“When I Began to Read, I Began to Exist”: Don Tate Guest Post

Guest Post by Austin Author Don Tate

This is the fourth week in a series of author guest posts about diversity in children’s literature and the BookPeople Modern First Library initiative. For more about BookPeople’s Modern First Library initiative, and for more recommendations of wonderful new and classic picture books to read, visit bookpeople.com.

Previous posts in this series:

Meghan G., Kids book buyer: Introducing BookPeople’s Modern First Library
Chris Barton: A Modern First Library List
Chris Barton: Loved, valued, unique? Yes. Center of the universe? No.
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Books as mirrors
Cynthia Leitich Smith: This book is for you
Liz Garton Scanlon: Soul reflecting 101
Liz Garton Scanlon: Fear No Difference
Liz Garton Scanlon: All the World Is All of Us

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“When I began to read, I began to exist.” – Walter Dean Myers

Many years ago, an interviewer asked me about the kind of books I grew up with. I answered by saying that we didn’t have many books in our home as a child, that I remember. My mom saw that interview. She called immediately, and now I stand corrected: As a young child, we had a lot of books in our home—Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, The Cat In The Hat, Green Eggs and Ham. Thankfully my mom, who wasn’t much of a reader herself at that time, knew the importance of providing books for her four boys. Still, I wasn’t interested in books, beyond looking at the pictures.

By the time I started school, I still wasn’t very interested in books. In class, we read the popular Dick and Jane books. I remember wondering if they had any black friends in their perfect little picket-fence world. According to a quick Google search, they actually did have black friends—the Pam and Penny twins. My school must not have carried those editions, though, because I don’t remember any people of color in those books. I wonder if there had been, if I would have taken more of an interest in reading. I was more of a “drawer” than a reader. During free time, I curled up on the staircase with pencil and paper. I drew black movie and stars found inside Jet Magazine, circa 1970, or I’d find one of those “Draw Winky,” advertisements and sketch for hours. Reading books just weren’t for me, though.

By middle-school, I read occasionally. My dad worked was a printer foreman at Meredith Publishing, a big publishing house in Des Moines, Iowa, where I grew up. My dad bought home all kinds of magazines, like Better Homes and Gardens and others. My favorite was our Better Homes and Gardens Illustrated Medical Encyclopedia, with detailed illustrations of stomach ulcers and toe fractures. I also skimmed books like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not or Guinness Book of World Records, looking for oddities like two-headed babies, or Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. At school, the white kids were all into The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Not to suggest these books were for the white kids only, I just didn’t know of any black kids who actually liked these books. I don’t know, maybe it was a cultural thing, but I wasn’t interested in reading about elves or dragons. I became even more disconnected from books.

In high school English, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was required reading, as was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not to mention a whole slew of Greek and Roman myths. We were assigned to read the books and participate in group discussions. It was a painful experience for me because the books didn’t hold my attention beyond a few pages, and so sitting through the discussion groups—with white kids who really seemed to enjoy these books—only made me feel dumb. I usually sketched quietly to myself and counted down the minutes until the bell rang and put me out of my misery. Certainly I don’t mean to be so bold as to question the literary merits of Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. It’s just that their voices didn’t capture the attention of this African-American, teenage boy.

Sometime during my junior year, my aunt, a former journalist for the Des Moines Register, authored a children’s book that was adapted into a movie. Just An Overnight Guest debuted at the Des Moines Public Library, downtown. The movie starred some famous names of the time, Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and Roslind Cash (General Hospital). It was a grand evening, or so as I remember, with reporters covering the event and important dignitaries coming out to celebrate my aunt’s achievements.

Before the movie started, my aunt stood at a podium and thanked everyone for coming out to support her. Then everyone headed downstairs. As I watched, I wondered how my aunt came to write a story that people would want to make a movie about. More curious, how did she even know about book publishing? My aunt was a dark-skinned, African-American woman with a short, kinky afro. Most times, she wore a colorful dashiki. And she wasn’t shy about thrusting her bony, clenched fist in the air and flashing the Black Power symbol. That wasn’t the image my 15-year-old mind had formed of an author . . . of books! That movie debut was an ah-ha! moment for me. That night, I knew that I wanted to tell interesting stories, too. My aunt’s example gave me permission to do just that. But first, I figured, I’d need to do some reading. I’d need to find a book.

Of course, I began by reading my aunt’s Just An Overnight Guest. I breezed through it with no trouble at all. It was the story of a family that looked something like my own. The main characters—black children—faced obstacles and challenges that were familiar to my experiences. One child was jealous over the lighter skin color of another child. Having been teased many times as a child about my dark skin and nappy hair, sometimes I wished that I looked like my lighter skinned, “better-looking,” as some folks deemed them, cousins. I could relate to the feelings of the character in my aunt’s book. My interest in reading was suddenly piqued. I wanted to read even more.

My aunt continued to write for youth, and I continued to read. The Secret to Gumbo Grove came next, as well as Thank You Dr. Martin Luther King and A Blessing in Disguise. My aunt’s books eventually led me to other African American authors. After college, I read Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks, Alex Haley, Claude Brown, and yes, Malcolm X. I had found a connection to books. I looked forward to slipping myself into the skin of strong African-American characters, experiencing their world—good or bad—through their eyes. Their stories changed me. As Walter Dean Myers once said, “When I began to read, I began to exist.” Finding myself in books allowed me to eventually branch out to read beyond the African American experience. At twenty-something-years-old, I finally read Mark Twain!

Today I’m an avid reader. I made it a goal to pass my love of reading along to my son at an early age. I used the lessons learned along my path to reading, and I began by providing him with a diverse first library. It included books written by diverse authors such as Grace Lin, Paula Yoo, Sherman Alexie, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Pat Mora, as well as many more African American authors. My son was blessed with the gift of seeing diversity in books even before he could read. I believe that doing so freed him up at an early age to explore topics beyond his own experiences. Ask him today what his favorite books were in elementary school, and he’d probably tell you The World According to Humphrey. Humprey is a hampster. Go figure.

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Don Tate is an award-winning author, and the illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children, including The Cart That Carried Martin, (Charlesbridge); Hope’s Gift, (Penguin); Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite (Charlesbridge); She Loved Baseball (HarperCollins); and Ron’s Big Mission, (Penguin). He is also the author of It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started To Draw (Lee & Low Books, 2102), an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor winner. His upcoming titles include The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Illustrator, Eerdmans, 2015), and Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton of Chapel Hill (Author and illustrator, Peachtree, 2015). Don lives in Austin, Texas, with his family.

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