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Illustrator Interview: Don Tate, The Brown Bookshelf

the brown bookshelf african american children's books blog bannerHere is another in my series of children’s books blogger interviews. Today I report on my interview with Don Tate (abbreviated “DT” below), who blogs at The Brown Bookshelf, a multicultural children’s books blog focused on the work of African-American artists and authors.   At The Brown Bookshelf Don posts children’s book reviews and news that fit with the focus of the blog.  As you will see from the interview, Don is primarily an illustrator of multicultural children’s books.  He has illustrated (beautifully!) many books, some of which are sprinkled throughout this post, and he maintains a website (Don Tate – Children’s Literature Illustration) focused on his illustration work.   The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent websites focused on children’s books.  I am particularly excited to introduce my readers to Don Tate and The Brown Bookshelf, as they inject an important African-American voice into the discussion.  So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out The Brown Bookshelf, as well as the many excellent multicultural children’s books resources he mentions in the interview. And why not buy one of his books while you’re at it?  Thanks Don!

Q: I understand that you are primarily an illustrator.  How and when did you begin being interested in illustration?

DT: Well, I’ve always been an artist. I was the “best drawer in class” throughout grade school, and I never considered anything else beyond art. I went to a vocational-technical high school. My core area was commercial and advertising art, so I’ve always operated within the commercial art realm—art with a commercial purpose. Following college, I started getting freelance illustration projects from a local educational publishing company. I loved children’s publishing, and have pretty much stuck with it.

Q: How and when did you start illustrating in the world of multicultural children’s books?

African Myths Retold by Eleanor TateDT: After several years of freelance illustrating for that educational publishing company (Perfection Learning Corporation (PLC)), I was offered a full-time job. I designed and illustrated books, posters, and reading programs. While there, I had the opportunity to illustrate a book called Retold African MythsRetold African Myths by Eleanor Tate, written by Eleanora E. Tate (my aunt). We traveled with PLC to various reading conferences like the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Alliance of Black School Educators promoting the book. While at these conferences, I met editors, agents, and art directors from publishing companies all over the country, and soon I started receiving more illustration requests. My employment at PLC presented a conflict of interest, so I had to set out on my own.

My dream was to illustrate a trade picture book. I wanted to be able to walk into book store and see my name alongside great illustrators like Jerry Pinkney, Brian Pinkney, Floyd Cooper, and James Ransome. But after zillions of rejections, I almost gave up. Good thing I didn’t. In 1989, I was offered my first trade book contract with Jump at the Sun: An African American Picture Book CollectionJump at the Sun: An African American Picture Book Collection.

Q: How would you characterize the style/media of your illustrations?

DT: A newspaper columnist once described my art work as neo-cubism. And I thought, “What the heck?”

It’s a difficult question. I don’t really have a trademark illustration style, as most would advise. When I first got into children’s publishing, I experimented with a variety of styles. I’d get bored doing the same thing every day, so with each new project, I’d do something different. I didn’t know any better. I was just doing what came natural to me. It felt right, and having so many different styles seemed to open doors. Art directors would go to my portfolio and pick a style, like they were selecting a flavor of candy. This way of working followed me when I entered trade publishing.
Ron's Big Mission by Don Tate cover art

Over the years, I seem to have settled on acrylic paint. It dries fast and I can continue to work. But I also enjoy working in oil, and illustrating on the computer. I work part-time at the Austin American-Statesman, and all of that work is generated digitally. Publishing has changed though, in so many ways. It’s so much more important today to be known for that one distinct style. For that reason, I’ve been narrowing down my flavors.

Q: Tell me about some recent and/or upcoming projects that you are especially excited about.

DT: I have so much in the works, it’s all so exciting. At a time when publishing is in such flux, I feel fortunate to have a full plate of work with many opportunities on the horizon.

My next book, She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley StoryShe Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story by Audrey Vernick and Don Tate (HarperCollins), written by Audrey Vernick, publishes next month on October 13.  My first authored book, It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to DrawIt Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, will publish with Lee & Low Books next spring, 2011 (tentative). It’s being illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.  Currently, I’m illustrating a book about Duke Ellington for Charlesbridge. And I have another that I can’t talk about yet because the contracts are being drawn up right now.

Q: Have you ever won any awards for your work?  If so, which ones?

DT: My books have been honored in many ways — national and state awards, stars from various literature journals, lists after lists, thankfully.

She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story by Audrey Vernick and Don Tate cover artThe thing is, I didn’t get into publishing out of a desire to win awards, and the topic makes me uncomfortable. So often, editors will mention the awards they think we will win before the contracts are even signed. As an African American, some have even hinted that I must win certain awards in order to have any longevity in this business. I even received condolences from one editor when that certain award didn’t materialize. Think of the pressure that puts on me.

But to answer the question, my books have received stars from Booklist and School Library Journal, honors from the Texas Library Association’s Bluebonnet, Aseop Accolades, Best Children’s Books of the Year from Bank Street College of Education, and from the National Christian School Association.

Lee & Low’s New Voices award is the one that has meant the most to me. I received it for a book that I wrote, which will publish next year. I really needed that award and it came at just the right time. I’ve been an artist all of my life, I already knew that I could draw. I didn’t need an award committee to confirm that for me. But I wasn’t confident in my writing abilities. I refused to read or participate in high school English literature class discussions. I never had any college English. I use the words “ain’t” and “got” way too often, and my wife is constantly correcting my grammar. Me, write a book and win an award? It gave me the confidence to continue writing.

Q: How does the fact that you are African-American affect your work, if at all?

DT: In college, during a portfolio night program, a white illustration instructor pulled me aside and gave me this advice: He said — and I’m paraphrasing, because it’s been 26 years — “As a black man in the field of commercial art, it will be tough. You’ll have to work twice as hard as your white counterparts. But you’re talented, and I believe you can do it.”

I Am my Grandpa's Enkelin by Walter WangerinAfter graduation, I worked as a layout artist for a print shop. One day at lunch, my boss complimented my work and then reassured me that I could have a job with him for as long as I liked, “because Blacks aren’t hired in this field, and you’ll have a hard time finding another job.”

There are several more examples I could share (like the boss who once told me I was lucky to have a job with him “since most ad agencies won’t hire blacks”), but you get my point. I began my career with a head overflowing with negative messages that could have prevented me from reaching my goals. I was shy, and not confident in my ability to reach my dreams and goals. But I had one very important thing: A mom, family and friends who believed I was the most talented artist in the world. I believed them, so I kept reaching for my dreams without sidetracking.

How’s that for sappy?

Today it’s much the same. There’s a lot of racial…bull-crap that goes on in the children’s publishing industry. Let’s not pretend it’s not there. Nothing I can do about it really, I can’t change the world. But I can *not* give up. I believe I’m talented and so I keep on doing what I do best.

Q: How and when did you start The Brown Bookshelf blog?

DT: The blog is only one component. We also feature a bibliography of books written by African Americans, or books that contain a majority of African American characters. We also feature our flagship initiative, 28 Days Later. The blog itself has slowed a bit this year, we are all working authors and illustrators with full-time jobs to boot. But it will pick up again as soon as we kick off the 28 Days Later 2011 initiative with a call for nominations.

Sure as Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit and his Walkin' Talkin' Friends by Alice McGill and Don TateThe Brown Bookshelf was the vision of YA [Young Adult] fiction authors Paula Chase Hyman and Varian Johnson. They met each other through various online children’s writers boards. Through many conversations, they realized some of the same issues kept rising to the surface—a lack of awareness of African American children’s book creators, especially with YA fiction. Thanks to the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, most people are familiar with names like Sharon Flake, Jacqueline Woodson, Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Paul Curtis, and others. But many people don’t look beyond these awards to the myriad of other African Americans who are writing for young people.

Inspired by Readergirlz, an online community that celebrates strong female characters in YA fiction, Paula and Varian created The Brown Bookshelf. Paula and Varian decided to start an initiative that would shine a spotlight on others. But the task was big, so they recruited writers Kelly Starling Lyons, Carla Sarrats, and me. In 2010, authors Tameka Fryer Brown and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich joined us in our efforts. Our goal is to support African-American authors and illustrators, to do our part in helping to increase the tiny number who are getting published each year.

Q: Tell me about the “28 Days Later” initiative.

DT: 28 Days Later is a Black History Month celebration of children’s literature. Each day during February, we highlight a children’s book creator — authors, illustrators, author-illustrators. Throughout the year, our team members keep our eyes and ears open for new writers and artists who are getting books published — picture books, middle grade and young adult novels. Towards the end of the year and leading up to February, we solicit names from the online community, and from editors, art directors, agents, and others interested in children’s literature. We put all the names into one big pot, divide them up between genre, read the author’s works, and then research, research, research. Our final list of 28 is varied. For each genre, we try to include at least one, what we call, Vanguard Author — well-known, well established. Other authors and illustrators may be well known, too, but their works may have flown under the radar of teachers and librarians. And then, of course, we like to include new names, up-and-comers. During Black History Month, we highlight each author or illustrator with an interview and as many visuals as we can get them to provide.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work around children’s books?

Black All Around by Patricia Hubbell and Don TateDT: I wish I had some grandiose answer that would sound good and charitable, but I don’t. I love drawing and painting. I love creating art and using it to tell stories. And I love writing stories. The fact that these stories are used to inspire, educate, edify and entertain children, that’s the icing on the cake for me. The publishing industry is made up of a lot of really fantastic, interesting, and generous people. I realized that way back when.

Q: If you were standing on a soapbox full of children’s books, what would you tell your audience?

DT: Well, in order to convince a child that reading is important, they have to see the adults around them reading, too. So I’d stand up there and tell everyone to put away their iPods, iPhones, Droids, Nintendo DSs, PSPs. I’d ask them to stop Tweeting and Facebooking and Foursquaring, and for one evening, I’d ask them to read (of course, I’d need to take the advice, too). Then I’d pass out books to the kids.

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2 Comments

  1. >>Publishing has changed though, in so many ways. It’s so much more important today to be known for that one distinct style. For that reason, I’ve been narrowing down my flavors.

    I wonder if Don could give us some kind of idea of the changes he’s talking about. Is it the increasing pressure to brand? Artist = art style so the byline generates sales by a particular, hopefully consistent readership?

  2. Don says:

    Cynthia, I don’t have an exact answer. I’m still trying to figure this out myself. But, yes, branding is a big part of it. As a children’s book illustrator, the package keeps growing and getting more complex. It’s not about drawing only. Now days, with less picture books being published, you need a recognizable name, a distinctive (trademark) art style, a snazzy website and online portfolio, shiny awards, a public persona created through blogs and social networking, buzz created in the kidlitosphere. There’s so much to think about. Probably don’t want to complicate things more with an entire pallet of various art styles. I don’t know, though, I still like variety.

    Don Tate

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