Change begins in my own backyard

When Varian first explained to me the concept behind the Brown Bookshelf — to highlight other African American writers and illustrators of children’s literature — I was ecstatic. Chills rolled down my back as I read his invitation to serve as a committee member. I don’t say that for dramatic flair, I really had goosebumps.

For awhile now, I’ve wanted to connect with other African-American children’s book creators for the purpose of elevating our presence in the publishing world. But I had no idea what to do. Instead, I did nothing. A negative voice inside my head told me that no one in our industry is really interested in African-American authors and illustrators. The voice convinced me that I was powerless to make change. Thankfully, Varian and Paula didn’t listen to any negative voices and charged ahead.

I entered the field of children’s publishing 23 years ago, illustrating mostly for educational publishers. My first trade picture book published in the spring of 2006, with Jump At the Sun. Since then, I’ve gone on to illustrate 7 more books, about one per year. I’ve traveled to many places, promoting my books. I’ve networked and met many people along the way — authors, illustrators, editors, agents, teachers and librarians, willing to help me to reach my goals. I’ve earned my way to sit at the table inside the children’s publishing castle. I’ve enjoyed the journey. Still, I’ve often felt like an outsider (or an insider standing in a dark corner).

In my spare time — if there’s really such a thing — I keep up with children’s publishing news. I like to know who is writing about what. What editor has moved to which house. What books are receiving industry-wide buzz — I love this stuff! But I’ve come to the realization that I’m not the only one standing in the shadow. Along with me are many authors and illustrators of color, more specifically, those in the range of brown to black.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not a whiner. This post isn’t about sour grapes. This post, and the entire Brown Bookshelf initiative, is about encouraging change by, hopefully, flooding the shadows with light, by bringing more attention to a few other deserving people.

Perhaps, you’re thinking, people of color are not in the shadows. What about… (fill in the blank)? And don’t forget…(fill in the blank). Haven’t you heard of…(fill in the blank)?

And to that I say, Yes! I know about…(fill in the blank). I am a big fan of…(fill in the blank). (fill in the blank) has worked hard and deserves to shine under the light. The problem is, too often, the light is so narrowly focused on…(fill in the blank), that others are left sitting in the dark. Alongside me. And I ain’t much of a conversationalist.

So, how do we fix the problem? Well, the answer is too large for me to fit inside of one blog post (which means I don’t know the answer). But I think the answer has to begin in my own backyard, with people of color. And that’s what caused the goose-bumps I mentioned at the beginning of my post — Varian and Paula, and the rest of The Brown Bookshelf team, all African-Americans, doing what we can to make a difference, not by asking the publishing industry to make a change for black people, but by fostering change for ourselves.

My goal is to post a blog here about 4 times per month. What will I blog about? Among other things, trade news, things I hear about on the blogosphere or elsewhere. I’ll blog about things of general interest to writers and illustrators of children’s books. Often times, I’ll blog about my own personal experiences, same as I do on my personal blog. But mostly, I’ll post reviews of brown books.

What is a brown book? Well, the answer gets kind of messy. In my opinion, a brown book would be any book with African-Amerian interest, regardless of the race of it’s creator. But that definition might defeat the purpose of the goals we’ve outlined for this initiative. So, for that reason, when I post book reviews, I will focus on books by and/or about African Americans only. And I pray the industry — and you — will tune-in anyway.

Before I wrote my first blog post here, I was terribly nervous. Felt like I was standing at a podium, about to give a speech before an audience of hundreds. Possibly, thousands.

My team members at The Brown Bookshelf are long-time, polished writers. I started writing about three years ago. Primarily, I’m an illustrator. My words aren’t always right. I have issues with grammar and tense and redundancy and spelling. Sometimes my writings appear under siege, attacked and demolished by a  punctuation A-bomb — dashes and commas and colons landing in all the wrong places.

Since I began writing, I’ve learned many things about myself. Most important, I’ve learned to be myself. I can’t express myself the way Varian or Paula or Kelly or Carla can. But I can present the best Don Tate that anyone can. I ask that you please bare with me.

10 thoughts on “Change begins in my own backyard

  1. Hi Don,

    I feel as if I already “know” you from the Disco Mermaids blog, and Paula from the blue boards, so it’s great to see you come together for such a good cause. As an elementary school teacher, I’m always on the look-out for authors and illustrators of all backgrounds, as I think it’s important for kids to see themselves represented in books.

    Best of luck to you, Paula, Varian, Kelly and Carla!

    All the best,

  2. I love what you’re doing to bring talented writers and illustrators out of the “shadows”. Thank you for educating us!
    And I’m a Disco Mermaids fan and Blue Boarder as well and will be looking forward to more blogs from you, Don, on this site.

    Good luck!!

  3. I’m not trying for the book, just wanted to say thanks to the Blue Boarders who came over to post.

    Children’s writers riggity rock!


  4. Hello Don,

    I am making history at this very moment. This is the first blog response that I’ve ever posted. I understand what you mean…my hands are all sweaty. I feel like I’m about to give the speech of my life. I am a new children’s book author and I am learning push the voice within to an audible level that others can hear. Your honesty in your post has encouraged me to speak here. I am very passionate about empowering, educating, and encouraging our youth to develop healthy self esteem, values, the ability to dream and achieve. I am going to support you and the other authors on The Brown Bookshelf because I think you understand that as a team, a community we can build a literary legacy that will empower and inspire our community for generations to come.
    I have to confess. I used to do a whole lot of complaining about what was wrong and negative in our community. But i decided to change my attitude or I should say i was inspired to change my attitude one day when I wrote a journal entry which would change the course of my life forever. My journal entry was a simple self reflection poem, a gift of affirmation. Now titled Everything About Me Is Beautiful, it is my first children’s picture book. I don’t write this to toot my own horn. I write this to say change is possible. Inspiration is devine. And the destiny of our children lies in the ability of authors and illustrators who share a common connection through life experiences to connect to that place in their hearts that desires to hope and dream. ( thank God for editors…I tend to just get it all out anyway i can!)
    So to Don and all the other writers out there, keep presenting the best you that you’ve got! There is a place on the bookshelf for our work. I am excited to be a part of this community. I am honored to learn from all of you. I look forwrd to becoming a better me and leaving somthing of value behind for the generations to come.

  5. Thanks all! Yea, Varian, I skipped right in and right out of the festival. Long enough to get my Pinkney books. I didn’t see any SCBWIers though, not even our booth.


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