Career Achievers: Don Tate on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author, Illustrator & Author-Illustrator

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By Gayleen Rabakukk

Don Tate is a successful children’s-YA creator with a long, distinguished career.

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

After college, I bounced around from job to job. I worked as a typesetter, graphic artist, art director, and book designer, before taking on jobs as a graphics reporter for The Des Moines Register and Austin American-Statesman newspapers. Throughout those years, I moonlighted for the children’s publishing industry. My jobs at the newspapers were stable and paid well. But eventually got in the way of my passion for creating children’s books. Success in trade publishing came when I let those other jobs go and focused solely on writing and illustrating books. It’s easier to juggle one ball instead of seven.

The first book I illustrated for the trade was Say Hey!: A Song of Willie Mays (Jump At The Sun, 2000). Since then, I put one to two books into the world per year.

My biggest bump along my journey was having no idea what I was doing. There were no college courses—that I knew of—or online guides that taught about careers in children’s books. So, I winged it. And I’ve been winging it ever since. With each book, I learned more about myself, I gained a better understanding of the publishing industry, and I became a more confident in my abilities overall.

The best thing I did for myself was to find my community. After moving to Austin, I joined the SCBWI and attended local meetings and conferences. I was one of few People of Color, but I didn’t let that intimidate me. Coming from Iowa, I was used to being the only Black guy in the room.

Soon, I had a new group of friends —writers and illustrators who nurtured, encouraged, critiqued, and supported me. Cynthia Leitich Smith, Dianna Aston, Chris Barton, Carmen Oliver, and Donna Bowman, to name a few—but there were many more. I learned a lot from these creators. We are still friends and collaborators today.

You’re an illustrator, author and author-illustrator. How do those roles inform one another?

As a child, I was a visual communicator. I was shy, and I didn’t know how to express myself. Drawing pictures and creating art was my way of talking when words failed. So it was natural for me to become a professional illustrator. Expressing myself with words, however, was a struggle. Still is today—especially when it comes to communicating feelings and emotions.

Over time, I learned that writing a story is much like illustrating a story, except the tools are different. Illustrating a book involves telling a story with paint, chalk, or a stylus. Writing a book requires telling a story with nouns, verbs, plots—and a good ending! I learned to bridge the visual and verbal parts of my brain so that they work together seamlessly. It’s hard to say how my various roles inform one another because today, it happens organically. It’s not something I think about, it’s something I jump in and do.

When I write, I focus on what things look like—which can be tough sometimes when writing nonfiction. I don’t always know what something looked like a hundred and fifty years ago. But that’s where other tools like research and illustration come in. As picture book creators, we have many storytelling tools at our disposal.


With my first authored book, It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Lee & Low Books, 2012), I open the story by describing a 1939 downtown Montgomery, Alabama, street scene. “…an elderly man sat on a wooden crate. With a board laid across his lap and the stub of a pencil grasped in his hand, he began to draw a picture on the back of a discarded laundry soap box ” I wrote these words to create a picture, wanting my readers to see the scene. That allowed the illustrator to focus on and add other details to extend the scene.

As an author-illustrator, the process can be more complicated for me, because I write with a lot of visual description. This makes for very long, very wordy first drafts! It can also make for very long, wordy picture books in the end. An editor once described me as “a wordy illustrator.” I guess I’m playing catch up after my mostly silent childhood years.

When you’re weighing how to spend your time, what goes into your decision-making process to write and illustrate, only write or only illustrate a particular project?

I’m an author, yes. I’m an illustrator, yes. I’m an author-illustrator, yes-yes! But first and foremost, I’m a business person. My first job is to make enough money to pay a mountain of bills and eat.

Roto and Roy, one of the many books Don has illustrated.

Sometimes, it makes more financial sense to let someone else take on the illustrations in a book. This frees up my time to write and sell another book. It frees my time to do school visits, which is way—Way!!—more lucrative than writing or illustrating a book, for me. I’m a dad with a kid in law school, it’s nice to have choices that allow me to earn more income.

Oftentimes, I’ll will write a story with the intention of my agent selling it as a text only, proposing the names of a few illustrators. Writing a story and then handing it off to an illustrator can feel liberating! I love illustrating, of course, but it takes a heckuva long time. I can write a story much faster than I can illustrate one.

An upcoming book that I wrote is called Let Them Fly! The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen and the First Black Meteorologists (Learner, 2026). I had so much fun writing this story . . . which will involve illustrating a lot of airplanes. I love airplanes. But I did not want to draw airplanes. Not when I could illustrate a book about swimming! Black In The Pool: The History of African Americans and Swimming (Charlesbridge, 2027) is a book I wrote and will illustrate. I am a passionate swimmer. I chose to let someone else illustrate P-50 bombers while I will illustrate swimmers! Plus, I’ll have two books coming out around the same time instead of one.

I still enjoy illustrating texts written by other authors and will continue to do that. I was honored when Wade Hudson personally reached out to me to illustrate The Day Madear Voted (Nancy Paulsen Books, July 16, 2024). I’m a long-time fan of Hudson’s work.

This fall, I will illustrate a Little Golden Book written by Nikki Shannon Smith. It will be a biography of Prince! In both of these cases, creating the illustrations fit nicely into my schedule and allowed some time for writing and school visits.

If you had it to do all over again, what – if anything – would you do differently and why?

Hard question. I don’t know that I’d do anything differently. Publishing is a tough nut to crack. But I cracked it with God’s and a lot of friends’ help. That’s something to be proud of. I wouldn’t change anything about my story.

Let’s get real. In this country, art as a profession has not always been open to Black people. At one time, laws prevented us from entering art museums, much less exhibiting our works inside them. In my book Pigskins To Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes (Abrams, 2021), I wrote about that Black experience. When Ernie Barnes was in college, his class visited the North Carolina Museum of Art. At that time, none of the art exhibited there was created by Black people. After asking a docent about it, Barnes was told that Black people “don’t express themselves this way.”

Another of my upcoming books is titled A Poem For Dudley Randall: Poet Of The Black Arts Movement (Abrams, 2026). This book tells the story of Randall, a poet who founded a publishing company called Broadside Press in 1965. During that time, mainstream publishers weren’t publishing Black poets, authors, or artists.

Dudley Randall’s and Ernie Barnes’ stories happened only sixty years ago. So, in the grand scheme of American history, art as a profession for Black people and access to mainstream publishing is a relatively new thing.

For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, literature, and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

Undoubtedly, there is more diversity in children’s literature today. We still have a long way to go, but progress has been made. Back in the day, publishing folks often used the term multiculturalism. Whenever I heard the term, I knew they were talking primarily about books featuring Black people—because the multicultural books getting published back then weren’t very multicultural.

Change has been good. I visit dozens of schools and public libraries throughout the year, and they look nothing like those of my childhood, where I seldom saw positive representations of people who looked like me.

I recently presented at schools in Dallas as part of the Texas Book Festival’s Reading Rock Stars program. Following my presentations, each child got a signed copy of one of my books. Most of the kids were African American, and it was especially gratifying to hand each of them a book featuring Black people.

After handing one child a book, he became overcome with emotion and bum-rushed me with a big hug. I recognized that emotion. I feel the same way at conferences today when successful Black authors and illustrators speak about their works, and I can get a signed copy of their books. That’s when I feel seen. That’s what diversity in books can do.

What advice would you give to your beginning self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

I’d tell myself to be brave and advocate for my book. In my early days, I didn’t ask a lot of questions, fearing I’d make someone mad and they wouldn’t publish me again. But as authors and illustrators, we are our best advocates. We need to speak up—respectfully, of course.

Every book won’t receive the marketing attention it deserves. Not every author will be sent on a book tour. Most won’t receive sponsorship for conferences. In fact, once you get published, you may never hear from your publishing folks again. But they can hear from you! Today, I speak up! I reach out, and I ask! I ask for everything! The worst they can say is no. I can be okay with hearing a no. I cannot be okay with myself for not even trying.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers and readers, looking to the future?

I wish/hope we will have books written and illustrated by actual humans! I say that jokingly. But honestly, I’ve often wondered how AI will impact careers. I’ve worked hard to develop my skills as an artist and author. The thought of technology stealing that away is scary.

I also realize that publishing is a business, it’s about making money. If AI can help publishers make more money, you can bet it will be embraced—it already is in ways we might not realize. Will writing and illustrating books go the way of the horse and buggy? I hope not.

I remember a time, however, in the 90s when art departments were faced with embracing new technologies. Drawing boards, t-squares, and rubylith were replaced by computers. No more messy wax. No more clogged Ripidograph pens. No more dark rooms and monstrous stat machines. Soon, my boss plopped a brand new Macintosh Quadra 800 with eight megabytes of RAM on my desk. We had to learn programs like PageMaker, Photoshop, and QuarkXPress. Illustrators like me experimented with programs like Painter and Freehand.

Fear in the air was so thick back then, that you could cut it with an X-ACTO knife! Many artists worried that the new technologies would steal our jobs. For some people, maybe that did happen. But for most creatives, I’d argue that it did not. Today, we’re illustrating books on iPads; no one is rushing to use Zipatone again. I hope the same will happen with AI, that creatives will find a way to live with and benefit from it—because it’s not going away anytime soon.

As a writer and illustrator, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

A very long vacation, maybe on an island somewhere, with a lot of chocolate, iced cookies, and bundt cakes. Of course, there will be endless swimming opportunities, too. I guess that means my wish is for better income. Because bundt cakes are expensive.

Cynsational Notes

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 blog The Brown Bookshelf – a blog designed to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers, with book reviews, author and illustrator interviews. Don frequently speaks at schools, public libraries and writing conferences, and participates in book festivals.

His latest titles are The Day Madear Voted, written by Wade Hudson (Nancy Paulsen Books, July 16, 2024), Jerry Changed The Game! How Engineer Jerry Lawson Revolutionized Video Games Forever, illustrated by Cherise Harris (Paula Wiseman Books, 2023) and Roto and Roy: To the Rescue!, written by Sherri Dusky Rinker (Little, Brown BYR, 2023).

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults.

She serves as board member for Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library and also leads a book club for young readers at the library. She’s active in Austin SCBWI and has taught creative writing workshops for the Austin Public Library Foundation. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.