“This book is my sort of making amends…for the flippancy of my youth,” says author Tonya Bolden. Bolden, who has written numerous award-winning books for young readers, came of age after the 60s, when Lincoln “was being dethroned as the great emancipator.” In her work over the years, though, the author kept encountering the fact that “people like Frederick Douglass greatly respected the Emancipation Proclamation….And it started to dawn on me that if people like Douglass respected this document, who am I to dismiss it?
Her new book, Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty, makes it clear that it was not the language of the Proclamation itself that she was drawn to (in the book’s epilogue, she refers to it as a “dull document that makes our eyes glaze over”). Instead, she came to think “that it’s the spirit of the Proclamation we should…celebrate.”
Bolden’s task—as she saw it, as she always sees it–was to “tell a good story. I’m trying to engage young people, to engage anyone! So how can I make it fresh?” In an effort to make this material “strange and unfamiliar” again, Bolden put herself in the shoes of Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, breathlessly waiting for the longed-for word of freedom, the “dawn of a new day.” What if, Bolden asked, emancipation had never happened?
The book transports readers back to the moment, when nothing was certain and everything was at stake. Rather than employing the objective, neutral tone of a historian, Bolden uses a personal voice; her unapologetically partisan use of “we” is a choice that Kirkus says “infuses the narrative with urgency.” Plunging readers into the drama of the times, Bolden surrounds them with a collage of contemporary documents, including political cartoons, editorials, photographs and paintings that capture the outraged and anguished voices of abolitionists reacting to history as it unfolds.
Bolden knows this approach is unusual. “We live in a sound-bite world, a give-it-to-me quick, what’s-the-takeaway world.” But history, viewed in all its messy complexity, doesn’t really offer that. And Bolden loves inviting young readers to immerse themselves in this complicated history. Though Bolden has written books and articles on many subjects for a variety of readers, the challenge of making history vital for children and young adults energizes her. “I don’t think about this audience so much when I’m first drafting as when editing,” she explains. “I see my challenge as writing while knowing that they may have little prior knowledge but assuming they’re intelligent and smart.” Bolden strongly believes that part of her job is to give young people a reason to be curious.
“I don’t explain every little thing—I give them a reason to go to the dictionary or glossary,” she says. “I want to encourage them to go look things up or ask a teacher what something means. Sometimes I’ll get an editor’s note: Will kids know that word? Kids DO know some things! Some more than others. I want them to puzzle, think, re-read a passage if need be. Because aren’t we trying to stimulate their minds, not just impart information?”
Bolden sometimes wonders whether we talk too much about the awful and the tragic and forget to celebrate the mavericks, the heroes who stood outside of their time, people like Thaddeus Stevens or Wendell Phillips. Even better-known figures like Douglass get reduced to a one-sentence description. “Did you know he played the violin, that he loved to travel, that his second wife was a white woman? Can you imagine what their lives must have been like?” Bolden wants to take as much time to “celebrate these incredible, but little-known people—to hold them up before the children.”
Even her very lengthy acknowledgements are written with these young readers in mind. “I’m so grateful to museums, historical societies…lawyers, the people I can bounce ideas off of,” she acknowledges. “I want to model that for young people too—we do not know everything, but go and find people who know more than you do. It’s all part of the process!” She pauses. “My passion is writing for the young. That’s how I have hope.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She has co-authored two books and several essays on intercultural subjects and reviews art, books and audiobooks for a variety of publications. When she isn’t reading, writing or teaching, she enjoys dreaming up new recipes, some of which she enters into cooking competitions and all of which she tries out on her husband and two daughters. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop.