This is Optimism Works, a series that interviews people who, through optimism, have made achievements in their life and career. Austin-based author and illustrator Don Tate has a number of award-winning children’s books under his belt, stories that promote racial and cultural inclusiveness. Here, he shares his own story of how, despite the odds stacked against him, he pursued his dreams one after another.
For Don Tate, writing did not come naturally. He was an illustrator first, but when he decided he wanted to write as well, he didn’t stop working at it until he had realized that goal. This achievement, and the many others Tate has accomplished over the course of his life, took drive, hard work, and, of course, optimism. Now he spreads optimism to the countless children who read his books. Tate understands how important it is for children to see themselves in the pages they read, and he strives to improve the diversity of materials in children’s literature through his works. He also writes for The Brown Bookshelf, a blog dedicated to promoting youth literature created by Black authors. Tate’s stories make sure that Black children see themselves represented, and also that they learn Tate’s inspiring approach to life: If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.
When did you first decide that you wanted to write and illustrate children’s books, specifically children’s books that promote racial and cultural inclusiveness?
I was inspired by my aunt, Eleanora E. Tate, who wrote novels for teens. One of her books, Just an Overnight Guest (Dial Books for Young Readers, 1980), was adapted into a movie and debuted at the Des Moines Public Library. I was impressed by my aunt’s speech that night, wherein she spoke about the importance of authentic Black literature, and the lack thereof. I wanted to tell stories, too, but I didn’t see myself as a writer at that time.
Later, I got into publishing as an illustrator. I loved the marriage of words and pictures. As any artist, I created images of the world I knew and loved—Black people. When I started speaking at elementary schools, I came to realize just how important it was for Black children to see themselves represented in books. Black kids were starving for literature that served as mirrors where they could (finally) see themselves.
When you were getting started, what feelings do you remember having about that goal?
My dad and grandfather felt that art was a poor career choice. They urged me to go into business, or something more practical. During my college portfolio night, an illustration instructor warned me about the lack of employment prospects for Black artists. He wasn’t trying to discourage me, I don’t think, he was simply being honest to what he knew at that time. There were no Black people employed at any of the local design studios, nor at Meredith Publishing, probably the largest employer of commercial artists in Des Moines back then. But I was a hard head. I wanted to be a commercial artist, so I argued that the color of money was more important than the color of my skin. Naivety won out. I set my goals on a career in art, and I never looked back.
What was the very first step you took? How did you stay on track?
I took a job as a publication designer at an educational publishing company. They’d employed some of my white friends from college, but I practically had to beg for the job. I accepted the position earning way less than the others, a fact that I learned much later. But I was doing what I loved, so I didn’t complain. I set out to prove myself. I designed educational aids for classrooms. It was my job to create layouts and design, but I really wanted to illustrate. I began working more illustration into my designs. The company liked my work, so I was allowed to moonlight after hours, earning additional income as a freelancer. Oh, and they started paying me more equal to everyone else. I remember getting three raises in a six-month period at one point. Educational publishing is what eventually led to a career in trade publishing. I didn’t wait for someone to offer an opportunity, I just started doing it!
I give 110-percent to whatever I do, and I forgive myself when I fall short.
Describe the moments when you felt like giving up. Why didn’t you?
Honestly, I haven’t had many of those moments. When I decided to become an artist, I became an artist. When I decided I wanted to get into publishing, I got into publishing. When I (finally) decided I wanted to become a writer, well, I hesitated a bit. I was confident in my abilities as a visual artist. But words always seemed to fail me. I wasn’t a confident speaker. People always corrected my grammar. Negative thinking was the biggest obstacle. Still, I wanted to write. I joined the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and found a writing critique group there. I started writing in a blog, which helped me to build up confidence in putting my words out into the world. Soon, I transferred my writings from the blog to a written manuscript. That first manuscript got published.
Where have you found support along the way?
My wife and mom are my rocks. They’ve supported me all along the way. Friends with the Austin SCBWI nurtured me too. I wouldn’t be a published children’s book author had I not joined the organization. When I moved to Austin in 1999, I had one book under my belt as an illustrator. When I decided I wanted to write, Cynthia Leitich Smith, a writer of picture books and young adult novels (and now an author/curator of a Native focused book imprint), reached out to mentor me. Others in the chapter reached out too. They offered their support, expertise—and a shoulder to cry on, too, when necessary. I also joined the Writers League of Texas, who later awarded me with their book award for my first authored and illustrated book, Poet, the Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree, 2015). I can’t stress the importance of my children’s literature community.
What has been surprisingly hard? Surprisingly easy?
Writing and illustrating a picture book is hard—even after 30-plus years. Some people think that because a book is written for a child, it must be an easy thing to do. A 32-page, character-driven picture book has a beginning, middle, and end. It needs a conflict to solve and an emotional arc. It’s a story with rising-and-falling action, a climax, and a clear ending. Oh, and it’s typically told in 300 or less words. That’s not so easy.
Making, revising, and promoting a children’s book is hard work. Loving the kids, however, is easy. A favorite part of my job is visiting elementary schools. I’ve visited schools all over the country—from big cities to small rural areas. I’ve even visited juvenile detention centers, quite literally behind bars (those kids were some of the best). I tell students about my journey from a shy, non-reading artist to becoming a published author and illustrator. Meeting an author-illustrator allows kids to see themselves as future storytellers.
How do you define success?
My work hasn’t made me a rich man. I don’t drive a fancy car. I live in a modest home. I pinch pennies to keep the bills paid. But I love my work. It supports my family and sends my son to the college of his choice (UT, yay!). Children’s books afford me the opportunity to travel to exciting places and to meet wonderful people. And yes, sometimes I get to splurge on cool shoes. That looks like success to me.
How does optimism play a role in this goal, and your future goals?
Well, negativity certainly won’t get a person anywhere. I try to be the best me that I possibly can—every day, in whatever I do. My grandfather taught me that. My grandfather was a hard worker. He was the most successful man I ever knew. He had a positive outlook on life, particularly with his work. And he took pride in his many titles. He was a janitor. A plumber. A handyman. Like my grandfather, I give 110-percent to whatever I do, and I forgive myself when I fall short. Perfectionism is not optimism.
What advice do you have for other people, trying to do what you’ve done?
Try to enjoy yourself. Celebrate every milestone. Creating books for children is hard work, but it’s so much fun, too—at least it should be. So often, we as authors and illustrators stress over getting the next book published. Then we worry about how reviewers will critique our works. We ponder what awards we might win? Will our books make the end-of-year best-of lists? Then we compare ourselves to others when their books win awards ours don’t. Don’t let these superficial things steal your joy. Remember what motivated you to write for children in the first place. Most likely, it was for the entertainment and edification of children, and not for the validation of a gold sticker.
Photo credit: Sam Bond Photography