Don Tate has illustrated numerous children’s books; he is also the author of It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, which was an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Book in 2013. Last year, he illustrated The Cart that Carried Martin, a picture book about Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Earlier this week, Tate discussed his work on The Cart that Carried Martin with Kidsbiographer.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate The Cart that Carried Martin?
Don Tate: For research, I plowed through thousands of online photos. The Atlanta History Center has a wonderful photo archive, and there are several others. I also read the book Burial for a King, written by Rebecca Burns, which filled in more details about the day.
The cart itself presented a challenge. During the procession, thousands of people flanked around it and followed. I could not see its details in photos, so I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Site and took pictures and sketched.
Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of The Cart that Carried Martin is how many of the spreads – the ones that depict mourners on the street and in church – are group portraits. Although all the faces show sadness, the people express their sorrow differently. Thus, the paintings convey how their grief at King’s death was both collective and personal. How did you compose these detailed group portraits?
Don Tate: Many of the scenes are of crowds. That became a source of anxiety for me. There was no main character to depict. It’s easier to depict emotion through the face of a person or an anthropomorphized animal. But how does one depict emotion with an inanimate object like a wooden cart? Tougher yet, a crowd of tens of thousands of people? To solve the problem, again, I studied photographs, zeroing in on individual people. I studied their faces, their hair styles, glasses, the patterns of their clothes. I saw them as individuals the same as me. What would I have been doing were I in that crowd? I’d have been hugging my wife or consoling my children. I’d have been holding a camera high over the crowd, trying to get a picture of the cart. I acted out many of the scenes and took photos of myself and my expressions.
Kidsbiographer: A particularly powerful illustration depicts the funeral procession at Morehouse College. You adopt a bird’s eye view and paint the mourners in an almost pointillist style to convey the vastness of the crowd. How did you compose this painting?
Don Tate: My goal was to communicate the enormity of the crowd. On pages immediately preceding the Morehouse scene, I pictured the crowd at street level as it passed the Georgia State Capitol. On the next spread, I pulled out a bit more, picturing the cart, the coffin and the family from above. The crowd is large, but that page does not fully illustrate the overwhelming vastness of the crowd. With the Morehouse scene, I pulled back even more. The reader now fully sees the huge size of the crowd. It’s a quiet scene, and hopefully an emotional one along with Eve’s words: “Bells pealed. More people sang. The second service ended.”
Again, photographs informed my painting. The challenge here was to depict an enormous crowd of people.
Kidsbiographer: What were your favorite – and the most challenging – aspects of illustrating The Cart that Carried Martin?
Don Tate: Again, one of the most challenging aspect of illustrating the book was the crowd scenes. I’d never illustrated crowds. But even more of a challenge was getting past my own fear of the subject matter. This would be a Dr. Martin Luther King book. I’d better not mess it up.
My favorite part of illustrating this book was freeing myself to use a looser painting style. Realism would be too heavy for the subject matter. One reviewer on Goodreads described my art for The Cart as childlike. He meant that in a good way; it was an ultimate compliment as that’s what I was going for, something more naive.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers – and listeners – will take away from the book?
Don Tate: There are a lot of books about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There aren’t any books about how his death affected the people who loved him — that I know of. The outpouring of love shown at his funeral was a testament to who Dr. King was. That’s what I want readers to walk away with. Hopefully, The Cart will lead them to other books about King.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects?
Don Tate:I have a lot in the works. I illustrated a book written by Chris Barton. It is the story of John Roy Lynch, a man who in ten years went from teenage field slave to Reconstruction-era Congressman. It will publish in 2015. Next I will illustrate a book that I wrote. It’s the story of George Horton, an enslaved poet who became the first African American to be published in the south before the Civil War (his poetry protested slavery). And I’m under contract to illustrate two more books, one of which I wrote as well.