How this nonfiction PB “Jes’ Happened”
Children’s book illustrator Don Tate never thought of himself as a writer, despite his many children’s author, publishing and librarian friends — a small army’s worth — and being surrounded by journalists all day in his work as a graphics reporter for the Austin American Statesman.
He’s illustrated more than 40 educational books and 11 children’s trade books by other writers. His aunt Eleanora Tate is a successful children’s book writer.
But he wasn’t one. Not until Saturday.
That’s when Don threw a book launch party for himself — actually his first-ever bookstore signing event — to celebrate the release of It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw.
It’s a picture book bio about an impoverished folk artist whose pictures, drawn on scratch cardboard and paper in the 1930s and 1940s now hang in top museums and fetch tens of thousands of dollars from serious collectors.
The book has already received rave and starred reviews in The Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly.
You can imagine the scene: Family, friends, and fans (including author and or illustrator pals from the dynamic Austin SCBWI chapter) swarming the second floor of Austin’s renowned indie-book store, BookPeople. A kids’ art-making station littered with markers and paper hosted by Don’s illustrator friends. Easels propped up by the podium for a creative sketching showdown by audience members. A refreshments table piled with baked treats. A funny banner unfurled by members of Don’s author group, the Texas Sweethearts and Scoundrels.
In the two videos — excerpts from a longer video interview Don gave for students of Mark Mitchell’s Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks! children’s book illustration course, Don talks about his experience of coming up with the words for It Jes Happened.
The real story of Traylor who began making his drawings when he was 85 and living homeless on the streets in Montgomery is a jaw dropper.
If Traylor drew and painted earlier in his life, which is plausible, there’s no record of it. Though many of his pictures, certainly are mental snapshots from his memories of childhood as an Alabama slave before the Civil War.
“Traylor is recognized as one of the finest American artists of the 20th century,” says the website of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which holds one of the largest public collection of Traylor’s drawings.
“His works are notable for their flat, simply defined shapes and vibrant compositions in which memories and observations relating to African American life are merged.”
“Using a stick for a straightedge, he created geometric silhouettes of human and animal figures which he then filled in with pencil, colored pencil, or poster paint,” says an article on him in Wikipedia. “Much speculation surrounds the identification of mysteriously shaped objects, usually referred to as “constructions,” and the complex scenes he called ‘Exciting Events,’ which depict groups of people.”
Nearly as fascinating as Traylor’s journey is this PB biography’s long path to publication. Don told Saturday’s standing room only audience how the subject was first suggested to him by an author friend Dianna Aston. She’d decided the idea fit Don better than her– and sent him the newspaper clipping that had first caught her eye.
Don kept the clipping beside his drawing table — where he would see it every day as he worked on more pressing illustration assignments.
He wanted to let the message of the life of this prolific, unschooled black artist sink into him slowly.
He wrote a draft and entered it into the NewVoices contest sponsored by New York publisher Lee & Low Books. The annual award (that includes a cash prize of $1,000 and a standard publisher’s contract) goes to a picture book manuscript by a writer of color.
Don won the New Voices Honor (runner-up) award — with a $500 cash prize — and an offer to publish if he was willing to revise.
The revision process went on for four years — most of this time waiting to hear from editors on Don’s several versions.
Talented illustrator R. Gregory Christie whose electrifying artwork has appeared in The New Yorker magazine as well as several children’s books was tapped — by Don himself as it turns out — to create the pictures.
Don talks about this in the videos. Christie interprets the scenes as Traylor himself might have, but with brighter (more expensive?) colors. It’s a tour de force of the best kind of children’s book art, integrating the subject with the pictures.
Don’s own illustrations, meanwhile have appeared recently in Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite by Anna Harwell Celenza (Charlesbridge Publishing) and She Loved Baseball — the Effa Manley Story by Audrey Vernick (HarperCollins).
You might enjoy these other interviews with Don
- Julie Danielson focuses on his art-making processes with lots of fun photos of Don’s work and Don working in Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
- Kathy Temean’s wonderful art spangled post in Writing and Illustrator – Illustrator Saturday
- more on illustrating books in Donna Bowman Bratton‘s blog.
- on the illustrator and technology in the Girllustrators‘ blog
- on the story editing and revision process at The Brown Bookshelf
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