Tonya Bolden

Last updated

Tonya K. Bolden (born March 1, 1959) is an American writer best known for her works of children's literature, especially children's nonfiction.


Tonya Bolden pic by Hayden R Celestin.jpg

Bolden has authored, co-authored, collaborated on, or edited more than forty books. Hillary Rodham Clinton praised her 1998 book 33 Things Every Girl Should Know in a speech at Seneca Falls, N.Y. on the 150th anniversary of the first Women's Rights Convention. [1] Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl (2005), her children's biography of Maritcha Rémond Lyons, was the James Madison Book Award Winner and one of four honor books for the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Author Award. M.L.K.: Journey of a King (2007) won the Orbis Pictus award from the National Council of Teachers of English, the organization’s highest award for children’s nonfiction, and the next year, her George Washington Carver (2008) was one of five honor books for the same award. In 2016, the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. selected Bolden for its Nonfiction Award in recognition of her entire body of work, which, according to the award, has “contributed significantly to the quality of nonfiction for children.”. [2]

Life and career

Early Years

Tonya Bolden was born on March 1, 1959 in New York City to Willie J. and Georgia C. Bolden, who had moved to New York from North Carolina and South Carolina, respectively. [3] Georgia received formal education only through sixth grade, Willie through ninth. [3] However, both were firmly dedicated to providing as many educational opportunities as possible to Tonya and her sister Nelta. [4] Although her parents were careful with money, they were generous when it came to buying books, [3] and Bolden specifically recalls that “whenever I came home with the list of books I wanted to buy at the Arrow Club book fair, they never, ever denied me.” [5]

Although Bolden has claimed that her love of writing while in her parents’ home influenced her eventual choice of career, [6] her parents’ habit of encouraging reading had as much to do with her personal joy as it did her eventual professional prospects. Her parents, she recalls, “encouraged me to seek to earn a living doing something I absolutely loved. And when I was a child, I was crazy about reading and writing.”. [7] Indeed, Bolden has said that she has “been in love with books since I learned my ABCs” (Trussell). [8]

Ironically, although Bolden is today best known for her historical fiction and nonfiction, as a child she was pointedly uninterested in history, especially in history learned through books. “It was usually presented in such an uninteresting way,” she recalls. “I didn’t see myself or my people in history.” [3] Even when her uncle, whom she describes as “a history freak,” tried to introduce her to black history in Harlem, she often found herself thinking, “I don’t care.” [3] A rare exception was that she enjoyed the Little House on the Prairie television program, though today she suspects that she probably enjoyed it “for the props” or its “old-timey” aspects. [6]


Bolden's early education was also marked by her parents’ firm investment in her growth. Although her mother had no personal experience with quality education in New York, she did extensive research to learn where her daughter could get the best education (Maher 40). [9] Bolden attended M.E.S. 146, a public school in East Harlem, and later the Chapin School, a private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. [9] Bolden has credited excellent teaching at both of these schools with influencing her growth as a writer and desire to publish. [5]

After graduating from the Chapin School, Bolden attended Princeton University, where, in 1981, she completed an undergraduate degree in Slavic Languages and Literature, with an emphasis on Russian., [7] [4] [10]

Following her graduation from Princeton, Bolden worked for two years before returning to school. She then continued her studies at Columbia. [4] Bolden has suggested that, along with the multicultural setting of her childhood, her study of Russian in higher education deeply influenced her writing. [9] She completed her M.A. in 1985, again in Slavic Languages and Literatures with a concentration in Russian.

Early career

Following her graduation, Bolden taught at both Malcolm-King College and the College of New Rochelle. [4] Her responsibilities included English courses, and she has mentioned that “the course I taught the most was TEE (Translating Experience into Essay). Many of my students were my age or older. They were living proof that it’s never too late to learn.” [9]

Although she intended to earn a doctorate and become a professor of Russian literature, [4] it was while in graduate school that Bolden's work began appearing in print, at first mainly through freelance projects, [4] notably in Black Enterprise magazine. [11] In 1987, Bolden began writing full-time, putting her in a position in which, as she later recalls, “I could not be picky. I do not think I ever turned down any writing jobs no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.” [11]

Bolden's first major book project, a young adult novel adaptation of Vy Higginsen’s musical Mama, I Want to Sing , was published in 1992 by Scholastic. [11] Bolden has argued that this opportunity came about in part because of the work she had put in on smaller pieces [11] and in part good fortune. [12] She says, “Marie Brown, my agent at the time, pitched me to Vy Higginsen and to Scholastic,” and the experience went so well that “the editor talked about my doing another book for her.” Thus, she remembers, “writing for the young found me and I found myself loving it more and more.” [6]


Central to the overwhelming majority of Bolden's writing is an awareness of identity and the role that books can play in the formation and revision of identity. In a 2014 essay entitled “All the Children Need All the Books,” Bolden borrows a set of terms from Rudine Sims Bishop to argue that

We, who truly care about the future of this nation, we who truly want our youngsters to be their best selves, we absolutely must become more involved in the campaign for all children to have mirrors—books in which they see themselves—and for all children to have windows—books through which they learn about people who do not look like them, speak as they do, or worship as they do—people who do not share their cultural norms. [13]

Children's books in general are important to this process, she argues, but she has stated elsewhere that nonfiction, especially historical nonfiction, is especially key to such a project. “What I came to understand as an adult,” she explains, “is that there is power in the past. Knowing history can be a powerful antidote to shame/self-hatred/identity-confusion.” [6] A subset of the theme of the importance of identity in her work is a specifically black experience of history. She explains:

I write because I am the beneficiary of the prayers, hopes, and labors of generations, of people I never knew who braved water cannons, police dogs, burning crosses on lawns, so that I might have wider opportunities. How can I not contribute?

I write because my parents, born poor and into the world of Jim Crow, seeded in me a love of reading and for school and for learning and for striving for excellence. [5]

And indeed, as Bolden explains elsewhere,

The fact that all but one of my young adult books are black-themed is not coincidental. Yes, all young adults can benefit from books about black history and culture; however, it is imperative that black youth read stories and histories about Africa and the African diaspora. I’ll never forget what a psychologist told me years ago: At about the age of four or five most African American children begin to wonder why the world does not like them. One way, and my main way to prevent this wondering from festering into self-loathing is to create books that definitively speak to black youth, books that teach them, that celebrate their history, their existence, their potential. Of course, I am far from alone on this mission. [14]

Although not nearly as widespread in her work, Christianity is also a common theme, especially within the context of Black American experiences. In an interview with, Bolden notes that

The Black Church has influenced me in a number of ways. In terms of history, it helped my people survive and build-up. In terms of my writing, the music of the Black Church (from the spirituals to gospel) and the tones and rhythms of classic black preaching have become part of my “vocabulary.” It's hard to articulate and even pinpoint, but I know that my style of writing has been influenced by the culture of the Black Church. [8]

That sensibility manifests in many of her books, and Bolden has identified two books in particular in which readers can and, Bolden feels, should see the influence of Christianity. When discussing her 2001 book Rock of Ages: A Tribute to the Black Church, Bolden argued that “People shouldn't have to wait until they are 20 or 30 to learn about the significance of the Black Church.” [8] Elsewhere, she has confided that she “took a risk” in the way that she wrote her 2006 book M.L.K.: Journey of a King by emphasizing the role of the “supernatural” in King's life: “many people prefer a King who is not so much of a Christian,” she explains. [15]


One box of Bolden's papers (consisting of production materials for three of her books) has been donated to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries.


Awards and Honors

In 2016, Bolden received the Nonfiction Award for Body of Work from the Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC. [2]

Awards for individual books:

Mama, I Want to Sing

Just Family

And Not Afraid to Dare: The Stories of Ten African-American Women

33 Things Every Girl Should Know: Stories, Songs, Poems, and Smart Talk by 33 Extraordinary Women

Strong Men Keep Coming: The Book of African-American Men

Rock of Ages: A Tribute to the Black Church

Tell All the Children Our Story: Memories & Mementos of Being Young and Black in America

Portraits of African-American Heroes

Wake Up Our Souls: A Celebration of Black American Artists

The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali

Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl

Cause: Reconstruction America, 1863-1877

M.L.K.: Journey of a King

Take-Off: America All-Girl Bands During WWII

George Washington Carver

FDR's Alphabet Soup: New Deal America, 1932-1939

Finding Family

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty

Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America

Beautiful Moon: A Child's Prayer

Related Research Articles

Carole Boston Weatherford is an African-American author and critic, now living in North Carolina, United States. She writes children's literature and some historical books, as well as poetry and commentaries. Weatherford is best known for her books Juneteenth Jamboree, Freedom in Congo Square, and You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen. Notably, Weatherford has written literary criticisms of racist representations in children's entertainment. Today, she often writes with her son, Jeffery Boston Weatherford, who is an illustrator and poet.

Christopher Paul Curtis American childrens writer

Christopher Paul Curtis is an American children's books author. He is known for the Newbery Medal-winning Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. Many of his books are set in Flint. The latter was adapted for a TV movie of the same name, which aired on the Hallmark Channel in 2013.

Connie Rose Porter is an African-American writer of young-adult books, and a teacher of creative writing. Porter is best known for her contribution to the American Girl Collection Series as the author of the Addy books: six of her Addy books have gone on to sell more than 3 million copies. In addition, she published two novels with Houghton-Mifflin, All-Bright Court (1991), and Imani All Mine (1999).

Carmen Agra Deedy is an author of children’s literature, storyteller and radio contributor.

Jacqueline Woodson American writer of childrens books and novels

Jacqueline Woodson is an American writer of books for children and adolescents. She is best known for Miracle's Boys, and her Newbery Honor-winning titles Brown Girl Dreaming, After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers, and Show Way. After serving as the Young People's Poet Laureate from 2015–17, she was named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, by the Library of Congress, for 2018–19. She was also a visiting fellow at the American Library in Paris in spring of 2017.

Sharon Draper American childrens writer

Sharon Mills Draper is an American children's writer, professional educator, and the 1997 National Teacher of the Year. She is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for books about the young and adolescent African-American experience. She is known for her Hazelwood and Jericho series, Copper Sun,Double Dutch, Out of My Mind and Romiette and Julio.

T. V. Padma Childrens author

Padma, also known as Padma, is an American author who was born in India.

Penny Colman is an author of books, essays, stories, and articles for all ages. In 2005, her social history, Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial, was named one of the 100 Best of the Best Books for the 21st Century by members of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Library Association (ALA).

Jean Ferris was an American writer best known for young adult fiction. She lived in San Diego, California, with her husband, a retired lawyer.

Abrams Books US publisher

Abrams, formerly Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (HNA), is an American publisher of art and illustrated books, children's books, and stationery.

Margarita Engle American childrens writer, columnist, poet

Margarita Engle is a Cuban American poet and author of many award-winning books for children, young adults and adults. Most of Engle's stories are written in verse and are a reflection of her Cuban heritage and her deep appreciation and knowledge of nature. She became the first Latino awarded a Newbery Honor in 2009 for The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom. She was selected by the Poetry Foundation to serve from 2017–2019 as the sixth Young People's Poet Laureate. On October 9, 2018, Margarita Engle was announced the winner of the 2019 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature. She was nominated by 2019 NSK Prize jury member Lilliam Rivera.

Sally M. Walker is an American writer of nonfiction for children. She is best known for writing about scientific subject matter such as Fossil Fish Found Alive: Discovering the Coelacanth (2005) or Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland (2009). Additionally Walker is known for books written in both Spanish and English as seen in La Luz/Light (2007) and La Electricidad/Electricity (2007). She is also known as Sally Fleming, Sally MacArt Walker, and Sally Macart Walker.

Mildred DeLois Taylor is a Newbery Award-winning African-American young adult novelist. She is known for exploring powerful themes of family, and intense themes of racism faced by African Americans in the Deep South, in works that are accessible to young readers. She was awarded the 1977 Newbery Medal for her novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and the inaugural NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature in 2003.

Elizabeth Partridge American writer

Elizabeth Partridge is an American writer, the author of more than a dozen books from young-adult nonfiction to picture books to photography books. Her books include Marching for Freedom, as well the biographies John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth, This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, and Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange. Her latest book is the middle grade novel, Dogtag Summer.

Maritcha Remond Lyons American educator, civic leader, writer

Maritcha Remond Lyons was an American educator, civic leader, suffragist, and public speaker in New York City and Brooklyn, New York. She taught in public schools in Brooklyn for 48 years, and was the second black woman to serve in their system as an assistant principal. In 1892, Lyons cofounded the Women's Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn, one of the first women's rights and racial justice organizations in the United States. One of the accomplishments of the Women's Loyal Union was to help to fund the printing of an important antilynching pamphlet, "Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases" by Ida B. Wells.

Jane Kurtz is an American writer of including more than thirty picture books, middle-grade novels, nonfiction, ready-to-reads, and books for educators. A member of the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in children's and adult literature, Kurtz is an international advocate for literacy and writing. She was also part of a small group of volunteers who organized the not-for-profit organization, Ethiopia Reads, which has established more than seventy libraries for children, published books, and built four schools in rural Ethiopia.

Sharon Bell Mathis is an American librarian and author who has written books mainly for children and young adults.

Isabel Quintero

Isabel Quintero is a Mexican-American writer of young adult literature, poetry and fiction.

Nic Stone American writer

Andrea Nicole Livingstone, known as Nic Stone, is an American New York Times best-selling author of young adult fiction and middle grade fiction, best known for her debut novel Dear Martin. Her novels have been translated into six languages.

Monica Brown (author) Peruvian-American academic and author of childrens literature

Mónica Brown is a Peruvian-American academic and author of children's literature. Known for her Lola Levine and Sarai chapter book series, as well as numerous biographies covering such Latin American luminaries as Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Dolores Huerta, and Cesar Chavez, she writes relatable characters that highlight the nuance and diversity of the Latinx experience and girl empowerment. Brown writes characters that highlight the nuance and diversity of the Latinx experience such as the bicultural red-headed Peruvian-Scottish-American Marisol McDonald. Her motivation is to show that bicultural children are not made up of cultural fractions but whole people with a rich and vibrant cultural heritage. Brown is also an English professor at Northern Arizona University.


  1. Roback, Diane; Brown, Jennifer M.; Di Marzo, Cindi (August 1998). ""First Lady Plugs Girl Power Book"". Publishers Weekly: 23.
  2. 1 2 "Author Tonya Bolden Receives 2016 Nonfiction Award". Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Young, Terrell A.; Ward, Barbara A. (Jan 2009). "Talking With Tonya Bolden". Book Links: 26.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Tonya Bolden: Talking and Walking That Walk!". New York Beacon: 18. 7 Feb 1996.
  5. 1 2 3 Maher, Jane (Fall 2009). "Interview with Children's Author Tonya Bolden". Multicultural Review. 18 (3): 39.
  6. 1 2 3 4 "Tonya Bolden". The Brown Bookshelf: United in Story. 16 February 2008. Retrieved 3 July 2017.
  7. 1 2 Wells, Jason M. (March–April 2005). "Crazy about Writing". Footsteps. 7 (2): 46.
  8. 1 2 3 Trussell, Jacqueline (July 2002). "BNC E-Interview Exclusive: Tonya Bolden". Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Maher, Jane (Fall 2009). "Interview with Children's Author Tonya Bolden". Multicultural Review. 18 (3): 40.
  10. Tonya Bolden. Contemporary Authors Online. Gale. 2015.
  11. 1 2 3 4 Maher, Jane (Fall 2009). "Interview with Children's Author Tonya Bolden". Multicultural Review. 18 (3): 38.
  12. Bolden, Tonya (Nov–Dec 1999). "Why I Write for Young Adults". Black Issues Book Review. 1 (6): 67.
  13. Bolden, Tonya (Sep–Oct 2014). "All the Children Need All the Books". American Book Review. 35 (6): 14.
  14. Bolden, Tonya (Nov–Dec 1999). "Why I Write for Young Adults". Black Issues Book Review. 1 (6): 67–8.
  15. Young, Terrell A.; Ward, Barbara A. (Jan 2009). "Talking With Tonya Bolden". Book Links: 27.