Meet the Biographer: Don Tate

TateMug662-300x376Don Tate has illustrated over 40 book for children. Earlier this year, he wrote It Jes’ Happened, a picture-book biography of folk artist Bill Traylor. This week, he chatted about using voice to shape character, engaging kids in folk art, and applying his illustration experience to writing.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Bill Traylor’s art, and what made you decide to write about his life?

Don Tate: Author Dianna Aston, a friend, suggested I write Bill’s story. I hadn’t heard of him, so she mailed a newspaper article to me about the artist. I was intrigued. At the time I didn’t consider myself a writer, so I procrastinated for several years before writing a first draft.

Kidsbiographer: Can you describe the research you did to write It Jes’ Happened? What was the most intriguing fact or anecdote you discovered about Traylor and his work during the research process?

Don Tate: It Jes’ Happened was my first foray into the scary world of writing. I wasn’t sure where to start. To begin, I searched online for every article I could find on the subject of Bill Traylor. Then I referred to other books written about the artist (there weren’t many), mostly art books or books about folk art that included snippets about Bill Traylor.

Inconsistencies regarding the events of Bill’s life was the most frustrating part of the research process. His birth date varied from source to source. Even his death date varied. In the end, I relied on scholarly sources.

Another problem was that I couldn’t find much at all about Bill’s life before his 80s. I considered writing a story about the four years he spent as a homeless artist in Montgomery and leave it at that. But I needed to know more. What inspired his art? Why did he start to draw? That’s where studying Bill’s art came in to play. Bill’s art served as a visual journal of his life.

While no one knows exactly why Bill Traylor began to draw, by studying his art it became obvious that he simply poured out years of welled-up memories.

Kidsbiographer: It Jes’ Happened not only celebrates Traylor’s art, but his humor, resilience, and remarkable voice. You include remarks and observations attributed to Traylor in your narrative, which helps develop him as a character. In your author’s note, you mention that various sources attributed different statements to Traylor. How did you decide which lines to include in your text, and which characteristics were you most anxious to convey in his voice?

Don Tate: Charles Shannon spent a lot of time observing Bill as he created his art. He purchased many of Bill’s pieces. On the back of the art, he often recorded comments Bill made while drawing. Bill Traylor’s whimsical sense of humor and his practical look at life around him are what resonated with me. I related to his humor and practicality. I’m a lot like Bill, I saw myself in him. One time Bill made comments about money. He said: “You could have that building over there full of money, but you couldn’t eat it.” I cracked up laughing when I first read that quote. I make similar comments regarding my own family finances.

Somewhere in my research, I came across the quote, “It jes’ happened.” The words were supposedly a response Bill gave to a reporter when asked why he began to draw (though it’s also been said that Bill didn’t respond to the reporter at all, that the words were put into his mouth). I loved the quote, I’d use it as the title of the book. I also used the quote in the story, on the first page. Problem was, I hadn’t noted the source of the quote, so I couldn’t attribute them to a reliable source. I never found the source, so I couldn’t suggest that Bill used those words. However, several other sources (that I documented), including a 1946 edition of Colliers magazine, that featured a story about Bill, quoted him as having answered the reporter by saying, “It jes’ come to me.” I used that line in the story. It worked, but it didn’t make for a smooth title. My editor and I had a discussion, and we decided I could use the words “It Jes’ Happened” as the title of the book, if I wanted to, because it wasn’t intended to be a Bill Traylor quote.

Kidsbiographer: Children’s biographies are among the few books in which kids encounter adult protagonists. It Jes’ Happened is a particularly remarkable story as the subject is not only a former slave, but the very latest of late bloomers: he didn’t start drawing until he was 85 years old. How did Traylor’s age shape the way you approached the narrative?

Don Tate: Good question. Bill was a homeless octogenarian, born a hundred-and-fifty years ago. He was an unknown figure that most kids — or adults — would know about. How would this story attract the interest of a young reader, say 7- to 11- years-old? That was the challenge. I met the challenge by beginning the story with a scene where Bill drew pictures surrounded by children (which is often what happened). Everyone likes to draw, or at least likes people who can draw.

As far as words, I think young readers are attracted to rhythm. So I tried to tell the story with a bouncy beat, a rhythmic flow. And I used the refrain, “Bill saved up memories deep inside.” Hopefully, my words were inviting to young readers. Certainly, Greg Christie’s bold and colorful art will draw them in.

Kidsbiographer: Although It Jes’ Happened is your authorial debut, you have had a successful career as an illustrator. How did your illustration experience and your knowledge of visual art influence your stylistic decisions during this project?

Don Tate: Many of the scenes that I wrote were inspired by Bill Traylor’s artwork. Bill loved to portray animals, especially mules. Since I had a great quote of Bill talking about his stubborn mule, that became a scene. Bill also portrayed scenes later entitled “exciting events,” wherein people danced, ran around around, climbed buildings, hunted on horseback with dogs. This inspired the Saturday night party scene. Bill Traylor’s “Preacher and Congregation” inspired the worship scene.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about this picture-book biography?

Don Tate: At a recent school visit, kids made a book and filled it with drawings they created. They drew pictures in Bill’s style, much like Greg Christie did for the book. Children loved Bill’s art! When I first wrote the book, I wasn’t sure how children would respond to his art. Bill had a wonderful sense of color, line, shape, space. He had a consistent style. But his art has been described by some as rough and primitive. It’s like folk art, not slick and photo realistic with dramatic highlights and shadow. I’m thrilled that children love Bill Traylor’s art — they got it!

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current upcoming projects?

Don Tate: I have three projects on the horizon. Hope’s Gift publishes later this month. It is written by my friend and colleague at the Brown Bookshelf (thebrownbookshelf.com), Kelly Starling Lyons. It’s a story to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

I’m currently finishing up a book written by Eve Bunting. Without giving too much away, it’s a day-in-the-life type of story that celebrates the life of a great American hero. Then I’ll move on to a nonfiction book written by my good friend, Chris Barton (Shark vs. Train). Much to be thankful for here.

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