Day 1: Tonya Duncan Ellis

If Tonya Duncan Ellis looks familiar to you, it may be that you’ve seen her on Instagram—interviewing other creatives, offering writing tips, and sharing her joy and positivity. If you’re not yet familiar with Tonya, you’ll enjoy getting to know her as our featured honoree for Day 1 of this year’s 28 Days Later Celebration.

TONYA DUNCAN ELLIS is author of the award-winning, 13-book, SOPHIE WASHINGTON children’s chapter series and THEY BUILT ME FOR FREEDOM (HarperCollins, Balzer + Bray, 2024). She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Authors Guild, and the Brown Bookshelf’s Highlights Foundation-sponsored Amplify Black Stories storyteller cohort. Tonya has spoken and taught at the Highlights Foundation, for SCBWI’s Winter Conference in New York City, and for SCBWI Houston and Austin chapters. A former journalist and freelance magazine writer, she holds a BA degree in French from Centre College of Kentucky and an MBA degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Tonya is represented by Sara Megibow of kt Literary. She lives in Houston, Texas and is married with three children. Website:

Publication Journey:

I feel like books and writing are in my DNA. From the time I could sound out letters I had a book in my hand, and I won my first writing competition in the fifth grade. Though I loved books I didn’t see authorship as a viable career at the time, so I worked as a journalist and then in corporate America in marketing.

After I got married and had my three children, I enjoyed sharing my favorite books from childhood with them. My kids didn’t relate to many of the stories I read growing up because few of the characters looked liked them. I’d always made-up crazy bedtime stories that my children enjoyed, and I decided to write my own series of books that would keep contemporary kids excited about reading. I shared the first book with a librarian, and she said the story of an upper, middle class African American family and their diverse Houston community filled a niche. To date, the 13-book, Sophie Washington series has sold over 175,000 copies.

During the pandemic I applied for and was accepted into the Amplify Black Stories Cohort. Seeing my mentors and peers in action inspired me to move my author career higher. I sought agent representation and will be releasing my debut, traditionally published picture book, THEY BUILT ME FOR FREEDOM: THE STORY OF JUNETEENTH AND HOUSTON’S EMANCIPATION PARK, in May 2024. I also have some unannounced projects in the works. I’m very grateful to share my stories and to inspire today’s youth to love reading as much as I do.

The Backstory:

I started out as a middle grade author with my Sophie Washington children’s series, but I became excited about writing picture books after I heard Author Kelly Starling Lyons read from her book, SING A SONG: HOW LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING INSPIRED GENERATIONS, during a virtual SCBWI conference. The story made me proud of my history, my culture and of being a Black woman. When Kelly read the final lines there wasn’t a dry eye in the Zoom. I vowed to write timeless books like this that would touch generations.

Besides joining a picture book writing community and studying Kelly’s and other picture books to learn the craft I starting taking field trips to generate story ideas. One such visit inspired my debut picture book, THEY BUILT ME FOR FREEDOM: THE STORY OF JUNETEENTH AND HOUSTON’S EMANCIPATION PARK.

Juneteenth hadn’t yet been named a national holiday when I decided to drive through Houston’s Third Ward area one spring afternoon. Strolling through the grassy fields, I thought about how the park’s name means “freedom.” I got chills imagining my ancestors celebrating their newfound liberty on the very ground I stood. The closing lines in the book, “Standing strong, walking proud, singing songs of jubilee, running free…” came to me, and I realized this would be the making of an amazing picture book.

I returned home and researched to learn all I could about Emancipation Park and its history. After my acceptance into the Amplify Black Stories Cohort I workshopped my initial manuscript at a Highlights Foundation virtual camp and shared it with a writing critique group.

I didn’t have an agent at the time, and I queried my manuscript with an agent recommended by a friend, who passed on the story. Meanwhile, my current agent signed me with a middle grade manuscript. I sent my initial Emancipation Park manuscript to her, and she shared it with colleagues in-house, who focus on picture books. They passed.

Convinced that this story needed to be told, I reworked it, personifying the park and having it tell the history in its own voice. My agent was excited about the update and agreed to send the new version out on submission. Within weeks it sold.

Positive Impact of Being an Amplify Black Stories Cohort Member:

Being accepted into the Brown Bookshelf’s Amplify Black Stories Cohort pushed me to move my writing career to a higher level. A self-published author when I joined the group, I was inspired by my peers to seek agent representation and throw my hat in the ring for other writing grants and fellowships that I doubt I would have tried for otherwise.

During my time in Amplify I took part in workshops and trainings sponsored by The Authors Guild, Charlesbridge Publishing and the Highlights Foundation that definitely improved my writing skills.

Since the official program was virtual and lasted just six months, I started an Instagram Live interview show to get to know my peers better. It’s been great to collaborate and network with other creatives, and I’ve learned so much from interacting with and watching all of them do their thing. Through my participation in Amplify I developed a trusted community I can turn to for advice in my author career.

The mentorship and encouragement from Amplify organizers and my cohort peers has been truly invaluable. I’m forever grateful to the Brown Bookshelf for welcoming me into this group!

Connect with Tonya Duncan Ellis on Social Media:

Facebook – @Tonya Ellis

Instagram – @tonyaellisbooks

TikTok – @tonyaellisbooks

YouTube – @tonyaellisbooks

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