Congratulations to Austin SCBWI member Don Tate on the release of his newest picture-book biography, Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes!
Don’s journey to writing this story began with an unexpected personal connection to the art of Ernie Barnes. “Growing up, I loved watching the closing credits of my favorite TV show Good Times,” he writes. “It featured a painting of a dance scene with lively and graceful African American dancers and musicians. At the time, I thought that JJ Evans, the teenage artist on the show, had painted the picture. Later, I learned it was football-player-turned-artist Ernie Barnes. As a teenager, I tried to mimic Barnes’ artwork in my own, as many young artists do. I’d combine elongated body limbs with graceful movements, just like Barnes—a style of art described by an art critic as Neo-Mannerism.”
Barnes’ life story resonated with Don as well. “When Barnes was a kid, he was not athletic,” Don says. “He was an artist, and he was bullied and ridiculed because of it. Boys were supposed to aspire to be like Willie Mays, many of his peers believed. Boys were not supposed to like art or poetry, or play musical instruments—things that ran counter to many people’s ideas of what masculinity looked like. I related to that storyline, because that was my childhood experience, too. My hope is that kids will realize through the story of Ernie Barnes that they can be anything they want to be, and that they won’t let others define them.”
Don began writing the story many years ago at a Highlights conference, drawing on Ernie Barnes’ memoir Pads to Pallets as well as articles and interviews from Newspapers.com, to which Don subscribes. After selling the manuscript, however, Don learned that another picture book about Barnes would publish soon, before his. “I panicked, of course,” Don says. “And at one point, there was talk of canceling my book altogether. But I strongly felt like there was room on the market for two Ernie Barnes books, so I jumped back into research and wrote my story from a new vantage point.”
The other significant challenge this book presented was that, in contrast to the subjects of Don’s previous biographies, Barnes was a relative contemporary who only died in 2009. “For one, just because I was excited to write about Barnes didn’t mean that everyone shared in my excitement. To avoid copyright issues, I intentionally did not create images representative of Barnes’ art style, as described in the text. And instead of including samples of his art in the back matter, I referred readers to where they could find his art on the Internet.”
Pigskins to Paintbrushes will launch on August 17th from Abrams Books for Young Readers.