Tonya Bolden Turns an Icon into a Living Person

By Gillespie, Fern | The Crisis, May/June 2007 | Go to article overview

Tonya Bolden Turns an Icon into a Living Person


Gillespie, Fern, The Crisis


Tonya Bolden Turns an Icon into a Living Person M.L.K.: Journey of a King by Tonya Bolden (Abrams Books for Young Readers, $19.95)

In early 1960s when Tonya Bolden was a child growing up in New York, she dreamed of becoming a teacher. In those halcyon days Bolden, a voracious reader and an excellent student, tended the Chapin School, one of New York's most prestigious private schools for girls.

Bolden graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University with a baccalaureate in Slavic languages and literature, concentrating on Russian. She earned a master's degree in the same fields from Columbia University; and a Certificate for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union from Columbia's Harriman Institute of Russian, Eurasian and Eastern European Studies.

In spite of her degrees, Bolden never became the classroom teacher she aspired to as a child, but did influence youngsters (and adults) through her award-winning books and education materials. Bolden created a niche for herself as a collaborator with some of the most notable women in America.

She worked with Johnnetta B. Cole, for example, on her book Conversations: Straight Talk with America's Sister President, and was co-author with Mother Love on Forgive or Forget: Never Underestimate the Power of Forgiveness. Bolden also worked with Eartha Kitt on Rejuvenate! (It's Never Too Late), Chaka Khan (Chaka! Through the Fire) and wrote the narrative for Diana Ross' book (Diana Ross: Going Back).

"I gained wisdom. I found out how intelligent and complex these women were," Bolden, an intelligent and complex woman herself, told The Crisis.

When Harry N. Abrams Inc., a preeminent publisher of quality art and illustrated books, launched a youth division headed by editor Howard W. Reeves, Bolden was tapped by Reeves to create a line of books on African American culture.

"I love Black history. History makes me whole," Bolden explained to The Crisis. "With every book I do on a Black person or a Black experience, I'm getting stronger. And, I'm getting clearer from whence I come."

Abrams Books for Young Readers and Bolden seemed a perfect match.

"Tonya's very prolific, and I love her ideas," Reeves says. "She cares about her subjects. There's a personal passion. She's very, very meticulous in her research and in her writing. She can discuss topics from many different angles."

The angle of ascent she look on Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began April 1968, in her East Harlem elementary school classroom, as she witnessed a teacher crying. King had been assassinated.

In January of this year, Abrams published Bolden's M.L.K.: Journey of a King. The book, graced with an overflow of period photographs on heavy, glossy paper, details the life of King from childhood to death.

In M.L.K.: Journey of a King, Bolden refers to King as M.L. "I mean no disrespect by calling him M.L.," she writes in an author's note at the end of the book. "It's about recognizing that I grew up regarding 'the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.' as more statue than man ... and so I did not truly appreciate him."

Younger people cannot live the dream King envisioned "or live his legacy if they don't see him as a real human being who made mistakes, who had struggles, who had fear, who had to personally overcome hatred," Bolden stressed to The Crisis. "The book very much springs from the fact that while I grew up with the understanding that he was a great man, an American hero, I knew that heroism involved his struggle with hate to remind us that meekness is not weakness."

Bolden's absorbing story let us feel the joys and conflicts of a boy originally named Michael, who was not always a star performer. In M.L.K. we discover how an indifferent student and collegiate cool cat became Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a God-inspired international "drum major" for justice and, in 1964, the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. …

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