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

author-illustrator Don Tate at BookPeople

Don Tate at the book launch party for his “It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw”  at BookPeople in Austin, Texas Saturday, June 9, 2012

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 renown 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.

Illustrator R. Gregory Christie

R. Gregory Christie, illustrator for “It Jes’ Happened”

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 Storby Audrey Vernick (HarperCollins).

You might enjoy these other interviews with Don

School Library Journal ad

The display ad that publisher Lee & Low ran in the School Library Journal for Tate’s and Christie’s book

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Lee & Low is now accepting entries for the 13th annual New Voices AwardThe deadline is September 30.
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Don and Tamara Diggs-Tate

Author illustrator Don Tate enjoys the rousing introduction by his wife, graphic artist Tamera Diggs-Tate to his book launch presentation for “It Jes’ Happened” Saturday, June 9 at BookPeople in Austin, Texas

Author-illustrator Mark Mitchell is the writer of this post and the creator of the Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks! online course.
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It’s easy to include How To Be a Children’s Book Illustrator on your radar screen. Just like our Facebook page.

The animated “finger paintings” of Aleksandr Petrov 

"The Mermaid" by animator Aleksandr Petrov

Still from the animated short “The Mermaid” by Aleksandr Petrov, based on a story by Pushkin.

Read about this amazing Russian animator and how he paints on glass to create  illustrations that move and breathe.   See his work, too, in the unusual new video series starting over at the Illustration Course blog.

Make Your Marks!

Looking to improve your pictures? The “Marks and Splashes” lessons can help you. See about them here and discover a secret to better drawing in some great free videos.
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