Growing up, Tonya Bolden thought one day she would be a teacher. Today, as an award-winning author of more than 20 books for young people and adults, she is just that. Her classroom has no walls. Instead, you just need to pick up one her acclaimed books on topics such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver or Reconstruction to step into the world she creates. History, she has said, is her passion. She passes that rich knowledge of the past on to people around the world.
Along with being a talented researcher, Bolden is known as a gifted storyteller who turns facts into something more — transcendent stories that move, challenge and inspire.
Please join us in celebrating Tonya Bolden on the 16th day of our campaign.
Growing up, what did books mean to you?
Books were my wonders, my transports, my love.
How did your childhood love of writing put you on the path to becoming a children’s book author?
It definitely put me on the path to becoming a writer, but I can’t say it put me on the path to becoming a children’s book author specifically. My childhood love of writing does make me believe that most of us know what we are called to be/to do as children. So often, as we get older, we lose our way because of pressures to conform or fulfill other people’s expectations. Of course many people are born into such difficult, even tragic circumstances that they don’t have the option of heeding the call. I don’t take the fact hat I had the option for granted and I’m so grateful to my parents for never denying me books and never dismissing my young scribblings.
How did you land your first deal?
It landed me might be a better way to put it. Marie Brown, my agent at the time, pitched me to Vy Higginsen and to Scholastic for working with Vy on turning her gospel musical Mama, I Want to Sing into a young adult novel. After that book was done, the editor talked about my doing another book for her. Result: And Not Afraid to Dare: The Stories of Ten African-American Women (Scholastic Press, 1998). So writing for the young found me and I found myself loving it more and more, but never thinking I couldn’t also do books for adults.
Your books showcase the power of graceful storytelling and meticulous research. What tips would you offer aspiring authors who want to write biography or historical fiction?
Surrender to the subject. Be open to flashes of the spirit.
You’ve written about so many topics – African-American artists and heroes, all-girl bands, Reconstruction. Where do your ideas spring from?
Some ideas spring from my curiosity. Others represent some unfinished business. (Example: the little bit I was taught in school about Reconstruction left me feeling bad about black folks. Thus, my book Cause: Reconstruction America (Knopf, 2005). Sometimes an editor comes to me with an idea. With The Champ (Knopf, 2004), illustrator Greg Christie was very keen on doing a book about Ali. I was very keen on working with Greg again after the art he created for Rock of Ages: A Tribute to the Black Church (Random House, 2001). At the outset, I really wasn’t all that passionate about Ali, but, oh, how that changed after I did the research and discovered for myself why he was “the greatest” and thought, He was no mere boxer; he was an artist!
If you could go back and whisper in your ear when you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself about the children’s book industry?
I doubt 20-something-year-old me would listen to 40-somethng-year old me. Also, I agree with Soren Kierkegaard that “Life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards,” and with Sigourney Weaver that “the crooked path has its dividends.”
How has the landscape changed for African-American children’s book authors over the years? What gains have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?
I was recently told that there are fewer children’s books by black authors being published now as opposed to a few years ago. If this is true, I wonder, Why? Are black writers losing interest in writing for the young? Are black writers having trouble getting a contract for books for the young with black subject matter? If the latter, I truly hope that people who care, who think there should be more such books will commit to buying what’s out there, understanding that publishing is a business, that sales in large part determine what and who gets published. So even if you don’t have children-buy books! Give them to libraries, schools, hospitals, youth detention centers, youth organizations, and to the young people in your immediate and non-immediate family, to the young people on the corner, to young people anywhere you find them.
What have been some of the proudest moments of your writing career?
Receiving a letter from a girl or boy telling me that she or he was moved by or learned something from one of my books.
What have been some of the toughest?
Starting the next book. The way I can get you’d think it was the first one.
What’s your mission as an author?
Overall, to teach and enlighten.
What do you hope young people take away from your books?
The specifics vary from book to book, but in general, I hope young people take away inspiration to live a productive life.
What inspires your work?
I suppose the eight-/nine-/ten-year-old Tonya who said that when she grew up she wanted to be a teacher.
I read that your passion is history. What do you say to young people who question how history is relevant to them today?
I say to them, “I hear you.” I hated history when I was young. It was all dates and facts and not a lot of my people in the mix and no soul-stirring/thought-provoking or even interesting language. The only kind of “history” I enjoyed was what I got from the TV or big screen. I remember liking Little House on the Prairie for example. Probably for the props. I’ve always been fascinated by “old-timey” things.
What I came to understand as an adult is that there is power in the past. Knowing history can be a powerful antidote to shame/self-hatred/identity-confusion.
Last thing: I think we must acknowledge that part of the reason many young people feel history is irrelevant is because most adults feel the same way.
How do you balance the creative side of writing with the business side?
I don’t. I lack the “business gene.” I took a break from being agented for a few years, but I now have an agent again.
Your wonderful book, George Washington Carver (Abrams, 2008), debuted last month. What can we look forward to next?
The New Deal.
What’s your greatest joy?
The love of God.
The Buzz on George Washington Carver:
“Bolden follows up M.L.K.: Journey of a King (2007) with this shorter but equally lucid profile of the second-most-well-known African-American. Outfitted with a great array of sharply reproduced contemporary photos and prints (many in color), plus a generous admixture of Carver’s own paintings and botanical illustrations, the narrative takes him from birth (in slavery) to honor-laden old age and death. It focuses particularly on his relentless pursuit of an education, his sense of purpose, his wide range of talents and his ever-more-relevant conviction that all of our basic physical needs can be served by renewable natural resources. Cogently argued, enlivened with unusual details-such as Carver’s ambiguous reference to otherwise unknown “sisters,” or the fact that he was not the inventor of peanut butter-and handsomely packaged, this floats easily atop the ongoing flood of Carver biographies for young readers. Published in conjunction with an exhibition at Chicago’s Field Museum.”
– Kirkus Reviews
The Buzz on M.L.K.: Journey of a King (Abrams, 2007):
Winner, 2008 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children
“Bolden looks past the public figure to bring the man, and his deeper vision of the ‘beloved community,’ into focus in this eloquent, handsomely designed profile. Familiarly calling him “M.L.” (a nickname his father used) throughout, the author traces King’s life from birth to death, pointing out how reluctantly he assumed the mantle of leadership, then came to espouse Gandhi’s nonviolence as a guiding precept, and finally exhausted himself battling not only for civil rights, but also against the Civil Rights Movement’s later tide of radicalism. Captions paired to the generous array of photos add further detail, and advanced readers will get fuller pictures of the man and his era from the appended multimedia resource list. Passing quickly over his public triumphs (the “I Have a Dream” speech, for instance, is largely relegated to a caption noting that he had used that refrain before), this portrait, rich in personal feeling and well endowed with direct, sometimes extended, quotes, will leave readers with a strong, and perhaps inspiring, sense of the passion and depth of Dr. King’s commitment to peace with justice.”
– School Library Journal, Starred Review
“Do libraries need another biography of King? Yes, if it’s as good as this one, which will reach a wide audience. Bolden, whose books include the Coretta Scott King Honor Book Maritcha (2005), brings readers close to the great leader and to the civil rights movement through detailed historical analysis and extensive notes. In an author’s note, Bolden says she chose not to detail King’s flaws but rather to focus on the “dream.” The chatty style is accessible . . . and the handsome book design will encourage browsers. Stirring, beautifully reproduced, well-captioned photos (at least one on every double-page spread) accompany the text, supplemented with boxed quotes. Everything is fully documented in notes, and Bolden supplies a bibliography and a very detailed time line. Pair this with Andrew Helfer’s graphic-novel biography Malcolm X (reviewed below) and with other books about great civil rights leaders. Readers older than the target audience will want this, too.”
The Buzz on Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl
Winner, 2006 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award
Winner, 2006 James Madison Book Award
“Born free in a nation stained by slavery, where free blacks had few rights and rare respect, here was a girl determined to rise, to amount to something.” In this captivating biography, Bolden introduces Maritcha Reymond Lyon, born in the mid-1800s into a family of free blacks in Manhattan. Lyon found fame as a teenager in Providence, Rhode Island, when she sued the state to gain admission to the all-white high school–the only high school in town. Bolden’s succinct text focuses on Lyon’s growing-up, and the attractive spreads feature well-chosen archival photographs and engravings that offer a fascinating glimpse of Lyon’s world of “New York City’s striving class of blacks.” Lyon had a distinguished family, and Bolden shows how its members inspired her to succeed against formidable odds, even when she felt that “the iron had entered my soul.” Bolden supplements quotes from Lyon’s accounts with extensive research and enthralling detail, and the result is both an inspirational portrait of an individual and a piercing history about blacks in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries–subjects rarely covered in books for youth. An author’s note describes Lyon’s adult achievements and lends insight into Bolden’s research. Notes and a selected bibliography conclude this powerful volume.”
– Booklist, Starred Review
For more on Tonya Bolden, please visit www.tonyaboldenbooks.com.
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