Tony Medina is the successful author of seventeen books for both adults and children. His children’s books DeShawn Days and Love to Langston in particular have received several awards including: the Parent’s Guide Children’s Media Award in 2001; the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People in 2002; and the Rhode Island Children’s Book Award in 2003. Writer’s Digest also named Medina as one of the ten poets to watch in the new millennium. He was also awarded The Langston Hughes Society Award
and the first African Voices Literary Award.
Aside from his longstanding involvement with Behind the Book, Medina, also an educator, is passionate about inspiring readers and writers. He currently teaches Creative Writing at Howard University.
Medina’s latest book I am Alfonso Jones, the first YA graphic novel that addresses issues of police brutality and Black Lives Matter was released this October.
Behind the Book: How did you initially get involved with Behind the Book?
Tony: It has been so long since I first started working with Behind the Book, so I am a little fuzzy on the details on how I initially got involved. I think Abe Barretto of Lee & Low Books first linked me with Behind the Book. Once I began working with Jo Umans of Behind the Book we just clicked and I have been working with the organization consistently for over ten years. I really loved the fact that Behind the Book’s mission was to bring authors and illustrators into classrooms in New York City that normally would not be so privileged, exposing children to writers and artists who resembled them and come from similar backgrounds, for the most part—and gift them books!!! It was a marriage made in literary and literacy heaven!
BtB: What does it mean to you to be able to interact with young readers and help them develop a love for reading/writing?
Tony: The greatest part of being a children’s or young adult book author is getting to visit with young people and getting them excited about writing, thinking, using their imaginations and reading. It means a great deal to be able to inspire young people to believe in their voices and help them to feel confident about expressing themselves creatively. You never know how your interaction with them will affect their lives in profound ways. But it is reciprocal—I benefit greatly from the interaction and exchange, as well. I recall an incident when I came across an email from a librarian talking about a child who, after reading my book DeShawn Days, about a ten-year-old child from the projects raised both by his hardworking, single mother and his grandmother and lives with an extended family of uncles and cousins, and who has asthma, turned to her and said of me, “How does he know about my life!” Those are the kinds of spiritual reinforcements you get when working with young people, our future.
BtB: Were you always a reader/writer? Was there a particular person or book that inspired you to love reading/writing?
Tony: As a child, I was a bit lazy when it came to reading. I didn’t have the attention span for it; TV was my form of literature. I had a friend—Troy Ward—who would take books out from the library and push them on me, saying I should read this; I should read that. I’d take a book home and try and read it, but wouldn’t get past the first page or so, and would either turn on the TV or go out to play. Then in the ninth grade I was supposed to do a book report and hadn’t and I received an F. I was able to do a makeup and I fell in love with the book I selected to read from the handout: Flowers for Algernon. For some reason that book grabbed me and I spent an entire weekend engrossed in the world Daniel Keyes created that, upon finishing the novel, I announced to my family that I wanted to be a writer. I was so excited I even drew a picture of the main character for the cover of the book report—which helped garner me an A+. From that day on, I read everything on the list Mr. De Los Reyes handed out in the beginning of the school year. I began reading for fun, but mainly reading to teach myself how to become a writer.
BtB: What advice would you give to our young students as they work their way to a
Tony: The main advice is to fall in love with reading. Fall in love with words, language, ideas, films, TV shows, art. Get caught up in poems and stories and plays. Read everything— essays, memoirs, newspapers, comics, novels, graphic novels. Also, be a toddler in the world; be astonished by the beauty and awesomeness of being alive and the physical world. Look at things the way poets and artists do—the way children do. Learn to listen. The sounds of the world and the way people speak, the stories they tell, the natural poetry that stumbles from peoples’ mouths, their natural use of simile and metaphor, the various flavors of their language and dialects. Immerse yourself in the music and poetry of life. That will always inspire you to create.
BtB: What’s a fun fact about yourself? Do you have any interesting or unique hobbies?
Tony: When I was a kid living in the Throgs Neck Housing Projects in the Bronx, I was so obsessed with the character of The Fonz in the ABC sitcom Happy Days that I actually thought I was The Fonz. I wore a jean jacket a neighbor painted “The Fonz” on and I carried a comb in my back pocket like he did; and basically, I went around speaking like The Fonz and imitating him like a method actor who continues his role well beyond film shooting ends. I was a nut! But everyone in my neighborhood and at school played along.
BtB: What’s your favorite book/short story that you’ve written and why?
Tony: The most endearing book I’ve written has to be DeShawn Days, because it is my first children’s book and it is about a 10-year-old kid from the projects talking about his life and experiences though poetry. I used some elements of my own personal narrative for the character. Up until that point I have not seen a book about a kid like DeShawn represented in children’s literature There were books from the perspective of middle class children in picture books, but not many from the voice and point of view of a child from the ‘hood. DeShawn allowed me to create a character representing the children who seldom have a voice in society. But I recently wrote my first graphic novel for young adults, entitled I Am Alfonso Jones, about a 15-year-old Black Puerto Rican kids from Harlem who is shot and killed by a police officer moonlighting as a department store security guard. I am really caught up in Alfonso’s story and him as a character. Like DeShawn, Alfonso is very much “real” to me. That’s the power of the imagination and stories: the characters writers create become like real-life people to them and go on living beyond (in their imaginations) well beyond the story is written and the book is published.
BtB: What authors inspire you and why?
Tony: Because I read so much there are just too many writers to mention. As a child, of course I was taken by Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which as I stated inspired me to want to become a writer. Other writers I read as a teenager who really excited me and captured my imagination include: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving and Alice Walker.
BtB: How do you narrow down what you’re going to write about? Do have always know before you start or do you figure it out along the way?
Tony: The life of a writer is complicated by the fact that we are constantly thinking of new ideas for writing poems, stories, essays, etc., but there are not enough hours in a day and our lives are made that much more difficult because most of us have to go out and earn a living in order to do what love to do. So, we have to try and keep our minds and projects in order. I have written a few books simultaneously but when you are working on a larger project, like a traditional novel or a graphic novel, you pretty much have to be immersed in the world of those characters and their stories. I have to keep notepads handy and I have to learn how to focus on one project at a time, unlike reading where I can have about 6 or 7 books going at the same time! I usually narrow down what I want to write about by what I am compelled by: a certain idea, story, news item, or current societal problem that nags at me. Sometimes characters pop up in your head telling their story, demanding to be heard. Poems may seize hold of you and you are compelled to write them and rewrite them until you get them right. Other times, an editor may approach you with an idea for a book and you like the idea and want to work with that editor, and so you run with that, and that has a certain level of excitement knowing you have a book contract, which is a great motivator. Sometimes you just force yourself to write something (because you are a writer after all and in order to be considered a writer you have to write, no?) and you don’t know where that will take you, and you end up with something. That’s all part of the magic of creativity.
BtB: Do you have any kind of writing process?
Tony: I have been trying to find a serious writing process for about fifteen years or so. But, to no avail. I started out writing by inspiration, but you learn early on that that can get you but so far as a writer. So you have to force yourself to write. I have been too busy, too lazy, or too distracted to employ a writing routine or schedule. But I have been striving for that kind of discipline in my writing life. I do know one thing, I really work well when I am contracted to write a book and have an imposed deadline to meet. I just have to take that approach to writing projects that are not under contract. I basically have to create my own writing deadlines and adhere to them. In order to be successful, you must see writing as a ritual, as a discipline that gets better the more it’s practiced.
BtB: Anything new in the works?
Tony: I have my first graphic novel, I Am Alfonso Jones (Tu Books), which came out in October 2017 and I have a children’s picture book, Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Black Boy (Penny Candy Books), which comes out February 2018, and features the artwork of thirteen artists, some of whom are established and beloved children’s book illustrators and authors in their own right. And hopefully I will be inspired to write and publish more books young people can get behind. (You see what I did there!)
This guest blog was penned by Sarah Jane Weill.