Member Interview: Don Tate

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I want to give a warm welcome to Don Tate, our interview guest for February. It seems silly to add an introduction when Don so eloquently tells us about himself below, so I'll just hand the "mic" to the talented, versatile, and very muscular Don, and let him take it away…

Where did you grow up, and did that place (or those places) shape your writing/illustrating? If so, how?

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I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, where I had an aunt who worked for the Des Moines, Register. She was one of the first African-American journalists to work at the paper. Later she went on to write the middle-grade novel Just An Overnight Guest, which was later adapted into a movie. The movie debuted at the Des Moines Public Library, and I attended with my family.

 

I was impressed with what my aunt had achieved as a storyteller, and I knew that someday I would tell stories too — only I’d do so with pictures.

 

After college, I worked at the Perfection Learning Corporation as a book designer. I designed and illustrated educational classroom aids — teacher’s guides, basal reading programs, posters. That job offered me the opportunity to travel to various reading conferences like the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. That is where I fell in love with the field of children’s literature.

 

Did you always want to be a writer or illustrator, or did that come later?

 

As a child, I was very focused. I knew at an early age that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up.

 

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Art was always my favorite subject in school. In fact, I pretty much disregarded every other subject but art. Math? English? Reading? Who needs to read when I’m going to be an artist? I thought. I went to a vocational technical high school where my core area of study was commercial and advertising art. I was also inspired by the TV show Good Times, where the teenage character, J.J, was an artist, and in a later episode became an art director at an advertising agency.

 

If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?

 

I’m a workaholic, so if someone followed me around all day, they’d get bored. I draw, paint and/or write all day. I obsessively check my email. When I’m not working in my studio, I’m working out at the gym. I like to lift heavy stuff over and over again. I also enjoy walking or running.

 

When you get a new manuscript that you'll be illustrating for someone else, what is your process?

 

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My process is pretty typical, I think. I doodle as I read a manuscript as images come to mind. Then I create thumbnail sketches (tiny sketches, quickly drawn) to plan out the story. I share the thumbnails with my editor and/or art director.

 

If I’m illustrating a nonfiction story, I spend a lot of time doing visual research. I use Google, of course. But there are lots of online archives out there through government agencies, colleges and universities, newspapers and other media outlets. I love the research process.

 

For visual reference, I occasionally use models (often my son). But more often than not, I take pictures of myself. I guess that’s why Kirkus described my Effa Manley, from the book She Loved Baseball (HarperCollins), as “muscular.”

 

Tell us about some of your accomplishments that make you proud (writing, illustrating and/or otherwise).

 

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As far as writing goes, I feel really good about It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low). In the beginning, I didn’t have a lot of confidence as a writer. To get over my fears, I wrote in blogs. That was both a good thing and a mistake. Good because I finally became used to people reading my work. A mistake because, well, people were reading my work!

 

I made lots of mistakes. But overall, writing in the blogs boosted my confidence and is what led to finishing the first draft of a picture book manuscript. That was a big deal for me. That the book went on to get published and actually win awards—wow! That makes me feel proud. 

 

What surprises you about the writing/illustrating life?

 

When I first moved to Austin, I decided to check out the SCBWI. I was curious. I’d been involved in a few professional organizations for graphic designers, but they were always stuffy, pretentious. I didn’t fit in and so I didn’t plug in. When I decided to (cautiously) check out the SCBWI, I found something very special here, a warm community of writers and illustrators. Everyone was so generous. They kept offering to help me! I certainly had not expected that. I would not be a published author had I not moved to Austin and plugged into this community.

 

It is a great community! Your craft is like a gift for your readers. When they open it, what do you hope they find? (You can talk about a particular book, or in general)

 

I hope to make my readers smile — not necessarily from humor, but because the reader somehow related to the characters, situations, the story. I want my reader to feel good about the outcome of a story. I love stories with huge obstacles and happy, meaningful endings. I want my readers to walk away with something they can use in life.

 

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Don Tate is an award-winning author, and the illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children, including The Cart That Carried Martin, (Charlesbridge); Hope’s Gift, (Penguin); Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite (Charlesbridge); She Loved Baseball(HarperCollins); and Ron’s Big Mission, (Penguin). He is also the author of It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started To Draw, an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor winner. Don lives in Austin, Texas, with his family.