Day 26: Don Tate

Don Tate is an acclaimed author and the illustrator of numerous books for children. He is the illustrator of the Roto and Roy series (Little Brown, 2022, 2023), Swish! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters (Little Brown, 2020), and Carter Reads the Newspaper (Peachtree, 2021). He is the author of Jerry Changed the Game! How Engineer Jerry Lawson Revolutionized Video Games Forever (Simon & Schuster, 2023); and the author-illustrator of Pigskins To Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes (Abrams, 2021), William Still and his Freedom Stories (Peachtree, 2020), and Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree, 2015).

The Day Madear Voted (Nancy Paulsen Books, July 2024), written by Wade Hudson, if a forthcoming book that he’s illustrated.


My Publishing Journey

I’ve worked in the publishing business for more than thirty years now, which makes me an official children’s publishing OG!  I’ve seen a lot, learned a lot, and I’ve witnessed a lot of change. Most importantly, I’ve met a lot of good people (hello Brown Bookshelf colleagues), and I’ve made many friends.

Traditional publishing is not an easy door to enter. Publishing has gatekeepers. Publishing is inherently competitive—there are more creators than opportunities. In addition, historically, Creators of Color have been forced to the back door—to find themselves many times locked out there, too. I didn’t give up, however, so I kept banging on publishing’s doors.

I entered the trade publishing business back in the late 90s, illustrating manuscripts written by or about African Americans. That first book was an illustrated chapter book for Hyperion. I followed that with Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mays (Jump At the Sun); and Black All Around (Lee & Low). Back then, these books were often referred to as multicultural publishing, while today the buzzword is diverse books.

I humbly consider myself a success story today. But not without help from others along the way. I was first inspired and helped by my aunt Eleanora E. Tate. But it was editor Andrea Pinkney at Hyperion’s Jump At The Sun who first opened that metaphorical trade publishing door to me. She welcomed me inside and jumpstarted my career. That happened only after seeking publishing advice from her husband, Brian Pinkney, and her father-in-law, Jerry Pinkney. I’d also reached out to artists James Ransome, Floyd Cooper, and Pat Cummings. Keep in mind, that was before the internet made finding people easy. Some of you may remember 4-1-1. All of these creatives led me to Andrea Pinkney who eventually published me.

Early on in my career, I learned the importance of Black creatives supporting each other, rather than competing against one another. Famed poet Langston Hughes often helped other writers by introducing them to key people in the publishing business. Acclaimed writer Richard Wright mentored James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others. Dudley Randall, the subject of one of my forthcoming picture books, published numerous Black poets at a time when mainstream publishing would not. This legacy of advocacy for one another is what led to my work with the Brown Bookshelf.

I love seeing up-and-coming stars make it big in publishing. I still remember when artist Shadra Strickland entered the scene back in 2008 as the illustrator of Bird, written by Zetta Elliott. It was a dazzling debut—for both author and illustrator, and we featured Strickland in our 28 Days Later campaign back then. Today, she’s not only an illustrator, but an author, educator, and literary agent. Just, wow! Since then, we’ve witnessed many other success stories like theirs.

In the early days of the Brown Bookshelf, we had to limit the number of illustrators to highlight in the campaign. With very few Black illustrators in the business—mostly guys, by the way—we feared that we’d run out of artists to highlight. Today, thanks to the hard work of many who pushed for more diversity in children’s publishing, the industry has seen change! There are now so many new artists in the business that I can’t even keep up! That’s wonderful for Black creatives seeking to enter the publishing business, but it’s even better news for readers who need to see themselves represented authentically in stories.



The Backstory: Jerry Changed The Game!

My newest book, Jerry Changed The Game! How Engineer Jerry Lawson Revolutionized Video Games Forever, is the story of self-taught engineer Jerry Lawson. He is credited with leading a team of engineers to create the first working interchangeable video game cartridge—an invention that forever changed the video gaming industry. He was a major influencer in the multi-billion-dollar video gaming industry of the 70s and 80s. I wrote the book at the suggestion of librarian Elizabeth Bird, with a desire to raise awareness of STEM careers, especially among black kids who may be unaware of these opportunities. The book has garnered a Mathical Book Prize honor, is a Eureka! Excellence in Nonfiction Award Honor Title, and a CBC Best STEM Book List Selection.

Brown Bookshelf Membership

It has been a true honor to be a founding member of the Brown Bookshelf. My colleagues here never fail to inspire, uplift, and support me. When I launched my first authored and illustrated book, Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton in the North Carolina area, Kelly Starling Lyons and Tameka Fryer Brown were right there with me. I’ll never forget the support of my friends right here in this space.

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