Illustrator Update: Don Tate

Don Tate is the illustrator of several picture books. He also recently began writing for young readers. Don lives in Austin with his family. Read a November 2000 interview with Don.

When we last talked, your debut picture book, Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mayes, written by Peter Mandel (Hyperion, 2000), had just been released. Congratulations on your bounty of success since! Let’s briefly touch on your new titles and then move on to more global questions.

The Legend of the Valentine, written by Katherine Grace Bond (Zonderkidz, 2002), is a historical tale from the height of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. What about the story spoke to you? What were the challenges in illustrating it?

The story deals with feelings of isolation and hate–things any child, or adult, can identify with on some level. Certainly, I’ve felt the sting of isolation, so it was simply a matter of putting those familiar feelings on canvas. What spoke the loudest to me was the message of reconcilliation, forgiving your ememies, loving them, regardless of how much you’ve been wronged by them.

So often, kids respond to wrong with more wrong, an eye for an eye. And that usually solves nothing, only leading them to more trouble. The Legend of the Valentine offers the alternative solution of fronting off hate with love, and it is Christian based. Being a Christian myself, it meant much to me to visually tell a story that promotes my personal values.

The greatest challenge this book presented for me was style. The publishers wanted to use a very realistic, portraiture style. Though I can paint realistically, it’s not how I prefer to work. I prefer a stylized realism, which, for me, is a bit more forgiving, especially under time constraints.

In addition, I felt that Valentine had big shoes to fill. Others in the Legends series, The Legend of the Easter Egg [by Lori Walburg, illustrated by James Bernardin (1999)] and The Legend of the Candy Cane [by the same creative team], were huge sellers, but featured Caucasian characters. Valentine was the first book in the series to feature African Americans, so I was nervous, questioning if white book buyers would support this book the same as the others, and realizing that black book buyers make up a smaller market.

That same book is your only title from a Christian press. How did your experience with them differ from working with a mainstream literary trade press?

Hard to say. The art creation process was on par with other publishers. Not much difference.

But it was Zondervan‘s marketing efforts that especially impressed me. Before the book published, the publisher mailed a very detailed outline of how they planned to promote this book. They sent a multimedia specialist to Austin to do a live interview with me in my studio. The interview was made into a DVD, which was one component of a larger marketing campaign. Also, as part of the campaign, they put together a Valentine’s Day kit. The kit, which was intended for throwing a Valentine’s Day party, included scissors, colored paper, doilies, crayons and candy. Bookstores could throw a party as a means to support the book.

During the five years the book was in print, I received regular communications from the publisher via newsletters, emails, catalogs and such. I really felt part of a team and not so much an outsider. Most times, when a book publishes, the author/illustrator doesn’t receive much support as far as marketing, so, other than journal reviews, is left to promote the book themselves. Also, Valentine paid an advance that has been unmatched.

What does this say about Christian publishing? I don’t know, but once, I was advised by an agent many years ago to avoid Christian publishers because of low pay and the possibility of being pigeonholed. I have to disagree.

Summer Sun Risin’, written by W. Nikola-Lisa (Lee & Low, 2002)(excerpt), is another historical, this one set in Texas. The book was a 2004-2005 Children’s Gold Crown Nominee and named to the Bank Street College of Education list of the Best Children’s Books of the Year. As I’m remembering this title, it occurs to me that depictions of rural African Americans are rare in children’s literature. Did this aspect of the project attract you? Do you feel that there are other areas of the African American experience that are especially untapped in children’s literature? How did it stretch you as an illustrator?

Honestly, I didn’t think about all that. Wish my answer could more profound. What I liked about this story, was the ambiguity of landscape. I mean, as one review put it, the story (illustrations) could have been set on a Chinese rice farm, and not much about the text would have had to change. This left much freedom for me as the artist to create almost whatever I wanted.

Being from Iowa, I had originally envisioned a well-manicured landscape, with row upon row of never-ending, cornstalks, a red-painted barn, John Deere tractors, and silver corn silo. Iowa farms are just so beautiful. But, being that the story featured an African American family, circa 1960s-70s, I thought finding good accurate reference might be too much of a challenge. Besides that, I wasn’t sure if a farm run by a black family of that time period fit the image I had of a contemporary farm.

Soon, I discovered great reference right here in Austin. The Jordan-Bachman Pioneer Farms is a living history farm museum which features a cabin that an African American family once lived in. What great inspiration! The Iowa farm was out of the question after that. I opted for a rustic, Texas landscape.

The challenge with Summer Sun Risin’ was in how I chose to illustrate the book. I wanted to illustrate, by example, a dramatic sunrise in the east, move the sun through the sky showing the farm sunlit from various positions in the sky, then end with a beautiful, colorful sunset in the west. It almost has a flip-book effect as the reader works their way through the book.

For reference, I literally became a sun chaser. Camera in hand, I was out at sunrise getting pictures as the sun first lit the sky, then chasing it down again as dusk. I never realized how fast the earth is actually moving. I’d get in my car, find the perfect sunset from the street, but by the time I’d get my car parked safely off the road, the sun would be gone, and I’d have to start my chase again the next day.

I’d like to see more African American children’s books with contemporary themes. Seems that so many books with African American themes are historical related, something to sell during Black History Month. Nothing wrong with historical books, our kids need to know about our forefathers, but what about books that speak to today’s child in terms of right now or fantasies…or more tall tales?!

Summer Sun Risin’ was a good book for me. Almost every manuscript that has followed, I obtained because someone saw, and liked this book.

Black All Around, written by Patricia Hubbell (Lee & Low, 2003), which was chosen as a finalist in the 2004 Connecticut Book Awards competition, is a celebration of all things and people–black. This strikes me as an important concept for young readers because in mainstream culture the word “black” often has a negative connotation, i.e., “the Black Plague,” “Black Tuesday” (stock market), etc. What was your brainstorming process like in creating this book? Your artistic one?

Black All Around!–as I tell children at school visits–was probably the most challenging book I’ve ever illustrated. The author’s homage to the color black uses random items that are completely unrelated one to another, e.g.: “The wonderful letters that fill up a book/the hold in the ground that’s a little mole’s nook/the braided hair of a stately queen/the shiny paint on a limousine.” Much fun to read, much challenge to illustrate.

At first, I proposed doing something cleverly conceptual, heavy on design, having a graphic design-ish feel. But the publishers were set on a storybook style with very literal scenes. That presented me with the challenge of figuring out, and visually explaining why all these things might end up in one scene. Second, I proposed making the story sort of a fantasy. This would allow some creative license. That didn’t fly either.

The title, Black All Around! provided so many possible landmines that the editors wanted to tread carefully. They wanted to avoid a fantasy theme, not wanting to suggest that black-plus-positive only exist in fantasy land. Thing is, I knew because of the subject, “black,” there really wasn’t a completely safe road to take.

Not to be funny, but I know my people, and we tend to have some issues with the color black, and labels, and so on. One might say, “black is beautiful,” while others would be deeply…not offended, but uncomfortable with the words. Kinda like the word “nappy.” Many of us use the word in our own homes, but, oh!–the furror it raised when the word published on the cover of Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron (Dragonfly Books, 1998).

The questions did come, and they ranged from: “Didn’t the ‘Black-Is-Beautiful’ mantra go out in the 70s?” Then there was: “I’m not black, I’m brown.” Also, there was: “Why’s this white woman writing about ‘black,’ couldn’t they have gotten a black person to write that?” I’m not kidding, these are the questions I got, even before the book published.

So, when I present the book to kids at schools, I try to emphasize that, Black All Around! is a celebration of a color, in just the same way that someone might write a tribute to the color…chartreuse.

I’m especially fond of Sure As Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit and his Walkin’ Talkin’ Friends by Alice McGill (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). This is your first book with animal characters. How was it different creating walkin’ talkin’ animals than walkin’ talkin’ people? What were the benefits and challenges?

I love this question! You don’t know how bad at the time I wanted to illustrate a book using animals anthropomorphically. I studied many of the books that had been previously done on the subject, and wanted to do something very different. Not criticizing others, but many other retellings featured animals that, in my opinion, looked like dead animals in human clothes. There’s nothing cute about a dancing dead fox, dressed in bib overalls. Some of the images actually kinda creeped me out. So, I went more stylized, with anatomies closer to that of humans, kinda Bugs Bunny meets Don Tate. I think it worked, at least I was happy with the outcome.

Also, I used clay sculpted models as reference for creating my paintings. In the past, I’ve held very elaborate photo sessions to get just the right reference. Some illustrators work solely from memory, or their knowledge of anatomy. I had planned to do the same (take photos) with this book, but it became a bit awkward. I needed some big people to pose as Bruh and Misses Bear. I couldn’t find a tactful way of asking friends: “Could you pose for me? I need someone whose shaped like a bear.” And I figured I’d have to explain because I give my models copies of the printed books. There was one particular couple I know who kinda looks like bears. It didn’t go over so well, so instead of live models, I created the clay sculptures.

Recently, you begun writing as well, and in fact, one of your manuscripts was chosen as an Honor Winner for the Sixth Annual Lee & Low New Voices Award. Congratulations! Have you always been a writer as well as an illustrator? If so, how did you focus the skill on writing picture books? If not, what was your approach?

Up until a couple years ago, I didn’t think of myself as a writer or even a word person at all. In my mind, writers were scholarly folks who knew when to properly use the word “a” instead of “an,” or “like” instead of “as.” I had never heard of voice, as in a writer’s individual voice, which may not have been perfect gramatically, but was still pleasing to read.

Looking back over my life, I guess I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always expressed my most important thoughts and feelings by writing. In fact, before I had “the talk” with my then 10-year-old daughter, I wrote her a six-page letter. Later, when she became a teen and went through the change, I also wrote her a letter before we had yet another talk. I wasn’t confident expressing myself verbally, but a letter could be proofread for content.

I’ve found writing to be very similar to illustrating, at least, creatively speaking. When I write, I first rough out my thoughts on paper, not paying any particular attention spelling, grammar, voice, or anything. From there, I start the process of molding these words into a story by reworking, revising, changing, researching, and so on. Illustration works exactly the same way, only the end result is with paint. Over the last year, between book writing and, to be honest, blog writing, a day hasn’t passed that I haven’t written. I can’t say that about art.

How does your thinking process differ as an illustrator and writer?

Again, my thinking process is very similar. But because drawing and illustrating is almost done without even thinking, I can illustrate with many distractions going on around me. While illustrating a book, I can have a conversation with my wife. I can listen to music, television, and talk radio. When I write, I can’t have distractions. None.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s book illustrators?

Polish your craft. Good isn’t good enough, and great isn’t either. There are thousands of artists out there. Many of those artist have traditionally stayed away from editorial work for various reasons (probably pay), but are now spreading their wings and giving children’s books a try. I mean, who’d of thought Milton Glaser, the godfather of modern day graphic design, would someday be doing children’s books? It’s competitive.

Try to get as much printed work under your belt as possible. Seek out educational publishers where work is more plentiful. You may experiment with developing a niche. Enjoy illustrating frogs? Then create a body of work with the most distinct, child-appealing frogs that you can. My niche tends to be African American, though I am getting more animal-themed books as well.

An illustration degree isn’t necessary, however, I am always shocked to discover how many successful children’s book illustrators have attended programs at prominent art and design schools. Not necessary, but surly wouldn’t hurt.

Last, and I know this sounds cliche, but don’t give up. It was 10 years ago that I almost gave up.

How about those who have a foothold and are working to build a career?

After my first book published, naively, I had the idea that books would keep coming simply because I had one published. I really did. I figured that once my book hit the stores, all the editors in New York would know that I had arrived, and they’d beat my doors down, roll out the red carpet, and fight for their chance to have the new kid on the block illustrate their next best seller. Really, I did.

I was living under the misconception, and it had been repeatedly suggested, that because publishers were “starving” for black talent to illustrate their African American manuscripts, that any talented black artist who showed any interest in this field was in like Flynn. Um…no.

After that first book publishes, that’s when the real work begins. Like a Hollywood actor, you’re only as good as your last movie. Unless you get some high recognition through one of the big awards, nobody is gonna know who you are, or care.

Market yourself, not only your artwork [to publishers], but to those who would support your books. Be sure to send your books to the local media, if you publisher doesn’t already. Print postcards displaying the cover of your book, and send to local bookstores, letting them know that a local published author/artist is on the scene. Try to generate bang as it comes out.

There are so many opportunities out there to learn and better your knowledge of the field. Visit reading conferences. Get involved in organizations like SCBWI, or if you can get a sponsor, organizations like the Society of Illustrators. I used to be involved in the Art Director’s Association of Iowa. The more you meet others in the field–networking, chatting, seeing, exchanging ideas–the more you’ll grow.

You offer a blog, DevasT: Rants and Raves. Could you tell us about your approach to it? What can readers expect? How does blogging benefit you as an illustrator, as a writer?

I’ve been blogging for little over a year. I started blogging as a way to network with other writers and illustrators, as an excuse to write everyday, and to become comfortable with knowing that others were actually reading my words. But a dangerous thing happened to me. People started reading, and I kind of liked it, and I soon got off topic. My writing, and the subjects that I wrote about became as fruitful as a farmer’s market. When I realized exactly how many people in the industry actually read blogs, I decided to make a change, and get back on the topic of illustrating and writing for children.

At DevasT. Rants and Raves, I talk about what projects I’m working on, but to keep it even more interesting, I try to really open up. If I’m frustrated about something, I’m gonna be ranting about it. If I’ve just signed a contract, I’m gonna be raving. If I’m trying to make deadline and someone is at my door trying to sell me a vacuum cleaner, I’m talking about it on my blog.

I’m not quite sure yet how I’ve benefitted from blogging–possibly a bit of credibility amongst my peers, if you will. I don’t know; I’m still analyzing that. I know a lot of people read the blog, more than what I had imagined. Over the past year that I’ve been writing on my blogs (I have several), I really feel like I’ve grown as a writer. People tell me all the time how much they enjoy my writing, and I’ve really developed a following, so it seems. On another blog, I started expressing myself through cartoon. It has really become popular, one site receiving up to 1,300 hits per day, half of those hits are from people seeking me out before I wake up in the morning! That’s pretty good considering that Rants and Raves receives about 100 hits per day. I plan to turn this cartoon into an online web’toon, or novella. I’d never have discovered all these possibilities had I not started blogging.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Oh my goodness, my plate is completely filled and overflowing, I could list and eat myself silly. For one, I’ve expanded into product licensing. I love the freedom that licensing offers. I can literally do whatever I want, and my licensing agent finds a manufacturer to reproduce my art on their products. On the horizon, besides books, I have licensed my works to texile/fabric companies, T-shirt/apparel companies, manufacturers of children’s bedroom and bath products, wallpaper, party favors and calendars.

As far as books go, I have a new book, The Hidden Feast, [by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss](lesson plans), which publishes with August House in the spring of 2006. Then, I’m due to start illustrations on what I’ll refer to as “Ron,” a partly fictional account from a childhood experience of astronaut Ron McNair, which will publish late 2007, or early ’08 with Penguin Group (USA). I’m working on a 3-D pop-up book with a team of paper engineers, a sister book to Tails by Matthew Van Fleet (Red Wagon Books/Harcourt, 2003). What tails do for…well, animal tails, Zoom! will do for transportation of all types. Later this year, I will start illustrating a book to be published by Christian publisher, Paraclete Press. This book will publish in the fall of 2007.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Cynthia, I think you’ve covered it all. I would like to say how much I appreciate all that you do, and contribute to the field of children’s literature. You’ve inspired me in so many ways and enriched the whole experience.

Thank you!

Cynsational Notes

Book Talk with the Lee & Low New Voices Authors from the publisher website.

An Interview with Don Tate from African-American Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Find more author and illustrator interviews, Texas authors and illustrators, picture books, multicultural books, multicultural resources, African and African American children’s literature, and children’s literature links.