Author Interview: Gwendolyn Hooks on Inspiration, the Writing Journey & Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Gwendolyn recently won the
NAACP Image Award for Tiny Stitches

When I saw Jimmy Kimmel’s recent monologue about his son’s surgery, I remembered Gwendolyn Hooks’ picture book biography, Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, illustrated by Colin Bootman (Lee & Low, 2016).

I tweeted about the book, in hopes Kimmel might invite Gwendolyn to be a guest on his show.

Since I have a little more pull with the Cynsations blog, I interviewed Gwendolyn about the story behind the book, which is also pretty amazing.

How did you get the idea to write about Vivien Thomas?

One night in 2010, Anna Myers (author, regional advisor for SCBWI Oklahoma and friend of 20 years) texted me, “Are you up?” I told her I was, so she called me. 
Her voice had a quality that struck my heart – I worried she was about to tell me someone had died. 
Instead she said, “I just saw a movie about the man who saved Little Will’s life (Anna’s grandson), and Gwen, you’ve got to write a book about him.”
The movie was Something the Lord Made, about Vivien Thomas, the man who developed the surgical procedure to repair Tetralogy of Fallot, a four-part heart defect. Vivien focused on one defect. He found a solution to the heart pumping oxygen-poor blood throughout the body.

Anna & Gwendolyn

I thought, she’s just out of her mind. I can’t write well enough to tell that story.

Anna sent me the DVD and I watched it. I kept thinking, “How did I not know this story?”

Vivien Thomas is the perfect inspiration to show what you can do once you’ve made your mind up. His life is a beautiful story of setting goals and working to figure things out.

This seems like a very complex subject. Do you have a medical background?

I took biology in college, but that was years ago, and we didn’t learn much about medical science. Basically, I had to learn it all.

Vivien Thomas himself inspired me to tackle the project. He only had a high school education and he didn’t know anything about working in a medical research lab. When Dr. Blalock interviewed him for the job, he asked questions about all the equipment and how it was used. Dr. Blalock recognized his sharp inquisitive mind and hired him as his research assistant.

I was a teacher for many years, mostly I taught seventh grade math, which by the way was my most
difficult year as a student. My teacher was young and enthusiastic, but I didn’t understand much of what she told us. When I was teaching and a student would tell me they didn’t understand, I would take a step back and remember how I felt that year, then try to find a different way to explain it.

That happens a lot with writing too. Sometimes a story may not be working and we have to step back and think about it in a different way. I’m always looking for a different approach to write something so young readers will understand and enjoy reading it.

Tell us about your research and what you did to make sure you got the story right.

Vivien Thomas wrote an autobiography that included lots of details about his research. Dr. Blalock advised him to write everything down – every step of an experiment. He took that advice to heart, and that helped me a lot.

PBS did a documentary on the procedure and included Vivien Thomas’ work.

I contacted doctors and residents who worked with him and interviewed them. They all said he was a generous person who really took the time to explain things. If you didn’t understand the first time, he would find a different way to frame it to make sure it was clear.

I also talked to his nephew who is now an orthopedic doctor with a sports team in Florida. He didn’t know what his uncle did until he attended Johns Hopkins as a medical student and saw his uncle’s picture on the wall.

Whenever the nephew had visited Baltimore in the summers, Vivien just told the kids he worked with dogs. He was humble about his accomplishments.

Vivien did an interview in the 1980s, I listened to the recording, but the sound quality made it difficult to hear well. Fortunately there was a transcript.

I really wish I’d had the chance to interview him myself.

Vivien Thomas portrait
at John Hopkins

I also read journals and articles written during his lifetime to get a sense of the challenges he faced. Both Nashville and Baltimore were segregated cities at the time. I was doing a school visit recently and we talked about his hardships and how he didn’t get credit for his accomplishments. The students were very vocal about how unfair that was, so that was very good to hear.

I watched a YouTube video done by a doctor at the Mayo clinic explaining the procedure. It was a video he showed patients and families, so it was very understandable.

I included the video in the resource section and when I was checking to make sure the link worked, I discovered the doctor had left the Mayo Clinic – and moved to Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City.

I emailed him, not really expecting to hear back, but he responded and ended up reading the book to make sure the science was correct. I dedicated the book to him and sent him a copy. He said he was happy to share it with his kids so they would understand what he does at work.

Gwen with Will, who was saved by Vivien Thomas’ procedure

That’s a great bit of serendipity. Did you find that one bit of research led you to the next?

Sometimes the path led me astray. There were so many stories I wanted to include, but I knew I couldn’t include them all.

I really wanted it to be accessible to upper elementary/lower middle school students and wanted them to see his determination and his ability to follow through.

Tell me about shaping the story.

The manuscript was about 2,500 words to start with and it ended up being about 1,100. I did several rounds of revision with the editor to cut it down. It’s a challenge to eliminate words and still keep the heart of the story.

What advice do you have for other writers?

My advice is to read the books being published now in the genre you’re trying to write. A lot of times I get a manuscript from another writer and they tell me it’s a picture book or a chapter book, but then when I read it, it’s not that at all.

Were there model books that helped you?

Author Barbara Lowell sent me Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Henry Holt, 2013). It’s a different style, but it was interesting to see what information she included.

I read a lot of picture book biographies.

I lived at the library and read at least one or two every week (52 weeks x 5 years = 260 at least). Writing friends also loaned me books.

I didn’t limit myself to science books. I was reading them for writing techniques too.

Blizzard: The Storm That Changed America (Scholastic, 2006) by Jim Murphy. I love the way he can write nonfiction and make you feel like it’s fiction.

A couple of how-to books I found helpful were Yes! You Can Learn to Write Successful Children’s Books by Nancy I. Sanders (Createspace, 2013) and Anatomy of Nonfiction (Institute for Writers) by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas. (See Cynsations post about Anatomy of Nonfiction.)

Other picture book biographies I love (and this list doesn’t include the ones I checked out of the library!):

Cynsational Notes

Booklist gave Tiny Stitches a starred review. Peek:”(Vivien Thomas’) life and work are vivid in the pages of this picture book biography, in which Hooks details how his youthful work in fine carpentry, paired with his desire to become a doctor, propelled Thomas in his pursuit of his goals.”

A teacher’s guide is available from the publisher.

Gwendolyn Hudson Hooks 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.

She is the author of 20 books for children, including the Pet Club Series from Capstone. Gwen now lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with her husband and their three children.

Author Follow-up: Tanya Lee Stone on A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl

Author Tanya Lee Stone last spoke to Cynsations about her debut novel in February 2006. She updates us on the latest news of the book.

Congratulations on the release of the paperback edition of A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2007)! What’s new for your readers in the soft cover?

The first thing you will notice is its hot and sexy new cover! With the boy’s eyes open and the girl’s eyes closed, it kind of says it all about our resident predator Bad Boy, don’t you think?

There is also a bonus Reading Guide in the back, with questions from the fabulous Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. I’m excited about that, as a lot of the feedback I get is how the book is serving as a way to jump-start what can sometimes be hard discussions about love and sex. The reading guide should also appeal to book clubs, and I’m planning on making myself available (virtually) to some book club discussions. Some high schools are already looking ahead to do this for next year. Anyone who has a book club (school or otherwise) and is interested in that option should just email me!

Since we last talked, what kind of response has the book generated among readers?

You know, the book is really about how the choices we make affect who we are and who we want to be. And that we learn from every experience we have, good or bad. The response I’ve gotten in relation to this has been incredibly touching. I’ve had girls write and tell me the book helped them avoid a bad situation, or that they gave it to a friend they were worried about. I’ve also had teens write and tell me they wish they had read the book earlier, but that it really helped them understand some of the emotions they were feeling. I’ve even had parents say it gave them a concrete way to reach out to their kids and communicate with them better about these issues of teen sex.

Some people have expressed surprise that the book hasn’t generated any challenges (that I’m aware of), and I’m hoping it’s because people understand that although I didn’t shy away from the sex scenes (after all, the book is about love and sex!) readers agreed that there was nothing gratuitous in there, and that I take my responsibility to my readers very seriously.

Also, I often get wind of a school where the book is making its rounds and the girls are passing it to each other. There’s nothing better than finding out teens are saying “you’ve got to read this” to their friends. And I’ve been told by librarians that some of their copies are mysteriously “disappearing.” Always a promising sign (grin).

What have been the highlights of your journey with the book to date?

I’d have to say one of the major highlights was getting to know Judy Blume a little bit. Random House sent her a copy of the book, which, I must admit, initially freaked me out. I mean, it had never occurred to me that she might read it. And since I had threaded her book Forever as a theme in my book, I had a moment of panic. What if she hated that I did that?

Thankfully, she didn’t. She loved the book and even mentioned it in an interview. We were put in touch with each other and met for breakfast, where we had a long talk about life and books, books and life. And she was every bit as fabulous as the image I had of her in my head.

The other big highlight has been all the positive personal responses I’ve been sent from teenagers, parents, and even grandparents. There was also the amazing news I got one day telling me that girls were writing in the back of their library copy of my book (a la, the trend I had Josie start in the back of Forever). That copy is now filled with the same kind of support messages I fictionalized! How cool is that?

I blogged about it in a letter to librarians, asking them to please forgive me and consider it a good exception to the rule of never writing in library books!

Also, although I’ve been publishing books for awhile, Bad Boy was my foray into YA fiction and I’ve been thrilled with the welcome I’ve gotten from that community. I’ve made a lot of new writer friends.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have a few more books that feature strong girls on the horizon; this time nonfiction. Elizabeth Leads the Way is a picture book about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was the person who started the whole suffrage movement to get women the right to vote. That book has fantastic, quirky illustrations by Rebecca Gibbon.

Also out next spring is a Young Adult biography of Ella Fitzgerald. If you don’t know much about how she went from being a homeless teenager to being one of the most well-known singers on the planet, you’ll have to check that out. An incredibly inspiring story.

The third in this theme of amazing women is a book called Almost Astronauts, about the women who began astronaut testing in 1961 but were not allowed to continue. It was another 20 years before the first women were let into the space program. And I am almost finished with the next novel, but I’m not giving any teasers about that! My website is being redesigned as we speak, so look for new things there, too.

Cynsational Notes

So far, A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl has been named to the following state lists: Texas Tayshas, Kentucky Bluegrass Master Award List, and Maryland’s Great Books for Teens 2006. It also has been listed among New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, ALA Quick Picks, and nominated for ALA Best Books for Young Adults and Popular Paperbacks.