Speaking Up and Speaking Out with Tonya Bolden on Shirley Chisholm
Boy, I like this job. I really do. Where else, I ask of you, could a schmuck like me get a chance to talk to people like author Tonya Bolden about books celebrating such legendary figures as Shirley Chisholm? Chisholm’s having a bit of a moment in children’s literature and I couldn’t be happier about it. Today, Bolden breaks down her research process and what it is about Shirley that we keep coming back to time and time again.
Betsy Bird: Tonya! Thank you so much for joining me today. Now you are no stranger to the extensively researched children’s biography format, having worked on them for years and years. Can you tell us a bit about how SPEAK UP, SPEAK OUT came to be?
Tonya Bolden: It was my agent, Jennifer Lyons, who suggested it. And what a natural fit it was! I couldn’t believe that I had never thought of it. Shirley was born in New York City. I was born in New York City and when I was very young my family lived for a bit in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Shirley’s beat. I realized too that in writing about Shirley I’d be reliving and getting a chance to reflect on the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, the days of my coming of age. I didn’t know a lot about Shirley back then, but I definitely knew her voice.
BB: It’s been heartening to see the number of Shirley Chisholm picture book biographies released these last few years. Having a biography that’s able to provide a little more context and history is just the icing on the cake. Can you speak a bit to why Shirley is such a touchstone at this moment in time?
TB: Shirley fought for the Great Society. She fought for her nation to be one in which nobody was left behind.
When Shirley ran for president, she was a uniter, not a divider. She was all positive energy—something we surely need in these times. Shirley was intelligent and principled. She didn’t engage in gutter politics and circus politics.
BB: Tell us a little bit about your research process. The Notes & Sources in this book are so extensive that National Geographic shrunk the words down to an itty bitty type. How do you research someone like Shirley?
TB: First you take a deep breath.
I started my research by reading her memoirs Unbought and Unbossed and The Good Fight. I don’t remember the order of the rest of my research but it included reading tons of articles about her, bills she sponsored/co-sponsored while in the New York State Assembly and in Congress, and powerful speeches she made on the floor of the House of Representatives.
I watched (several times) Shola Lynch’s wonderful documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed. I also went through some of Shirley’s papers held at her alma mater, Brooklyn College. That material included items from her presidential run. I wasn’t able to access everything because of the 2020 Covid lockdowns.
For perspective and context I read a bunch of books, such as Barbara Winslow’s Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change, Wayne Dawkins’s City Son: Andrew W. Cooper’s Impact on Modern-Day Brooklyn, Brian Purnell’s Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn, and Michael Woodsworth’s Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City.
So, yes, I did a lot of research. But I don’t do all the research and then write. I may write a bit then research a bit. It’s often while writing that I discover things I need to research—or research more in-depth.
BB: You mention this in your Author’s Note, but in the course of your research you encountered a number of Black female politicians that paved the way for Shirley. Was there anyone in particular that stood out to you?
TB: That would Bessie Buchanan. In 1954 she became the first black woman elected to the New York State Assembly (representing a district in Harlem). This was ten years before Shirley was elected to the Assembly.
Buchanan stood out because, before I started doing my research, I thought that Shirley was the first black woman in the New York State Assembly.
As a legislator, Buchanan sponsored bills, for example, to combat housing discrimination. After several terms in the Assembly, in 1962 she became the commissioner of the Empire State’s Human Rights Division, appointed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
I also found this woman’s early career in showbiz interesting. She had appeared in a couple of silent flicks, performed in a number of musicals, and had been in the Cotton Club’s chorus line.
When it comes to black women in Brooklyn who paved the way for Shirley, I think of Maude Richardson, a tireless community worker, who twice in the 1940s ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the New York State Assembly.
BB: Well, shoot. Now I want bios on Bessie Buchanan and Maude Richardson too! Speaking of politicians, I could not help but notice that you just happen to have a Foreword to this book by none other than Stacey Abrams herself. Can you talk a little about how that came to be? Was it your idea or your publisher’s?
TB: Having Stacey Abrams contribute the foreword was a true blessing —especially given her busy schedule! My publisher approached her on my behalf. Abrams is just as fiery and just as much a fighter as Shirley Chisholm was.
BB: Finally, what would you like a kid or teen to do after finishing this book? What would you like it to inspire in them?
TB: After readers finish the book, I really hope that they are inspired to do their part—or continue to do their part—to make our society more just, more equitable.
Thank you, Betsy Bird!
BB: Thank YOU, Tonya Bolden!
And thanks too to Karen Wadsworth for setting this interview up. SPEAK UP, SPEAK OUT is out now on bookstore and library shelves everywhere.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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