Tony Gaskin is an educator and the author of the picture book Mr. Tony Explores Space. I loved talking to him about writing diverse characters — there’s a character in a wheelchair in his space picture book! We also discussed why he took a non-traditional path and what he loves about teaching elementary school.
Hi Tony. Welcome to Reading Middle Grade! Congratulations on your debut picture book Mr. Tony Explores Space. What is your book about, and why did you decide to write this book?
Thank you for having me.
Mr.Tony Explores Space, is about a teacher that takes his students on adventures of learning and discovery. In this particular book, we are visiting our solar system and the International Space Station.
One of the important ideas behind this book project is to further and encourage children’s imagination and sense of wonder; no idea or dream is too small. To re-imagine the impossibilities into the possible, no matter the perceived hurdles in front of you. Each book in this series will explore and examine different parts of the world and Mr.Tony will have a few of his students on each journey.
I would like to also mention, one of the important ingredients in this project is to create and introduce characters that are diverse in backgrounds and ethnicities. In my own classroom there were many books that just didn’t represent the many different children and families that are now very much part of the demographic landscape in our modern society. So this influenced my decision to create my own series of children’s books to reflect this change. It is vital that children of diverse backgrounds see themselves in books they are looking at, reviewing and reading.
One of the issues I have with our culture and society is regarding children with physical challenges. Far too often they are left out of our mainstream conversations of childhood human development. I created a character named Eric. He is in a wheelchair and he is very much a part of the discovery team. I wanted children that may have different physical challenges to encounter Eric through storytelling and see that he can go into outer space and on other kinds of adventures throughout this book series.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? If not, when did you decide you were ready to write a book?
I always had an interest in arts and letters even as a young child. What finally pushed me to write a children’s book was the lack of African American male teachers represented in children books as positive role models. At the same time, for me there wasn’t enough inclusion that represented our diverse world. We are in the 21st century. It is time all of us realized that planet Earth is incredible and full of amazing people of all backgrounds. Our books and media have to start reflecting this fact, we are not some big monoculture.
I know you’re also an early elementary school teacher. What do you enjoy about teaching? And have your kids read your book?
I think we as adults must get back to understanding that the early part of a child’s development — while in the womb, events negative and positive — can have profound outcomes for the child.
What happens at home while in the care of his or her caregivers will play an incredible part in that child’s life trajectory, way before they even enter any classroom setting. I realize this, when I deal with children. I already know what Mr. Tony says and does with my students will impact them for years if not decades. I am proud of my life’s work with children. I have done an excellent job. Why? because my parents did a fantastic job with me in my early years, see how that works?
How do you balance writing and teaching?
It is a bit challenging, because you want to be present for your children while in the classroom, and not have your mind on your outside projects. The upside, though, is that my work as a teacher helps with my children’s books. My experiences in the classroom directly compliments my work as a writer.
What was the most challenging part about writing and independently publishing this book?
Letting the idea that I needed an agent and that whole idea of agent-publisher thing go. Once I let that go, I began to thrive; I took back my power. I stopped letting this idea of “oh, I need them to validate my work” persist. No, I don’t. The landscape of books and publishing is changing. Creative people are taking their own destinies into their own hands and making our own way.
I was done with hearing no to my projects. Of course there is room for me and my vision, why do I need some person or persons to tell me what I am doing is worthwhile and meaningful? I will keep forging ahead.
Who are your favorite authors to read?
Outside of children’s books, I love James Baldwin, Richard Wright, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Anne Rice, Edgar Allan Poe just to name a few. For children, I like Mo Williams, Ezra Keats, and Don Freeman.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I try to catch up on my own reading. I work on new adventures and ideas for my children book series, come up with branding strategies for the project, and enjoy my quiet time at home.
What’s next for the Young Academics series?
We will be heading to Egypt to visit ancient sites of some of the great Pharaohs. I’m very excited about that. The manuscript is done and we are working on the illustrations.
Thank you so much for talking with me, Tony!
Thank you for the wonderful work you are doing!!!
Buy Mr. Tony Explores Space
Meet Tony Gaskin
Anthony Gaskin, also known as Mr. Tony, is an early elementary school educator, but a teacher to all ages. He graduated in 2017 from SUNY at Empire State College with a Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Development. He decided to return to school after years of exploring, including years of extensive work in early childhood care and education. With his debut picture book, Mr. Tony Explores Space, he hopes to create and develop characters and story lines that will include a diverse global framework to help contribute to the changing landscape of our world’s populations.