“I love living in Texas, which is rich in talent. So many prominent, award-winning writers live here. Literary organizations here have embraced me and my work.”
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Mr. Tate, you have a new picture book publishing in November, William Still and His Freedom Stories: Father of the Underground Railroad. Please tell us about your newest book.
DON TATE: William Still was born in 1821 near Washington Township, New Jersey (now Shamong). While he was born free, his parents had been enslaved in Maryland a generation before. His father had purchased his freedom, his mother had escaped with two children—leaving two young boys behind. William grew up hearing his parents’ stories about their enslavement and the painful story of his brothers.
When William grew up, he took a job in Philadelphia at the Anti-Slavery Society Office. He also opened his home as a “station” on the Underground Railroad—becoming one of its top “conductors.” As freedom-seeking people passed through his line of the railroad (a secret system of hiding places from slavery to freedom), William recorded details about them and their stories, with a goal to help families torn apart by slavery to be reunited. Little did he know that his work would reunite him with one of those long-lost brothers.
You are a prolific author and illustrator, closing in on ninety children’s picture books. How and when did you know you wanted to be a writer and illustrator? Which came first?
I was inspired to become a children’s book creator by an aunt who wrote young-adult novels. When Eleanora E. Tate’s book, Just An Overnight Guest, was made into a movie and debuted at our local library, I decided I wanted to become a storyteller, too.
I entered the field as an illustrator and book designer. I worked at an educational publishing company in Des Moines, Iowa, where I grew up. There, I illustrated educational aids and books to be used in the classroom. My first book as an illustrator, on the trade side, Say Hey: A Song of Willie Mays, came out in 2000. I continued to illustrate about one book per year after that. My first book as an author, It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, published in 2012.
If I’m not mistaken, all of your picture books are biographies, several of which have been won awards and recognition—Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Books for the Year, a Carter G. Woodson Book Award Honor Book, Kirkus Best Informational Picture Book, an Ezra Jack Keats Book Award, the Christopher Award, a Texas Institute of Letters Literary Award, a Writers’ League of Texas Book Award, an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, and Junior Library Guild Selections; this is a partial list. What inspired you to work in biography for children and how do you select your subjects?
During my personal reading time, I prefer nonfiction, especially biographies. I’ve read the biographies or memoirs of Frederick Douglass, Jack Johnson, Malcolm X, Shelley Stewart, James McBride, Antwone Fisher, Nathan McCall, George Bush, Clarence Thomas, [and] so, so many others. I love stories of interesting, inspirational, or even controversial figures. So, I guess it makes sense that when I decided to start writing, I chose biographies.
There have been different reasons for each subject I chose to write about. Author friend Dianna Aston suggested I write about outsider artist Bill Traylor. Author friend Chris Barton suggested George Moses Horton. So, I’ve been open to the suggestions of friends. But I wrote about Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow because I’d participated in bodybuilding myself. And I wrote about artist Ernie Barnes because I’ve been inspired by his artwork since I was a child.
How does your process differ between illustrating your own words and visually enhancing another author’s words? Is it ever difficult to make that switch?
I’ve noticed that I’ve become more critical of other author’s works when I illustrate them. I find myself asking: Why didn’t they word it this way or that way? Or maybe they could change the story arc to be this way or that . . . lol! I’m not supposed to do that, and I can’t. But I’m also not shy about making a suggestion if something really stands out to me as either wrong or needs more clarification.
When I illustrate my own works, I can make as many adjustments to the text as my editor will allow, and I usually do make revisions right up until print day.
In addition to the activity guides available on your website, you present school programs. What can a class expect of a Don Tate presentation? How have you adapted these programs to the restrictions of COVID-19?
My presentations are very visual and interactive. I like to get the students involved; it can’t be a presentation that’s all about me, me, me. Author day is their day too, and I want them fully invested. I tell stories. I tell them about my childhood dreams to become an artist—and how I went about making that happen. I talk about my revision process. My favorite part of the presentation is when I draw for them.
Of course, everything is virtual now, but what I’ve discovered is that my in-person presentations aren’t much different than what I present virtually. And the drawing portion is even better, I think, because that kid who might have been in the back row and can’t see, is now front and center.
You are a founding host of The Brown Bookshelf, a website devoted to bringing greater awareness of Black writers to younger readers. Please tell us about the founding of The Brown Bookshelf.
The Brown Bookshelf was the idea of authors Varian Johnson and Paula Chase Hyman. They’d both published new books and were frustrated about the lack of attention the publishing industry gave to books written by Black authors. They came up with the idea of creating the Brown Bookshelf to shine a light on books written and/or illustrated by Black creators. Several other authors, including Kelly Starling Lyons, Tameka Fryer Brown, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, and myself, joined the team. Later, we added many other talented book creators to the team.
For those who enjoy your work and would like to discover more great books for their children, which of your fellow Texas children’s authors do you particularly enjoy and recommend? Which writers and artists have been most influential to your career?
Cynthia Leitich Smith, an Austin writer for young readers and author/curator of a Native-focused book imprint, was my biggest influence as a writer. When I decided to write, she mentored and encouraged me at a time when I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I have many other friends locally with wonderful books: Chris Barton, Cynthia Levinson, Carmen Oliver, [and] Donna Janelle Bowman all write great fiction and nonfiction for young readers. In addition, each of these authors have helped or influenced my career in huge ways. I fear leaving someone out, though. Please take a look at the local SCBWI website—there is great talent in Austin.
Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. You are originally from Iowa. How did you come to Texas and how has Texas impacted your work?
I moved to Texas from Des Moines, Iowa, to work as a graphics reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. That was more than twenty years ago. I love living in Texas, which is rich in talent. So many prominent, award-winning writers live here. Literary organizations here have embraced me and my work. I am thankful to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Writers’ League of Texas, Texas Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters, Texas Book Festival, the Library Foundation. And I can’t forget BookPeople! Each of these organizations and so many others have had an impact on my career.
Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?
I’m in the process of finishing off my next book, Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes. Another book on the subject beat mine to market, so I had to rewrite my story and push it to a later pub date. It will now publish in the fall of 2021. It’s the true story of Ernie Barnes, a kid who dreamed of becoming an artist someday. But in his community, art was not considered a manly aspiration. So, Ernie became a football player—a really good defensive lineman. After playing professional ball for five seasons, he retired and became the artist he always dreamed of.
What books are on your nightstand?
Reading in the pandemic, in our new Zoom-conference world, has become impossible. However, the audiobook has saved me. Over the summer, I listened to How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds; and Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes.
Currently, I’m listening to Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. Next will be a book by local authors Cynthia Levinson and Sanford Levinson, Fault Lines in the Constitution.
Don Tate is an award-winning author and the illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children. He is also one of the founding hosts of The Brown Bookshelf, a blog designed to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers, with book reviews and author and illustrator interviews. Don frequently speaks at schools, public libraries and writing conferences, and participates in book festivals.