From Virtual Summer Camp to Personal Retreat to Publication With Scholarship Support: Tonya Duncan Ellis

Jan 15, 2024 | Black Voices, Scholarship Stories

Tonya Duncan Ellis first joined us as one of the 24 Storytellers in our Amplify Black Stories program, co-sponsored with The Brown Bookshelf, and attended our Virtual Summer Camp in 2021. In 2023 she received The Brown Bookshelf Scholarship and used it to come to our campus for a Personal Retreat.

Tonya’s Story

Tonya is author of the award-winning, 13-book, SOPHIE WASHINGTON children’s chapter series and THEY BUILT ME FOR FREEDOM (HarperCollins, Balzer + Bray, 2024). She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Authors Guild, and the Brown Bookshelf’s Highlights Foundation-sponsored Amplify Black Stories storyteller cohort. Tonya has spoken and taught at writing conferences at the Highlights Foundation and for SCBWI in New York City and for SCBWI Houston and Austin, TX chapters. A former journalist and freelance magazine writer, she holds a BA degree in French from Centre College of Kentucky and an MBA degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Tonya is represented by Sara Megibow of kt Literary. She lives in Houston, Texas and is married with three children.

Tonya reflects on her first Highlights Foundation experience at our Virtual Summer Camp:  “Even online, the community spirit shined through. I immersed myself in the sessions, driving to a nearby park to avoid household distractions. I learned so much during this time and workshopped a manuscript that will now be my debut picture book published through HarperCollins, Balzer+ Bray (May 2024). Conversations and encouragement from my Highlights mentor, Author David Bowles, in addition to working with peers in my writing sessions gave me the confidence to later seek agent representation and to continue to work on my craft. When camp ended, I actually teared up and vowed to take part in an in-person Highlights program in the future. Those few days made a huge impact!”

Upon receiving a 2023 scholarship, Tonya says: “My scholarship gave me time and space to work in a peaceful setting, allowing my creativity to flow. Writing in my own cabin where I could see deer and rabbits outside in the forest and being able to hike near a creek through woodland trails felt magical. By then I had sold the manuscript for my upcoming picture book, THEY BUILT ME FOR FREEDOM: The Story of Juneteenth and Houston’s Emancipation Park, which I had workshopped at a Highlights virtual camp. My editor sent me notes to work on while I was at Highlights, making the revision process feel like a full circle moment and even more special. Having all my needs for food (the Highlights chefs are amazing) and service met was great, and I enjoyed interacting with other creatives on campus. It was wonderful to have that time and space to focus on my writing.”

Tonya agrees that it’s not just a financial benefit that creatives receive: “Thank you for the opportunity to realize my creative dreams and to make an impact on current and future generations! In addition to the valuable financial assistance the confidence and encouragement Highlights Foundation scholarships provide means so much to authors and illustrators.”

For more about Tonya:

Instagram, Facebook and TikTok – @tonyaellisbooks


Photo of author Tonya Duncan Ellis
Book cover: They Built Me for Freedom
Book cover: Sophie Washington Vol 1
Book Cover: Sophie Washington v 13

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The Highlights Foundation positively impacts children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves.  Learn more about our impact.