What a pleasure to celebrate author/illustrator Don Tate today! The experiences he shares below remind me a bit of the cruel experiments that inspired Gennifer Choldenko’s Orphan Eleven, where kids were berated for the way they spoke until some gave up speaking altogether. Today’s readers are so grateful Don did not give up and that he has yet another brand-new picture book biography, Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes, (Abrams). Added bonus! Don was my gracious Write Space guest last night; you can watch the replay over at IGTV (@kirbylarson).

My career in children’s publishing began 30-plus years ago. After college, I took a job at Perfection Learning Corporation, an educational publishing company. While my job was to design books and educational aids, I illustrated just about everything I designed. Needless to say, soon I became the in-house illustrator. I loved using my art to advance child literacy. But I stayed far away from writing. I’d had a complicated history with words. 

Growing up, my mom and grandma were the center of my life. Their words—their word choices and the colloquial language they often spoke—made a huge impression on me. Annoyed with something my dad said or did, my mom might say something like “Oh, I ain’t studden you, man,” which meant I really don’t care. My grandma might use a phrase like “that house was as big as all get-out,” which meant that’s a really, really big house! I never thought much about the language used in the Black community I grew up in until later in fifth grade, when I was bussed to a predominately white school. A lot of the language was different there. I was never very good at code-switching, moving back and forth between two ways of speaking, and I soon grew to feel self conscious about the way I spoke. 

On the other hand, whenever I got together with my family from Chicago or Minneapolis, with larger Black populations than in Des Moines, they made fun of the way I spoke, too. They said I spoke “too white,” meaning I spoke too proper, trying to act like the white kids I went to school with. Maybe I had been code-switching all along. Language was complicated. I gave up on words and focused on expressing myself through art. 

Fast forward to about 2009. I was living in Austin and active in the local Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). After years of illustrating, I wanted to try something new, maybe write a book. But years of negative baggage concerning language and words came back to haunt me. I’m not smart enough to write, I thought. I can’t speak well enough to write, I thought. I don’t know enough about conjugating a verb or the correct use of a comma. And what if someone says I write too Black or not Black enough—or too white? 

What did I do? I just gave in and I wrote. I wrote in my mom’s familiar informal voice. I wrote in my grandma’s idiomatic voice. I wrote in my grandpa’s corny humorous voice. I wrote in that I-can’t-help-it-if-I’m-talking-too-white voice that my cousins had teased me about. Learning to write meant embracing who I am. So I wrote and I wrote. I had a blast doing it, and I got better! Most of all, people enjoyed reading my writing.

In 2012, all that writing paid off when my first book was acquired by Lee & Low Books. IT JES’ HAPPENED: WHEN BILL TRAYLOR STARTED TO DRAW (Lee & Low Books) won their New Voices Award, which resulted in my first publishing contract as an author. My editor, Louise May, said she that she acquired my manuscript because she loved my voice. 

Since then, I’ve authored six more picture book biographies. POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON (Peachtree, 2015); STRONG AS SANDOW: HOW EUGEN SANDOW BECAME THE STRONGEST MAN ON EARTH (Charlesbridge, 2017), and WILLIAM STILL AND HIS FREEDOM STORIES: THE FATHER OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (Peachtree, 2020), among others. Today, I love writing just as much as I do illustrating.

My most recently published book, PIGSKINS TO PAINTBRUSHES: THE STORY OF FOOTBALL-PLAYING ARTIST ERNIE BARNES (Abrams, August 17, 2021), is the story of an African American professional football player who later became a celebrated artist. As a kid, he was teased and bullied for being different. He was an overweight boy who loved of art and had no interest in sports. This was a story I could relate to. Ernie Barnes’ story was my story too in many ways—overcoming obstacles (like fear of words) in order to reach the desired goal of becoming the best you!

I’ve come a long way from the shy kid who could only express himself through art. So each time another of my authored books gets published, I especially give myself a pat on the back for embracing myself, the words and language of my family, my community, and my history.

Don Tate is an award-winning author, and the illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children. He is also one of the founding hosts of the blog The Brown Bookshelf – a blog designed to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers, with book reviews, author and illustrator interviews. Don frequently speaks at schools, public libraries and writing conferences, and participates in book festivals.