As a kid, Don Tate kept his hands busy — drawing, building, painting pictures, weaving macrame, creating Easter eggs.
And then there was "Good Times." The award-winning 1970s TV sitcom about a Black family in a Chicago housing project was one of Tate’s favorite shows, and oldest son Jimmie "JJ" Walker’s constant creation of art planted a seed.
"That family had a lot of challenges, and my family most definitely had a lot of challenges, but no matter what was going on, JJ was painting pictures," Tate said. "In a later episode, JJ went to work in an advertising agency as an art director. … I decided that’s how I wanted to use my art."
That seed has blossomed into a prolific and celebrated career in children’s literature. Tate is the Austin-based illustrator and author of more than 20 picture books, including "Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton" (Peachtree, 2015), which won the prestigious Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award and the Carter G. Woodson Book Award. In pre-pandemic times, he typically visited at least 60 schools a year and took part in two to three dozen book festivals and literary conferences.
"When he’s presenting, it’s truly magical," said Rita Painter, who recently retired after 19 years as the librarian at Menchaca Elementary in Southwest Austin. "The books come alive, and the kids are just on the edge of their seats watching him."
Tate has two new nonfiction picture books this month: "Swish! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters" (Little, Brown, $17.99), which he illustrated, and "William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad" (Peachtree, $18.99), which he wrote and illustrated. Both echo his career arc as a Black creator elevating Black stories.
"William Still" traces Still’s life from his parents’ flight from Maryland to escape enslavement to his adult years in Philadelphia, offering safe harbor to freedom-seekers and recording their stories.
"The biggest challenge was in figuring out where to begin Still’s story," says Tate, who researched Still’s writing and historians’ work and visited Philadelphia sites that were stops on the Underground Railroad.
"Should I tell a birth-to-death biography? Or a slice of Still’s life? Neither of those would work because of his parents’ story about leaving children behind in slavery. The reuniting of their family would serve as the inspiration for the work Still would later do. So rather than begin at Still’s birth, I found it necessary to set the story a generation before," he said.
"Another challenge was fitting such a huge story into a picture book. How does one explain to children about slavery, tell the story of William Still’s parents and brothers, paint a picture of racism in the North, and introduce the Underground Railroad and the Fugitive Slave Act, all inside of 32 pages?" (He eventually stretched it past 38 pages.)
"Don is very low-key and modest about this, but he knows so much, and the way that he responds to a particular topic just illuminates it and makes me think," said Kathy Landwehr, Peachtree’s vice president and associate publisher, who edited "Poet" and "William Still." Still was a key figure in the Underground Railroad, but his story wasn’t as widely told as those of the white people who supported the freedom-seekers, she notes.
"The way we tell history becomes the story we’re telling," she said.
Tate’s own story includes studying commercial art at Des Moines Technical High School and at Des Moines Area Community College, where he graduated in 1984.
At first, he channeled his talent into illustrations for educational publishers for use in classrooms, but he yearned to craft images for books that kids could find on shelves in a bookstore or library. A fortuitous request for feedback on his art led to his first trade contract, illustrating the 2000 picture-book biography "Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mays."
The book published just after his move to Texas, for a job at the Austin American-Statesman as a graphic artist. He’d work on books and do school visits in the morning before his newspaper shift. Layoffs in 2012 gave him the push to become a full-time children’s book creator.
He’s illustrated or written a book or two every year since 2000, including two with fellow Austin author Chris Barton: "The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch" (Eerdmans, 2015) and "Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions" (Charlesbridge, 2016). The pair met through the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and were critique partners before they were collaborators. Barton credits Tate with improving his own text through thoughtful questions and notes that Tate continues to develop his skills as an artist.
"I love pointing out to students that on the two books we did together, one he used traditional materials and one he did completely digitally. That speaks to his talent as an artist using two different mediums," Barton said.
"A big reason of why he did digital for ‘Whoosh!’ was that he was … visiting so many schools that he wouldn't have been able to meet the deadline and couldn’t haul all the (art) supplies around the hotel."
Children’s books are an ideal outlet, Tate said. Not only do they provide an array of subjects to spur inspiration for his art, but they also reflect and shape reality for young people. His school and festival appearances do the same.
"I remember one day I walked in a school and there was a little white girl, and she was so excited to meet the author," he said. "She asked me, ‘Are you the author?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ and she said, ‘I didn’t know authors were Black.’
"And she wasn’t trying to be mean. She wasn’t trying to insult me. It just says that the school probably needed to have more diversity on the bookshelves, and it was a great idea for them to have an African American author come speak to that school, because maybe in her world, she had never seen a book by an African American author or had an African American author speak at her school."
Tate is a founding contributor of the Brown Bookshelf, which celebrates Black creators year-round and particularly during February’s Black History Month, when the blog spotlights a Black author or illustrator for young people each day.
After years of creating books about others, his latest project looks inward. He’s currently drafting a graphic-novel memoir that will examine his family history and his own perceptions of race as a child. And there will no doubt be art, the thread that has been a constant for Tate throughout his 56 years.
"I can’t remember a time when art wasn’t a part of my life," he said. "I always tell the kids that I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world because I’m doing what I love every day."