m volunteering now.
Tell us what’s coming up next for you. What are you currently working on?
GH: I wrote two early readers for Lee & Low’s Confetti Kids series. Block Party and Music Time are scheduled for 2017. Pearson Educational UK is publishing a chapter book next year. And I’m writing another early reader that I can’t talk about yet-top secret. I will say, it’s something I’ve always been interested in, but I see a challenge ahead making it young-kid-friendly.
VL: How exciting! And I love top secret projects. We know you’ll be up for the challenge
Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, Gwen. Always a pleasure.
**As an added bonus for those in the local area, Gwen will be hosting a book release party on June 9th, in Oklahoma City. The event will be from 6-9pm at the Chi Gallery.
Please come! It will be a fun event!
Gwen is giving away a SIGNED COPY of her new book TINY STITCHES to one lucky reader of this blog!
To enter, all you have to do is enter below!
ENTER HERE!!! ➤➤➤ Gwendolyn Hook’s Rafflecopter giveaway
(If you really, really want to enter, but don’t want to use the Rafflecopter feature, feel free to post a comment below as your entry, and I’ll manually add you to the giveaway.)
Winner will be selected on June 15th.
CONGRATULATIONS TO BARBARA LOWELL!
SHE’S THE WINNER OF THE SIGNED COPY OF TINY STITCHES!
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