Category Archives: Inspiration for Writers

Mimi, Tell Me A Story

Cooper (7) and Brayden (5) are going through a stage where they want me to tell them stories all the time. Not fairytales, REAL stories about things that really happened to me. Like the time I broke my ankle in a bicycle accident….the time our school bus fell on its side into a ditch…or the time an elephant charged at me while traveling in Africa.

They want to hear these stories over and over again. Just when I think I’ve told them every possible thing I can remember—something else pops into my head.

Last week, I read that hearing stories isn’t merely for entertainment, it’s a powerful teaching tool that prepares us to face issues that arise in our life. For children, especially, it’s like a dress rehearsal on how to face future problems. It’s a reassurance that they will survive accidents, dramas and unexpected events—just like we did.

In a culture saturated with storytelling (books, radio songs, movies, YouTube), kids favorites are still the true stories about their family or what THEY did as a baby.

I don’t guess this is surprising, though. Jesus used the same technique by telling parables to his listeners. His life lessons about mustard seeds, lost coins and wandering sons were passed along through storytelling. Since writings were unavailable to common people—word of mouth was the only venue, and eventually, whole communities knew these stories. Can’t you image the philosophical discussions about lost sheep that occurred around the water wells?

Today, people are holding the same types of “lessons learned” discussions around the water cooler and on Facebook, but the stories are circulated via books and screens instead: There’s no place like home. Don’t trust the wolf on the way to Granny’s house. A kind boy with friends can overcome evil Voldemort.

True, sometimes it is hard for a mere Mimi to compete with television or tablet—but I’ve found some ways around that. I tell the boys stories in the car, at the dinner table, and at bedtime when they spend the night. I remember when Brayden was about four, I was reading him some picture books before lights out. He stopped me and said, “No, I want stories from your mouth.” It’s a phrase he’s used many times since when he wanted me to tell him a “real” story.

I like this quote from the book Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux. “We want stories to reassure us that the inner strength we can muster will be sufficient against self-doubt, loss, grief and disappointment…It’s not out of idle curiosity that your children and grandchildren want to know about you and your life. Your stories have power, and if they are preserved, they can offer meaning and direction for your children and grandchildren.”

I was thinking about that last weekend during a 5 hour road trip with Brayden and his mom, Leah. I must have spent 3 hours of that trip telling Brayden stories “from my mouth.” I wanted to make sure that I was reinforcing some life lessons at the end of each story, so I started asking, “Why do you think I did that?” or “Here’s what I learned from this situation….was that a good choice?” We had some good discussions—and he really seem to get some of the important points!

The boys favorite stories are about the girl that lived across the street while Laurie and I were growing up. She was the only kid we had to play with, so we had to endure her–but she ran wild and did all kinds of shocking things, like stuffing a wet cat into our mailbox, tying me to the basketball pole and going home for lunch, and being a general bossy britches.

We had a ditch in the front yard that connected to the creek alongside our house. Every summer, thousands of water snails would get into the creek and start laying egg sacks. Laurie and I spent a lot of time playing with those snails or taking them home as pets. One day, bossy britches was mad at me about something and she started jumping up and down on the snails, intentionally killing them.

I don’t lose my cool often, but I could hear the sound of hundreds of shells cracking. I snapped. I started yelling at her, “I can’t believe you are killing hundreds of innocent snails on purpose—you are a murderer and I don’t want to play with you ever again!” She looked shocked. I’d never stood up to her before. As I recall, I didn’t talk to her or play with her for several weeks after that. It was a big deal in my kid-world, that, and the fact that she gave me wide berth for a time.

Cooper and Brayden delight in hearing that story. They think she is the meanest person on the planet! I use that story as an opportunity to talk about bullying. It’s a tricky lesson, because I don’t normally advocate yelling at people when they make me mad–but in this rare case, I felt righteous indignation down to my core, probably much like Jesus did when he found his temple turned into a market. Aren’t some wrongs worth standing up for?

I know that between the family stories and the Bible stories they are learning—these two boys are being well-coached for the future. They are versed in showing compassion like the good Samaritan. They know that if you throw snowballs at someone’s face, you can break their glasses (right Laurie?). They know that when they turn 15, they should not sneak off in my car and wreck it like their Daddy did. At least I hope they’ve learned that lesson, because I’ve preached it often enough!

As a writer, I constantly hear that children’s books shouldn’t be preachy—that kids should be free to develop their own conclusions about a story. I think there is entirely too little guidance going on these days—and that questionable television shows and mainstream media are now shaping society’s current belief system. I see every conversation with a child as a golden opportunity to teach them the Biblical principles they need to live by, and when they ask me for a story, they’ve handed me that opportunity.

From now on, I’ll be infusing a little more “moral of the story” chatter as I tell them about the time I taught inner-city fourth graders…got lost in Munich…traveled with an acapella singing group…took a boat down the Amazon river…or had to be rescued on a skiing trip. Real stories where I learned a little about life.

P.S. The boys don’t know that I wrote this article last night, but this is too coincidental not to share. A few minutes ago, Cooper asked me to tell him a story while he ate supper. I said, “Sure.” He said, “Mimi, one of the best things about you is that you tell stories.”

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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.  

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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.
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I’ll be at this conference on April 16, 2016.  Non-Oklahomans welcome, too!
OKLAHOMA SOCIETY OF CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS
 
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 http://www.oklahomahof.com or http://www.amazon.com. 

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At the Nancy Drew Sleuth Convention

Amy and Nancy, acting all 1930s!

Amy and Nancy, acting all 1930s!

This June, I attended a fun and frivolous fan event in San Diego for readers of the Nancy Drew Series. The Nancy Drew Sleuth Convention had exactly the right mix of nostalgia, mysterious clues, a surprising amount of education, and several opportunities to dress up in period clothing—what more could a girl want? Add in about 75 nice folks who like reading books, a few experts and some celebrities, and it was all I could hope for.

Highlights included a 1930s murder mystery, a tour of the Keeline Family’s private collection, a mystery scavenger hunt at the San Diego Zoo, a radio program performance, and a 1970s night celebrating the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys television show. Actors Pamela Sue Martin (Nancy Drew) and Parker Stevenson (Frank Hardy), along with show producers Joyce Brotman and Arlene Sidaris were the guest speakers.

Amy with Parker Stevenson who acted as Frank Haredy on the Hardy Boys television show in the 1970s.

Amy with Parker Stevenson who acted as Frank Haredy on the Hardy Boys television show in the 1970s.

They discussed details about the show, especially fan reactions, and how the Hardy Boys episodes received higher ratings than Nancy Drew because, as Joyce said, “Girls want to watch boys on television and boys want to watch boys.”

Readers of the books, who had certain images in their heads about what the characters should look like, didn’t always agree with the producers about the actors who were selected for the show—especially the secondary characters (Ned looked too nerdy, George wasn’t pretty enough, etc.).

Amy with actress Pamela Sue Martin, who played Nancy on the 1970s Nancy Drew television show.

Amy with actress Pamela Sue Martin, who played Nancy on the 1970s Nancy Drew television show.

According to Arlene, the fans sent them so much feedback that they did affect change. Time and budget also dictated the show’s direction. The actors worked a straight 24 hours just to film the show’s “Haunted House” pilot, shot on location at Universal Studios, on the set of Psycho. Hannah Gruen’s character was hired, but then cut in order to give fans more time with the main characters.

Ratings spiked when Shaun Cassidy, as Joe Hardy, started singing on the show.  Parker mentioned that the two of them instantly clicked, and that Shaun was fun to work with and “his timing is wonderful.” When Pamela and Parker were asked if they would consider filming a 40-year reunion show, Pamela said no, Parker said yes, and Shaun no longer makes appearances and instead, focuses on his career as a writer and producer.

Amy with Arlene and Joyce, producers of the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys television show.

Amy with Arlene and Joyce, producers of the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys television show.

During the autograph session, I had a few moments to speak with each of them. To Pamela, I mentioned that I had watched several Nancy Drew episodes while deciding on a 70s costume to wear—and in all the scenes she wore neck scarves. She showed me a publicity photograph of her favorite green scarf that she kept for years. She was pleasant, although during the Question and Answer session, she very obviously didn’t want to talk about the negative aspect around why she left the show, stating that, “I don’t make a habit of looking back.”

Hanging out with the Hardy Boys!

Hanging out with the Hardy Boys!

Parker seemed genuine, polite, and unchanged from his television personality. As he and Pamela entered the banquet hall that night, the event coordinator verified their seating accommodations, and Parker was overheard saying something to the effect of, “Where would you like me to sit, Ma’am? This is your event.” He came across as a true gentleman. Parker also said he might consider acting again now that his kids are older, and he wouldn’t be as constrained by the long hours.

The celebrity visit was notable and worth documenting, but I also enjoyed the three days of lectures offered by 20 experts. This particular year, Nancy Drew shared the spotlight with other mystery series books, including Tom Swift, Fighters of Freedom, Connie Blair, Judy Bolton, Penny Parker and modern-day Jex Malone. The session featured a surprising range of topics, including a visit with the designers of the Nancy Drew gaming software, producer notes about a recent Nancy Drew play, and a profile of actress Bonita Granville, who played Nancy Drew in the 1938 and 1939 movies.

Again, I must comment on the enjoyment-factor of this convention. The coordinator, Jennifer Fisher, put so much detail into every aspect–from the custom-made table decorations to thoughtful gifts and door prizes. Jennifer, who has over 4,000 Nancy Drew collectibles herself, began Nancy Drew Sleuths as an online forum http://www.nancydrewsleuth.com in 2000 on the 70th anniversary of Nancy Drew. In 2007, she published the book Clues for Real Life: The Classic Wit and Wisdom of Nancy Drew. In San Diego, she shared her expertise about Mildred Wirt Benson, the original Carolyn Keene.

I will mention that my nostalgic feelings from reading the yellow-spine Nancy Drew books as a child was not my only reason for visiting San Diego. During the zoo scavenger hunt, I treasured a nice visit with my former zoo director from Oklahoma City, Dwight Scott, who recently took the post as San Diego Zoo director.

Amy with Gayla Peevey Henderson.  Photo by Cliff Henderson.

Amy with Gayla Peevey Henderson. Photo by Cliff Henderson.

I also spent a day with Gayla Peevey Henderson, who sang “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” as a child in 1953, but who has become a dear friend of mine over the last few years. Dwight and Gayla made my trip complete.

If you are a Nancy Drew fan, consider going to next year’s sleuth convention. I gained a new perspective about the books, the on-going legacy of Nancy Drew, and my own feelings about reading mystery books.

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Oklahoma Writer’s Hall of Fame: Anna Myers

I wouldn’t have met Anna if a leopard hadn’t escaped the Oklahoma City Zoo in 1950. Although I wasn’t yet born, Anna had vivid memories of that leopard roaming around town, and she wondered if she might be the one to help catch it. She later wrote a fiction book based on that memory, Spotting the Leopard.

Amy Stephens and Anna Myers.  Photo by Stacey Nyikos.

Amy Stephens and Anna Myers. Photo by Stacey Nyikos.

In 2004, I was doing research on my book Oklahoma City Zoo: 1902-1959 and wanted to talk to Anna about her first-hand recollections of that event, which made headlines around the world. I set up a phone interview with her and she said, “Looking back, it seemed like we were in terror for weeks, not just three days.”

Although I had read many of Anna’s books and heard her speak at several EncycloMedia events, in my view, that interview was the catalyst to our friendship. A few years later, I joined the Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), which she had been voluntarily leading for years. Through that organization, she has become a mentor and cheerleader for my writing career. I’m so grateful to have met her and to study at her feet.

What I admire most about Anna is that she generously fosters other writers along their journey. She invests her time, energy and hospitality in to us. Many times I’ve heard her say that some of her favorite people, besides family, are her writer friends. I’ve come to feel that way too, and many of those friendships have been formed in her very own living room.

Anna Myers hosting writer friends in her home.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

Anna Myers hosting writer friends in her home. Photo by Amy Stephens.

Last night, it was an honor to attend the ceremony that inducted Anna Myers into the Oklahoma Writer’s Hall of Fame. Anna has written 19 young adult novels, including Red Dirt Jessie and The Keeping Room.

Her son, Ben, gave a lyrical introduction of his mother, speaking of her perseverance and integrity.  In her acceptance speech, she eloquently stated that the power of “story” is second only to love, and that children are easily moved by the power of story. She referred to the Bible scripture Joel 1:3, “Tell it to your children….and their children to the next generation.”

Through her books and through her life, Anna is passing her wisdom down to the next generation, and I’m proud to call her friend.

Patti Bennett and Amy Stephens.  Photo by Darleen Bailey Beard.

Patti Bennett and Amy Stephens. Photo by Darleen Bailey Beard.

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Patti's 85th birthday cake. Photo by Amy Stephens

Patti’s 85th birthday cake. Photo by Amy Stephens

I’d like to mention that one writer friend Anna and I share is Patti Bennett, who celebrated her 85th birthday recently.  Sitting in Anna’s living room, Patti surprised us by quoting beautiful poetry from her days as an English teacher. She has retained her youthful beauty and spirit.  I love Patti dearly and admire her writing.

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Artists Inspired by the Zoo

I was honored to interview these four wonderful artists who use the zoo as a resource for creating their nature-inspired paintings and drawings. ~Amy 

Jan McGuire, Acrylic Paintings

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

Jan McGuire (Bartlesville) paints so that viewers can step into a scene and feel as if they are there. Not surprisingly, she uses photographs and travel experiences to make her acrylic art very realistic.

“I study nature. I go outside every day. Nature is so diverse that I never have trouble coming up with ideas to paint,” McGuire said.

McGuire, who specializes in bird and mammal paintings, has exhibited her art globally, from Tanzania to the Smithsonian. She and her husband, a professional wildlife photographer, visit the zoo multiple times each year, seeking to capture the fine details that cause people to step into a scene, to feel the velvet moss, and to smell the flowers….

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

“What I appreciate about the Oklahoma City Zoo is the bird aviary in Oklahoma Trails. So many zoos focus on non-North American species. I’m fortunate enough to travel to Africa every year, so I’m much more interested in seeing native species up close. Songbirds are hard to view from a distance, but in the aviary, the birds are acclimated enough to people that we can get great photos.”

Her scissor-tailed fly catcher painting is a direct result of a visit to the zoo. She added tall grass prairie wildflowers to create an accurate habitat for the background.

“We have great wildlife in this state,” McGuire said. “When people see us at the zoo with our big cameras, they always ask us animal questions. I can’t help but educate people about animals. My husband has to keep reminding me, ‘You don’t work here.’”

Jay Tracy, Acrylic Paintings

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

It’s no surprise that Jay Tracy (Oklahoma City) became a painter, because his parents have owned an art company since 1968. After experimenting with different mediums since childhood, he now specializes in realism, landscapes and animal portraits.

“My entire life has revolved around art, all types of art,” Tracy said. “My most popular commissioned paintings are landscapes, florals, and animals. I’ve always loved animals, and I’m a big dog person.”

Working as a graphic artist for ten years at the Oklahoma City Zoo has allowed him to dabble in many different styles, from designing event posters on the computer to carving foam props for Haunt the Zoo. He particularly enjoys creating the ZooZeum exhibit panels.

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

As an evening job, Tracy teaches painting classes at the Paint Your Art Out gallery. He creates an original design, and then he leads the students in creating the same painting, but with their own unique style. His most requested themes are nature paintings.

In an effort to help animals, Tracy shares his artistic skills by offering special painting classes, in which the proceeds go toward the zoo’s rhino conservation fund. Each year he creates a new design, like the Serengeti landscape or this year’s popular peacock design.

“Working at the zoo has taught me to have a greater concern for animals that are near extinction. I realize how important conservation is and the important role we can play in saving animals.”

Jerry Bennett, Comic Illustrations

Jerry Bennett painting, printed with permission.

Jerry Bennett painting, printed with permission.

From superheroes to children’s picture books, comic art is a pop-culture craze, and Jerry Bennett (Edmond) is making a living drawing it.

“I grew up on comic books, cartoons and Disney,” Bennett said. “Now I draw licensed comic books and t-shirt designs for Marvel, Lucasfilm, and most recently, Power Rangers.”

Many of Bennett’s original science-fiction characters are created by combining animal features, like a recent lizard/cat creature for his Nadir’s Zenith series. He often visits the zoo to seek inspiration, because he finds that, “Sketching real animals helps me discover their personalities and attitudes.”

Jerry Bennett drawing, printed with permission.

Jerry Bennett drawing, printed with permission.

Early in his career, when Bennett’s “real job” was working at a door store, he did picture books and portraits as a side job. His big break came when he designed a Ghost Busters/Star Wars t-shirt design.

“That was when the Internet was still new. I sold 3,000 shirts in 24 hours. Someone said, ‘Your image went viral,’ and I asked, ‘What does that mean?’”

Now Bennett sees his drawing skills coming together, because many children’s books are starting to rely on comic book style art. However, many adults are familiar with Bennett’s art. Last year, he created a popular illustration of the Thunder basketball team for the cover of the Gazette and an Avengers design for the cover of the Oklahoma Humanities magazine.

Jerry Bennet drawing, images used by permission.

Jerry Bennet drawing, printed with permission.

Don’t be surprised to see Bennett at the zoo with his sketch book and fellow artists. He’s found that the zoo is a great location for “sketch crawls.” Artists go from exhibit to exhibit, drawing animals and creating story ideas.

“I think all kinds of artists are inspired by animal life and nature,” Bennett said. “My next goal is to write and illustrate a graphic novel about alien cats!”

Cliff Casey, Pencil Portraits

Sometimes people cry when they see Cliff Casey’s artwork. That’s because Casey (Norman) specializes in drawing favorite animals and special moments in people’s lives.

Cliff Casey horse drawing, printed with permission.

Cliff Casey horse drawing, printed with permission.

“I did a dog portrait for a client at Christmas. He said his wife cried when she saw the gift, because the dog’s facial expression was captured exactly.”

Casey works from photographs, sometimes combining people, animals, or locations together into one scene.

The zoo recently commissioned Casey to paint a portrait for Byron J. Gambulos, upon his retirement from the Zoological Trust. Gambulos and his wife, Patricia, had their first date at the zoo in the 1940s. Using an early photograph of 1940s visitors and the zoo’s original entrance, Casey recreated that special moment on canvas.

Cliff Casey giraffe painting, printed with permission.

Cliff Casey giraffe painting, printed with permission.

Casey has worked as a graphic artist at the zoo for 14 years. He really enjoys creating two and three dimensional artwork. Right now he’s carving a new sign for the Dan Moran Aviary out of a sign material that looks like wood.

“When I’m doing animal art, I take a lot of research photos at the zoo, looking to see how an animal has its head or body positioned.”

He nearly went to college to train as a park ranger, until a counselor talked him into going to art school instead. Now, Casey’s wildlife illustrations of turkey, deer and bears are published in many sportsman magazines.

“I grew up in the woods and on the lake,” Casey said, “but I can’t get outside or go fishing as much anymore, so drawing nature gives me a chance to connect with nature.”

(Note: This is a longer version of the text, as seen first in ZooSounds  Summer 2013, printed with permission)

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Filed under Inspiration for Writers, Interviews, Published Article Announcement, Zoo

A REAL Little House on the Prairie

Conference Room Photos 030

While driving home from a conference in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas, my co-worker and I saw a left arrow sign with the words Little House on the Prairie Homestead.

“Turn!” she shouted.

I might have screeched the tires just a little bit.

We’d barely had time to think about what we might find, but to our delight, it was the land owned by the Laura Ingalls family during their stop at the Kansas grassland.

Because the homestead was closed for the winter, we could only wander among the buildings and peer in windows, but being there without another soul around gave us a better sense of the isolation homesteaders must have felt. And the freedom.

Amy in front of the schoolhouse.

Amy in front of the schoolhouse.

For me, the unexpected visit had deeper meaning. It was the very land where my writing hero had walked. Although Wilder had no formal training in writing, she described her life in such vivid language that her books have endured for decades. Other authors have followed Wilder’s lead in writing about Western Expansion, but none share her longevity or impact. It is my that few books, however well researched, can feel quite as authentic as Wilder’s first-hand accounts. Her memories.

I have strong feelings of nostalgia as I think about this family who forged across the prairie in a covered wagon. I wanted to BE her (although I now appreciate the beauty of not having to cook on a wood stove or use an outhouse). Somehow, her experiences infiltrated into my adult life; probably because I read every one of her books multiple times as a child.

Conference Room Photos 033Whenever I teach an “Animals in the Bible” series at church, I read the passage from “On the Banks of Plum Creek” where Wilder describes the glittering cloud of crickets which descends upon their waving wheat. You can hear them chomping away, destroying the crop, invading their house, jumping into their clothes. And yet, how much worse were the locust that descended upon Egypt during the plagues?

At the zoo, I teach a class called “Little Sod House on the Prairie” in which the students take a virtual tour of the prairie, listen to coyotes howling at night, and wonder how to build a house with no trees in sight. It always reminds me that survival was the entire focus of a homesteader’s life.

It’s possible that I feel drawn to this era in history because I’m descended from early frontier settlers. Two of my great-grandparents traveled across the prairie to settle in Oklahoma.

My mother, also a writer, recently shared the unfathomable story of a church friend who delivered her own baby, by herself, in a log cabin. Her husband was caught in a storm while working in the field, and arrived home to a wailing surprise that wasn’t due for several more weeks! (Christian Woman magazine, Mar/Apr 2013).

Conference Room Photos 041To make this true story even more unbelievable, the baby was born during a storm that is in the Oklahoma record books. On November 11, 1911, the temperature rose to 85 degrees and then plunged to 15 degrees. Sound like a chapter straight out of Little House on the Prairie?

Again, I am so thankful for the modern pleasure of hot showers, fast food, and libraries filled with books. I can’t imagine what people one-hundred-years from now will think about our life in 2013. Will we seem primitive? Will they think, “How did they do it without…?” Or will they marvel at our freedom, as I did when I visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead?

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