Don Tate is an award-winning author, and the illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children, including The Cart That Carried Martin, (Charlesbridge); Hope’s Gift, (Penguin); Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite (Charlesbridge); and Ron’s Big Mission, (Penguin). He is also the author of It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started To Draw (Lee & Low Books, 2012), an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor winner.
His most recent titles include The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Illustrator, Eerdmans, 2015), and Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Author and illustrator, Peachtree, 2015). Don is a founding host of the The Brown Bookshelf –a blog dedicated to books for African American young readers; and a member of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature.
He lives in Austin, Texas, with his family.
I’ve had the opportunity to read and view your phenomenal work. How were you introduced to art and illustration?
I’ve always been an artist. When I visit schools, I tell kids that I’ve been drawing since old enough to hold a pencil in my hands.
Most artist say they were loners growing up; an outsider looking in with another view of the world. Does that describe you?
I was definitely a shy kid. I simply did not do well in social situations. Because of that, yes, I often felt like an outsider. But, for me, being an outsider wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I was happiest and most content doing lone activities—drawing a picture or making something with my hands.
What artist/illustrators inspire you?
I’m a self-taught illustrator. I learned to create art by trial and error. Same with my writing. So my ears perk up when I hear stories about people who succeed on nothing other than raw in-born talent. I’m also inspired by illustrators who create art in varying styles. I’m not a trademark illustrator myself, in that I do not have one style that I use for everything. I let the narrative of the book, the feel, determine what media and what look I will use. Illustrators like Eric Rohmann, Paul O Zelinsky, Daniel Kirk use varying styles. Even James Ransome has changed things up a bit lately. I find that exciting.
The adjective “vivid” is used a lot when reviewers and others talk about your work. What is the first impression you want the reader to have when they see the cover or turn to that first page?
Pride. Many of my book covers feature African American historical figures. I often picture portraits of them closeup. I hope that my covers exude a warmth and dignity about the people I portray.
How did you decide that you not only wanted to illustrate books but now write them as well?
I was encouraged to write by my friends in The SCBWI, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I would not be writing today had so many encouraged and mentored me.
Your latest book is “Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton of Chapel”. What drew to his story?
Again, it was a writing partner who suggested the subject matter. At that time, I was just beginning to write and wasn’t sure about what or who to write about. So I listened intently to my writing buddies.
How did you begin the research for “Poet”?
I studied the short autobiography that Horton wrote in the forward to his book, THE POETICAL WORKS, and I read his poetry in all three of his books. In addition, I worked closely with researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
What do you want the reader to take away from “Poet”?
Well, I hope that the reader will see in Horton’s life what I saw: the importance of reading and literacy. Horton was able to accomplish much in his life although he was enslaved. He reached great heights as a result of becoming literate. I really dislike when I hear a child say that they don’t like to read. I just want to give them a copy of POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON.
What is the overall theme/message in the work of Don Tate?
I’m very much a commercial artist. I create art to be used on products—books, magazines, t-shirts, wallpaper, stationery, so on. So any message depends upon the narrative of a story, or the final use of a product.
You are a part of #weneeddiversebooks. What can we do to encourage more books by and about African Americans to get published and better marketing/promotion?
The main thing we must do is to buy books that feature people from under represented communities. In other words, we must purchase books with black characters. They will get books at school, but they need their own books at home too. Our dollars are like votes, we get a publisher’s attention when we spend our money! Buy books!
What’s next for Don Tate?
I have four books slated to come out in the next few years. The next book that I illustrated is written by Chris Barton. It’s called WHOOSH! LONNIE JOHNSON’S SUPER-SOAKING STREAM OF IDEAS. It publishes in the summer of 2016 with Charlesbridge Publishing.