By The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
The work of surgical assistant Vivien Thomas, who with Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig pioneered the cardiac surgery for repairing the “blue baby” heart defect in children, was chronicled for older readers in Murphy’s Breakthrough! (BCCB 1/16), and now he’s receiving the picture-book biography treatment. The book traces his early skill at carpentry and his Depression-crushed dreams for medical school, then his work with Blalock at Vanderbilt University and their move together to Johns Hopkins, where they created the innovative surgery. The book serviceably covers Thomas’ remarkable career, with ongoing attention to how much racism the African American man faced in the mid-century South and how many demeaning forms it would take (Thomas was, for instance, long paid as a janitor rather than a research assistant at Vanderbilt). Unfortunately, the prose is often textbook-stodgy, and important details—like Thomas’ family, unmentioned until when Thomas and Blalock move to Johns Hopkins—are glossed over. Bootman’s watercolors are occasionally awkwardly or confusingly drafted, but they convey the intensity of Thomas’ approach and the reality of his existence within a sea of white faces. Thomas is a fascinating figure both as a pioneer and as an example of the importance of the technical side of medicine, and despite its flaws, this book gives young readers a look at both these contributions. Extensive notes include an explanation of the Tetralogy of Fallot that Thomas’ surgery repairs, additional information about the man, a brief glossary, and a list of sources.