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‘Real-life figures are more fascinating than things people conjure up’

American writer Tonya Bolden on taking up issues such as civil rights and disability for young readers

Written by Dipanita Nath |
Updated: December 8, 2017 6:08:44 am
Tonya Bolden

At the Bluebells School International in Delhi, a hall full of teenagers is considering a question posed by writer Tonya Bolden: “You see someone on a wheelchair and want to help, but don’t know how. What do you do?” They stare at her, at each other and at the floor. After a period of silence, Bolden replies, “Ask. You can ask, ‘Do you need any help?’” Hands begin to rise and questions tumble out. Bolden has got them thinking.

Winner of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC’s, Non-fiction Award, Bolden read at Bluebells and the recent children’s lit fest, Bookaroo, from her book, This Kid Can Fly: It’s About Ability (Not Disability), a memoir of a spunky 14-year-old called Aaron Philip, who is battling cerebral palsy and poverty to become an artist, activist and, according to him, an alien. Bolden pivots her writings on fairytales of a different kind. Her books include Maritcha: A 19th Century American Girl, Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty and 33 Things Every Girl Should Know. Excerpts from an interview:

Is there a reason you gravitate towards real-life characters rather than create fictional ones?

I find that historical figures are more fascinating than things people conjure up. What I try to do with history is go beyond the sample idea that someone like Martin Luther King Jr (from her book, MLK: Journey of a King) sprang from the womb, ready to do the right thing, because that’s not true. King was a bit of a party animal. I try to capture the humanity of historical figures but, most importantly, I try to show growth and struggle.

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What were your challenges as a woman of colour in the US?

That is what history does for you, it gives you a context, and makes you think, ‘My parents had it much worse. My grandparents had it much worse’. My parents grew up in the south during segregation and moved north before I was born. My generation reaped the benefits of the civil rights movements. I was aware that whatever racism and sexism I came across, it wasn’t anything compared to that of my parents.

You couldn’t wait to get into school.

I loved reading and writing. My mother studied till sixth grade and my father till ninth. They didn’t have formal education but were very smart. I get my research skills from my mother and my analytical skills from my father.

How different is it to write about historical characters, and someone you have met, such as Aaron Philip?

With King, we have his tapes, sermons and speeches. Part of being a writer is being sensitive. I would listen to King and see when he was tired or disgusted and I would include that. With Aaron, I had to go deep and explore a life. Aaron lives in a building and once the elevator was broken and the security had to carry him up the stairs. It was eye-opening, the way you have to be out in the world and people being angry because your chair takes up too much space. I can’t understand that hostility. It’s sad.

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