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!


Linda A. said...

Quality post, Janelle. I look forward to the next one too.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE the title of that last book cover you've posted too, the one by Julia Alvarez. Really made me smile.

Janelle said...

Welcome Portugal, Mexico, and welcome back India.

I see you checking in here. :)

Thanks for reading writermorphosis!

Kathryn Jacoby said...

Great article, Janelle. Thanks for the insights, Don.

Carol Baldwin said...

enjoyed this post, Janelle and Don.