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
Don Tate: “When I Began to Read, I Began to Exist”
I got into publishing some thirty years ago, through a design and illustration job at an educational publishing house in Des Moines, Iowa, where I grew up. The topic of diversity in books soon became a top priority for me. Throughout those years, I kept my eyes peeled for opportunities to include people of color in my books. I believe it’s vital for all children to see themselves represented in a positive way, in books and other media. But while I knew this to be true, I had no real-life stories to share about the impact my books may have had on a child of color. That is until now.
It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low Books, 2012) was my first authored book. It’s a biography of outsider artist Bill Traylor, a former slave who at the age of 83 began to draw pictures based on his memories and observations of rural and urban life.He is considered to be one of the most important self-taught American “outsider” artists of our time.
Late last year, It Jes’ Happened was included in RIF’s (Reading Is Fundamental) 2013-2014 Multicultural Book Collection. I was excited to receive the news, but for all the wrong reasons. At first, I thought, Wow!—this will sell a lot of copies of my book! But little did I realize, more important things were at at play. Things like my book reaching one very special child.
At an elementary school in Lower Peach Tree, Alabama, a bright-eyed fourth-grader (who looks a lot like my own son), browsed his school’s RIF library. He had dozens of books to choose from, ranging in topics from history to science, nature and conservation, animals and habitats. I’m honored to say that Justin chose It Jes’ Happened. Perhaps he was drawn to R. Gregory Christie’s captivating illustrations. Or perhaps it was just plain fate.
As Justin flipped through the book, his mind grasped at making a connection. Justin was familiar with Bill Traylor’s artwork. In fact, somehow he was familiar with Bill Traylor himself. But how? Upon further reflection, Justin realized the man pictured in the book was the same man displayed in a picture in the foyer of his grandmother’s home. Yes, believe it or not, that really happened! Young Justin had come face to face with his great-great-great-grandfather—Bill Traylor!
I first learned about this story through an email sent to me from the folks at RIF. As I read the email, a chill ran up my arm. I felt like I had done something even more important than what was ever intended. I helped introduced a child to his own personal history. That’s what diverse books can do. I can’t even express how much this little story has meant to me. Or what it may have meant to Bill, if he could know. And most important, I wonder how this experience affected Justin. I don’t know, but I can tell you one thing, this whole experience further fuels my desire to create even more diverse books for children. And FYI, a meeting between Justin and I is in the works!
Thank you to RIF, BookPeople, and so many others who work hard to get diverse books in the hands of every child.
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.