"I was born in 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri. When I was two my family and I moved to Kansas. As a teenager, I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, spending most of my summers at my grandmother's farm in Arkansas. Growing up, I wanted to be a musician. I was not a good writer and I never dreamed I'd become an award-winning author.
In 1960 I graduated from Fisk University with a B.A. in English and became politically active in the civil rights movement. I also pursued my music interests - writing songs, singing, and playing the guitar, banjo, clarinet, and piano. I recorded many of my songs on two albums, which show up on eBay from time to time, and a compilation of both albums was recently reissued on CD from Ace Records in England. Folksinger Pete Seeger and I wrote a book together, The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly, which was published when I was twenty-eight.
In 1961, I moved to New York City where I lived until 1975. During those years I hosted and produced a radio show on WBAI-FM in New York City for eight years, and hosted a live television show on WNET in New York for two years. During this time, I began publishing, my first book coming out in 1968.
With the advice of my publisher, I started writing children's books. My first book for children was To Be a Slave. My interest in slavery was personal because three of my great-grandparents had been slaves. The need to know more about my individual past led me to begin studying slavery, and once I did, my interest grew and I became intrigued by the challenge of trying to imagine what it was like to have been a slave. I wanted to communicate to others that those we call slaves were really human beings, human beings pretty much like us.
I suppose I write because I have some questions I need answers to, and the only way I know to find the answers is to write my way into them. My advice for someone who wants to be a writer is to read, read, read. It is important to know what others have written. It is important to learn the possibilities of things to write about and the ways to write about them. There is no substitute for reading everything you can get your hands on."