Thursday, May 19, 2022

On book banning

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Here’s the thing, banning books is not new; it’s been around for as long as publishing has been around. Words are the seeds of knowledge and knowing is powerful. It’s exactly why enslaved people were punished for learning how to read. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, considered by some to be one of the most influential pieces of literature in American history, was a best-selling novel of the 19th century. While it was problematic in many ways, particularly in its stereotypical portrayal of an enslaved Black man, the book had a pro-abolition message. That raised the ire of the Confederacy, who didn’t like anti-slavery messages tainting folks’ minds, and so UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was banned in the south before the Civil War. 

Walter Farting Dog

Throughout my thirty-plus years in publishing, banned book controversies came and went. I mean, heck, CHARLOTTE'S WEB was challenged because “talking animals were disrespectful to God.” WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was challenged for “depicting child abuse” (and for Max being depicted too dark skinned). And remember the whole WALTER THE FARTING DOG brouhaha (I loved Walter)? So when recent book banning conversations started during the Covid-19 pandemic, I didn’t think much about them—it's just an ebb and flow issue in publishing, I thought. 

At worst, I figured, if one of my books actually got challenged or even banned, that might be a good thing, right? It might be seen as a badge of honor, as some authors trumpet. Would a banned book boost my sales? Soon after that, chatter about book challenges turned to full-out book bans when politicians began to pass laws demanding that certain books get removed from school libraries—books they deemed “pornographic” or taught “Critical Race Theory.” There was even a list circulated in Texas of some 850 books librarians were asked to remove. Things were getting scary. 


You see, most of my books are biographies about Black historical figures who overcame obstacles to make important contributions to the country. There’s the story of George Moses Horton, an enslaved man who became the first Black man to publish a book in the South—his poetry protesting slavery. Then there’s the story of John Roy Lynch, a former enslaved man who rose up through politics to become Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1872, in the backdrop of the Reconstruction period. And most recently, a book that I illustrated about the Harlem Globetrotters, a basketball team who became known as “The Global Ambassadors of Basketball.” The biggest obstacle each of these figures faced: racism.
Might my books be on these banned lists, too? I was afraid to look. 

In the past few months, I heard stories about authors of diverse books needing to hire security while at school visits. I heard about speakers at conferences wearing bulletproof vests. I learned about librarians  losing jobs for refusing to remove challenged books. I could no longer live in the false security of ignorance—I turned to Google. 

Ron's Big Mission

Turned out, a book that I illustrated, RON’S BIG MISSION, written by Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden (Dutton, 2009), which is probably my bestselling book, was featured on BEYOND THE BUBBLE, an episode of NBCs SOUTHLAKE. It's podcast that examines the so-called critical race theory battle. I shuttered. RON’S BIG MISSION is an empowering story. It’s about a brave Black boy (young Ron McNair the astronaut who died in the Challenger Space Shuttle accident in the 80s) who staged a protest when he was denied access to a library card due to the color of his skin. Eventually, the librarian gave in and issued him a card, and so that day he desegregated his community library. It’s a story that all children need to know about—to see Black people doing positive things, which can smash biases and build empathy. Thankfully this particular saga ended well, when parents supported the book, and the principal read the story to the entire student body over Zoom.  

But the situation made me think about what more I should be doing. I’m thrilled that there are more diverse books today than when I was a kid. I’m happy that when I enter a library today, I see many more brown faces on bookshelves. I remember a time when publishers shied away from featuring brown faces on the cover of a book—even when the book was about a brown person. I certainly don’t want to return to the days when libraries featured people who looked like Dick and Jane, Goldilocks, and Harry Potter—only! But I’ll be honest, I felt small—powerless. 

Then I thought about young Ron McNair. On the day he protested at his neighborhood library, he faced a Goliath—the giant of racism. Still, he didn’t cower and run away, he made a stand. And his actions made the library a better place for everyone in the future. 

So, what can I do—what can we all do in this book banning conundrum? Shoot, I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, we need to support librarians. They are strong, but they are hurting. Last month at the Texas Library Association in Fort Worth, Texas, I attended a session where two librarians spoke on the issue of censorship and offered Intellectual #FReadom Resources. Later in the day, I saw the librarians on the exhibit floor, and I was overwhelmed by the gratitude they showed me for simply showing up—for being there to support them. Librarians are doing the tough work of supporting diverse books and student access to books. They need to know that they’re not in the battle alone. 

In his Publishers Weekly article, STAND BY OUR TEACHERS AND LIBRARIANS, author Chris Barton speaks


to supporting libraries by saying, “pick an institution that we cherish and make sure the people at that institution know that we appreciate them and have their backs. (Not sure how to effectively demonstrate your support? Ask them!)." Just this week, two-time Newbery Honor-winning author Christina Soontornvat penned a letter to the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, condemning the current wave of book suppression that specifically targets titles by creators who are LGBTQIA+ and Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The letter was signed by over 1,300 children’s book authors—including me! 

Thirdly, everyone needs to take this book banning seriously. Banning books is not a badge of honor, as author Nikki Grimes speaks about on her popular blog NOTES FROM NIKKI. After all, publishing is a moneymaking business. If diverse books become unprofitable because books can’t reach kids, publishers, I believe, will stop making them. 

Most importantly, we should not give up hope. We need to keep doing the work—writing the stories so all children can see themselves and know that they are important in the world in which they live. 

Also read: 




 (Peachtree, 2020) was an SCBWI Golden Kite winner in the nonfiction category. Don is a founding host of the Brown Bookshelf, a blog dedicated to advocating for Black authors and illustrators writing for children. When Don isn’t writing, illustrating or visiting elementary schools, he enjoys working out, swimming, yoga, and anything sweet and chocolaty.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

What's Your Creative Cross-Training Plan?

creative cross-training graphic showing a runner, weight lifter, meditator on the left, and on the right, artists and writers (and a translation graphic) showing different kinds of creative pursuits, including a scrabble-type line up of wooden letters spelling out "poetry"

A recent experiment with a week off of my regular writing projects to just play with some poetry has me thinking about cross-training, and how the benefits folks say cross-training has for athletes might also be there for those of us who illustrate, translate, and write works for kids and teens.

Cross-Training in the world of athletics is switching up your workouts to include different sports - Like, if your main sport is running, adding a yoga class, and strength training. Or if your main sport is basketball, adding meditation, and swimming. An article in Women's Health about the benefits of cross-training cited one study that showed athletes who specialized in only one sport were 85% more likely to get injured than those who did multiple sports. 

Cross-Training is also helpful in avoiding being bored by doing the same thing all the time. Personal trainer Heidi Powell, quoted in that same Women's Health article, adds more benefits: "Cross-training will help you increase strength, power, speed, endurance, agility, and balance, all of which translates across all sports and your everyday life."

So how might the practice of cross-training benefit our creative lives?

Physical injury could equate to writer's block.

And being bored might equate to feeling creatively burned out.

Strength and power might equate to our voice in the work and our confidence to do the work.

Speed and endurance might equate to our stamina to do the work well and on time.

Agility and balance might equate to our craft – having the words, or the images, at our fingertips when we need them.

So if creative cross-training can help us avoid writer's block and feelings of being burned out; give us confidence in our creative voice and ability to do our work; empower us with the knowledge that we can do the work well and on time; and help us keep our skills ready to go when we need them, why wouldn't we all creatively cross-train, all the time?

Think about your creative routines. Can you add some creative cross-training workouts? 

For example, if you usually illustrate, maybe try writing. Or limiting (or expanding) your color palette. If you usually translate, maybe try illustrating. 

If you usually write novels, maybe try a picture book. Or poetry.

Maybe introducing some creative cross-training will get you to a new level of creative fitness, that, as Heidi said above, could translate across all your creative pursuits "and your everyday life."

That sounds like a worthy goal!

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, May 12, 2022

School visits: A few things I've learned along the way

school visit 3

I first started speaking at elementary schools in Iowa back in the early ‘90s, way before my first trade picture book published. At that time, I illustrated a lot of basal readers for educational publishing companies. My work soon got the attention of a local social service agency, who invited me to speak at elementary schools—whoa!? 

Like a lot of writers and illustrators, I was an introvert. And I was shy, too (there's a difference). The idea of talking to anyone other than myself or my mom was strictly out of the question. I mean, what would I talk about? Honestly, I knew the answer. Kids love art, and a visiting artist would be inspiring for them. Still, I needed time to get over my fear of public speaking.  

Fast forward thirty years later—I’m now way past my fear of speaking to large groups. In fact, believe it or not, I enjoy it. Today, I present at elementary schools all over the country—in person and virtually.  For me, there’s nothing more delightful than when I’m sharing my experiences with young readers. I love the excitement in their eyes when they meet “the author.” I love their interesting and over-the-top questions. And I love their letters and drawings that often follow. Here are a few things I’ve learned along my school visit journey:


First and foremost, visiting elementary schools is not a must. I’ve met many authors and illustrators

school visit2

who have no interest in presenting at schools, but somehow feel pressured to do so—for promotional reasons; or because their publishers asked them to; or because, they think, children’s authors are supposed to do so. But here’s the thing: don’t treat children like they’re a promotional opportunity. Visit schools out of a genuine love and caring for children. As authors and illustrators, we have this wonderful career because of the kids! So, if you’re going to visit schools, do so out of the spirit of love, teaching, edifying, and inspiring a lifetime appreciation of reading. Also, if kids really aren’t your thing (yes, I’ve met a few children's book authors who fall into that category), do kids a favor: Write books, but don’t visit schools. 

Don’t be boring. I know, that sounds kind of simplistic, huh? But seriously, if I had a dime for every teacher or librarian who confided in me that most author visits they’d experienced were boring, I’d have quite a few dollars built up. Author visits are a day that children will carry with them for a lifetime, so make the day special. Now I don’t mean that you have to juggle flaming torches to get kid's attention, but you do need to think about and plan, and to find a way to engage them. Some kids already think that books are boring—I mean, books have to compete with TikTok, Netflix, and Minecraft. So, don't do a boring author visit. Keep in mind, learning to engage children isn't going to happen on the first few visits—being an engaging speaker is a learning process. Take a speaking course. Join Toastmasters. Show up (ask permission) at a school when a visiting author is in your area. How does that author engage an audience? Think about yourself as a child—how could a visiting author have grabbed your attention?

school visit 1

Make positive connections. As much as author visit day is about you sharing with students, it’s also a day for students to share with you. So make connections. The simplest way to make a connection is through a smile. No matter what kind of crazy my life is before entering a school, once I pass through the doors, I’m going to connect with everyone through a smile. I want everyone to feel welcome around me, I want to leave a positive impression. You never know what kinds of monsters a child might be dealing with. A simple smile, eye-to-eye contact with a high-five or a wave, goes a long way.

In addition, while I’m presenting, I try not to keep the focus only on myself. I want the students to tell me about themselves too. What are they really good at? What are their special talents? I keep the presentation interactive—an ebb and flow of author and students sharing with each other. Once they’ve shared their dreams and aspirations with the author, you’ve made a meaningful connection.

Personal gender pronouns. Okay, I’ll admit, I was slow to understand the pronoun conversation. I’m 58-years-old. For the majority of my life, “they” and "them" were plural pronouns that quickly earned a bad grade in English class, if you used them in the singular. Visiting schools turned me around, though. There's no worse feeling than referring to a child as “he” and then having them correct you—in front of the entire class—as, “I’m a she,” or vice versa. That happened a few times, and I felt awful. I want to be respectful of every child who crosses my path, so I learned. And I changed. During a Q&A at a virtual school visit recently, a child thanked me for identifying my pronouns on my profile picture, saying to me in front of the entire class: “You made me feel safe.” I want every child to feel safe and respected.

 (Peachtree, 2020) was an SCBWI Golden Kite winner in the nonfiction category. Don is a founding host of the Brown Bookshelf, a blog dedicated to advocating for Black authors and illustrators writing for children. When Don isn’t writing, illustrating or visiting elementary schools, he enjoys working out, swimming, yoga, and anything sweet and chocolaty.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Creating in a Storm - Strategies

The news on book banning in the U.S.A., including this recent article in Publishers Weekly about a Tennessee bill that would create a politically appointed commission to essential veto any book in any public school in the state feels like a storm.

public domain photo of a dust storm in Spearman Texas in 1935

Not a rainstorm that washes anything clean, but more of a sand storm, or a dust storm like in this photo of a 1935 dust storm in Spearman, Texas. A storm that makes it hard to see. That disorients. 

How do we create in the midst of so much sand/dust/noise? A few strategies come to mind:

1) Shut it out. Lock your doors, seal your windows, and hunker down and do your creative work.

2) Let the knowledge that everyone understands what you're creating has power fuel your creative work. Recognize that the storm has been created because the power of books for kids and teens is undeniable. Books can be life-affirming for marginalized youth. Books can level the playing field, or keep it unjust. Books can define both perceptions and reality -- control over that power is what the storm is all about in the first place. 

3) Put on some protective gear and go out into the storm to help those who need help. That's a metaphor, and each of us will have to figure out what's our protective gear. (Mine seems to be staying off Twitter.)

4) Focus on who you're creating work for in the first place. That's the kids and the teens, the ones who need your book. The ones for whom it will change everything.

Do you have additional strategies? Please share them in comments.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Writing resolutions: Be thankful

I’m not usually one to make New Year’s resolutions. I never seem to be able to maintain them. But as 2022 rolled in, and the Covid-19 pandemic rolled out (I thought), I decided to set some high-bar goals. For a short while, I’d transition away from illustrating to focus more on my writing. I’d write a proposal for a graphic novel memoir. I’d finish writing some picture books I’d started but never finished.  I’d also take an online writing course. 2022 was gonna be my big writing year—except that we are now into May, and I haven’t written one new thing. Sigh. How can I continue to call myself a writer when I’ve not written anything in months?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a slacker. Once I’ve had my morning coffee and chocolate (followed by a 1500 yard swim), I’m fairly productive. With schools and literary events coming back into full swing, I’m now traveling, doing in-person school visits, conferences, and book festivals. I revised and completed two picture book manuscripts written last year and under contract. I finished illustrating my next picture book. And, to my surprise, I even managed to accumulate a few accolades—the Texas Book Festival’s Texas Writer Award, a Christopher Award, and recently I was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.

As I’ve slowly come out of pandemic lockdown and travel, I’ve had the pleasure to chat with many other writers and illustrators. We’ve had meaningful conversations about work, our families, travel adventures—and of course, the past couple of years during the pandemic. Many authors and illustrators have lost people they loved. Many have lost work and income, a sense of security—stories to turn the heart blue. These stories made me realize that I’ve been lucky—no, heck, I’ve been blessed! I haven’t lost much, and in retrospect, I’ve gained a lot.

So for the last six months of 2022, as the pandemic continues, as the world edges closer to war, and as our politics are move divided than ever, I’m adjusting my goals. I’m focusing more on being aware of the needs of others. I’m more committed to being kind, forgiving, and giving grace to those around me. I’m going to be thankful for what and who I have in my life. The writing, it will come.

Don Tate

Don Tate is the award-winning author and/or illustrator of numerous picture book biographies, including PIGSKINS TO PAINTBRUSHES: THE STORY OF FOOTBALL PLAYING ARTIST EARNIE BARNES (Abrams, 2021) and SWISH! THE SLAM-DUNKING, ALLEY-OOPING, HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS (Little Brown, 2020). His WILLIAM STILL AND HIS FREEDOM STORIES: THE FATHER OF THE UNDERGROUND  RAILROAD (Peachtree, 2020) was an SCBWI Golden Kite winner in the nonfiction category. Don is a founding host of the Brown Bookshelf, a blog dedicated to advocating for Black authors and illustrators writing for children. When Don isn’t writing, illustrating or visiting elementary schools, he enjoys working out, swimming, yoga, and anything sweet and chocolaty.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

"Go With Your Typos" - & A Laugh for Spring Creativity

Recently someone shared this visual joke with me:

a painting of a rabbit at a bar holding a large beer between its paws. Text says: A priest, a rabbit, and a minister walk into a bar. The rabbit says, "I might be a typo."

Back when I was a kid, there were a lot of jokes that started out in a similar vein. Setting aside how appropriate/inappropriate those jokes may have been, the incongruity of the "rabbit" - along with the oil painting that goes with it - just cracks me up.

It reminds me of a writing exercise my brother told me about back when he was in college. It was to "Go with your typos" - to not allow yourself to go back with the delete key, and instead if you mistyped a character name, suddenly you had another character with a similar name, or that character had a nickname. 

Maybe the idea was finding unexpected humor, or just letting the story flow, or not editing yourself while you were in the composing phase of creative work, or... well, I'm not 100% sure what was the point. But in this one case, typing Rabbit instead of Rabbi led to a pretty funny joke.

The artist of the painting is Omar Rayyan. Arnold Zwicky posted back in 2020 about the anonymous addition of text to this artist's image.

I hope this made you laugh. And, maybe, you'll look at your next typo as a moment of possibility...

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,