In-depth Written Interview
with Tonya Bolden
Tonya Bolden, interviewed in her home in Bronx, New York on January 16, 2014.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You are the author of dozens of celebrated books, many of which are award—winning historical nonfiction. How did your own history as a reader and writer begin?
TONYA BOLDEN: Even as a little girl growing up in East Harlem, I was a book lover. I had dreams about books. There were things my parents wouldn't let me have, but they never denied me a book. In my household, reading was power. Reading was how you rise up. My parents grew up under Jim Crow in the Carolinas, and they were not wealthy. They knew education was the only way I was going to succeed.
Writing was something I just did. I didn't know any writers, and I didn't know how to become a writer, but I spent a lot of time writing little short stories and poems. Somehow I knew early on that education and the arts interested me. I was never thinking I'd end up on Wall Street.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Please talk more about your parents' influence on your education.
TONYA BOLDEN: My parents didn't have money or connections, so they knew their children were going to have to use their brainpower.
My mother was very involved with our school, and thanks to her involvement, she found out everything I had to do to get into one of the private schools. I remember taking tests and filling out paperwork, and my father and mother taking me to different schools. It was because of them that I ended up at a private school in seventh grade, and eventually Princeton University.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What inspired your fascination with history? Was it a subject in school that interested you?
TONYA BOLDEN: We called history "social studies" back when I was in school, and I hated it. Some people might blame my reaction on the fact that I wasn't seeing anyone in the history books who looked like me, but that wasn't the only reason. Another reason was that the people in the history books simply weren't interesting. I grew up in the era of social studies being nothing but facts and dates and everything tied up in a neat bow. I far preferred languages. I had five years of Latin and five or six of French growing up, and in college I majored in Russian.
TEACHINGBOOKS: As someone who didn't enjoy studying history as a young person, how did you come to write books about it for children?
TONYA BOLDEN: Originally, what I wanted to be was a poet. But I knew that it's difficult to have a career as a poet, so instead I started book reviewing for Black Enterprise magazine, where a friend of mine was an editor. Black Enterprise reviewed nonfiction, and suddenly I found myself reading all these biographies and histories and thinking, this is fascinating. I was reading some really good books.
Around the same time my agent asked me if I thought I could work with Vy Higgensen on the [young adult] novelization of her gospel musical, Mama, I Want to Sing . After that was published our editor told me she'd like to do another book with me. She suggested a book about black women in America, and that book became And Not Afraid to Dare .
I think it was while I was doing research for that book that I finally said, how come no one told me history is better than fiction? I found that things made so much more sense once I got into history. I understood myself and my family better. And when I started realizing this I thought, I can give young people what I never had: history with some heart and soul and passion and energy and fun. I thought I could present it in a way that would encourage them to read it and retain some of it.
Since then, I've wanted to know as much as I can about history, and I want young people to know about it too, because history makes you whole. If you don't know what has happened before, you have no real context for your present era.
TEACHINGBOOKS: And Not Afraid to Dare was one of your first books for young readers and it presents the memorable stories of ten remarkable African American women. What guided you in choosing to write about these particular people?
TONYA BOLDEN: In a word, variety. I wanted variety in terms of the people's endeavors and in terms of their time period. I wanted to show the immense range of what black women in America have done throughout history.
Ellen Craft's story was one of daring, of challenge. She could pass for white, and she disguised herself as a white man, with her husband as her slave, to escape. Mary Fields was rough and tough, and I included her because not everyone was a nice, buttoned—up Victorian lady. Charlotte Forten Grimke interested me because she was a member of an upper—middle class family in Philadelphia. I think very often in stories of black history, the people are downtrodden, picking cotton with no shoes on. This was a different image.
I think one common thread in this book, and my work so far, is that I'm always attracted to people who live not for themselves alone. A good example of that is Augusta Savage, who I wrote about in Wake Up Our Souls . She was an artist who also created art schools. She was an institution builder.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Maritcha: A Nineteenth—Century American Girl is a Coretta Scott King honor recipient. What appealed to you about this historical figure?
TONYA BOLDEN: When I read Maritcha's unfinished memoir I thought, I have to write her biography. Maritcha is who I hope I would have been, had I been born in 1848 in New York. Because she was born free, she had a different experience than many enslaved people, and that allowed me to add some different texture, different dimensions to the history.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You've written biographical collections and standalone books about luminaries such as W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as riveting stories, such as Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America , about lesser known historical figures. In either case, are there insights you hope your readers will come away with after reading these biographies?
TONYA BOLDEN: I think that with many of my books I'm telling readers, you don't have to do exactly as this person did, but this is the kind of person you can grow up to be like. I think that with my books, part of me saying, here are your role models.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Please talk about your writing and research process.
TONYA BOLDEN: I've heard some editors say they ask their authors to write what they're passionate about. I'm passionate about history, so that's the starting point for me. Sometimes the subjects I write about are suggested to me, and I won't always know much about them at first. But I'll be curious enough to want to dig in and learn more.
In terms of research, one thing I want all young people to know is that research is sometimes the best part about writing. It's often when I have the most fun, because it really is detective work. And today, with the Internet and archives opening up, and online newspapers that may be free or subscription—based for not very much money, the access we have today to primary sources is really astounding.
If I know nothing about a subject going in, I often start my research by reading the work of a scholar on the subject whom I respect. For instance, when I was researching for my book Cause, about Reconstruction, I read Eric Foner. For W. E. B. Du Bois I started with volumes by David Levering Lewis. Once I feel I know my subject's life I ask, what about this is going to be of interest to children? What do I leave in? What do I leave out? I have to find a connection with the person about whom I'm writing.
I also do a lot of the research for the book's visuals at the same time that I'm researching for the text, because I'm always thinking of the book as a whole. So for instance, I'll be thinking about what information I can include in a caption that I then won't need to include in the text. To me, text and images go hand—in—hand, and if I concentrate on researching images after I write, what I find might take me down a completely different road.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You've said you like to make connections with the people you write about. Would you share some examples of making connections with your biographical subjects?
TONYA BOLDEN: One easy connection for me to make was when I was writing Maritcha: A Nineteenth—Century American Girl. Maritcha was a New Yorker, and I'm a New Yorker. She became a teacher; at one point in my life I wanted to be a teacher.
W. E. B. Du Bois was not as straightforward. As I researched, I discovered he was the kind of person who could make you easily annoyed. He could be condescending and arrogant. But when I dug deeper into his childhood I learned he was left—handed. And I thought, oh my goodness. To be left—handed in the 19 th century was not easy. It was thought to be a sinister trait.
Du Bois was also little and scrawny, and he was poor. Plus, his mom had a stroke, so she walked with a limp. I started picturing him putting on a brave face in spite of his poverty, his size, his left—handedness, and his mother, who probably stuck out because of her limp. I suddenly wondered if he'd been teased. Maybe he was beaten up. And I thought, maybe there's a reason he became this tough fighter and arrogant man. He probably had to stand up for himself his whole life.
Once I could make that connection, I felt that maybe I could understand him better. I might not have been able to forgive his arrogance, but I felt for him because as a little boy, he had a hard time.
TEACHINGBOOKS: M.L.K.: Journey of a King won the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award. What did you hope to reveal about Martin Luther King, Jr. in this biography?
TONYA BOLDEN: I wanted to show readers that Martin Luther King, Jr., didn't spring from the womb ready to crusade for civil rights. That he, at one point when his parents were telling him to love everyone, was wondering how on earth he could possibly ever love white people. I wanted readers to understand the idea of agape, of showing love toward someone who means you no good. Part of his journey was really learning agape, and living by it. I tried to make a point of shedding light on the times he was discouraged or scared; to show that he was a human being who sometimes might rather have been having fun, but who made a choice to stand up for justice.
I think sometimes great people are presented as heroes whose paths were inevitable. But Martin Luther King made choices, and he had struggles, and he knew fear. People often leave out the campaigns between Montgomery and the march on Washington; they'll leave out Chicago and Albany and the Georgia campaigns, which are considered, quote, unquote, failures. I thought it was better to show he had these ups and downs—and that he carried on.
TEACHINGBOOKS: FDR's Alphabet Soup focuses on the policies and programs of the New Deal. What was researching that book like, in light of our economic situation over the past several years?
TONYA BOLDEN: When I started the research for this book in late 2006, early 2007, I was looking at the causes of the Great Depression, because in order to talk about the New Deal, you have to talk about the Great Depression. As I read about what contributed to the Great Depression, I started seeing a lot of parallels to our economy and habits today. And I said to my friends, I think history is about to repeat itself. Initially, a lot of them blew me off. But after Lehman collapsed in 2008, some of those same people started asking me, how long do you think it's going to last?
I share that anecdote with young people to give them an example of how knowing history can help inform our lives today. I tell them that as soon as I started seeing those parallels, I stopped spending as much money.
We are going to have economic crises, in part because people don't learn, or learn from, history. So I tell them what they can do is live within their means, and remember that a lot of things they take for granted, unemployment insurance, Social Security, public works projects, came as a result of the New Deal.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You teamed up with illustrator R. Gregory Christie in the picture books Rock of Ages: A Tribute to the Black Church and The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali . Did you have a similar approach to both projects?
TONYA BOLDEN: A friend once told me that if you want to understand black America or black history, you have to know the black church. At one time, for most black people, the church was their everything—not only in terms of faith, but also the community. It was the only place where, if you had any artistic talent, you could develop those talents. It was in the black churches that a lot of money was raised to fund the Civil Rights movement. The black church was, and is, such a significant institution, that it felt like a very natural topic for me to write about.
The Muhammad Ali book was different. Greg Christie had illustrated Rock of Ages , and our publisher was interested in our doing another book together. We all had lunch and Greg and I were asked what we were interested in. I drew a blank, but Greg suggested Muhammad Ali. And I said to myself, oh my goodness, because I'd always had the impression that boxing is barbaric. I really had no interest in it. But Greg Christie is a deep person, so I thought to myself, if he's enthusiastic, then maybe I just don't know who Muhammad Ali is. And it was true—I didn't know. So I started to research.
Part of my research was watching a documentary called "Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story," and it included the early years of his career that I wasn't very familiar with. As I watched those tapes, I was stunned to realize that Ali isn't a boxer, he's an artist. I watched those tapes over and over as he moved on his toes and sprang around the ring, keeping his head up when most others kept their heads down and hunched over. The more I watched him, the more I understood why they called him the greatest. I didn't feel passionate about Muhammad Ali going into the project, but I found that passion along the way. As it happens with a lot of my books, I made the transition from head knowledge to heart knowledge.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Finding Family is a fictional novel. How do you view writing fiction versus nonfiction?
TONYA BOLDEN: Nonfiction is so much easier because you have the plot laid out before you. For instance, when I was writing about W. E. B. Du Bois, my research told me things like when and where he was born, what he did, the places he went, where he was when he died. Writing Finding Family was challenging for me because I had so many options. The protagonist could do this, or she could do that. I had a lot of decisions to make.
One decision I made, which at first felt like a mistake, was to tell the story in first person. I had no idea how difficult that is. But I did discover along the way that my knowledge of nonfiction and history could help inform the story. It was while I researched for Maritcha that I realized how difficult it is to find non—derogatory images of black people in the 19 th century, because they often didn't have control over what was being photographed or created. But I started looking on eBay and began to find more of these images, and I started collecting them whenever I'd see them. One day my sister told me I was eventually going to use those in a book, and that's exactly what happened. I leaned on those historical images and certain historical figures for inspiration for Family .
Delana is the protagonist, and her grandfather raises her along with his sister in Charleston, West Virginia. Like Maritcha's family, they're middle class. But Delana is very sheltered; her mom died and she doesn't know what happened to her father. Her grandfather, who had been enslaved, is very strict with her. I used Booker T. Washington as an inspiration for her grandfather and his route from Virginia to West Virginia.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What is a typical workday for you?
TONYA BOLDEN: It depends on the school year, but often in the winter months, there are days I'm not home at all because I'm away doing school programs. When I have stretches of time at home, I usually write in the mornings once I'm past the research stage. In the afternoons I'll work out or do housework or put something in the crockpot. I usually find spring and summer the most challenging because I just want to be in the garden.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell students when you speak to them?
TONYA BOLDEN: I love talking to them about writing, especially when they ask me if writing is difficult. That question always make me think of a visit I made to Penn Center in South Carolina years ago, where there was a demonstration row of cotton. The minute I leaned over that cotton row I was more clearly able to imagine the horror of enslavement, and I realized that I don't know the meaning of hard work. Writing is nowhere near as difficult as picking cotton or chopping cane in the delta.
Still, writing is not always easy. And I tell students that, like anything else you want to do well, writing takes work. Writing is actually rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell educators?
TONYA BOLDEN: I like to talk to them about how young people want to know more, and do know more, than we sometimes give them credit for. I think we have to challenge them to stretch, to make them grow.
I also tell educators to tell the truth. I once met with a group made up of mostly white teachers and librarians, and someone very candidly said that sometimes, as a white educator teaching black history to black children, the children would get angry with her. I had two thoughts about that. First, I said that if children believe that you love them, you can teach them anything. And second, I advised the group to also tell these students about the good white people, too. I tried to do that in my book, Emancipation Proclamation . I felt children needed to know Bull Connor, but they should also know about Wendell Phillips, a man who supported black rights, women's rights, Chinese rights, Indian rights. In other words, explain to these students that this is all our history.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you say when you're asked why you write about African American life and history?
TONYA BOLDEN: Part of what I'm doing is making sense of myself as a black American. Whenever I do a book on black history, more of my own family's stories, which go back many generations, fall into place. The bits and pieces I've heard about my parents, grandparents, and great—grandparents start to click.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you do when you get stuck?
TONYA BOLDEN: I usually try to do something physical. I take a brisk walk or scrub the bathroom tiles. Sometimes just turning away can help. Very often when I get stuck I say to myself, there's something you don't understand, and I know l need to do more research. But doing something physical helps too. I do a lot of gardening. After I wrote my book on George Washington Carver I realized he wasn't just a peanut man, he was an environmentalist, too. And I was inspired to start gardening. I stopped treating my yard with chemicals, and I started growing more food, like tomatoes and string beans.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Are there any other thoughts you'd like to share about being a writer?
TONYA BOLDEN: I think I was called to do this. In a way, I'm one of the children of the dream. Black people my age may have benefitted most from the Civil Rights Movement and the first— and second—wave feminist movement. I have to give back, and I think this is the best way that I can do it, by making history come alive for young people and showing them the kinds of people I want them to be when they grow up. I want them to be compassionate people. I want them to be people who are capable of critical thinking. We need to teach them about compassion and selflessness and agape now, because they are going to be in charge of things one day.
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