Don Tate on Career, Mentorship and the Path to Publication

Apr 7, 2016 | Community Good News, Nonfiction, Picture Books, The Business of Publishing

We are thrilled to welcome Don Tate to the blog. At a workshop a few years back, Don and I got to talking about workshops and conferences. Don shared how fortunate he felt to participate in many workshops as both a conferee and leader. He said, “We all need to try new things and learn from each other.”

Don-Tate-Media-Photos-2Don not only strives to learn more, but to be more for others in this industry. He is the illustrator of more than fifty trade and educational books for children, as well as the author of It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started To Draw, an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor winner; and Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, an ALA 2016 Notable Children’s Book and an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award.

In addition to his on-page presence, Don can be found visiting schools across the country, as well as presenting at national writing conferences and festivals. He has an active online presence, blogging for The Brown Bookshelf and is the artist outreach coordinator for the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

Don found a bit of time to meet with us today to chat about mentors and tell us what he has planned for The Journey: Your Path to Publication, his workshop with co-faculty Carmen Oliver.

Alison: Welcome, Don! What’s new in the world of Mr. Tate?

Don: Biggest thing has been the release of my first authored and illustrated bookmore don, Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. It won an SCBWI Book Launch Grant in 2015. The money allowed me to launch the book in the North Carolina Triangle—Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, where I visited schools, conducted radio and media interviews, and held several launch celebrations at bookstores and libraries. The highlight was being able to put my book into the hands of George Moses Horton descendants–especially a young child. Poet published in September of 2015 to three starred reviews (Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly), and has won an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Book Award, as well as a Christopher Award.

Don Tate book cover 3In addition, I have a nonfiction piece and a short story that will publish with a middle grade anthology later this year (Grosset & Dunlap). I signed two new picture book contracts (Peachtree, Knopf). I sold a book that I wrote and will illustrate (Peachtree). I have a new book that will publish in two months (Whoosh!, Charlesbridge). I’m currently finishing up a book that will publish next fall (Stalebread, Clarion). And one that I’m over-the-top especially excited about–I’m in the beginning stages of revising my next authored and illustrated book, Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth (Charlesbridge). And a partridge in a pear tree!

What about the little things? Well, I taught myself to swim. I’m swimming anywhere from 60 to 100 lengths (25 yards), 3 to 4 times per week, and I’m loving it. And my TBR pile? Honestly, I’m reading a book about…swimming!

Alison: That is a mountain of writerly work. Thanks for the list of new titles to add to my IndieBound cart. With all of these looming deadlines, we’re honored that you can make time to spend a weekend with us at The Barn. Can you tell us a little about what you have planned for The Journey?

Don: Plan? You mean, beyond doing yoga every morning? Okay. I can tell you this. I’ve attended two Highlights workshops myself.

Don attending a Highlights Foundation workshop in 2012.

Don was a conferee at our first Advanced Illustrators workshop in 2012.

I’ve been an attendee at many-many-many children’s book writing and illustrating conferences. Each time, I’ve found myself sitting there, restless–knee jerking, hands twiddling–wanting to stand up and shout, Hey, I’ve been publishing children’s books for 30-plus years! I have a lot to share! Now, that said, I don’t proclaim to know it all. But I am living this career. Day-in and day-out, I write children’s books. I illustrate children’s books. I visit and present to thousands of young readers around the country. I travel with my publishers, speaking, promoting, signing my books on tour or at conferences. I’ve been there, I’m doing it. And I love helping others reach their goals, too. How’s that for a plan?

Alison: Sounds like a solid plan to me. After all our description promises: Three days of engagement, collaboration, mentorship, and a rekindling of joy in your path to publication.” Between you and your fabulous guests I know that we will accomplish that and more. Speaking of fabulous guests, we are thrilled to have Carmen Oliver join The Journey. Looking to our plan I know that she will speak about school visits and creating an author brand. Can you tell me a bit about how the two of you started working together?

At Texas Book Festival

At The Texas Book Festival

Don: Certainly. I’m thrilled that author Carmen Oliver will join me on the faculty. Carmen is someone that I met early on when I moved to Austin. We became critique partners, and then later business partners. Carmen knows the book business well, and she is generous with sharing that knowledge. Carmen founded the Booking Biz, an agency that brings children’s authors and illustrators to schools, libraries, and special events. You should know the authors that she works with: Kwame Alexander, Dianna Hutts Aston, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Bethany Hegedus, me, and many more. With Carmen on faculty, I know that we will have a blast!

Alison: Sounds like Carmen will provide great mentorship for our conferees. Speaking of mentorship, I know that you provide guidance for many new writers and illustrators in the industry. I wonder if you had any mentors along your path to publication?

Don and Cynthia at a children's book festival.

Don and Cynthia at a children’s book festival.

Don: Definitely. When I moved to Austin some 16 years ago, I joined the local SCBWI. I was shy, so I didn’t really engage with anyone at first. But I didn’t have to, everyone engaged with me! It was author Cynthia Leitich Smith, who sort of took me under her wing by offering to read anything that I would write. She read my early works and offered critique. She encouraged me along the way. It was Cyn who first told me, “Don, you can write.” I wasn’t convinced, but I held on to that compliment. And the first manuscript that I wrote and actually polished off through revision went on to get published. On the art side, it was artists like Brian Pinkney, Floyd Cooper, and James Ransome, who not so much served as mentors, but who listened to me, looked at my artwork, and pointed me in the direction of publishers who eventually went on to publish me.

Today, I have a handful of people who have “adopted” me as their mentor. Writer Norris Atkins comes to mind. He bounces ideas and questions off of me from time to time. We meet over lunches and discuss story ideas. My time is limited, but I know from experience that it’s not how much time I give, but the quality of time that is important. Right now, he’s at the stage where he’s learning and writing and revising, and doing all of the right things. I enjoy witnessing his growth, and look forward to the day he gets published.

As far as current mentors, I’m about to adopt MG author Greg Leitich Smith as my mentor. He’s a great writer, and MG novels are in my next chapter. Greg doesn’t know it yet, so shhh!

Alison: I’ll try to keep it a secret. Thank you again for carving out some time to speak to us on the blog today. See you soon!

Don: Thank you!


To learn more about Don and his work please visit his website.

Take a Picture of Me James VanDerZeeAndrea J. Loney received her MFA in dramatic writing from New York University. Since then, she has worked various jobs, from screenwriter to teacher of computer skills. Andrea is also a proud volunteer for Reading to Kids and the We Need Diverse Books campaign. She was the 2014 Lee & Low New Voices Award Winner with her debut picture book, Take a Picture of Me, James Vanderzee! In my house, she is also the superhero who created Bunnybear (Albert Whitman & Company).

BunnybearA quick estimate of the number of times my son has read Bunnybear since its release a year ago: 365. Recently, my seven-year-old said, “Do you know why Bunnybear is such a good book, Mom? Because it makes you feel like it’s okay to feel the things you do on the inside.”

I mean.

I just.

Andrea captures our hearts with Bunnybear’s relatable feelings. He hops along the pages when he can be himself, a bunny. When he meets Grizzlybun and knows that another animal feels as he does, there is a sense of complete harmony. I love the undercurrent of respecting self while respecting your neighbor. Andrea doesn’t share Bunnybear as a cautionary tale but rather the beauty of what could be in forests all over the land.

Last year Bunnybear came along with Andrea to the Foundation for our Crafting Successful Author Visits. (Take a Picture of Me, James Vanderzee! came too.) Andrea developed and implemented a school visit with the help of our mentors. You can watch a portion of her presentation here:

This year, Andrea will return to the workshop to share with debut authors in attendance what her debut year was like and the beauty of what can be in classrooms all over the land. Lucky for us, Andrea stopped by the blog to give us a preview of her workshop as well as to catch us up on what comes next for her as an author.

Alison: Hello, Andrea! Welcome to the blog. We’re all big fans of your work over here at the Foundation (and in our homes!). Can you share with us any projects coming soon?

Andrea LoneyAndrea: Thank you all so much for your support! It means so much to me. My next picture book is Double Bass Blues, illustrated by the phenomenal Rudy Gutierrez and published by Random House Knopf. It shares the adventures of a young black boy carrying his huge double bass from his suburban school, on buses, and through the city in order to share his favorite sounds of the journey with someone very special.

Alison: Looking forward to Double Bass Blues (2019). You’ve been busy. A new one coming, and two picture books released within six months of each other last year. What advice would you share with our readers as they prepare for a book debut (or two!)?

Andrea: Publishing a book can be a wonderful and bewildering experience. Most of us start this whole process with big, elaborate dreams, but things don’t always go as planned. I have found that the best way to deal with a book debut is to prepare as much as possible, be flexible enough to roll with it when things change, celebrate every single little victory that happens along the way, only focus on the things that I can control, and enjoy the ride

One of the best things I did last year was to join an online debut group the year before my book came out. Actually, I joined two debut groups because both of my books got bumped from 2016 to 2017 publication dates. But the Picture the Books 2017 debut group turned out to be an absolutely phenomenal collection of talented, professional, and generous individuals. We share resources, information, support, and sometimes frustrations, but I feel like I got an entire education in debut publishing by being a part of this group.

Alison: Great advice! We were delighted to host you as a participant at our Crafting Successful Author Visits workshop last year and look forward to having you on faculty at the same event this year. What do you think is the most beneficial part of this workshop? How has the workshop influenced your author visits?

Andrea: I can’t say enough good things about the Crafting Successful Author Visits workshop. Peter, Carmen, Jan, and Sudipta were incredibly generous with their time, their knowledge, and their hearts during that workshop. They created a nurturing but challenging space that encouraged us all to bring our best selves and our individuality to each visit.

School visit with Andrea J. LoneyI see the results of that hard work even now, as I watch my fellow students give spellbinding talks at events all over the country. So I suppose that the most beneficial part of the workshop is that if you put in the work, this workshop will work for you. Not only has it influenced my author visits, the techniques and the lessons I’ve learned in that course have provided a measurable boost to my teaching career and my public speaking engagements as well.

Alison: Thank you for your time today, Andrea! We look forward to seeing you this spring.

Andrea: See you soon!

*Shortly after Andrea’s interview her Bunnybear was named to the 2018 GLBTRT Rainbow List. Congratulations to Andrea, and all the 2018 Rainbow List books.

—Interview by Alison Green Myers

Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

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