Tag Archives: Oklahoma authors

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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Words of Wisdom from Best Selling Authors

Keep writing and keep rewriting was the unintentional theme expressed by multiple published authors at the Rose State Short Course on Writing, hosted by William Bernhardt on September 15-16, 2012. Here are few highlights (along with the fact that I won an award for my young adult manuscript, The Wedding Thief):

Phillip Margolin is a former crime attorney who has 16 New York Times bestselling legal thrillers. He said that empathetic characters and surprising plots are the two reasons a story works. Full outlining assures that he has a thorough plan for his book before he begins writing—but no Roman numerals, just writing notes about what will happen next. During his final read-through, he “reads it as if he’d paid money for it.”

Mel Odom is the author of 150+ novels, including tie-in novels for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tomb Raider. In his humorous style, Odom shares that “funerals are the best place to go for entertainment and story ideas.” On a serious note, he said that the greatest gift from a writer to a reader is to let them know they are not alone and that all hurts have been experienced before.

Jim Tharp’s young adult novel, The Spectacular Now, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and is currently being filmed as a movie. Tharp shared his philosophy that “writers are scouts that make a trip into the unknown” and bring that information back to the reader; whether traveling into history, into the future, or into the intricacies of the heart.

Michael Wallis, a three-time Pulitzer nominee, is known as the historian of the American West. His 15 books include the topics of Route 66, Billy the Kid, and David Crockett. His distinctive voice is heard as the sheriff in the animal film Cars. He shared his childhood story of winning an essay contest about being the crossing guard. He won a dugout seat at a St. Louis Cardinals game—which led him to decide, “This writing is not a bad thing.”

Lauren Zuniga is a nationally touring poet. One line from her performance that spoke to me was, “cover the earth with your purpose.”

J. Madison Davis writes fiction and non-fiction novels, and is the president of the International Association of Crime Writers. He said that all books must fulfill the promise to shock you or change you. Unfortunately, real history doesn’t always tie together nicely with a good lesson in the end, therefore, “fiction is much more moral than history.”

William Bernhardt is the bestselling author of 29 books and founder of HAWK Publishing Group. He specializes in writing workshops, in which his skill and encouragement have resulted in many published authors. It is his belief that people read the newspaper for reality; they read novels to escape reality. Novels are “life-like,” but they have a storyline and closure.

Bernhardt offered suggestions to make characters likeable, such as an undeserved handicap or the ability to be kind to children, pets or elderly people. Of course, not all characters are likeable, but they are really good at what they do (example: Sherlock Holmes had many bad habits, but a genius for crime solving). In his closing remarks, Bernhardt reminded authors that writing is hard work that only succeeds with commitment: put in the time, expect rejection, take care of your health, and write an outline!

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I was honored to interview Bernhardt at the release of his 2009 Novel, Nemesis William Bernhardt: Lawyer, Author, Crimesolver,  (Distinctly Oklahoma Magazine/May 2009)

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