Saturday, May 25, 2013

Author Don Tate: Tips On Writing Multicultural Picture Books/Biographies

We're back again this week with awesome Illustrator/Author Don Tate who will be sharing tips on How to write a Picture Book from a multicultural perspective.

As you'll remember from last week's interview that Don Tate is the author of  It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started To Draw, an award-winning picture book that received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal, was a New York Public Library Top 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, and a Top 10 Black History Books for Youth book, and more!  Don has illustrated more than 30 children's books that have won so many awards and honors that there's not room to name them all here!  His newest book, The Cart that Carried Martin will be released in August 2013.  

Check out the great book trailer for It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, here.  It will be a book we learn from in Don's interview today!

Also check out last week's Writermorphosis interview in which Don answered questions about multiculturalism in the children's book industry with wisdom and great examples. (Below) 

Above is a multi-cultural picture book about a German-American Family that Don Illustrated. : )
Below is another of Don's books -- sharing Duke Ellington's life and music with children today.

I'm so thrilled to have Don back here with us today to give specific tips from his experience on writing multicultural children's books and biographies! 
Let's jump right with Question 1.) 

 Don, it seems that many – though certainly not all – of the multicultural children books we’re seeing come out from publishers recently are books that are direct biographies of famous or even little-known people who have made an interesting impact on the world.   Other books we see may be stories containing fictionalized characters but they are often still based on true diaries of individuals from the past. 

So, if we're wanting to write a picture book biography, how do we know that the person we’re wanting to write about will most likely be of interest to children? Or can anyone be of interest to children if you make the story kid focused in some way?

When I first wrote It Jes’ Happened, some editors said the story was not for children. They said children would not be interested in reading a story about an unknown elderly artist. Someone even suggested that I try selling the manuscript to AARP, a magazine marketed to people over age 50, retirees. They were wrong, children love the story of Bill Traylor. Drawing pictures and doing it your own way is a universal theme regardless of age.

That's so true, Don.  Art and expressing ourselves is such a universal theme that we can all understand.   Thanks for reminding us of the need for "universally understood themes" in books for children.  That reminds me of the many times I've heard editors say:  "There are no new stories. Just old stories told in a new or different way."  Many universal themes run through all of our lives -- and multicultural books can bring them to our thoughts in new ways.

Can you give some specific suggestions to authors who may be interested in writing a multicultural picture book biography, for the children of any cultural heritage, regarding how to pick good subjects for those book? 

There is no formula for finding the right person or subject to write about. My advice would be the same whether an author chose to write about their own culture or cross-cultural: Do your research and find a subject who excites and inspires you. Your story will absorb the enthusiasm.

Communication is always important. Talk to people of the culture you plan to write about. There’s nothing wrong with a white author who chooses to write about a Black person, or on the topic of slavery or civil rights. However, no matter how liberal or open-minded an author may think they are, they still view the world through the lens of their own culture, experiences, privilege. Don’t let your lens blur or distort the story. As a popular rapper once said: “You betta ask somebody.”

For those who are thinking "but I just can't think of anyone special who I would write about..."

Here is a great example of picture-book biographies, illustrated by Don.
Author: Rose Blue and Corrine J. Naden
Illustrator: Don Tate
Published: Jan, 2009
Publisher: Dutton/Penguin Group (USA)
Nine-year-old Ron loves going to the Lake City Public Library to look through all the books on airplanes and flight. Today, Ron is ready to take out books by himself. But in the segregated world of South Carolina in the 1950s, Ron’s obtaining his own library card is not just a small rite of passage – it is a young man’s first courageous mission. Here is an inspiring story, based on Ron McNair’s life, of how a little boy, future scientist, and Challenger astronaut desegregated his library through peaceful resistance.

And here's another great example pulled from the stack of Don's many books:

Author: Audrey Vernick

Illustrator: Don Tate

Published: October 2010

Publisher: Harper Collins

Effa always loved baseball. As a young woman, she would go to Yankee Stadium just to see Babe
Ruth’s mighty swing. But she never dreamed she would someday own a baseball team. Or be the first-and only-woman ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
From her childhood in Philadelphia to her groundbreaking role as business manager and owner of the Newark Eagles, Effa Manley always fought for what was right. And she always swung for the fences.

The Book Trailer shows off the great story, and Don's Brilliant Illustrations here: Don't miss it!

So Don, piggy-backing on the last question related to how to find good subjects for multi-cultural picture books and biographies, can you tell us how you first discovered the story of Bill Traylor, and what that process was like of deciding to write a book about him?

I wrote Bill Traylor’s story at the suggestion of a friend, author Dianna Hutts Aston (A Rock is Lively, Chronicle Books). She had an interest in writing Bill’s story herself, but felt the subject was a better fit for me — I’m assuming, perhaps, because she is white and I am black. Again, of course, it’s fine for a white person to write about a Black, but I honor and respect Dianna for sharing the Bill Traylor story with me, and encouraging me to write the story first. Dianna mailed a newspaper article to me about Bill. I read it and was as inspired. I felt an immediate kindred spirit to Bill and figured others would relate to him as well — children and adults. As far as we know, Bill Traylor had no prior art training, yet he had a sharp eye for composition, color, line, and shape. He was confident in what I believe were gifts given by God, and he used those talents to do great things. I thought that was a powerful, universal message for everyone.

Here's one final Question, Don. 

We've talked a lot about "writing" multicultural picture books and biographies.  But let's take a moment to talk about where the illustrations fit in!

As we know, with picture books, the written words of the story are only half the battle, and much of the story is told by the illustrations as well. It seems there should be museums all around the world exhibiting the beautiful art that fills the pages of children’s books.

It also seems that many times the art-style, colors, etc, in the illustrations of multicultural picture books, specifically, reflect the culture and heritage that that book comes out of, (as in Bill Traylor’s story,) and makes the books even stronger and more beautiful in that way. What are your thoughts about how art in multicultural picture books can teach the reader so much more about the culture and life-experience in which that book is set, and can also allow readers who may not be from that cultural background to experience the beauty and the fullness of that culture as exhibited in the story?

With a picture book an author is limited in the amount of words used to tell a story. But as the saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words. Though pictures an artist can include details the author has left out. For instance with It Jes’ Happened, never once did I tell the reader that Bill Traylor was a Black man with a long white beard. I did not describe the city streets in detail, the style of clothing people wore, the Model-T cars people drove. It’s not necessary to do so, the reader sees this through Greg’s illustrations. On the cover of It Jes’ Happened, R. Gregory Christie brilliantly communicates the race and age, time period, social economic status, community. He sets the mood before I begin telling the story with words.

Thanks so much, Don, for sharing your thoughts and wisdom!  It's been great to hear from you related to how the various aspects of a whole picture book -- from selecting our subjects, to the writing, to the illustrations -- can come together to make the great multicultural picture books that publishers are looking for today.

Now off we all  go to consider whether we too might want to try our hand at writing multi-cultural (from any culture) picture books or novels to share with the world.

Thanks Don, for getting us thinking! 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Author-Illustrator Don Tate talks Multicultural Children's Books

Illustrator-Author Don Tate is the author of It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor 
Started To Draw, a Lee and Low New Voices Honor award winning picture book
that received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal,
 as well as being selected as a Kirkus Best Children’s Books List Selection, 
Booklist Editors’ Choice 2012, a New York Public Library Top 100 Titles for 
Reading and Sharing, a Top 10 Black History Books for Youth book, a Bank 
Street College of Education Best Children’s Books of the Year book in 2012, 
and more!  On the illustration front, Don has illustrated more than 30 children's 
books that have won so many awards and honors that there's actually not 
room to name them all here!  His newest book, The Cart that Carried Martin 
will be released in August 2013.  
In addition to writing and Illustrating, Don also does author interviews of his own, 
over on The Brown Bookshelf blog, a great blog that promotes awareness of the 
myriad of African-American voices writing for young readers. 
I'm thrilled to have Don here with us today and next week to discuss 
"multicultural" books for children and to give specific tips on writing them! 

Welcome Don!  Let's jump right in with our first Question:

As you know, Editors and Agents today are seeking “multicultural children's books."  Can you shed some light on what "multicultural" means in publishing today?

When I first got into the business, I interpreted the term as industry-speak for Black, because people often looked to me when the topic turned to multicultural. My art, which often featured Black characters, was often described as multicultural. My agent at the time, sold my art as multicultural. Manuscripts offered to me to be illustrated, stories featuring African-Americans, were often categorized as multicultural. You can see why I was so confused.

A few years ago at a national SCBWI conference, I attended a session described as a multicultural panel. The panelists were white and Asian. They discussed multicultural books and multiculturalism. That was an “ah-ha” moment for me because that’s when I realized that multicultural is, in fact, multicultural — it’s not just a Black thing. Multicultural includes everyone, including white, in my opinion. But because most books feature white characters, the term is often used, out of necessity, to describe everyone else.

Up until that point, I had not even considered other minority groups as part of the multicultural discussion related to children’s books. But then I realized, if Blacks were underrepresented in children’s literature — and, yes, we were — groups like Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and others were practically invisible. Maybe that’s why I didn’t realize others were a part of the discussion. And that’s why it’s so important to keep having discussions like this and educating people.

A brilliant answer, Don. Thanks!  

One of my favorite definitions of multiculturalism is found at,  and it goes along well with what you have said above.  It describes multiculturalism as “the preservation of different cultural identities within a unified society." 

What an important reminder for all of us that “multicultural” really does mean 
“multi-cultural.  I also thought your point was well noted that although the term “multicultural” means all cultures, “because most books feature white characters, the term is often used, (in publishing) out of necessity, to describe everyone else.”

Don, both as an illustrator and also as an author you seem to have developed a niche in writing and illustrating great multicultural picture books like the one above --  I am my Grandpa’s Enkelin -- a story of a rural German-American family that you illustrated, as well as your recent release It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, and basically all of your other books. Can you share with us your thoughts on the value and importance of multicultural books in publishing and for children today?

In a conversation not long ago, my son said to me, “Dad, there are no Black superheroes.” I wanted to prove him wrong, to name a few. I couldn’t. My wife offered an explanation, but her words fell short. I felt bad. I wanted to sit him down, give him a history lesson about racism and civil rights and many other unfair imbalances in our history. But my explanation would not have given him what he needed at that moment: a Black superhero.

Whatever the medium — television, books, movies, magazines, games — children need to see themselves included. If not, over time, they’ll begin to believe that it’s okay that they aren’t included. Black must not be worthy, they may think. Being Black must not be as good as being white. There must be something wrong with being Black, like me. Maybe I’m supposed to fade into the background and play a secondary role to whites, because that’s how it’s done in books, movies and television, they may think. That’s why I think my son needs more Black superheroes.

What a great point, Don. Your son made a point that we should definitely all take to heart. 
When we talk about kids' and teen's books as a mirror through which kids and teens often see and learn about themselves, it's so important to think about what happens when kids keep looking in that mirror over and over but rarely see someone who looks or talks like them or their family or the folks in their neighborhood.  On the flip side, it's also great to think how helpful it can be for Caucasian children (or children in the majority group in any country or region) to see positive examples of  heroes of minority races, cultures, and language groups in the books they read as well.  Books teach us about ourselves and about each other.  I think this is definitely the reason why so many Editors and Agents are looking for books featuring youth from various and diverse backgrounds in publishing today.

For those authors, teachers, and parents out there looking for these kinds of books to share with their children, here are a few great links on where to find great multicultural books and helpful reviews:

The Brown Bookshelf 

American Indians in Children's Literature

InCultureParent - Best Asian-American Children's Books

Latino Children's Books Resource

You can also search at B& or for _____________ (name of ethnic or cultural group) and Children's Fiction and come up with lists like this:

Italian-Heritage books for Children

So this week, before Don gives us his tips on how to write multicultural books, I encourage you to first hunt online for children's books related to your own cultural background.  See how many you find. Is your background German, Italian, Korean, Native American, Pacific Islander, Ugandan, South African, Cuban, Irish, Russian, Columbian...? Are there a lot of "multi-cultural books" out there that can be a good mirror for your kids, nieces, nephews, younger siblings, neighbors, and child and teenaged friends?  If not, perhaps you are the person to write one.

Next week Don Tate will be back here to share specific tips on writing multicultural children's books/biographies, and he'll share how he wrote his own. Don't miss it!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Multicultural Books and Book Award Contests

MULTICULTURALISM: the preservation of different cultural identities within a unified society (Dictionary

There are many defenitions of the word "Multicultural."  I really like the one above.  It speaks of holding onto, respecting, and preserving the various cultural identities that we each come from.

Are you an Irish-American teen whose ancestors came through Ellis Island to escape the great potato famine? Are you an African-American girl who has learned how to do her hair "just right" from her grandmother, who learned it from her grandmother, who learned it in Africa? Are you a Congolese child currently living in a refugee camp in your neighboring country, Uganda, learning a new language because of a war?  Are you a Chinese American teen who grew up in Brooklyn? Are you an Ohio farm-boy growing up in an Amish community there?  We live in one world all together, and that's such a beautiful thing! Through the books we give our kids and teens we want to celebrate our global similarities (for they are many)! But many publishers today are also looking for books that celebrate the individual cultural identities that our families, our kids, and our teens hold dear.

As noted on the "Reading is Fundamental" website:  "When children see themselves in the books they read at a young age, they are motivated to read more books and read more often. Books are powerful mirrors and windows for all of us." 

Children and teens need to be able to see themselves in these "mirrors and windows" that we call books. So this week and next week here on Writermorphosis we're focusing on "multicultural childrens and YA books."  

Next week on Writermorphosis we'll have:

Author Interview: tips on writing & illustrating multicultural books from Award-Winning Picture Book Author/Illustrator Don Tate. Don't miss it!

Already writing a multicultural book? Consider these opportunities today:


1.) The Pura Belpré Award:

This award, named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library, and  established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and an illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. It is co-sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), and REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking, an ALA affiliate

Here's a great Pura Belpré Book Award Winner!

2.) The American Indian Youth Literature Book Awards

The American Indian Library Association has established the American Indian Youth Services Literature Award. The children's book award was created as a way to identify and honor the very best writing and illustrations by and about American Indians. Potential award winning titles are nominated and selected by members of the award jury, which is composed of seven members of AILA, elected by the membership. Each juror may nominate titles in each category that represent the best in American Indian books for children and youth. Books selected to receive the award present American Indians in the fullness of their humanity in the present and past contexts. 

YA Author Sherman Alexie is a prior award Winner.

3.) The Coretta Scott King Book Awards

The CorettaScott King Book Awards are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.  The award commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honors his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.   

4.) The Lee & Low Books New Voices Award

LEE & LOW BOOKS,  an award-winning publisher of children's books, offers the annual NEW VOICES AWARD.           The Award is given for a children's picture book manuscript by a writer of color. The Award winner receives a cash grant of $1000 and Lee and Lows standard publication contract, including their basic advance and royalties for a first time author. An Honor Award winner receives a cash grant of $500. Manuscripts will be accepted from May 1, 2013, through September 30, 2013, for this year's award, and must be postmarked within that period. 

Established in 2000, the New Voices Award encourages writers of color to submit their work to a publisher that takes pride in nurturing new talent. 

So - Have fun writing, revising, and submitting your multicultural children's books to publishers and contests this year! Each of us has a multicultural story of our own to share, because each of us as writers have our own unique cultural identity. :)

See you next week for a great interview with tips  from Author/Illustrator Don Tate.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Agents Seeking Middle Grade Boy Books!

Boy Books: they are on the wish lists of many agents and editors today.

Whether they are mysteries, fantasies, paranormals, coming-of-age stories, real-life adventures, or just plain comedic -- high interest Boy Books are being sought in the publishing world today.

Do you have a boy book manuscript in your closet ready to send out to agents or editors? Do you have  the next Hardy Boys, The Black Stallion, Wimpy Kid, Alex Ryder, or Artemis Fowl?  Do you have the next Chocolate War, Holes, The Outsiders, The Ranger's Apprentice, Jack on the Tracks, or Charlie Bone...?

If so, a lot of agents are looking for boy-centric books. Here are just a few agencies with agents seeking Boy Books!


2.)  N.S. Bienstock

3.)  Upstart Crow Literary


6.)  The Seymour Agency

An internet search will land you more listings of agents out there looking for books that target boys.

AND, in honor of boy books, here are