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! 


Linda A. said...

Thanks Don and Janelle. Thanks for the interview and trailer about multicultural picture books/biographies. Enjoyed it!

Jenny said...

Great interview, Janelle and Don, very informative and thought-provoking!

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Enjoyed seeing the many styles coming through in your illustrations, Don. It would be fun to have your 30 books in front of me at one time! Lovely!

Kathleen Reilly said...

Really great pair of posts, Don and Janelle. Definitely got me thinking.

Devas T. said...

Thanks, all!


Janelle said...

Don! I didn't even see you had stopped by to comment until now! Thanks for that! Your interview answers were fabulous!

David hops said...

I read your post. Its obviously informative. Good biography means more suitable opportunity to get deemed. So everyone should center on writing a business biographyservice and aim to write a perfect resource.