Author makes difference in young readers' lives

Lou Dean once said, "If a little bow-legged, kinky-haired farm girl from Oklahoma can own a publishing company, they can shoot for the moon."

Dean not only shot for the moon, she lassoed it and reeled in a whole herd of young readers using her typewriter ribbon a surprise for this award-winning Moffat County writer.

"Originally, I thought my books were slanted toward adults, but I'm getting more and more letters from young people," Dean said. "All of my books are about growing up in broken homes. Kids really respond to my work."

Another thing Dean has done is pushed minds to contemplate the real reasons behind violence in schools and among youth.

Her newest work is a novel for young adults. Published in December 2000, "Reaching for the Reins" deals with violence in schools as told through the voice of contemporary 15-year-old Connie Jean "CJ" McGee.

"This book is excellent," local bookstore owner Linda Booker said. "It's very appropriate for kids to read because it deals with the way kids treat kids and the way parents treat kids."

In "Reaching for the Reins," CJ's best friend, Jacob, murders 10 people at their Oklahoma high school, then turns the gun on himself. CJ is in turmoil and denial over what Jacob has done. She is invisible to the Fremont High snobs, and her divorced parents announce yet another custody battle. Angry and hurt, CJ takes Jacob's dog, buys the pony Jacob dreamed of owning, and runs away along the Arkansas River. Her journey is violently stopped when she is linked to Jacob and chased by dogs and helicopters. Only after she is apprehended, jailed and tried, does she get hold of the reins and embrace the pain of her best friend's actions.

Dean said she conceived the idea when she was 12 and going through a similar situation. "My parents divorced, and we moved over 150 miles away. I got on my pony and ran away from home," she said. "I have great empathy for the kids today because I went through a lot of what they go through."

"Reaching for the Reins" stewed in Dean's creative juices for almost 40 years. Then, the 1999 Columbine shootings triggered the book and it all came together.

"The Columbine tragedy has broken my heart," Dean said. "My theory is that it wasn't about guns, but there is a lack of family life today and that's leaving kids in the wake."

"It's a good book for parents to read, too," Booker said. "Parents need to understand where the problems are with kids there's definitely not a gun problem, it's a social issue. This book addresses that, and how our children are treating each other."

"A lot of parents today are caught up in their own things and their kids have become invisible," Dean said. "I want to make parents realize their kids are the most important thing in their lives."

A freelance writer for more than 20 years, Dean's work has appeared in such national magazines as McCalls, Ladies' Home Journal, and Guideposts. Her most recent article, "A Muzzle At My Window" a story about canine friends, acceptance and letting go will appear in the January 2001 issue of "Dog World" magazine. Dean recruited local photographer, Bob Nelson, to contribute one of his photographs to appear with the article. Nelson's portrait of Dean appears on the cover of "Reaching for the Reins."

Dean was born in 1948 in Osage County, Oklahoma and grew up near Ponca City and the Arkansas River a childhood rich in fodder for the stories she writes. She now lives on Blue Mountain near Dinosaur with a few of her favorite four-legged friends.

"Reaching for the Reins" is Dean's fourth book and her first work of fiction. She previously published a collection of memoirs about growing up in northeastern Oklahoma: "Angels In Disguise," "Paw Prints In My Soul," and "Osage County Kids." All of her books draw heavily on her experiences growing up in the sprawling landscape of northeastern Oklahoma, and focus on people's loving relationships with animals.

"Angels In Disguise" was a 1999 nominee for the Colorado Blue Spruce Award, and the book was mentioned in a 1996 People Magazine cover story. "Halloween Hermit," an excerpt from "Angels In Disguise" published in the November issue of Guideposts magazine, was named Outstanding Magazine Article of 1999 at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center's prestigious Western Heritage Awards ceremony in April. Since 1961, these awards have honored excellence in western literature, television, film and music. Dean was among such award recipients as actors Sam Elliott and Clint Eastwood.

"You have to believe in what you do," Dean said. "Writing takes a tremendous amount of work. First you write for about 20 years, and then you get published."

Dean published her first story in 1975. But it hasn't been all roses since then. In between writing, she's worked other jobs to support herself. She moved to Rangely from Oklahoma in 1978 and has held such sundry positions as peg chaser for the railroad and working on a pipe line. Eventually, she formed her own company, Clinescot Publishing, and now travels extensively promoting her books.

"I do it all," she said, laughing.

It took Dean eight months, working 12 to 14 hours a day, to write, edit and publish "Reaching for the Reins."

Jil Hegwer painted the cover art for Dean's most recent book. A local artist for many years, Hegwer's watercolors have shown in galleries in Taos, Alamagordo, and Steamboat Springs. In 1991, she took Best of Show in a local Art Gala. "Painting is something I love to do," she said.

Ruefully, her creative work has taken a back seat to raising two kids and doing the accounting for United Supply of the Rockies, a business she owns with her husband, Ben.

"Lou Dean is a shirt tail cousin of Ben's," Hegwer said. They hadn't seen each other for several years, then when they got together in 1999, Hegwer gave Dean a tour of her house. Dean was struck by the watercolors hanging on Hegwer's walls.

"I had a fit over some of Jil's work. She does wonderful horses, and I knew she would be perfect for this," Dean said.

The two worked together on the cover design. Hegwer said the idea was Dean's, and the moment captured on the cover depicts a scene in the book which is the turning point in the life of the main character.

"I'd put my brushes down three or four years ago because my life was so busy, and I'd been wanting to get back to my painting. It was a joy for me to be asked," Hegwer said.

Next to hugging kinky-haired animals and shooting for the moon, Dean's great joy is speaking to students about writing, and continuing to write for young people.

"I like to think I can make a difference in their lives," she said.

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