Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Power of the Picture Book: Don Tate

I love picture books! They are the doorway to literacy. But to eight-year-old Don Tate, that doorway felt like an unwelcome place.

When I was a kid, books didn’t attract or hold my attention. I struggled with comprehension. I couldn’t always remember what I’d read. Plus, reading had to compete with what I loved best—drawing and making things with my hands. Most of all, I think, because the majority of books featured white characters, I thought of them as being, first and foremost, for white people. I mean, beyond THE SNOWY DAY and other books by Ezra Jack Keats, there was DICK AND JANE, and a whole lot of walking, talking animal books. Oh, and Dr. Seus.

My favorite picture book was our Better Homes & Gardens Illustrated Medical Encyclopedia, because, well, who doesn’t enjoy an illustrated in-grown toe nail? I also loved our Funk & Wagnalls Young Student’s Encyclopedias, too. They featured stories, drawings, and photographs of all kinds of people. Brown people! In books—I felt welcome to enter that place.

In my early twenties, I finally became a reader. I was working at an educational publishing company when, one day, I discovered the book BLACK BOY by Richard Wright. Of course that title caught my attention. It was a book about a Black family. The main character was a Black kid. The kid was trying to understand and navigate the complications of life and race in his mostly white, Southern world. I could relate, that book was me! I finished reading that book, and I then read all of Richard Wright’s books—which led me to read books by Gordon Parks, Claude Brown, Alex Haley, Nathan McCall, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Tananarive Due. I was finally a reader.

As an author and illustrator of picture books, I want to do the same thing for young children that Richard Wright did for me: I want to inspire a lifelong love of reading—and therefore learning. I want to create picture books that create a welcome doorway to literacy for all kids, but especially brown kids who are often underrepresented in books.

When the world suggest that the color black is negative, I have just the picture book: BLACK ALL AROUND! (Lee & Low Books), which celebrates the beautiful color of black (and brown, and every color in between).

When the world proves unjust, I have just the picture book: RONS BIG MISSION (Penguin), which tells the real life story of Ron McNair, a Black child who influenced great change in his community by protesting the injustice he experienced at his neighborhood library.

When the world places limits on a child’s dreams, I have just the picture book: WHOOSH! LONNIE JOHNSON’S SUPER-SOAKING STREAM OF INVENTIONS (Charlesbridge). It tells the story of a child who liked to tinker, who grew up to invent the world’s most loved toy.

I even have a picture book called STRONG AS SANDOW, who was a Victorian strongman and “Father of Bodybuilding.” He was not Black—but hey, young readers and future authors, don’t place limits on yourself, write what you want!

Through picture books, I can tell the stories that 8-year-old Don Tate needed to hear—the true stories of African-American poets, artists, sports figures, politicians, inventors, orators, and more—stories that allow kids of color to see themselves, blasting that doorway to literacy and learning wide open.


Don Tate is the illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children. In 2013, he earned an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Award for his first picture book text, It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low Books, 2012). In 2016, he won The Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Book Award for Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree, 2015), his first authored and illustrated picture book. That book received a SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, a Christopher Award, and a 2016 Texas Institute of Letters book award, among others. In 2016, he was also honored with an Illumine Award given by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation. Don enjoys visiting elementary schools throughout the country, sharing his literary experiences with children ( Don lives in Austin, Texas, where he enjoys visiting elementary schools.

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