Tonya Duncan Ellis is the author of the SOPHIE WASHINGTON series. She lives with her family in Houston, Texas. Here, Ellis speaks with us about her writing career, Sophie Washington and what and who inspire her.
Jambo Books (JB): In October of last year, Jambo Books sent SOPHIE WASHINGTON: HURRICANE to our 7-9 year old readers. It was especially timely in the wake of Hurricanes Florence and Michael lashing the southeastern United States. How do you put yourself in a child’s shoes experiencing tragic or difficult circumstances?
Tonya Duncan Ellis (Ellis): Thanks so much for featuring my book, SOPHIE WASHINGTON: HURRICANE on Jambo! I was evacuated from my home in Houston during Hurricane Harvey, so I got first-hand experience with the uncertainty and fear that come with facing a natural disaster. My husband, three children and I waited too long to leave the city after the storm hit and all the roads leading out of town were flooded. We hunkered down with another family that had younger children for a couple of days before we were able to head out. Observing and responding to the children’s reactions as the event unfolded no doubt influenced my writing. I’ve had other encounters with tropical storms a few years ago when Hurricane Ike blew through Houston. This led to several months of power outages in areas of the city and my kids being out of school for a couple weeks. Prior to that, I assisted with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, since many New Orleans residents fled here to Houston during and after that storm.
JB: As a creator, you have to know everything about your characters – their social-economic backgrounds, their likes and dislikes. How did you make those decisions for Sophie?
Ellis: Sophie is a middle class African American girl who lives in the suburbs of Houston with her mother, father and younger brother. She is a lot like kids that I know from my neighborhood and have met throughout the community. Many of the characters I see in books about children of color portray young people from under privileged backgrounds, who have lots of economic struggle or are disadvantaged (from foster or broken homes, disabled, etc.). I wanted to show a different slice of life that my kids and many others in their peer group could relate to and to highlight the diversity of Houston, which is truly a melting pot.
JB: Was there someone in your life that inspired the Sophie Washington character?
Ellis: I have a daughter and three sons. Some of the squabbles Sophie has with her brothers mirror things that have gone on in my household with my children or with their friends. My kids have also participated in spelling bees, and I have judged spelling bee competitions, so that played a role in my development of SOPHIE WASHINGTON: QUEEN OF THE BEE as the first book in the series.
JB: Your Texas roots are a big influence your writing. How does being a Texan set Sophie apart?
Ellis: I’m originally from Louisville, Kentucky but have lived in the Houston area, which I love, for the past 15 years. I’ve visited and stayed in many cities, but find the life here truly unique, with alligators and wild boar crawling through neighborhoods, and huge community events like the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, filled with broncos, and locals in cowboy hats, plaid shirts and boots, bringing people together. Sophie deals with common middle grade issues, like confronting bullies, making friends and fitting in, with a Texas-twist that allows readers to glimpse bluebonnets, the Gulf Coast and other things that make this part of the country special.
JB: When you first began writing the Sophie Washington series, you were fitting in being a novelist along with your full-time job. Are you able to make creating children’s books your full-time job now?
Ellis: I spend most of my time as an author now and hope to expand my author brand even further this year.
JB: You’ve mentioned in other places that you have to spend a lot of time marketing. Do you have any marketing tips for aspiring authors?
Ellis: As a children’s author I’ve found participating in various book fairs, writer’s conferences and festivals beneficial for making contacts with librarians and teachers, who introduce my series in their schools. I’d advise aspiring authors to take advantage of any opportunities that come along and work tirelessly to promote their work. You are your best advocate, and when people see your passion, they are excited to support you.
JB: Granny Washington is a prominent character in the Sophie Washington series, is this based on your own personal experience with a grandparent?
Ellis: Like many grandparents, Granny Washington loves to spoil Sophie and her younger brother Cole rotten when she comes to visit from Corpus Christi, a coastal city that’s a three-hour drive from Houston. She is based on my children’s grandmothers who both believe that their grandkids can do no wrong and have a great time giving them whatever they want when they come to visit from out-of-town. As an elder with a different perspective than Sophie’s parents, Granny Washington also acts as her sounding board and confidante.
JB: Do you have a favorite Sophie Washington book?
Ellis: I get really immersed in all my books and feel like each one is my favorite when I am writing it. I try to add in interesting elements in every book, such as new characters or unique experiences for Sophie. I felt like SOPHIE WASHINGTON: HURRICANE was my best book ever when I was writing it and had lots of fun making up Sophie’s cheers when she was trying out for the cheerleading squad. I also had a great time dreaming up Sophie’s jungle adventures in the next book in the series, SOPHIE WASHINGTON: MISSION: COSTA RICA.
JB: What new challenges and adventures are in store for Sophie Washington?
Ellis: Look for Sophie’s newest adventure, SOPHIE WASHINGTON: CODE ONE, to be released in late February/early March 2019. Xavier Academy is having a computer coding competition with a huge cash prize! Sophie Washington and her friend Chloe can’t wait to enter with their other classmates Nathan and Toby. The only problem is that the boys don’t think the girls are smart enough to be on their team, and have already asked two other kids to work with them. Determined to prove the boys wrong, Sophie and Chloe form their own all-girls team called “Code One.” Computer coding isn’t easy, and the ladies get more than they bargain for when hilarious mishaps stand in their way. It’s girls versus boys in the computer coding competition, as Sophie and her friends work day and night to prove that anything boys can do girls can do better!
JB: Who are some of the authors who have influenced you?
Ellis: Growing up, I loved realistic fiction with girl main characters, and some of my favorite authors as a child were Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I try to read two to three middle grade children’s books a month, and I’m also influenced by modern day authors like Crystal Allen, Abby Klein and R.J. Palacio.
JB: Can you share with us some of the authors that you follow on Instagram, Twitter and/or Facebook?
Ellis: Authors I follow on social media include Angie Thomas, Crystal Allen, Don Tate, Kelly Starling Lyons and Sherri Winston. The list grows every week, as I try to stay current with established and emerging new voices.
Thank you so much for sharing your time and your story with us, Tonya Duncan Ellis. Our next post will feature excerpts of Sophie Washington books!