Tom Cook’s career in medicine has taken him all around the world, including Nigeria, where the experiences of one particular 8-year-old boy who had been born with the skeletal birth defect known as clubfoot made a deep impression on him. Cook, in collaboration with Iowa City artist Jo Myers-Walker, has fictionalized that boy’s story in “Lucky’s Feet,” a beautiful children’s book.
An emeritus faculty member at the University of Iowa, Cook has spent his (perhaps inaptly named) retirement working for the UI College of Medicine and the Ponseti International Association. The association continues and advances the pioneering work of Dr. Ignacio Ponseti who developed the “Ponseti Method,” a non-surgical approach to treating clubfoot that has improved the lives of countless individuals born with clubfoot, at the University of Iowa.
The story of the young boy in Nigeria and the doctor who treated him — Dr. Olayinka Adegbehingbe, who is credited as a co-author of “Lucky’s Feet” — had long been part of a Cook’s teaching and advocacy. In fact, the story appears at the beginning of Cook’s previous book, “Clubfoot: The Quest for a Better Life for Millions of Children.”
In January, Cook had a realization. “This is a story that’s good enough to be its own story,” he said in an interview over Zoom. He immediately got to work writing late into the night and completed a first draft in a single sitting.
Over the next couple of months, he polished the story of Lucky, a boy who lives with his grandmother because his father cannot come to terms with his disability. Offered the opportunity for her grandson to undergo corrective treatment, the grandmother agrees and Lucky’s life is transformed. Lucky narrates his own story, including clear descriptions of his treatment in language that is appropriate for his age.
Cook set out to find an artist for his project, knowing that if his book was accepted by a traditional publishing house he would be paired with an artist of its choosing rather than his. To avoid this, he sidestepped the children’s book industry, a decision that offered an additional advantage in terms of getting his book out to the public.
“If you’re a first-time author in your 70s,” he said, “nobody wants to talk with you about anything. They think your creative juices are long gone … I guess I was too impatient to play that game.”
In Myers-Walker, he found the perfect collaborator. And as it would turn out, she had an excellent reason to sign on to the project. In late June, around the time Cook reached out to her, she received a positive COVID diagnosis. Her symptoms, thankfully, were not dire, and she credits the project with helping her get through the illness.
“This whole thing was a lifesaver,” she said in the Zoom conversation, “because all I could do was stay in and paint and sleep and paint … This story got me outside of myself.”
And paint she did, completing 36 watercolors by mid-August, a remarkable accomplishment made all the more impressive by the technical detail the book required. Getting the portrayal of Lucky’s treatment right on the page was extremely important to both Cook and Myers-Walker, and that required a deep dive into the Ponseti Method and a high level of stick-to-itiveness.
“We had multiple versions of those paintings,” Myers-Walker explained. “They were medical illustrations in a sense.”
In addition to Lucky himself and the medical professionals who changed his life, Myers-Walker was particularly drawn to the character of the grandmother.
“The grandmother became my hero because I’m a grandmother,” she explained. “She could see beyond this disability … (Caring for Lucky) gave her purpose. As I painted, I really became the grandmother in a way.”
Cook discovered that another set of characters were particularly appealing to young people. He asked his 10-year-old granddaughter to read the book and write down her answers to a series of questions. In answer to “What is the best thing about this book?” she wrote, “The chickens.”
And indeed, the book is filled with chickens — a testament to Myers-Walker’s thinking about what might appeal to children, and also to her insight into what a boy whose disability causes him to crawl along the ground would see from his vantage point.
Cook and Myers-Walker said they have been delighted with the book’s early reception. They have heard from school librarians that “Lucky’s Feet” is likely to have a “ripple effect,” helping students develop empathy for others with disabilities and helping those with disabilities and their families see a little bit of their own story in Lucky’s experiences and the resilience of his family.
“Lucky’s Feet” is available from www.clubfootsolutions.org as well as from area retailers, including Prairie Lights and Iowa Artisans Gallery in downtown Iowa City. Some of the original paintings for the book also are for sale at Iowa Artisans Gallery. Proceeds from book sales and from sales of the art will be donated to support the treatment of children born with clubfoot. Cook also has narrated the book and posted it to YouTube, complete with illustrations (youtu.be/TeHZ6ssGgmk).