The Magical Realm of Libraries by Gwendolyn Hooks
Libraries have always been one of my favorite places to visit. They are magical, and librarians are magicians.
My father was career Air Force and like most military families we moved—a lot. From Georgia to Italy and back to Georgia, then Texas on to Washington, back to Georgia again and finally at rest in Oklahoma. I didn’t like moving. Shy kids should not be forced to make new friends after the school year has started.
During those shy times, the library was my refuge. While reading, my mind drifted into the story and I became friends with the book characters. It was just what I needed as the new girl in school. I read mysteries and became a detective solving make believe mysteries on the Air Force base. As an adult, I’ve even written a few for young readers (Mystery of the Missing Dog and The Cat Food Mystery).
I introduced my three children to libraries early. Every summer they enrolled in the summer reading program. At the time I’m sure they were more interested in the Dairy Queen treats, baseball game tickets, and the chance to win a shiny new bike. Along the way, they became avid readers, too. Now my son will call and say, “I’m reading The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe. Get it so we can talk about it.” Always a mother, I read and discuss it with him.
As much as I admire librarians, it never occurred to me to become one. Instead, my first career was teaching math to middle schoolers. It was a challenging career, but I loved it and probably would still be explaining how to solve equations if I hadn’t noticed that some of my students seemed like characters in a book. At the end of one school year, a student left a note on my desk which read, “You were my favorite teacher. Even though we were bad I knew you still liked us. But I wondered what you were thinking when you looked at us with that crazy look on your face.” By the way, they weren’t bad. They were mischievous. And I probably was thinking about plots.
Eventually, I left my middle schoolers and became an author. What a magical word! It is just as magical as libraries. I wrote early readers and nonfiction science books. Then I discovered the beauty of picture book biographies.
I wanted to write one and found the perfect person to share with the world and wrote and wrote and wrote. I even found an interested editor for my biography manuscript. But another book was published about the same person with wonderful reviews and my manuscript now resides in my garage.
My next big biography idea came in 2010 during a conversation with a personal friend who happens to be writer-friend, too. Anna Myers called one night in a super excited voice, “GWEN! I JUST SAW THE MOVIE ABOUT THE MAN WHO SAVED MY GRANDSON WILL’S LIFE!”
After Anna calmed down, she told me about the movie Something the Lord Made. She said, “You need to write about him.” The him was Vivien Thomas. Will had been born with the four- part heart defect, tetralogy of Fallot (TOF), sometimes referred to as blue babies. Will was given the life-saving surgery developed by Vivien Thomas.
Anna sent me the movie. As I watched it, I wondered why I had not seen it before and why I didn’t know of Vivien. His accomplishments were amazing. He lost his college savings in the Great Depression when banks closed in 1929. He found a job at Vanderbilt University working as a laboratory assistant under surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock who loved research. Vivien was a fast learner. When Dr. Blalock accepted a position at Johns Hopkins Hospital as Chief of Surgery, he insisted that they also hire Vivien. That was a bold move—hiring an African American as a research technician in a segregated hospital! Vivien conducted research projects on his own. He even ran the lab.
When pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Taussig asked them to help save the blue babies, Vivien took the assignment. It was his most difficult challenge. But he did not give up. He found a way for doctors to operate on children born with TOF. During the first operation in 1944 at Johns Hopkins, he gave surgical advice as he stood on a stool behind Dr. Blalock. Baby Eileen survived thanks to Vivien’s innovative surgical technique. Because of segregation, it was decades before Vivien was acknowledged for his contribution.
Writing Tiny Stitches is my way of honoring him. It was a long writing process—six years from start to finish with a lot of help along the way. My editor at Lee & Low Books, Jessica Echeverria believed in the project from the very beginning, and pressed me to make it better. My critique partners helped when I was stuck. Librarians became magical researchers.
Today, when I walk into a library, I still feel that mystique as I wander up and down the rows of books. As an author, I write so young readers can feel the magic of books through my words.
Gwendolyn Hooks has written 20 books for young readers with a variety of publishers including one in England and another in South Korea. 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. She is working on another one hoping it won’t take six years. She blogs on the group blog TheBrownBookshelf.com; find her on Twitter: @gwenthegweat; and Facebook: facebook.com/gwendolynhooks3.