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Transcript from an interview with Tonya Bolden

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Tonya Bolden. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

A child who loved books and writing

My name is Tonya Bolden and I’m the author of How to Build a Museum.

Well, I think when I was in the wonder years, eight, I loved writing. I loved books, I had dreams about books. If I couldn’t be outside because of the weather or I was on punishment, I was writing a poem or short story. But I didn’t know, I mean I had books obviously I knew there were writers but I had no contact with writers and I didn’t quite dream, it was just a thing I loved to do.

What I thought I was going to grow up to be was a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher because I loved school, there’s a story that when I was starting kindergarten I think it was, they phased us in like a Tuesday and a Wednesday. And my older sister Nell, at four years old, was already in school. And I was supposed to go the Wednesday and I pitched a fit and my mother brings me the Tuesday and said can she start?

And my mother said she was kind of heartbroken because all the other kids were like crying and mommy and she said I just took off and said bye and went to school. So you know, for me you know school is like water for a fish.

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Always money for books

My parents, my mom grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, Jim Crow, poor. My father grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jim Crow, poor. But they had brains, and they, I remember them being avid readers. And I also remember a photograph when we moved from Brooklyn to East Harlem, Spanish Harlem, in the Mitchell-Lama development, and you can see our old Brooklyn furniture in the living room, no carpeting.

And in the center of the photograph is a little bookcase I think it probably had Funk and Wagnall encyclopedias but that was sort of the focus. And so in my home books were important and I remember, I think it was the arrow book club when I was in elementary school and books were probably ten cents, twenty cents, and while if I wanted new sneakers or a leather jacket or some, it was like no. But when I came home with like ten, fifteen books that I wanted to buy at the book fair my parents never said no.

There was always money for books. And also I remember my grandmother telling me a story and I don’t know if she went to school for more than two years but she told me this story about an enslaved man someplace on a planation and one day the overseer gave him a note and said you know take this to the owner or the owner gave him the note and said take this to the overseer and when he did so he got whipped or beaten.

And the moral was, had he been able to read he would have never delivered that note. So growing up, as a kid in the working class and coming from people who had gone through Jim Crow the lesson was your mind, reading, education, that’s going to be your ticket.

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A passion for history

History now is my passion. History makes me whole, I think it makes everyone whole. But when I was a kid, I hated history, it was called social studies. It was, it was dry and boring and it was flashcard history. And it used to be people like me would say I hated history because there was no one in the history books who looked like me. While that was true, I also think had there been people in the history who didn’t look like me who were interesting, I would have been interested in history.

You know no one connected the dots. No one, it was like you must learn this, it was in the past and that was the past. But no one ever helped me understand why the past was relevant in my present. And then you know now I’m always reminding kids that MLK said we are made by history and Baldwin said history is literally present in all that we do.

What changed for me was writing history. I came into publishing as a writer for hire, doing projects that other people wanted and I did this project and that project and after I did Mom I Want to Sing, turning Vy Higginsen’s gospel musical into a young adult novel, that editor Anne Wright said I’d like to do another book with you. And I said why, what should I do?  And she said well you know Jim Haskins did a book on One More River to Cross, biographies of I think ten or twelve black Americans.

She said why don’t you a book of profiles of black women and you know Jim Haskins was huge back then and I said why don’t you want Jim Haskins to do it and she said because you’re a woman, you’re a Black woman. And I did that book which turned out to be And Not Afraid to Dare. And that was a real turning point for me because I wrote about Bethune, Charlotte Forten Grimké, Mary Fields, Leontyne Price, Mother Hale. And everything I wrote about I learned in the writing, in the researching, in the doing.

And it was like an epiphany when I said my god, history is fascinating. Now I had a hint of that a few years earlier when I was doing book reviews for Black Enterprise Magazine. They only reviewed non-fiction. I’m reading about Adam Clayton Powell, I’m reading about the Civil War you know by these great historians who could also write very well. And I said oh my god, history is fascinating and it’s complicated and there are things that happened in history that if someone wrote into fiction you would say oh come on, that’s not realistic.

And so reading good non-fiction as an adult opened my eyes to how necessary history is and what it did was it inspired me to want to give to young people what I never had which is history coming alive. History engaging, history that not only gives you information but also hopefully leaves you with questions. Asking questions and wanting to know more and wondering about more.

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Stepping into history

I think to make history come alive for young people, to engage them I think first of all we have to give them material that does not talk down to them. I believe that, well see the thing is when I approach non-fiction, I approach it the way I think people approach poetry and fiction. I mean Toni Morrison said we only have 26 letters of the alphabet you know, I don’t have sound, I don’t have color, I must use the language to make the color and make the sound, to move people.

So you know lyricism, metaphor, simile, that belongs to non-fiction so I think that if you write non-fiction like fiction you engage. The other thing I do is when I work with children I tell them that they are part of history, that they are making history, that they will make history. And one exercise I do with them I ask do any of you have a copy of a newspaper that came out on the day that you were born. And they’ll be like what?

I’ll say when were you born, most of them were born in like you know 2003 or, and I say get a copy of any newspaper in your city, your national ... and see what was going on in the world in your city and your town on the day that you were born. That’s your context. And I find that children respond to that. I say have your adult, some adult in your life, buy it on eBay. Because I have a copy of an 1863 New York Times that reported on the, I have a book Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl.

And during the New York City draft riots, her home was attacked. And that’s mentioned in the Times. So when I do programs on Maritcha, I take that newspaper with me and I had it around to the kids and I say this newspaper is 150 years old, you know, and it’s in plastic and it was rag paper so it’s not brittle. And what I, what amazes me is that time and again the children handle that history with care and respect.

Be careful with that, that’s over 150 years old, let me see that. And I say how much did it cost, three cents. How much does the New York Times cost today?  So I think one of the things we need to do is put history into the hands of children. It could be a postcard from the 1920s which you can get for $3. A magazine, when I was writing, presenting on my book on W.E.B. Dubois, I had a copy of, want to see it? 

Like the crisis, the magazine that he started and this one is from February 1930 and I pass this around to children and they’re like wow. What’s inside it?  So I think one thing is we need to not talk down to children. We need to always stretch them, I always say that if you only give them what they know, they will not grow. So when it comes to language, often editors rightly ask will children know this word?

And I say some of them will. And the way I learned vocabulary was from context. You know you see it, hear it, but I think we need, we want to make them puzzled. We want to give them a reason to ask a librarian, a parent, a teacher, a question. We want to kindle curiosity, not just impart information.

Another example, in my book FDR’s Alphabet Soup about the New Deal I end it, and I’ve been doing this more and more, I call it kicking it back to the reader.

So that I just don’t want to say okay if you’ve learned this history. But I say in the New Deal I said people debate today whether or not the New Deal was a good deal, a bad deal, a raw deal. And I said the answer to the question will come out of what kind of government do you want?  Because I’m hoping that adults will help children see that a lot of the political debate is about the New Deal and the Great Society.

So it, history is present in all that we do. And they can understand, Social Security, Medicare, entitlements, and all of that that they can see oh this is moving history.

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A crooked path to writing

Sigourney Weaver once said that the crooked path has its dividends. And mine is a crooked, was a crooked path. I was working in the Garment Center, then I went to Columbia to get a master’s because a friend said everyone should have a master’s. And this was at a time when education was not so costly. I got the master’s, I thought about being a professor, I majored in Slavic languages and literatures with an emphasis on Russian.

And then I thought do I really want to become a professor of you know Russian language and literature?  And I thought maybe not, I might end up isolated. And while I was in graduate school a friend from college who was working at Black Enterprise Magazine said would you like to do some book reviews for me and that started and I started to enjoy that and then I got more assignments with magazines and newspapers.

And then a literary agent took an interest in me and she began to recommend me for work and she recommended me to work with Vy Higginsen on turning that gospel musical Mama, I Want to Sing into a young adult novel. And then it was book by book by book.

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Life, in perspective

Well I fell in love with history when I did the book And Not Afraid to Dare and in that book the subjects included Mary McLeod Bethune, the educator, primary educator and president of black women’s clubs. Also included in the book was Leontyne Price, the opera singer. There was also Charlotte Forten Grimké, an educator who worked with freed people after the Civil War.

And stepping into those lives, understanding those lives helped me to understand the lives of my grandparents, my great grandparents, some of, many whom I did not know. But it gave me a context for my own life.

I have an example. I think around the time I was working on And Not Afraid to Dare, I made a trip down to St. Helena and to the Penn School which has demonstrations of what it was like to be you know, enslaved. And one demonstration was a row of cotton. And I’m born and bred in New York City so what do I know about cotton?  And what I did was I bent down as though I was going to pick which of course I don’t know how to pick cotton.

But all of a sudden it was like sense memory that I thought about all that I had read, being hungry, not being paid, the sun, the lash. And I said Tonya, you don’t know the meaning of hard work. Because sometimes you know I’m on deadline, I would be on deadline and I would say oh I’m tired, I have to get take out, I’m too tired to cook. And I realized you don’t know the meaning of being tired. So one thing that history does for me is it makes, it allows me to be grateful for what I have.

It allows me to understand that what I have gone through does not compare to any hardships that the people before me have gone through and so what it does is it gives me an energy boost because it makes you think if Dubois could survive at Harvard, if W.E.B, it makes you think that if W.E.B. DuBois could survive at Harvard in the late 19th century, early 20th, well then I can handle any racism or alienation that comes my way.

You know, if my parents could survive Jim Crow in the South and the humiliation then I can survive any humiliation I might experience in New York.

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The strength of everyday people

Exactly, I think what happened was in studying Bethune, Charlotte Forten Grimké, and those other legends made me see that maybe I have some legends in my family. They didn’t make it into the history books but for my grandfather, my paternal grandfather in Charlotte to be a laborer, a construction worker and to make, I’m making it up, 50 cents a day for you know, I don’t know, stirring concrete, and maybe a white colleague made 75 cents a day for doing the same work.

They both had to feed families. And it takes a kind of genius to do the same with less or maybe to do more with less. So it made me appreciate the genius of the folk. The everyday people who survived, who didn’t give up who said it’s not fair, but I’m going to make a way out of no way. And I also realized that those people, my grandfather who only went to the third grade was probably smarter than I am and I often tell children that when I look back on my 30 something books and my degrees from Princeton and Columbia…

I always tell them that doesn’t say anything about me. Maybe a little bit, but I always tell them it says less about me and more about the people whence I come. Because I didn’t create my brain, I didn’t create my intellect, you know. As I always say what do I have that I have not received?  So whatever intelligence I have come from parents and grandparents and great grandparents who had so little opportunity.

And the other thing I think we have to remember is that more so than I, they lived in almost constant terror. How do you get up in the morning when you live in an environment of terror?  How do you continue to love and to dream and to hope?  So I’m often saying too you know around the Museum and Black history is that if Black people, if people of African descent, if the Africans who were brought over here were a nothing people, we would have been gone a long time ago. People like me wouldn’t be here.

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How to Build a Museum: the story behind the book

How to Build a Museum, the Story of the Making of the Smithsonian’s African-American Museum of History and Culture was an opportunity of a lifetime. I think it was February 2014 when I received an email from an editor at Viking I did not know, Sheila Koenig. It said “possible project.”  She says that she’s a fan of my work and she has a project that she thinks is right up my alley.

We talked and I had a lot on my plate but I said I just won’t sleep, I have to do this book because the museum itself represents everything that I’m about, everything that I’m trying to engage young readers on. It’s the story of the Black experience upon these shores, you know. Slavery, freedom, maintaining freedom, segregation, you know beyond MLK, beyond 1968.

It’s a story of sorrow, songs, and jubilees. It’s, it captures the complexity of Black life you know, the Booker T. Washington’s and the unknown washer women who maintained her humanity and her humor.

It’s the story of how America shaped people of African descent and how people of African descent shaped America. It’s, and one of the points that I make in the book because I know it’s one of the points the museum makes, is that Black history is everybody’s history. And I’ve been on this campaign lately to say all the history is everybody’s history.

I tell people the Trail of Tears is my history. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad is my, as MLK said we are made by history.

Well what I did was I started with, I started at the beginning which is, you know a lot of people know it took 13 years to build this museum but it actually took 100 years for it to come about. It began back in 1950. It began back in 1915 when some people, blacks in Washington said we think and this is, remember, this is the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.

We think that we should have in the nation’s capital a tribute to Blacks who have served in all America’s wars. They don’t get a hearing, you know, they rally, they petition Congress, nothing. And the wonder thing is that by the late 1920s, not only have they not given up they’ve gone beyond a tribute to black veterans. They said we want a first class museum that speaks to and honors the contributions blacks have made in America, in arts, industries, the universe of human endeavor.

And then they get a little support in Congress, then comes the Great Depression, things go on hold. And they continue to rally for this museum, the 30s, the 40s. Meanwhile museums, galleries are going up on the mall. They continue the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s. Representative John Lewis gets involved, the 90s, finally in 2003 the museum gets the green light. And it’s finally decided after much debate to put the museum on the Mall and it’s the last available space on the Mall.

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Rose’s sack

Like I said, the building of this museum reflects Black life upon these shores. Many things were a long time coming like freedom, a long time coming. And so when the museum shared with me thousands of artifacts that they were, had acquired, you know the idea is how do you choose, how do you create balance so that you have shackles but you have also things that uplift  people?

One example, we all know that Easter Sunday 1939, Marian Anderson gave a great outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial, where she sang My Country Tis of Thee. And we’ve seen her, we have the fur coat and you’ve seen the photographs. But do we ever think what did she have on underneath the coat?  And it was this gorgeous orange and black velvet ensemble.

Of course all the photographs we ever saw were in black and white. And then because I knew that the museum wanted to be about human beings, not just events, but as Lonnie Bunch the director said, bring it all to a human scale. So that when we think of Harriet Tubman we think of her as strong maybe with a rifle, leading people to freedom, urging them on. But when you see a lace collar that she wore or you see the shawl that Queen Elizabeth gave her you’re sort of reminded she was also a lady, you know.

And I think we wanted, my editor and I wanted to choose objects to reproduce in the book that would make people see the unknown Black people in a new way. One of my favorite artifacts is a sack that was made by a woman named Rose in the 1850s, made quickly after she learned that her nine-year-old daughter Ashley had been sold, they would soon be gone. And into this sack she put some pecans, I think a lock of her hair and some clothing.

And then as she told her daughter the sack also contained all her love. And I love that because when enslaved people are represented, we present how they were brutalized again, and again, and again. But we don’t show how they also held on to their humanity. How they held on to their love. If that woman Rose had been so brutalized beyond repair, she would have never thought of something so kind of metaphysical as saying all my love is also in this sack.

And there’s a kind of, she’s a poet. And she’s giving her daughter something so I think that’s one of the most powerful objects for me.

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Loving protection

Well you know the thing about when people present slavery is they also forget that very often, I forget which poet said it but we wear the mask. So there was some grinning and bowing and scraping and all of that and “yes sir, master” and all of that. But that, much of that was a mask. Behind that people were doing what they could to keep their children safe.

You know for example some say that sometimes an enslaved woman might chastise her child so that the overseer wouldn’t whip them. Similarly, when we go to the era of Jim Crow, I think an untold story is how often Black parents shielded their children from humiliation. They would say, maybe be in town and the child say, not knowing, you know I want to have an ice cream and say, knowing that they would have to go to the back or be denied altogether.

And the parent would say, oh when we get back home Mr. Jones down the street, his ice cream is much better. Matter of fact, I didn’t realize until I was doing my book on King that when I was going south to visit my parents’ relatives that that was during the time of Jim Crow. And my sister as I said who’s four years older, I said Nelda, I don’t remember the water fountains. She said don’t you remember we never went to town?  We stayed in Granddaddy’s community so my parents spared me the back of the bus. The spared me the colored water fountain.

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Reflections on the Jim Crow railroad car

One artifact that took me by surprise, it was like hidden in plain sight. You know the story that one of the largest objects in the museum is an old restored Jim Crow railroad car. And we all know about you know white people rode in the front and Black people in the back and you know, that. But as I had to study and learn about how they restored it, how they dropped it in before the museum was built and I was like well what does it look like inside?

And knowing that visitors to the museum will be able to I think eventually walk through the car. And I was told you know two-thirds up front was the white people and it had like larger restrooms like, larger seats and the back for people of color. And because I’m imagining going through it, I thought, it hit me that before we’d see Black people in the back, I guess being like okay we have to deal with this.

But I said but imagine if you were on your way to a loved one’s funeral and along with your grief you have to endure this humiliation. Or you’re going off to college you know, you’re DuBois or someone like that and yet you’re brilliant and talented and have all this possibility and yet you have to endure this humiliation. And then I would imagine white people up front and it crystalized for me something that I’ve been thinking about a lot is that when we teach Jim Crow we often teach about Blacks being victimized.

And they certainly were and being humiliated. But then I thought but what did it do to white people?  And I thought there could have been someone brilliant like DuBois Black, someone you know brilliant white in the front and yet these two brilliant minds could never meet and share and exchange and grow and give to one another. So it makes us understand that any oppression hurts the oppressor and the oppressed.

Because we’re all in this thing together, we’re all human beings, we all have so much to share and yet these rules of oppression keep us apart. And I think limits humanity’s possibilities.

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Not just for Black History Month

Well I think what we need to do, the librarians, we all need to work together. The writers, the librarians, the teachers. I will say to people, for example when I present on George Washington Carver, he’s relevant beyond Black History Month because he wasn’t just Black enslaved person who became a scientist. He was an environmentalist so I’ll say to people so do we only need him in February, are we only concerned with the environment?

I think what we need to do is present Black people not as just Black people but their gift, present their gift. Like King, in the book, when the book on King came out and people said is it still relevant because after all I guess if I could afford it, I could fly first class and I would say have we achieved the beloved community?  So when I’m working on a book like King, I’m going beyond Civil Rights leader. Yes, he was that, yes that’s important.

But, he was a humanitarian and therefore he’s relevant because we have not achieved the beloved community and people know little about agape. Love, as I say in the book, I believe I define it as it’s that harder, higher kind of love that has nothing to do with liking a person. Agape says see past the person’s sins to the soul God loves. I think, so it’s up to librarians and teachers and also to not just bring in Black authors during February. And to not just teach on Black achievers during February.

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The job of a biographer

And when I come to any project I come to it, I try, if I think I know something about a subject I do mind wipe and I say to myself why does King matter?  Why does Carver matter?  Why does Bethune matter?  And then I try to dig into the research and find the person, the human being. With King the most important research I did was listening to him.

And not just “I Have a Dream” but listening to sermons that maybe aren’t that well known, when he was tired and his voice cracked and I started to realize oh my god, he lived in fear. He sometimes wanted to throw in the towel and that’s what makes him great because they present him as though he sprang from his mother’s womb ready to crusade for justice. It’s like no he wasn’t, he was like I don’t want to be a Baptist preacher, I want to be a lawyer, I want to be slick, I want to be cool.

He was the reluctant warrior and he was terrified a lot of times and he did know days of despair. You know when he wanted to say at one point he told Abernathy after the march in Memphis went violent maybe we just, maybe there’s no hope. And I think that’s what people need to know because if you think he’s a perfect human being who had it all together, was courageous, then I could never do that.

But oh, he had failings, you know he was terrified. Well then I’ve known fear and terror, he went on, maybe I can go on. So I think our job as biographers is to make the person human.

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History is made up of what people leave behind

I always tell children when they’re researching a subject, I say don’t start with the dates if you’re doing Churchill and just start with like did he have pets as a kid?  You know what did he like to eat?  And I say and then go online and find menus from the time that he was around and find out what a steak and kidney pie cost.

I say start with the detail, the small little details, the everyday details of a person’s life. What were the fashion, World War I, don’t start with Archduke Ferdinand because I could never understand it’s like Archduke Ferdinand, World War I, start with what was the music of the time?  What were the popular foods?  You know if people were in Chicago, what were the ethnic groups in Chicago?  Start with the things that you can relate to, that you would want to know about a person.

Another exercise I do with children sprang from my book Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American girl. Which is based on the memoir she left behind and her families archives that are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. And I tell children I say I was able to do this book because her family, well they were upper middle class, they were able to leave behind artifacts from their lives.

And I said do you realize, say if I’m in the Bronx where I live, I’ll say in a hundred years a writer is going to want to write a book about kids in the Bronx in the 21st century and they’re going to go archives and libraries to look for material and I say what are you going to leave behind?  So that you and your block and your people will be in the history books?  I say history is made up of what people leave behind so when I have the time I’ve done extended exercise, I have them, as I said get a shoebox or some container.

And put in the things that are really important to you that you’re going to leave behind. And I find it is amazing what children come in with. And they’re very serious and they’re very caring and I’ve even done it with kids where the teacher says they’re rough, they’re tough. But one will say this was the bracelet my best friend in first grade gave me. Or this is a photograph of myself and my siblings before we went into foster care.

And they start, and I say and this matters, this tells a story. And you can even do it without having them bring it in, you can do it and say on a board what are you going to leave behind?  And they’ll say and I’ll say, how will we know if you traveled?  Maybe a map, pinpointing all the places you went. How will we know your favorite foods, and they’ll say “a menu?” And I say how will we know how to pronounce your name, we’ll leave a recording, “my name is so and so.”

How will we know about your every day, “I’ll leave behind my journal, my diary.”  And I think that exercise encourages some kids I think to keep diaries and journals and to keep artifacts from their lives. And what it does more than anything else it tells them that they matter.

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Getting into character

My process of writing is another crooked path. When I start a book. Let me back up, if I have an idea for a book and I present a proposal, I know I can do this, I’ve got this. They say yes, we sign a contract, I move forward, I say oh my goodness, what have I gotten myself into, I should have done a bunny book, you know, this is so much work. And then I remind myself of something that Bernice Johnson Reagan with Sweet Honey in the Rock said years ago, that you break it down into small steps.

And then the other thing I remind myself is like a mantra, it’s all in the research, that I have to trust the process. That how I open, tone, how I present the material will come to me if I immerse myself in the research, if I surrender to the subject. That’s what writing is, it’s surrendering to the subject and as I tell kids, because I think research gets a bad rap.

I tell kids, I say writing is acting. I say yes, writing is acting. If I’m writing about MLK, I have to become MLK. I said so if writing is acting then research is what?  Getting into character. It’s not getting some dry, boring facts together, it’s that getting, what I spoke about before. It’s getting into character, it’s learning what did King, what was he like as a nine-year-old.

You know, what dances were popular when he was a kid. And then when you, like I said I start with the small things. I find in my process when I’m doing a biography I also have to find something about the subject that I can really relate to or something that makes the subject more human. DuBois was tough. Because he was known to be arrogant, as brilliant as he was and as prolific as he was he could be a little arrogant.

And I’ve kind of had trouble, you know he’s not an easy person to like, that’s what I’m saying, W.E.B. DuBois, the scholar activist, you know is not an easy person to like. You can respect him and appreciate and revere him but it’s hard to like him. But as I read about his childhood I realized he was small and scrawny.

He was born in the Victorian era. He was left handed, and that was considered sinister back then. He was poor. At one point his mom had a stroke and it left her disabled and he wrote of times walking through the streets with her limping and I thought he may have been teased, he may have been bullied, he may have been picked on. And I thought maybe that’s why he had a little chip on his shoulder. And I could understand it better and say I can sympathize.

I think for Frederick Douglass when I learned that he played the violin I thought oh, he loved music along with you know, railing against slavery and injustices and for women’s rights that I imagined that right, after his lecture tours which were sometimes three or four months long, maybe that’s how he centered down by coming home and playing the violin.

So I think it’s important to like bring it down, what the museum is doing, bring everything down to a human scale and say I can relate to this person.

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Constructing the story

What happened with my book MLK: Journey of a King was I was reading a Life Magazine that came out the week after the assassination and on it there’s a photo of him where he looks like kind of, he looks a little discouraged or disgusted. I’d never seen that photo. And inside in the back is a photo essay.

And that photo essay includes that famous image we’ve seen of the men on the balcony pointing. And I’d always seen, I’ve seen that photo a million times but I had never, I had always, I had seen that photo a million times but I had never seen it in context. And certain in my imagination it wouldn’t have been in back of the magazine, it would have been in the front. Okay, it’s in the back.

And the photo, and the photographer who wrote about that moment you know as I read the whole article he said that you know he was in the room, he was waiting to interview him and he heard a sound and he came out and he saw King fall back and it looked like the last word he said was “oh.”  And I thought oh, that could have been King’s last utterance as opposed to “Oh my God,” you know something grand.

And that simple oh, I said I want to start with this moment. So sometimes during the research I find where I want to open and then when I found that I said I want to end with oh, that was going to be the structure. I’m going to start with that moment oh and go back through his life and then bring readers back to that moment on the balcony of Lorraine Motel and the last word of the book is oh.

So it’s, I really believe when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I mean, there’s a sort of magic, it’s a creative process even when it’s non-fiction. For some reason with W.E.B. DuBois it came to me probably because I knew he wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote that every chapter would open with a quote from him, where he was in his life. So I really think, I write my way in, in other words.

I know some writers can do outlines, I cannot do outlines. I can do an outline, but the finished book will be nothing like the outline. With my book on reconstruction what I wrote as the first chapter became the first chapter. So yeah, I write my way in and I hit a dead end and I’m like okay this is not working. And the wonder of computers is you don’t feel so bad about cutting because you say I’ll save it and use it later, I’ll save it and use it in another book.

Even if you don’t, but you feel like the writing wasn’t in vain. A mentor friend of mine, Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage, National Book Award winner, he once told me on one of his books that, I’m making it up, maybe it ended up being 30, 40,000 words that he wrote something like 200,000 words for what became 30, 40,000, 50,000 words. So I have long ago accepted that writing is writing and writing and writing and writing.

And you don’t look in terms of the economy of it like you know, I’ve done ... if you have to write 30 pages to get a good five pages then that’s what you have to do. And those other 25 pages was not a waste of your time, it was process.

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Writing is rewriting

When I do school visits and teachers ask me about process and I say for example that when my editor gets a first draft that’s probably my fifth draft and the kid’s eyes go wide and I say writing is rewriting and they look around at their teachers like oh, you haven’t been lying to me. And I say it’s rewriting, it’s rewriting because you want to get the flow of it down first.

And I tell them I say when I’m writing I’m not thinking about subject-verb agreement, parallelism, or spelling even. I said, in part, because when I was younger I paid attention and I did what my teachers told me to do and I listened to, when I was younger I was also taught grammar. And I had teachers who marked off, who didn’t give you an A for a good idea. Who took points off if your grammar and your spelling were in trouble.

And so I said so a lot of times I don’t consciously think about subject-verb agreement. I say, “but there are times I know there are words like concurrent, I’m like two C’s, two R’s, I don’t know but I’ll figure that out later.”  So first of all, you want to get your soul, your passion out on paper. And then it’s like sculpting. Then you refine it and you say oh this is repetitive or I need a stronger transition. I think the great thing for writers is “TK”.

You know it’s a symbol they use for “to come” for some reason, they say it’s because the only consonant cluster that doesn’t appear in an English word. So if I mapped writing a first paragraph and I know where I want to go to a second one but I don’t have the transition I put “TK transition” and I move on. Some writers have to get everything perfect as they go, I’m the type of writer that can go through and say okay this is fuzzy, TK it, move on, it’ll come to you later.

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Writing history for young readers

Also the thing I love about writing for young people is that it demands that we are clear.

And very often, because we have a responsibility, you know when you write for adults you can assume prior knowledge. I say well I don’t really have to explain that, they know it, they should know it or they could look it up. But when you’re writing for young people, it’s twofold. When you’re writing for young people you have to, when I write for young people I assume they have little or no prior knowledge, but at the same time I try to write as if they’re almost geniuses.

So explaining things in a way that doesn’t say and let me explain this to you. Also I think when you write for young people you have to think about the difference between what you put on paper and what they read. One example I recall vividly when I working on Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl, I moved to the scene of the New York City Draft Riots where New York, it’s the worst riot I think in the history of the nation.

And most of the rioters were Irish because they were among the poorest white people and when it came to the draft they were, they were among the people who suffered most from the draft because wealthy people could pay $300 and get out of the draft. So I thought oh my goodness, I don’t want Black kids, white kids, anybody to think that Irish people are like monsters.

I wrote in the book that most of the firefighters and the police officers who tried to stop the riot were also Irish. Thankfully Maritcha recalled in her memoir that at one point when her parents who had sent the kids out of town before the riot began, were in their home an officer named Kelly came to them to try to stop people, said “I heard that you were attacked, I’m so sorry.”

So you know you think about those things like what will kids pick up on and what will they kind of assume.

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Know the writing rules before you break them

Yeah, once, sometimes when I do school visits I’ll bring in drafts of my work and you’ll see markup, my markup, my editor’s markup. And one time a child said you made all those mistakes?  And that’s when I explained it’s a process because you’ve got to deal with so many things in writing. You’ve got to get the information down; you’ve got to present it in an engaging way.

As I said, Toni Morrison said “I don’t have color, I don’t have music, I have to use words to make color, to make music.”  You’ve got to look at sentence structure and do you have the same sentence structure; oh we have to mix that up. You have to know, and one thing I tell children is that the reason that you need to really pay attention to what your teachers are teaching you about grammar and transitions and all of that, the mechanics so that you get, you know them so well then you can break the rules.

I say so now I can use sentence fragments and it’s effective and no one is going to ding me for it because I know how to use it. And of course there’s the famous analogy with classical music and jazz. Many jazz artists started out as classical musicians. So you know when children also ask me is writing hard work?  And I say well I don’t think that anything worth achieving in life is easy.

And I also told them that compared to chopping cotton in the Delta or sugar cane in the Delta, writing is not difficult.

But when you do what you love you, you don’t mind, I mean sometimes yes I do get frustrated and it’s like I want to be out of this book. But it’s what I love and so I take a deep breath and say I want to do the best job I can do and also again writing for young people is a tremendous responsibility and honor.

So I can’t give them schlock because what they learn about Frederick Douglass or DuBois may be their introduction. May in a way stamp what they believe so I have to give them an objective, honest, the best book that I can because I’m shaping a young mind.

"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." — Jorge Luis Borges