Tag Archives: Leona Mitchell

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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Interviewing Celebrities–Pt 2. Writing Questions

     After interviewing dozens of people—I’ve figured out my basic formula for writing questions.  Interviewing a celebrity requires more up-front homework and carefully crafted questions than interviewing a local businessperson, but the progression of questions is much the same. 

      Writing questions for a celebrity profile is much like writing a story outline.  It must have a logical order, not randomness, to allow for a comfortable flow of conversation. 

      I don’t write my questions using numerals and indentations, nor do I follow my questions exactly—but after reviewing past interviews, I found this general pattern has emerged.

Order of Interview Questions

  1. Beginning
    1. Their “agenda” first
    2. Their successes
  2. Middle
    1. The Most Important Question
    2. Current career and lifestyle
    3. How they got their start
    4. Back to childhood
    5. Getting Personal

                            i.      Address any controversy

                           ii.      Misconception

                           iii.      Private Family Life

  1. The End
    1. Reinforce the angle
    2. Verify information
    3. Open the floor

      Generally, 10 to 15 questions makes for a comfortable 30 to 45 minute conversation. I decide ahead of time which questions are most vital and which can be left out, depending on the speed of the interview.  Most celebrities have strict time limits, but because they are quite practiced at interviewing, they are pretty concise.  I usually have time to ask every question, whereas non-celebrities spend a lot more time chatting and sharing details.   

 1.      Beginning

             Carrie Underwood taught me a valuable lesson about starting an interview.  I knew I had exactly 20 minutes, so I made sure my most important questions were at the beginning.  Logical, right?  Wrong. 

            A formal interview is a conversation.  Like any conversation, rules of etiquette should be followed.  Small talk about comfortable subjects (“What do you do for a living?” “How’s the weather where you live?”) is the best way  to warm up for any discussion with a stranger.  Also true with celebrities. 

         Instead, I went right into my agenda with Underwood.  “How have you been  supported by fellow Oklahoma musicians.”  It wasn’t a bad question, and she answered it well, but it felt abrupt.  I hadn’t started with the niceties.  We had no rapport yet.

Start with Their Agenda 

      Of course, the weather is irrelevant and everyone already knows what the celebrity does for a living, so the opening question I ALWAYS use is, “What are you promoting right now?”  

      That’s their agenda.  It’s why they granted the interview in the first place.  And they know exactly what they want to say. 

      To paraphrase Oprah in her recent television interview with Barbara Walters, “Celebrities are always nice in interviews, because they all come in with an agenda–the latest thing they are trying to promote.”  

      Underwood wanted readers to know about her upcoming tour and the Elvis Christmas duet she’d recently recorded.  I made the assumption that I could easily find out that information from other sources and not waste my precious Carrie Underwood time with such a general question.  (A good point if you are in a situation where you only have a minute or two).  But she needed to talk about those, so we did.       

      Actually, I’ve found that the opening question, “What are you focusing on right now?” works well with non-celebrities interviews, too.  It breaks the ice as an easy topic that’s fresh on the person’s mind.

Their Successes

            Follow up the promotion with a question about why or how they became so successful—which is another “comfort zone” discussion for them, and provides generally useful quotes for the article.

            So, start the interview with “their agenda.”  It sets a comfortable tone for the interview, and will make your celebrity feel good about the time they are spending with you.    

2.      Middle

      Whatever the celebrity is promoting will undoubtedly be included in your story, but the information that makes readers feel like they “get to know the celebrity on a personal level” comes from your middle questions.  These questions reveal the person: their preferences, their favorite quirky phrases, their accidental admissions, their flaws and their lifestyle. 

The Most Important Question:

            Now that niceties are out of the way, you have to ask your Most Important Question.  Whatever the angle of your story is—this is where you get the answer that you need to write your story.  If it’s a fashion magazine, talk about clothes.  If it’s an article about the celebrity’s hometown, ask about their favorite hangout.  You can’t risk the interview being cut short before you get this important question answered.          

      I recently interviewed Ruth Rickey, a master sugar artist who has won multiple awards on shows like The Ultimate Cakeoff.  My story angle revolved around the fact that Rickey had made a dramatic career change; from attorney to baker.  Although I was anxious to hear about her television appearances, the “attorney” part of her life had to come first, or I wouldn’t have been able to write the article my editor needed.      

Current Life

            Readers want to know the “latest.”  Good revealing questions might be, “Describe your typical day,” “How do you relax?” or “What is your favorite hobby right now?”  You never know what direction the answers will take you. 

            Singer and actress, Kristen Chenoweth, embellishes her own clothing.  “I’m a bedazzler.  I don’t use a bedazzler machine.  I have my own system with fabric glue.”   

            Comedy actress, Megyn Price, wants to own chickens, but they aren’t allowed in her California neighborhood.  Mystery writer, Carolyn Hart, rites five pages a day in an old pottery studio behind her house.  

            Who knew?

How They Got Their Start and Back to Childhood   

Leona in Concert. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens

      Don’t underrate a celebrity’s past as old news.  Readers value the journey it takes for a “regular person” to become a star.  Sometimes this information is common knowledge, like Underwood’s rise to fame on American Idol, but not all celebrities are as well know during their formative years. 

      Opera fans are well acquainted with the name Leona Mitchell, an internationally-known singer who performed with each of the “Three Tenors.”   The average person may be unaware of the accomplishments of this now-retired, African-American woman who broke boundaries and made sacrifices.

      “I was singing for five thousand people without a microphone, 330 nights a year,” Mitchell said.  “Every night at ten o’clock I had to become absolutely quiet to save my voice–even when I came home to visit family.  My mom said, ‘My goodness, Leona, you’ve gotten eccentric.’” 

      This glimpse into her past revealed Mitchell’s character and the reason her voice retained its strength after 30 years.  When readers learn that she was one of fifteen children, raised in a small town, and had never heard an opera until her high school years, they appreciated her as a “regular person,” despite her whirlwind years touring Europe and singing for four different American presidents.     

Getting Personal

            Many celebrities have an ugly secret that’s become public.  Few can claim, as does Megyn Price, “I’m a nice person to work with, I take my job seriously, and I’m not a drug addict—these are all positives.  Boring, isn’t it?”

            I don’t write exposés, but sometimes it is impossible to ignore the skeleton in the closet.  For example, I interviewed a former NFL football player who was indicted for drug use.  Year later, he has become a role model in the community—but everyone knows about his past.  I couldn’t ignore it in my story. 

Addressing Controversy

            Asking controversial questions seems like no fun for an interviewer, but the celebrity knows it’s coming.  Don’t worry—they’ll have an answer prepared.  Ask it in a very matter-of-fact way.  “How did such-and-such change your life?”  “How did you overcome the backlash?”  “What is your advice to teens battling this same problem?”

            Handle it professionally and the interview will continue to flow.

Misconceptions Question

            Barbara Walters suggests a question that helps ease the celebrity’s tension after a public disgrace.  She asks, “What is the biggest misconception about you?”  This allows the celebrity to “save face” in his or her own way. 

            Private Family Life

            And finally, each celebrity has his or her own boundaries regarding their private life and the lives of their children.  I choose to be an interviewer who respects that choice.  I phrase those questions carefully.  “Would you be willing to reveal how your children reacted to….?”  They can choose to decline or not.                   

3.  Ending the Interview

      I believe that ending the interview on time is my job.  Five minutes prior, I let the interviewee know I’m wrapping-up by saying, “We’re reaching the end, so I have one last question and some verifying questions, and then you can add anything we missed.” 

 Reinforce the Angle

      My final questions always refers back to the angle of my story.  Maybe I didn’t get quite enough from their answer to the Most Important Question.  Maybe the middle of the interview revealed new insight into the angle.  I rarely repeat the Most Important Question word for word—but it’s something similar.

Verify Information

      Next, I verify any information I felt unclear about—because once they are off the phone, it’s too late.  I’ve occasionally left great information out of a story because I wasn’t sure I was describing or quoting it accurately.  This is also the time to ask the spelling of their dog’s name or their favorite teacher’s name.  

Open the Floor

      Then, I open the floor to them to make final statements.  They often realize during the course of the interview that they wanted to address something further, forgot to mention a sponsor’s name, or want to rephrase a quote. 

      I thank them for their time, and suddenly, it’s over. 

      This person, who has revealed a good deal of personal information about his or her life, is suddenly gone forever.  They may never give me another thought—but I will spend hours dissecting the interview, researching further, and writing their life’s story. 

      Interviewing a celebrity becomes very personal.  Every time I see him or her on television, I relish the fact that I had a special half-hour of their life to myself.  I will forever feel like I know them personally. 

      And it is up to me, the interviewer, to craft questions in a way that reveals the angle, the content, and the character that will shape the best story.


Filed under Interviews, Resources for Writers