Tonya Bolden has written numerous bestselling books for children and adults, and her work has garnered many awards, including the Coretta Scott King Honor, James Madison Book Award, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and YALSA Best Book of the Year. She is one of AALBC’s Top 100 AALBC.com Bestselling Authors. Her work spans more than a quarter of a century and more than 40 books. Tonya’s latest book, Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in STEM, is a celebration of the contributions Black women in America have made in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. “Bolden’s lively text, accompanied by archival images, underscores the importance of sharing these stories to understand the long tradition of black women striving in these areas. A worthy addition to the effort to tell a more complete and compelling American history,” said Kirkus Reviews.
In this exclusive interview with AALBC’s Founder, Troy D. Johnson, Bolden shares insight into her work and the craft of writing.
AALBC: What made you decide to be a writer?
Tonya Bolden: As a child I loved reading books, I loved writing poetry and short stories. I think I was meant to be a writer. I wanted to be a poet. Never, ever did I think I would fall in love with writing history. As a kid, as a young adult, I hated history. What I got was rather dry and boring. Seemed irrelevant. As an adult I discovered biographies and other history books that were as fascinating as fine fiction. I also realized that you can’t really make sense of your era, of yourself, if you don’t know what happened before you! After I began writing for young people I found myself on a mission to make history come alive for young people, to give them the kinds of books I never had.
AALBC: You are that rare writer who has written nonfiction, fiction, adult, picture, and YA books. How do you manage to go from genre to genre?
TB: After three or four days on one project I can get bored or find myself going around in circles. It’s helpful to be able to switch from say a picture book to lengthy book of nonfiction and then maybe onto a little fiction. It’s clearing out the cobwebs. Often while working on project X I find the solution to a problem I was having on project Y. Also going from writing for a 7 year-old to a 12-year-old keeps you nimble.
AALBC: Who are some of the people you’ve co-authored books with?
TB: They include Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Dark Sky Rising and the Dawn of Jim Crow) and Carol Anderson (We Are Not Yet Equal and One Person, No Vote), Chaka!: Through the Fire with Chaka Khan, and Rejuvenate!: It’s Never Too Late with Eartha Kitt. Both such amazing talents. Both so original.
I’d also like to say that I’ve been fortunate to have some award-winning talent illustrate my picture books. They include R. Gregory Christie (Rock of Ages: A Tribute to the Black Church and The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali), Don Tate (No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas), and Eric Velasquez (Beautiful Moon: A Child’s Prayer). Eric is also the illustrator of Strong Voices: Fifteen American Speeches Worth Knowing, for which I wrote intros. to the speeches and for which the late Cokie Roberts, outstanding journalist and bestselling author, wrote the foreword. When the author-illustrator pairing is right, there’s magic — even though we may never have a single conversation about the book. When I write a picture book I’m always reminding myself to leave room for the illustrator to tell some of the story. You don’t want illustrations that are merely decorations.
AALBC: You are the current dean of Children’s authors who pen African American nonfiction books. How do you select your subjects?
TB: I stumbled upon Sarah Rector’s story while working on Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal and the Growth of Our Nation’s Capital. While working on Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America I stumbled upon the story of potato farmer Junius Groves and soon I was working on the book that is No Small Potatoes. In the case of Frederick Douglass, I’d been feeling that there was a book on him in me for years.
AALBC: Who do you write for, and what do you hope to achieve from writing about these little known stories?
When writing for our young people I’m writing for a curious young person, one who can handle a bit of a challenge. I hope my books help people really understand how varied black life has been upon these shores.
AALBC: As a writer do you have a special way or atmosphere to get you in the mood to pen these amazing stories?
TB: Thank you! No, I have no rituals or anything. I can write on the subway, on a plane, on a train. When I get stuck I find it often helps if I run an errand or do some gardening our other physical work.
Tell us about your latest book Changing The Equation 50+ US Black Women In Stem?
Changing the Equation is a celebration of black women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the 19th century up to the present. Readers will meet a chemical engineer, a biomedical engineer, a marine biologist, an astronomer and astrobiologist, a geneticist, cybersecurity professional, a computer scientist, inventors, a video game developer—and more. Changing the Equation is proof that STEM is not for our boys and menfolk only. I did this book to help our girls find role models, to find inspiration to chart courses for careers in STEM.
AALBC: What advice would you give to someone who wants to write Children’s Books?
TB: It’s hard to say as the business has changed so much since I entered it. For one, be open to ideas that aren’t your own, ideas editors have — that’s one way to get a foot in the door. On craft, understand that writing children’s books is far from child’s play. You have to be able to assume no or little prior knowledge and at the same time not talk down to the reader.
I advise would-be writers to think about having many arrows in their quivers. Everything is cyclical. There are times when they say picture books aren’t doing well and so editors aren’t signing them up. Or it might be that anthologies are in the doghouse one year and two years later they are booming. If you can do different kinds of books the higher your chances of always being in season and always being able to work the craft.
Also writers need to be smart about money. Saving it that is. I’ve seen writers hit big out the gate and make beaucoup money. And they spend that money fast — buying houses, living large. They think the money will always be flowing. And for some that happens. But what if that second or third book doesn’t sell well at all? What if they bomb? Every writer should have a really good accountant and financial planner. Every writer needs to think not only the art but the business side too.
Purchase Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in STEM before March 3rd (preorder) and get free shipping, 10% off, no sales tax*!
*Sales tax is only collected from customers shipping orders to Florida state.