The Big Story About Saving Tiny Lives

I was so proud to interview these dear friends and share the story of how this important juvenile non-fiction book about “the man who saved blue babies” came to life.

Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the June 2016 Issue

If you haven’t heard the name Vivien Thomas yet—you will soon. Oklahoma City author, Gwendolyn Hooks, is celebrating the release of her 20th children’s book, Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. It’s already earning rave reviews.

Gwendolyn Hooks with Anna MyersBack in the 1940s, Vivien developed a technique that is still saving thousands of babies born with low oxygen, sometimes called “blue baby syndrome.” But decades passed before he received any credit for his discovery. After all, he was only a research assistant.

Fast forward to 2010. Gwendolyn Hooks was up late A text came through. “Are you awake? Call me.” It was from Gwendolyn’s friend and fellow author, Anna Myers. It was after 11 o’clock, it must be trouble. “Gwen, Gwen,” Anna shouted into the phone. “I just saw a movie about the man who saved my little Will’s life. His name is Vivien Thomas. You have to write his story.”

Little Will, Anna’s grandson, was born a perfect angel—but a few hours later, he developed signs of serious heart defects. Will’s tiny lips and fingers started to turn blue. His oxygen levels were too low. Will needed a delicate surgery to open valves in his heart and increase blood flow. He required the surgery developed by Vivien Thomas.

Now, Will is ten years old and doing fine, but the fear Anna’s family experienced can never be forgotten. So when Anna’s brother saw a movie about the little-known Vivien Thomas, he called Anna in tears, insisting she watch the movie. Anna was equally moved. She could now put a name to the man who saved her grandson’s life.

“Anna, I’ve never heard of Vivien Thomas.” Gwendolyn said. “He means something to you, you should write it,” Gwendolyn said.

“Gwen,” Anna said, “this story has to be told, and the author has to be African American. God told me you’re the one to write this.”

When Anna speaks emphatically to her author friends, they pay attention. After all, Anna is in the Oklahoma Writer’s Hall of Fame. So, Gwendolyn watched the movie and started to research Vivien Thomas. What she discovered was the remarkable fortitude of a man who cared more about saving lives than taking credit. Vivien was unable to afford medical school, so he took a job as a research assistant.

It took Vivien a while to realize that because he was a black man working in an all-white university, he was treated differently. Vivien wasn’t paid as a lab technician, his official job title was janitor. He couldn’t walk in the front door. He wasn’t allowed to wear a lab coat, which indicated doctor status.

In 1943, Dr. Alfred Blalock was asked to develop a surgery to save blue babies, but since he was busy with other projects, he asked Vivien to do the research. Working with Dr. Blalock, Vivien’s natural aptitude led to the creation of a procedure for shunting arteries and sewing the vessels together. Vivien developed miniature tools and experimented on animal hearts, sewing arteries together with tiny stitches. It worked, and it was ground breaking!

When Dr. Blalock was asked to try the technique on a dying baby, Vivien stood behind him on a stool and coached Dr. Blalock through the surgery he’d developed. The baby survived.

Anna Myers with Gwendolyn Hooks

Vivien then stood over Dr. Blalock’s shoulder and talked him through 150 additional surgeries. However, the procedure was named after Dr. Blalock and another colleague, who wrote a scientific paper about the procedure. Vivien was never mentioned. Nor was he invited to the celebration in which Dr. Blalock was nominated for a Nobel Prize for the surgical technique.

As Gwendolyn dug further into Vivien Thomas’ life, she was amazed by his humbleness. Despite being ignored professionally, he and Dr. Blalock maintained a congenial working relationship. Vivien continued his work and generously trained hundreds of doctors on his technique. It wasn’t until 26 years later when Vivien was acknowledged by students for his medical contributions, and his portrait was placed at Johns Hopkins University.

With Anna’s encouragement, Gwendolyn spent three years writing and rewriting Vivien’s story. She contacted Oklahoma doctors who had trained under Vivien or who perform the blue baby surgery, such as Dr. Harold Burkhart.

Since Gwendolyn was writing a children’s book, she didn’t want the emphasis to be the racism issue. Vivien’s treatment might have been “the norm” in the 1940s, but his ability to see past himself was not. Gwendolyn wanted readers to know that Vivien could have been bitter and walked away, but he focused on his goals instead of his feelings.

Gwendolyn also pushed aside her own doubts that her book would ever be good enough. Her husband kept saying, “You can do this! But maybe you should come to bed now—it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.” Despite having already published 20 books herself, writing about such an important topic didn’t come quickly or easily—but Gwendolyn forged through dozens of “clunky drafts” until she had written a story that honored Vivien. “The words didn’t come magically—but the final manuscript gave my agent chills,” Gwendolyn said.

Gwendolyn spent two more years revising the book. Another year passed while illustrator Colin Bootman finished the watercolor illustrations. Bootman is a previous winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for outstanding books by African Americans.

According to Kirkus Review, Gwendolyn’s story is told with a “gently insistent message of perseverance.” It’s exactly what she hoped would come across. “Vivien couldn’t afford medical school, so he grabbed at the detour that came his way. By focusing on his goal, his dream was fulfilled,” Gwendolyn said. And Anna stood over Gwendolyn’s shoulder and encouraged her to trust in her talent.

“Gwen worried that she couldn’t do this story justice,” Anna said. “But I knew she could—and she did it beautifully.”

To learn more, visit

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So You Want to Write or Illustrate a Children’s Book?

      You can!  But you will have much more luck getting it published if you add some preparation to that natural talent.
      Technology has made it easier than ever for folks to try their hand at writing words or creating illustrations—so the sheer volume of competition is overwhelming.  You may get tons of “likes” if you share your work on Facebook, but your fame may fizzle in a matter of days. Maybe that’s enough for you.  I, however, seem drawn to write something with…longevity.  I dream that my books will continue to have meaning and usefulness long after I’m gone.  
       The people who do their homework, play the waiting game, and pursue more traditional courses of publishing are most likely to have staying power.  It’s seriously worth the time investment to learn about the publishing industry before you waste a lot of time making mistakes, annoying editors, and burning book bridges.  


Myself with Leonard Marcus, children’s book historian and author.  

      Getting published is a lot like creating a resume and interviewing for a job—you will get farther if you’ve had training that makes your resume worth considering.  Unless you have an arts degree, one of the few educational opportunities for writers and illustrators is to join a reputable organization that offers workshops, trade journals, online trainings and networking opportunities.  
       Attending “author talks” is my personal favorite form of learning, as I enjoy listening to other writers about their journey.  I always take away a nugget that helps me move forward.  But truly, editors and agents are at the pulse of the ever-evolving book industry.  Hearing what they say is like sitting at the feet of a master—because they hold the most industry power.  Professional organizations provide great opportunities for meeting these people first hand.  
      I have personally selected the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators as my professional organization of choice, although others exist.  For several years, I’ve attended SCBWI conferences in my state, where editors, agents, and art directors from publishing houses give presentations, answer questions, and will even review writing and illustration samples.
      For me, networking with other writers is also invaluable—as writing can be a lonely business.  I am greatly encouraged by talking to folks who understand what it’s like to spend a ridiculous hour rewriting one sentence or to have a fiction character put words into my mouth.
       Sometimes writing is like having homework every day of my adult life, even when I’m doing it “for fun.”  Other writers and illustrators understand my indescribable need to create….and yet, my strange tendency to procrastinate finishing a book or article for fear it won’t live up to my own personal standard. 
       Creating the masterpiece is just the first step in the process for anyone who is serious about seeing their name on a book cover.  Next, a publisher has to see your genius and commit to it—which will never happen if your precious art remains on a computer drive or buried in a drawer.  For this reason, I reiterate that if you want to write or illustrate a children’s book, it’s worth the time to get involved with a professional organization that can guide your path toward publication. 
       The following Richard Bach quote has been taped to my bathroom mirror for many years, “The professional writer is the amateur who didn’t quit.” 
       Before I started getting paid for my work, this quote inspired me to keep going.  Now that I really am a professional writer (a fact which still sometimes surprises me), I’m reminded that the journey is never-ending. After writing several books and hundreds of articles, you’d think I’d feel satisfied, but I’m not.  Everything I write and everything I continue to learn takes me one step closer to the professional level for which I strive.  
       I still have stories to tell, and I still have to conform to the publishing industry’s ever-changing standards. Staying current with the publishing industry is for veterans and beginners alike.  So don’t quit!  Join a professional organization and learn how you can share (or continue to share) your natural talent with the world.
I’ll be at this conference on April 16, 2016.  Non-Oklahomans welcome, too!
Sara Sargent, Editor 
is an Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, where she focuses on fiction and nonfiction in the picture book, middle grade, and young adult categories.
Sara Sargent
Carter Hasegawa, Editor
Associate editor at Candlewick Press, came to children’s publishing in a roundabout way. Basically anything that has a great voice, is a good story, and is “unputdownable.”
Carter Hasegawa
Karl Jones, Editor 
Associate Editor, Grosset & Dunlap/Price Stern Sloan/Cartoon Network Books, Penguin Young Readers. Karl works on a variety of licensed and original middle grade and activity books, as well as some early YA projects.
Karl Jones
Jodell Sadler, Agent
hosts workshops and presents on pacing, which includes Picture Book Pacing, Editing, and Avoiding Burnout tutorials and Webinars with Writer’s Digest.
Jodell Sadler
Vicki Selvaggio, Agent 
With her most recent publication in the 2015 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, Vicki’s passion for honing the craft carried over into reading manuscripts for the agency.   
Vicki Selvaggio
Jason Henry, Art Director
has over 15 years professional experience designing books for young readers. He has won awards for his designs from the Book Industry Guild of New York, designed numerous New York Times best selling books, such as Brad Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change The World series.
Jason Henry

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Children’s Books About Famous Oklahomans

It was a pleasure to write about five dear friends who worked together to write a series of books which includes Will Rogers, Dr. Jordan Tang, Te Ata, Bill Wallace, and Leona Mitchell.  One author, Jane McKellips, opened up the world of writing for me when I was a kid.  At the time, she was my piano teacher, and now she’s a lifelong friend.  ~Amy 
ICONIC OKIES January 2016 Issue of Outlook Magazine

When five friends came together to write about famous Oklahomans—it was out of desperation. Not for themselves, but for teachers around the state who lacked biographies about important Oklahomans.

Gwendolyn Hooks, Pati Hailey, Darleen Bailey Beard, Cheryl Schuermann and Jane McKellips, authors of the I Am Oklahoma series

Photo by Marshall Hawkins

Darleen Bailey Beard became aware of the issue six years ago while doing a local author visit. The elementary school librarian expressed her frustration that although it was required for her third and fourth graders to write reports about significant Oklahomans, she didn’t have any biographies at their reading level.

As Beard continued to visit schools, she took an informal poll to see if other teachers experienced the same struggle—and had more than 50 affirmative responses. So, Beard shared her findings with her closest writer friends: Jane McKellips, Gwendolyn Hooks, Pati Hailey, and Cheryl Schuermann. Many of them had been writing together for more than 20 years.

Collectively, the authors decided to create the series. Not only would they write at a third and fourth grade reading level, but would represent a diversity of ethnicities and talents, genders and represent different regions of the state. They would write books that gave students hope for the future and provided proof that some of the greatest Oklahomans came from the most humble beginnings.

“People in our state have made significant contributions worldwide,” Schuermann said. “We have astronauts, scientists, inventors, ballerinas. Most children don’t even know the names of our most influential Oklahomans, so we wanted to introduce children to these important people.”

Each of the five authors chose to write about an individual to whom they felt a personal connection. For Cheryl Schuermann, the choice was easy. She chose the medical researcher, Jordan Tang, who discovered the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Every day, I live with the reality and ugliness of this disease because of my mother,” Schuermann said. “Dr. Tang has spent the last 15 years searching for a cure, methodically learning what doesn’t work, so that he can find what does work.”

Schuermann was honored to meet Dr. Tang in his laboratory. “He’s diligently, tirelessly working on a cure for my mom every day, even though he’s in his eighties.”

Gwendolyn Hooks chose to write about Leona Mitchell, the international opera singer. At first, Mitchell was refused roles because she was African American—but her talent eventually allowed her to break through the racial barriers. “So few books feature strong African Americans,” Hooks said. “In Leona’s case, she had to accept the faith and training to go beyond the gospel music she was used to singing.”

Jane McKellips was inspired by author Bill Wallace, who hated to read as a child! And yet, he went on to write 38 children’s books, including A Dog Called Kitty.

“I assumed everyone who grew up to be a writer loved to read,” McKellips said. “It took Bill Wallace a while to find books that kept his interest—there weren’t many animal adventure stories back then.” When Wallace became an elementary teacher, his students convinced him to write down his own stories—tales much like Old Yeller. His books became an instant hit and inspired many reluctant readers.

Darleen Bailey Beard decided to write about the most popular entertainer of the early 1900s. Will Rogers was a trick roper, writer, radio host, comedian and movie star. Most importantly, he had a heart of gold. He generously helped friends, raised money for the Red Cross and made people laugh during the Great Depression. “Throughout his life, he cared about people,” Beard said. “Will Rogers makes me want to be a better person, and I hope my readers feel the same way.”

Pati Hailey wrote about the Chickasaw actress, Te Ata. In her one-woman show, Te Ata shared the beauty, wisdom and folklore of Native American cultures. She incorporated clothing, instruments and artifacts in order to defy the portrayal of Indians as savages. “She did a powerful service in helping Native Americans retain their cultural identity and traditions at a time when being Indian, like I am, was something to keep hidden,” Hailey said.

After completing the manuscripts, the authors sought a publisher for the series. After many rejections, the non-profit Oklahoma Heritage Association Publishing, an arm of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, expressed an interest, but it took five years to find a funder. When the books debuted in October, a free set was given to every public elementary in the state.

Because of the books’ mature-looking design, many junior high and high schools are purchasing the books for their students with low reading skills. The impact of the books is already becoming evident as praise pours in from teachers and students. The titles are also beginning to appear on the local non-fiction bestsellers list for the public. The authors are anxious to find additional funding so they can begin working on new titles for their I Am Oklahoma series.

“We are thrilled that children can read about other Oklahomans who struggled and overcame—whether they come from a big city or a small town, or a low income area,” Hailey said.

“It’s important for kids to see themselves in books, and see that they can beat their circumstances by having dreams, setting goals and staying focused,” Hooks said.

“Oklahoma deserves to be known for what our people have done to advance society, through science or art,” McKellips said.

“Or by changing the world with humor,” Beard said.

“Because some child out there is going to read these books and solve future problems, or change the world with music, or write a book that changes lives,” Hailey said.

The biography books are available at many local bookstores or can be found online at or 

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Interview with Amy about “OKC ZOO: 1960-2013”

Thank you to fellow-writer, Regina Garvie, for posting this interview about my book.  Please visit her site to view the full interview—this is just her introduction.

A cool look at the OKC Zoo

Today I have the pleasure of featuring a different type of book on my blog!SCBWI Oklahoma member Amy Dee Stephens writes fiction, but is also the author of two books on the Oklahoma City Zoo. I got a chance to look at her book recently, and it’s a must-see for anyone who has interest in animals, Oklahoma history, or a first-class zoo’s transformation through the years.

From the book’s description: What started as a small menagerie in 1902 officially became Oklahoma City Zoo in 1903. Journey through the second half century of its illustrious history in Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960–2013. Meet the staff and animals and explore the exhibits that propelled it from a third-class animal facility to one of the best zoos in the United States. In the 1960s, its animal population exploded as knowledge of animal care improved. The zoo soon assembled the largest-known collection of hoofed animals. Later, a rare mountain gorilla named M’Kubwa stole newspaper headlines, a third leopard escaped, and the zoo met its first cheetah babies. The opening of Aquaticus in the 1980s “brought the ocean to the prairie” in the form of a dolphin and sea lion show. Elephants, however, remain the queen attraction at the Oklahoma City Zoo. In 2011, the birth of the zoo’s first baby elephant baby, Malee, was a crowning achievement in its 110-year history.

Personally, I remember a lot of the changes that took place at the zoo, like when they built the Great EscApe when I was a kid, and the transformation of the big cat areas and new habitat for the elephants. It’s pretty dang great. If you’re in the area, you owe it to yourself to check out our zoo – and maybe pick up a copy of Amy’s books while you’re at it!

Amy was nice enough to share a press release with me about her newest book, including an informative Q&A that I enjoyed reading. Hope you do too!

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Cute Baby Zoo Animals


    Written by Amy Dee Stephens, January 2015 issue of Outlook Magazine

    “Awww!” It’s something you can’t help but squeal when you see baby animals, especially when at the zoo. Fuzzy chicks, playful elephants, even tiny turtles soften people’s hearts. Every birth that occurs at the Oklahoma City Zoo is extra cause for celebration, because many of the animals are so rare.

    “Every zoo birth is exciting,” said Candice Rennels, public relations manager. “It’s such a happy occasion when an endangered species is born because our animals are great ambassadors for their relatives in the wild.”

    Celebrity Babies

    Malee - photo by Andrea WrightThe most famous zoo baby is Malee the elephant. Her birth in 2011 was historic—the first elephant baby for Oklahoma City! The community fell in love with her, and visitor traffic increased by 150,000 people during her first few months. In December, she was joined by a sibling.

    This elephant cuteness has generated excitement since 2009 when their mother Asha, one of the Zoo’s adult female Asian elephants, began breeding. The public was apprised every step along the way, following Asha through her two-year pregnancy with Malee and her second calf due before the New Year.

    “An elephant birth is a significant event for our community. There is a strong connection between Oklahomans and our elephants,” Rennels said.

    Surrogate Successes

    Kamina - photo by Dr. Jennifer D'Agostino

    Zoo babies have a large following, and people will follow their life stories for generations. The recent birth of a baby gorilla, Kamina, made international news when she went to the Cincinnati Zoo to be raised by a surrogate mother. Oklahoma City staff knew that Kamina would not do well with her birth mother, so a different gorilla troop was a better option.

    Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has earned the reputation as a surrogate zoo for chimpanzees. Recently, two different baby chimps were “adopted” and are now successfully living with their new troop.

    The zoo added another surrogate success to its list in November when an African Wild Dog had three puppies. The inexperienced mother showed lack of maternal care, so the staff removed the pups and arranged for a lactating domestic dog to feed and care for these genetically important pups. Lilly, a golden retriever from Kansas raised the three pups right along with one of her own until they all were weaned.

    Flocks of Babies

    Flamingo chick - photo by OKC ZooBeyond the famous babies, the zoo is host to all sorts of animal younglings. Raising a flock of flamingo chicks is a bi-annual project for the zoo’s bird keepers. Flamingo eggs are gathered up and incubated, and then the fluffy hatchlings are cared for until spring, when they are integrated into the flock. In this case, because of our native rat snake population our best option for our flamingos is to pull their eggs and hand-raise chicks.

    “We take the flamingo chicks on daily walks for exercise,” said curator Darcy Henthorn. “It’s intense work, but one of the coolest avian programs we participate in.”

    Baby lorikeets are also hand-raised, but for a different reason—they live in an exhibit that people walk through. “We’ve learned over time, that by hand-raising lorikeet chicks they become more friendly birds for our guests to feed and interact with,” said Holly Ray, zookeeper.

    Mating Matters

    Because of the zoo’s commitment to conservation, most births are well orchestrated. Breeding decisions for endangered species are made by specialized committees worldwide. Mating partners are determined by the individual’s DNA, current offspring in the gene pool, and whether zoos have room for a future baby.

    Rupert - photo by Gillian Lang

    A half-century ago, zoos had a different philosophy about breeding—have as many babies as possible! Why? First, the genuine fear of extinction resulted in a “baby factory” mentality. Second, selling surplus animals, often as pets, was a viable way of making money. Over time, those practices shifted to focus on better care for fewer animals.

    “We don’t have indiscriminate breeding anymore,” said Don Whitton, animal records technician. “You’d be surprised how few babies we actually do have during a year.”

    Last year, only a handful of reptiles and birds hatched babies, and only a dozen mammals were born. High-profile mammals, like Rupert the baby rhinoceros, generate the most interest. Occasionally a non-mammal baby makes headlines, such as the two Komodo dragon hatchlings who came to the zoo a few years ago. Although they aren’t huge yet—they will be, and visitors enjoy watching them grow.

    For the most part, pregnancy is a managed process, and staff members are prepared when a baby arrives. In extreme cases, such as the baby elephant births, fully-trained teams spend the night at the zoo, ready to help with delivery.

    Where’s The Nursery?

    African Wild Dog pups - photo by Dr. Jennifer D'AgostinoAnother change in practice was the elimination of the zoo nursery. Visitors really enjoyed looking through glass windows at rooms full of baby animals, but zoo professionals now advocate that offspring stay with their parents whenever possible. Every endangered species born into a zoo is part of a viable effort to conserve the species for the future.

    Technology and social media, such as cameras showing footage online, allows visitors to have the up-close experience they previously had at the nursery window, and news media keep the public informed of animal births. More exciting babies are on the horizon at the Oklahoma City Zoo—and zoo fans will have a front-row seat to view fluffy, hairy, scaly cuteness.

    “Zoo babies melt our hearts,” Rennels said. “More importantly, they are the future for endangered species.”

    Learn more about the Oklahoma City Zoo at

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My “Wild” Amazon River Adventure

Here we are fishing on the Amazon!  Photo by Val.

Here we are fishing on the Amazon! Photo by Val.

Too close to caiman!Photo by Amy Stephens.

Too close to caiman!Photo by Amy Stephens.

My “Wild” Amazon River Adventure

I was fortunate to join my husband, Mike on his 10-day peacock bass fishing trip in Brazil—and it was a wild adventure! Mike hosted a group of 15 friends and clients, and I tacked on at the last minute as photographer/historian for the trip.

Going to the Amazonian rainforest is not for the faint of heart. You will see from the pictures that we had to wear very fashionable, full-cover gear to protect us from the bugs, hot UV rays, and occasional deluges of rain. We rose at 5:00am and fished until 5:00pm. We headquartered out of a main boat, but spent daylight in smaller 2-person fishing boats. Our Portuguese guides sat in the back to drive the boat and offer fishing advice (mostly in sign-language or broken English).

Mike caught many fish, including a 16-pound paca bass, and some of the people on the trip caught up to 23-pound fish! We saw caiman (alligators) swim past us and pink dolphins occasionally rose to the surface to try and snatch our fish from the line.

Mike's big fish!  A 16 pound paca.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

Mike’s big fish! A 16 pound paca. Photo by Amy Stephens.

We were surrounded by jungle wildlife and I saw many birds fly by, including parrots and macaws, as well as the large blue morpho butterfly. Oddly, all sounds ceased during the day. From 9:30am to 3:30pm, we saw little wildlife and heard none. Then, as if an alarm clock went off, the birds would start squawking at 3:30. We even heard howler monkeys in the distance, although I never saw one.

Along the Rio Negro are unexpected islands of solid white sand. One night, our boat moored up to one of these large sand banks and the staff set up tables and chairs so that we could enjoy a dinner party. It was the only time during the week we were on land. The staff dug a deep pit in the sand and smoked all kinds of meats. They chopped down four palm trees from the jungle and dug deep holes in the sand to drop them into so that party lights could be strung around the area. As the evening ended, Mike walked down to the water and made a cast. A staff person started yelling, “No, no!” He shone his flashlight down the bank where Mike stood to reveal huge glowing eyes, a 10-foot caiman alligator lay less than 10 feet away. We suspect the staff knew he was there all along—and that’s the reason for the boundary of lit palm trees.

My favorite part of the trip was when our boats left the main lake and struck off down a narrow trail hidden in the trees. We had to move vines out of the way and duck branches—but once the boat made it down these “secret” trails, the trees would open back up again to reveal another lagoon full of fish. As we disturbed birds and bats along the way, they would swoop across our path.

Our boat, docked at the white sand bank.  Photo by Mike Stephens.

Our boat, docked at the white sand bank. Photo by Mike Stephens.

My least favorite part of the trip was the rain. Yes, it is the rainforest, so water was expected—but we experienced more rain than typical for the November “dry season.” My rain gear was quickly saturated, making for a long, cold trip back to the main boat. We didn’t have hot showers or clothes dryers, either.

Every time I’ve traveled outside the United States, I’m reminded that I’m both blessed and spoiled. Although this was a luxury trip, we lived in a room/bathroom that was 5x10ft, with river water for the toilet, sink and bath (we used bottled water to brush our teeth!). We carried more in our suitcases than most of the boat staff owned. But the hospitality was wonderful and I loved our daily fish entrées, from fresh piranha soup to smoked bass–and I don’t usually like fish.

One amazing event occurred that still seems impossible. I was fishing with a gentleman in our group named Chip one day. About 3:30pm, a large fish broke off his line, taking the lure with him. Being such an expensive lure, we waited awhile to see if the fish would spit it up. He didn’t. We motored a half-mile up the river to a new location. A rainstorm struck and Chip was catching fish left and right for almost an hour. As we packed up to leave, that same fish exploded out of the water and spit Chip’s lure out right in front of us!

Beach party on the white sand bank. Photo by Amy Stephens

Beach party on the white sand bank. Photo by Amy Stephens

I’m thankful to have experienced the Amazon. As Theodore Roosevelt described when he traveled the Amazon—an invisible world surrounds you in the jungle. Invisibility renders the animals more able to survive its harsh conditions–which explains why hours sometimes went by without an animal sighting or sound. It also gives me greater respect for the people survive life on the Amazon.

After one large rainstorm, an amazing rainbow appeared above the river. Unlike those we see in the city, it was extremely bright, we could see the entire rainbow, and it lasted for a half hour. Sitting on the 2nd largest river in the world, surrounded by water that will raise 12 feet higher in the rainy season, I was reminded of God’s promise to never flood the earth with rain again. I was also reminded that God governs the whole earth and its many intricacies, habitats, and people. It’s an amazing world, and I’m glad to have seen a different part of it!

The Amazon Rainbow. The Promise.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

The Amazon Rainbow. The Promise. Photo by Amy Stephens.


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Jerry Bennett, Comic Book Artist

 Jerry Bennett, an Oklahoma comic book artist, is drawing for Marvel Comics, Lucasfilm and Power Rangers.  He’s an artist living a dream–working full-time doing what he loves.  I met Jerry and his wife several years ago as fellow members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I enjoyed visiting him in his how studio to learn more about how he draws lines that create action and emotion.     

"Storylines" is the cover story for Outlook Magazine, November 2014, by Amy Dee Stephens.

“Storylines” is the cover story for Outlook Magazine, November 2014, by Amy Dee Stephens.


Storylines: The Comic Book Art of Jerry Bennett
Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the November 2014 Issue, Outlook Magazine

Comic books and superheroes-they aren’t just for kids! Adults love them, and Hollywood has introduced them to a whole new generation. Meet Jerry Bennett, an Oklahoman who is making a full-time living as a comic book artist. His designs have been licensed by the biggest companies in the industry, including Marvel Comics, Lucasfilm and Power Rangers.

No surprise—Bennett’s small home studio is an explosion of color. Movie posters, superhero drawings and inspiration pieces cover the walls. Boxes of his art prints line the floor, and action figures set on a shelf along with a very real-looking light saber.

But Bennett isn’t outflanked by the kaleidoscope of supernatural memorabilia—no, it’s his joyful personality and booming laugh that captivate one’s attention. He has good reason to be joyful. He’s living an artist’s dream, rubbing elbows with some of the biggest names in the business, and gaining a following of fans—including Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, Iron Man and X-Men. Lee recently saw one of Bennett’s Spider-Man drawings at the Salt Lake City Comic Conference (known as Comic Con). He invited Bennett to create an exclusive print for the Stan Lee Foundation for literacy. Bennett calls it one of his greatest honors.

Bennett’s career didn’t start with a BAM!

Amy with Jerry Bennett, featuring his Stan Lee poster.  Photo by Marshall Hawkins.

Amy with Jerry Bennett, featuring his Stan Lee poster. Photo by Marshall Hawkins.

“I went to art school, but like so many people who have aspirations for a dream job, I took a regular job,” Bennett said. “For 16 years, I worked at a door and plywood company, doing art as side work.”

Jerry Bennett

Then finally, POW! Bennett’s big break came six years ago when he drew a movie fan design which parodied Ghostbusters and Star Wars. A friend suggested that it would make a great t-shirt design—and 3,000 sold in 24 hours.

“Someone told me my image had gone viral, and I asked, ‘What does that mean?’ because it was a new phrase then.”

Shortly afterward, as Bennett was about to turn 40, he decided he didn’t want to work his regular job anymore. “So, I quit and took a leap of faith.” It was a leap without a cape or superpowers. Bennett created a portfolio and purchased table space at a Comic Con in order to gain exposure for his art. He entered contests. He took on small projects.

Now, Bennett’s award-winning artwork is popping up all over, from a licensed Power Rangers t-shirt and Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team image, to the annual report cover for the Oklahoma Pioneer Library System.

Currently, Bennett is serving as a fill-in artist for Larry Latham, author and illustrator of a popular online comic called “Lovecraft is Missing.” In former years, Latham produced cartoon television shows such as Disney’s Talespin and Hanna-Barbera’s Smurfs. After a recent cancer diagnosis, Latham hired Bennett to carry on his comic book series during his recovery. Jerry Bennett's Comic Art

“I’ve followed ‘Lovecraft’ since 2012, so I understand his vision and his art,” Bennett said. “Readers know that I’m filling in, so I’ve remained true to his style while infusing my own.”

Bennett just wrapped up an art show at a gallery in the Paseo district. He is also working on two educational projects. The first is a non-fiction graphic novel called “Felix Faces His Fears.” It’s the true story of Felix Bumgartner, who skydived from outer space in 2012. Bennett is also designing college course booklets for a business professor at the University of Oklahoma who believes that students are more likely to read assignments written like a comic book.

As glamorous as it sounds, the outgoing Mr. Bennett spends much of his working life in solitude. He listens to music or audio books while he draws, and he walks his dog each day. He uses this time to take a break from his contracted work to think about the personal projects he’s trying to pursue—an original graphic novel, an illustrated children’s book, a comic book version of a spiritual hymn.

Jerry Bennett's Comic Art

“I have so many ideas I’m playing with,” Bennett said. “Ultimately, I want to be known as a comic book artist, but my style is constantly growing and changing based on my interests or a client’s needs.”

Several years ago, Bennett tucked away his drawing easel and art pens—replacing them with a high tech computer graphics program. A digital pen allows him to “draw” on a special monitor, like he used to do on paper.

“Most people don’t realize that creating a commercial comic book page takes a team of people, because while I do the initial line drawings, someone else writes the scripts.”

When Bennett first gets a script, he visualizes each panel like a movie shot, making sure that each scene has action. He then allots space for written text bubbles and adds scenery details that keep readers grounded in the setting. After several digital pencil sketches, he draws the final lines and fills in details.

“Art brings stories to life and gives them heart, soul and expression,” Bennett said. “I’m dying to tell emotional stories that make people laugh and cry,” Bennett said.

Jerry Bennett's Comic ArtThat emotion is exactly why Hollywood has latched onto comics, Bennett believes. And it’s working, if the rising number of fans at Comic Cons across the country is any indication. Bennett enjoys socializing at the Comic Cons and meeting celebrity actors. More importantly, it has been his door into the publishing industry, and he has several big prospective projects on the horizon. He’s hopeful that in the future he’ll establish his own graphic novel series—one that might land on the big screen someday.

Bennett may not be leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but that crucial leap of faith to pursue art full time has quickly escalated his career to enviable heights.

“It seems like so many people give up on their aspirations—I’m blessed and fortunate to be one of the few living my dream.” WOW!


If you enjoyed this, check out another story I did about a year ago that mentions Jerry’s artwork and how he is inspired by animals.

Artists Inspired by the Zoo



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