Tonya K. Bolden (born March 1, 1959) is an American writer best known for her works of children's literature, especially children's nonfiction.
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.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.”.
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.Georgia received formal education only through sixth grade, Willie through ninth. However, both were firmly dedicated to providing as many educational opportunities as possible to Tonya and her sister Nelta. Although her parents were careful with money, they were generous when it came to buying books, 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.”
Although Bolden has claimed that her love of writing while in her parents’ home influenced her eventual choice of career,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.”. Indeed, Bolden has said that she has “been in love with books since I learned my ABCs” (Trussell).
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.”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.” 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.
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).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. Bolden has credited excellent teaching at both of these schools with influencing her growth as a writer and desire to publish.
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.,
Following her graduation from Princeton, Bolden worked for two years before returning to school. She then continued her studies at Columbia.Bolden has suggested that, along with the multicultural setting of her childhood, her study of Russian in higher education deeply influenced her writing. She completed her M.A. in 1985, again in Slavic Languages and Literatures with a concentration in Russian.
Following her graduation, Bolden taught at both Malcolm-King College and the College of New Rochelle.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.”
Although she intended to earn a doctorate and become a professor of Russian literature,it was while in graduate school that Bolden's work began appearing in print, at first mainly through freelance projects, notably in Black Enterprise magazine. 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.”
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.Bolden has argued that this opportunity came about in part because of the work she had put in on smaller pieces and in part good fortune. 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.”
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.
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.”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.
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.
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 BlackandChristian.com, 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.
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.”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.
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.
In 2016, Bolden received the Nonfiction Award for Body of Work from the Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC.
Awards for individual books:
Mama, I Want to Sing
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
Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty
Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America
Beautiful Moon: A Child's Prayer
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