PITTSFIELD — When Ty Allan Jackson was growing up in the Bronx in New York City, he used to take books with him to the park and read while his friends were playing basketball.
"My mother was always working, so, I had to find a way to entertain myself," he said.
That practice led to a lifelong interest in reading. Although Jackson never went to college, he now is a noted children's book author and motivational speaker who wants to bring the joy of reading to children.
Nine years ago, Jackson founded his own company, now known as Ty Allan Jackson LLC, to publish his first book, "Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire." Storey Publishing in North Adams is planning to publish a spinoff to "Danny Dollar" next year. Jackson's latest book, "The Supadupa Kid 2: Move," was released in mid-July.
We met with Jackson recently to talk about his craft, how reading inspired him as a child, why it's important for children of color to read books that include protagonists of color, and why he has to buy a new New York Yankees cap every year.
Q: Why did you become a writer?
A: It's funny that you say it and phrase it that way, because I don't think I would call myself a writer. I think writing is an art that I have not at all come close to mastering. ... I see myself more as a storyteller than as a writer.
Q: Why did you concentrate on writing children's books?
A: A lot of reasons. The first one was just the interaction that I had with my son, which started with him asking me if he could open up a lemonade stand when he was 7 years old. He made $50 in three hours selling lemonade, which prompted him to ask, "Dad, what am I going to do with all this money?"
I didn't know, but my mother always taught me that when I don't know the answer to a question, that I can find it in a book. So, I went to the bookstore to find a book that talked to my son about being an entrepreneur and what we do with money. I couldn't find one, so, I wrote one. ... I thought my story would resonate with a lot of other children, especially since there weren't a lot of books teaching children about money and there weren't a lot of books talking about money that had a young black boy as a protagonist.
Q: Did you want to change that?
A: My next reason for becoming a children's book author is, there really is such a tremendous lack of literature featuring children of any color. All you have to do is go to your local bookstore and look at the children's section. It's sobering how books feature [mostly] Caucasian characters, and the ones that do feature children of color are usually in an historical or cultural context.
I don't think kids read necessarily for those reasons; they read for fun. If kids read for fun, they don't necessarily want to learn about Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali or Rosa Parks. ... My son said to me once when we went to the bookstore, "Dad, why do I have to read about Martin Luther King when my friends don't read about Thomas Jefferson?" And I said, "You're absolutely right."
Q: Your website states that the first book you read growing up that had an African American protagonist in it was Richard Wright's "Native Son." What does that book mean to you now?
A: First of all, I have that book on my bed stand. I literally look at that book every day just to remind me of where I came from and what it means to see myself portrayed in literature.
It was the first time that I really felt the gravity of being represented in books. ... Prior to that, I was reading classics like "Moby-Dick" and "In Cold Blood" and "Catcher in the Rye." Great stories, but I couldn't connect with them.
Q: There's also a quote on your website from Frederick Douglass: "It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men." What does that signify?
A: Frederick Douglass also said: "Once you learn to read, you are forever free." To think that, 150 years ago, it was illegal — illegal — for someone who looked like me to learn to read.
What is it about the power of reading that people of color weren't permitted to do it?. ... It gives you something that no other medium can give you, and that's opportunity. It's education, it's the knowledge of power.
Where do you find knowledge? You find it in books. ... When you can read, the world just looks different, and I discovered that when I read "Native Son." Now, my obligation is to do that for the children of today.
Q: What kind of reader were you like as a kid?
A: I initially started out really casual. I was really into comic books. They were my first love. ... Then, I slowly progressed. ... I started reading classics like Truman Capote and [J.D.] Salinger. I don't know how or what got me into that. I grew up in the hood, in the Bronx. It was probably all that was available to me.
Q: How old were you when you read "In Cold Blood" and Salinger?
A: I was probably about 10. I was really young when I was introduced to that stuff. I think [George] Orwell's "Animal Farm" might have been one of the first ones, then "Watership Down."
Then, I started reading Herman Melville and Charles Dickens, and those were foreign to a kid who lived in the Bronx. Then, I got my hands on "Native Son," and that changed everything. I read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which changed my life, then "Roots" and "Black Like Me." I started reading a lot of books that had my voices.
Q: When did you read "Native Son?"
A: I was probably 11; certainly, no older than 12.
Q: Did you really receive 150 rejection letters when you tried to publish your first book?
A: One hundred and forty-seven.
Q: That must have been hard.
A: It was incredibly depressing, but I've always been a person of conviction, and as a kid from the Bronx, I don't like be told "no." You kind of find a way to be resilient and thick-skinned.
I was also in the sales business. When you're in sales, you're taught that every "no" brings you closer to a "yes," so, actually, the more "nos" I got, the more resilient I became.
Q: What kept you going?
A: After 147 letters, I stopped and had to look at myself and say, "How much does this mean to you?" At the time, outside of the love of my family, there was nothing more important to me except to bring this book into the world. So, I said to myself, "How bad to do you want it? Do you want it bad enough to find out how to do it yourself?" And I said, "Yes."
So, I stopped soliciting, I stopped requesting and I Googled how do you publish your own book? So, I started my own company, Big Head Books (now Ty Allan Jackson LLC). A year later, "Danny Dollar" was in my hands, a month [after that] I had sold 1,000 copies, and I quit my job. This is what I'm supposed to do.
Q: Why didn't you go to college?
A: I was a real big — and still am — mama's boy. It was hard for me to leave my mom.
To be honest with you, I was scared. ... I actually got accepted to Old Westbury University (SUNY College at Old Westbury) on Long Island. The first day I was there, I was terrified and told my mom I didn't want to do it. I wish she had the courage to make me stay, but she picked me up and I never looked back. ... It actually helped me that I worked in the health and beauty business for 15 years. It helped me find my voice and to engage with people.
Q: Have you ever thought of going back and getting a degree?
A: No. My success comes in the more children that I can inspire and empower. That's the only thing I believe that I need now.
Q: You always seem to be wearing a Yankees cap. Do you own any other caps?
A: Uh, no. ... I've been a Yankees fan born and raised in the Bronx, so, it's part of my DNA. Every year, I have to buy another [Yankees' cap] because I just wear them out.