It was a teenaged tryst with Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon that led award-winning poet and author, Tony Medina, to his love of all things literary. He went on to earn his MA and PhD in Poetry, and American and African American Literature from Binghamton University, SUNY. He’s taught English and Creative Writing for 15 years (currently at Howard University in Washington, DC), and written numerous books—five of which are for children.
His first two picture books, Deshawn Days and Christmas Makes Me Think, were published in 2001 with Lee & Low. Love to Langston followed in 2002. In 2003, Medina published a young adult title with Just Us Books, Follow-up letters to Santa From Kids Who Never Got A Response. His latest children’s work is a picture book biography in verse, I and I, Bob Marley, released in April of 2009.
In addition to his children’s books, Medina has written five volumes of poetry for adults, been included in more than eighty publications, and edited several anthologies featuring the work of emerging poets. He also contributes much of his time to Behind the Book (a New York-based, non-profit literacy organization) as a speaker and workshop instructor.
It is with extreme pleasure that we present Day twelve’s featured author, Mr. Tony Medina.
BBS: Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf, Tony.
TM: Thank you for inviting me.
BBS: Deshawn Days was your first picture book, published by Lee & Low. What motivated you to make the leap from adult literature to picture books?
TM: I wanted to be a well-rounded writer like one of my literary heroes, Langston Hughes. As a writer who is politically and socially engaged in making positive change in society, I felt it was critical to reach out to younger generations through art and literature. I wanted to expand my palette to include the voices of children and young adults. They have a lot to say and no one really listens to our youth. I wanted to create characters and stories and poems that communicated to them…and from their point of view.
TM: Like DeShawn, I was raised by my grandmother, grew up in the projects (in my case in the Bronx) in a household of cousins, uncles and aunts. Like DeShawn, I have asthma and was always dreaming about wanting to be something (in DeShawn’s case, he wants to be a rap artist; I turned out to be a poet…same difference). So, some aspects are from what I know personally while, of course, the bulk of the narrative is invented. I wanted to give voice to an aspect of our society that usually is not heard from in a beautiful and positive way. I admire DeShawn’s sense of wonder and his level of sensitivity and empathy, which is what needs to be fostered in our children and youth.
BBS: What surprised you most about the process of creating a PB?
TM: It’s not as easy as it seems. In fact, I learned it’s one of the most challenging of the literary arts because you have to walk a tight rope with regard to language and ideas that are appropriate for certain age groups, without losing authenticity of language and without insulting young peoples’ intelligence.
BBS: What about Love to Langston, how did that come about? Did you approach the publisher with the project, or did they approach you?
TM: Langston’s centennial was fast approaching and it was important to get a book out about his life that children could relate to. I felt that a biography in verse—in poetry—would be the best way to celebrate the life of a poet. It was important that the poems be in the present tense as if Langston (who had long passed away) were speaking directly to young people in the here and now. The research and the manuscript were generated in short order, because I had already read a lot on Langston’s life; and Lee & Low (and my editor Laura Atkins) were generous enough to move the book up on its list to accommodate Langston’s centennial. So, it really became a labor of love and an exciting book to work on. Not to mention the dynamic artwork R. Gregory Christie created. It’s a really special book.
BBS: Your latest picture book is I and I, Bob Marley. Talk about this book, and the significance that it has for you.
TM: I think that Love to Langston proved to be so popular, it was clear that biographies were what children, teens, parents, teachers and media specialists were interested in. There hasn’t been really a strong biography aimed at young people on the life of the great Reggae Revolutionary, Bob Marley. So, it was a no-brainer. I was approached to do one by my editor, Jennifer Fox, and I jumped on the opportunity to write about another one of my cultural/spiritual heroes. I made it more challenging for myself by creating a biography in verse about Bob’s life, which was quite daunting. But once I did the research and got the voice down (particularly in the opening poem), I was off and running.
BBS: Why is Bob Marley a figure that young children should become acquainted with?
TM: Bob Marley is important because of his life story which was rife with struggle, a story that showed how he overcame so many obstacles to become a champion of his people in Jamaica—and humanity in general— through his voice and vision and his music. Bob grew up poor; was of so-called mixed parentage (his mother was Black and father white); struggled with identity problems; was (as a young boy) acknowledged as a visionary and seer with special powers; fell in love with music; formed a band with other poor and talented teens; spent his entire life dedicated to music; revolutionized Reggae music and Rastafari beliefs; and risked his life in the service of truth and justice and the defense of the poor. He did all of this in the short span of thirty-six years.
BBS: To date, all four of your PBs have been published with Lee & Low. What is it that you like best about collaborating with them?
TM: Lee & Low is an independent publishing house dedicated to publishing multicultural books for our children and youth. They are a publishing house that allows writers and artists of color to get their voices and visions out to a global audience. They take risks with regard to subject matter that may normally go ignored. They also try to keep books in print for as long as possible.
BBS: If you had to identify a common theme or thread in your work, what would it be?
TM: I think all of my work is political. I also think that if you look at my children’s books, say DeShawn Days, Love to Langston and I and I, Bob Marley, they all have to do with young boys who have been abandoned by their fathers and who have dreams, and their dreams help them to overcome the obstacles and challenges that life and circumstance puts in their way. Their stories are not only triumphant and inspirational, but are relatable to many of our children and youth, particularly those who are raised by a single-mom or grandmother.
BBS: Tony, you’ve got a lot going on. You’re an acclaimed poet, with several adult volumes to your credit and work appearing in over 80 publications; a college professor at Howard University; and a community activist. Yet you still make time to focus on books for the young. Why is writing children’s literature a priority for you?
TM: The rewards are many. I get to reach, influence and inspire young people. They fall in love with books and reading through—hopefully— one of my books. They treat you like a rock star when you come to visit them in schools and at book signings. So do teachers and librarians (media specialists). They truly appreciate writers and artists and the books that we create. I get to visit schools and other institutions and engage the children and teens. It’s so much fun because they are generally so smart and funny. I get to basically inspire someone the way I was inspired (to become a writer), through literature.
BBS: Speaking of school visits, you do a lot of work with an organization called Behind the Book. Can you tell us about it—the organization itself, and what your affiliation with it means to you?
TM: Behind the Book is a New York City-based, non-profit literacy organization that places books in the hands of children and teenagers, mainly in under-represented areas. They have a wide scope in parts of Brooklyn and Harlem, as well as other parts of the city. They also send out authors and illustrators to these places—particularly ones that the youth can relate to, in terms of having similar backgrounds etc. I think I’ve been working with Behind the Book for close to five years running. We have a good relationship and they seem to admire how the young readers take to my workshops and my books.
Usually, the children will get the books in advance (free, of course). Then the author or illustrator will meet with them to conduct a reading, discussion and workshop. We give them an assignment, then come back a week later for a follow-up visit and book signing. It is very rewarding. The kids are always amped and fun to work with. The best classes are when the teachers and media specialists are really passionate about the books, poetry, and getting their students excited about creative writing and forms of expression. The organization raises funds to be able to purchase the books and get the authors in the schools. But they are not just limited to books. Behind the Book also has field trips and other exciting programming—all to stimulate and educate our youth.
I’m also affiliated with other literacy organizations across the country, such as The African American Museum in Dallas, Texas, where Dr. Harry Robinson has been doing major work for the young people of Dallas—particularly with children’s and young adult book festivals. I also have worked with A Cultural Exchange in Cleveland, Ohio, another non-profit literacy organization founded by Deborah and Punch McHam, and Say It Loud Readers and Writers based in Little Rock, Arkansas, founded by Patrick Oliver.
I’m very proud to have formed these lasting relationships with various, but similarly important and necessary organizations, that are about the business of getting our young people excited about reading, writing, their future, their community…with a focus on building a strong sense of their black and brown and red and yellow and white, beautiful selves.
BBS: You characterize yourself as having been a “TV kid”, but after reading Flowers for Algernon in the 9th grade, that all began to change. Today we not only have TV kids, but internet kids, texting kids, video gaming kids…. Do you fear we’re witnessing a generation of children who are going to be less literate than ever before?
TM: I do think that many of our kids are gong to be lulled away from literature and influenced by technology. But I have hope that there are always going to be children and youth that will be fascinated by stories. That are going to be drawn to the beauty of books and the endless possibilities and worlds that they harbor. I just have to have faith in our youth that they will not only be influenced by TV, videos, the internet and other technology—but by books as well, creating a whole new generation of sophisticated and savvy young people. But we have to fight against the dumbing down of the generations and insist that books and bookstores and libraries do not become extinct because of those who care more about profits than people. I just can’t see myself falling in love with an I-Book or Kindle machine. When I come upon a shelf of books I get so excited from the colorful enticing covers rife with art to the words on the page luring me into a labyrinth of syllables and ideas. I can’t resist books.
BBS: Accepting that the technological age is here to stay, what can we—as a community—do to ingrain a love for words and reading in our children?
TM: Make books and story time be a part of our daily ritual like bathing and prayer and sitting down for a meal. Once you start reading to a child at a young age, they develop an undying fascination and love of books. I have a writer friend whose son was so in love with books and reading, he’d throw a temper tantrum if they passed a bookstore with out going inside. He memorized one of his stories so much as a toddler, he’d recite the book aloud and turn the page on time exactly as if he could read! It was incredible. I know of so many kids that just love books. And when they meet a writer, it’s like a teenager that goes crazy over their favorite rap artist or rock star.
BBS: What are some projects you’re currently working on?
TM: Oh, I’m still chipping away at trying to get more work completed. I generally don’t speak about my work unless there’s something definite and concrete up the pike, but I remain inspired and dedicated to the art. When I have something to announce, though, I’ll let you know.
At the present, I’m trying to familiarize myself with all these so-called advances in technology without compromising what’s really important: people, the person(al), the simpler things in life. I’m always working on my lifelong project, which is reading and trying to be a better person.
BBS: Thanks so much, Tony for your time.
TM: Thank you for this opportunity to exchange ideas. Your questions were thoughtful. Peace.
BBS: Wait! I mean…before you go—Hip hop or Reggae?
TM: That’s a tough one. I want to say both, but I’ll say Hip Hop because its collage aesthetic can most likely encompass Reggae in it—and has, particularly with artists like KRS-One (whose parentage is Caribbean). And Hip Hop emerges from Jamaica with DJ Kool Herc, who imported rapping and DJing to the Bronx from the Islands.
BBS: Conch salad or calamari?
TM: Conch salad. Calamari is tasty, but feels weird to the crunch.
BBS: A hike in the mountains or a swim in the ocean?
TM: There’s nothing like the feeling of salt water washing over your skin and coursing through your hair while being kissed by the sun.
Find out more about Tony Medina and his books at: