Jason Reynolds: From Reluctant Reader to Award-Winning Author


Jason’s childhood photo

Jason Reynolds has been deemed one of the most promising young adult novelists today. He has received prestigious accolades and awards including several Coretta Scott King Awards and Honors, the Kirkus Award, being named a National Book Award finalist, and becoming a New York Times bestselling author. Additionally, he is on the faculty at Lesley University for the Writing for Young People MFA program. Yet, he was not always interested in books. Here Mackin’s Amy Meythaler asks Reynolds to share insights into his background and how he discovered his love for poetry and prose.

Where did you grow up and what was your home life like?
I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., with mainly my mother and older brother, though my house was the house everyone lived in at one point or another. Aunts, cousins, my father. Always people there.

GhostWere books, libraries, reading, and writing important in your family?

It’s weird to look back on it all now, only because books were everywhere in our house, though I don’t recall seeing anyone actually reading. They were there, though. And the collection of books—at least my collection—was growing. Every year for Christmas my aunt would give me a classic. And every year I tossed it aside. I mean, seriously, who wants books for Christmas? Especially the classics?!

Apparently you gave up reading books when you were quite young. What happened?

“I wish teachers back then let us read anything. I wish they understood that my life, my personhood, would be strengthened by literacy, not just literature. So had I been allowed to read rap lyrics in school, or video game cheat code books, or whatever I was interested in, I would’ve been better off.”

The entire medium was something I was uninterested in. Well, I take that back. It wasn’t that I was uninterested as much as it was that I felt disconnected from it. School, back then, discouraged whatever relationship I could have had with books by not providing me, and kids like me, with options. All I needed was something familiar. A family like mine. A neighborhood like mine. Language like mine. But it’s unfair for me to just say teachers didn’t try. Some of them, I’m sure, were working to figure out how to crack the code. But it’s hard to do when the options for the books I needed were so scarce. Today, fortunately, there are more options. There are contemporary stories, layered and authentic. There’s a creativity, an irreverence, and a growing inclusivity that makes reading more palatable. More accessible. More fun!


Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

I wish teachers back then let us read anything. I wish they understood that my life, my personhood, would be strengthened by literacy, not just literature. So had I been allowed to read rap lyrics in school, or video game cheat code books, or whatever I was interested in, I would’ve been better off. I know being a teacher is difficult because of all the red tape and bureaucracy, so I don’t want to pretend that implementing this kind of thing is easy. But it’s worth trying.

About the same time you lost interest in books, you discovered poetry. What inspired you to take up reading and writing poetry? And how do you suggest educators help the young people they work with find an appreciation for poetry as well?

I found poetry through rap music. I think it’s MUCH easier to get kids interested in poetry if you break down the barrier between the poets in their textbooks and the poets in their ear buds, which immediately gives credence to some of the poets in the classroom. There are always kids who rap. Who sing. They’re poets. Dissect Kendrick Lamar lyrics. Dissect Tupac. Lorde. Taylor Swift. Whoever.

“School, back then, discouraged whatever relationship I could’ve had with books by not providing me, and kids like me, with options. All I needed was something familiar. A family like mine. A neighborhood like mine. Language like mine.”

I know there are some poetry snobs out there turning their noses up at this idea, and that is precisely the issue. Shakespeare was brilliant, but not because he was over people’s heads. He was brilliant because he could bring raucous stories to everyday people, and its sophistication had everything to do with his ability to connect and poke fun using metaphor and entendre. That’s rap music. That’s poetry.

The other thing about poetry, for me, was that it was short. It was punchy and immediate and far less daunting than prose. Less words on a page was enough for me to try to write it and read it.

All American Boy As Brave as You Boy in the Black Suit When I Was the Greatest

Obtaining a degree in English seems highly unlikely for someone who gave up reading. How did your choice of a college major come about? And did your lack of a rich reading background hinder you at all?

“It’s much easier to get kids interested in poetry if you break down the barrier between the poets in their textbooks and the poets in their ear buds.”

It was a struggle. I loved to write poetry and was determined to be a successful (read: famous) poet since I was a kid. So the English degree didn’t seem that far-fetched for me. But I was completely unprepared because I hadn’t read anything. As a matter of fact, I started as an English major but changed it several times to Education, Journalism, Communications, and eventually landing back on English. But I also started reading, and, therefore, played catch up. But I never wavered from what I wanted—to be a poet. That’s it. Not a teacher. Not a lawyer. Not even a novelist. A poet.

Reynolds Reflects on the Power of Literacy and Story

Jason Reading to Kids

Reading to students

“I never wavered from what I wanted—to be a poet. That’s it. Not a teacher. Not a lawyer. Not even a novelist. A poet.”

“We all need to know how to read. Our children need to know how to navigate language because with words we can bolster self-confidence and cut down on violence and almost every other interpersonal conflict. For example, when I was young and I would get upset but couldn’t find the words to express my anger, I would break things. That’s human. Had I been able to wrangle my language and articulate my feelings, I would’ve, perhaps, been able to let some of the air out before bursting. And in terms of the importance of stories…well, imagine if I had never known that I wasn’t the only kid on earth who got mad enough to break his own toys? Imagine the loneliness and insecurity that might set in. Stories are the imaginary friends that do real things. That actually throw the ball back.”

Jason speaking at Twin Cities TLC

Keynote address at Twin Cities Teen Lit Con

To what do you attribute your success today? Having received so many honors and awards so early in your career, do you now feel pressure to keep being successful?
You know, when it all comes down to it, I attribute my success to my intuition, my work ethic, and an incredible support system. I write from the gut. I put it on the page in a way that feels good to me, even if that means I have to break a few rules. And I’m relentless. Obsessive, even. Every book is treated like the first. And I’m super lucky to have an agent and an editor to push me and tell me it’s okay when I’m falling apart. And I do fall apart sometimes.

Do I feel pressure? Sure. But not because of the awards. I’m just always in competition with myself to make sure that everything with my name on it is as good as I could’ve possibly gotten it at the time. I put the pressure there to keep me grounded, to keep me focused. Shiny things can shatter thoughts. I have to remind myself everyday what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. That’s what keeps me driven.

Speaking of driven, you will have three books published this year: Patina (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2017), Long Way Down (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2017), and Miles Morales: Spider-Man (Marvel Press, 2017). In addition to being an author, you are also a speaker and a teacher. How do you find time to do everything?
I don’t sleep. I write on planes and in airports. I edit the manuscripts of my students in hotels. I do whatever needs to be done. Like I said, obsession. It’s tough but it ain’t boring, so I’ll take it!


Milo Morales_ Reynolds


Miles Morales is a bit of a departure from your usual writing subjects. Was it a challenge to write a Spider-Man novel?
The books all come out of me, out of my experiences, so I have an equal connection to all of them. But, of course, writing about a superhero was different. But only in the sense that I didn’t want to write a “superhero” book, but instead, a book about a kid who happens to also be a superhero. It was a nice stretch, and a lot of fun, and still me.

“I have to remind myself everyday what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. That’s what keeps me driven.”

Miles Morales aside, your other characters and stories focus on the black experience. Are you writing for black people or for everyone?
I write about black people. But the misconception is that stories of black people aren’t for everyone, when the truth is, the stories of black people are the stories of America. My stories are contemporary, but there is nothing about today that is not about yesterday. My stories are also human, therefore, at the core of each are the things that connect us. But yes, I write about black people. And I’m unashamed and unafraid to do so. As a matter of fact, I’m honored to do so.

Jason with Faith Erin Hicks and Neal Shusterman

Panel discussion with Faith Erin Hicks and Neal Shusterman

The We Need Diverse Books movement is very active. As a younger writer and someone who writes for a young adult audience, how long do you think we will need formal structures to increase diversity in publishing? Do you think this will ever be a non-issue because there will be so much variety available?
I’d like to believe so. But I also think that would display a bit of naïveté and even some hubris on behalf of us all. There is never a time where things aren’t changing, and with change comes discomfort, dissent, pushback, and ultimately, if we have the necessary channels in place, growth. But I think those channels have to be there.

It seems that our country is going through a time of growing discomfort, dissent, and pushback, especially in regard to race. How do you feel your books and other diverse literature can help?
Books are empathy machines. Art, in general, has a way of tearing our egos down. Chipping at our walls. There has never been a time of unrest in this country when literature hasn’t been a valuable weapon against oppression. It allows us to see the landscape as it is as well as imagine a better world. It also creates capsules for posterity. James Baldwin said that he knew he wouldn’t be the marcher. He knew he didn’t have it in him to take up a sign and chant in the streets. But he still believed he had a role. He knew there would have to be someone to document these moments—that there would have to be a scribe so that generations to come could know of the shoulders on which they stand.

As a scribe for this generation, what can readers look forward to seeing from you soon?
Let’s just say, lots of things!

The Curriculum Guide to The Boy in the Black Suit

The Curriculum Guide for When I Was the Greatest

A Reading Group Guide to All American Boys

A Reading Group Guide to
As Brave As You

A Reading Group Guide to
Track, Book One: Ghost


Kurtis Scaletta: From Avid Reader to Award-winning Author

Because of The Velveteen Rabbit (George H. Doran Company, 1922), a young boy became an engaged reader. And because a second-grade teacher cared, an award-winning author was born.

“I write middle-grade books because of how much I needed books when I was that age.”

Kurtis Scaletta grew up surrounded by books and models of others reading, so it was only natural he would take up reading as well. “We had loads of books,” says Scaletta. “One book I really remember is The Velveteen Rabbit, which wasn’t the first book I read by a long shot, but maybe the first book that made me cry, that felt weighty and important, that made me feel like I was a better person for having read it. And around that time, I decided writing stories was what I wanted to do. But one pivotal moment came in second grade when we had to write and illustrate our own books. My teacher took me aside to say mine was the best … she didn’t want to say it in front of the other kids. I was used to being kept after school because I was in some kind of trouble, so it was a huge thing to get some positive attention for a change.”

Rooting for Rafael Rosales

When Scaletta entered college, he did not need time to figure out his educational direction. In fact, in the course of a few years, he had earned several degrees including two master’s degrees—one in English and one in education. Amazingly, though, he did not become a published writer or even write for his work for several years. “My day job for the last 20 years has been in educational technology; first developing educational multimedia, then as a faculty consultant at the University of Minnesota, and now managing the online education program at the Loft Literary Center. At least the last one involves creative writing!”

Today, in addition to his “day job,” Scaletta is an accomplished, award-winning author. Known especially for his highly acclaimed break out novel, Mudville (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2009) and his series of baseball-themed Topps League books (Harry N. Abrams), one would likely expect Scaletta to have spent his childhood and youth involved in sports. That would be false. “I was not a good athlete or even a big sports fan as a kid. I did play sandlot ball and played basketball for the YMCA clubs. Kind of funny that’s the sport I picked since I was the shortest kid in my class every year.”


As a military kid, Scaletta spent his childhood moving around a lot. But the rich experiences he gained provided details for his work. “My father was in the Air Force until I was about 13, and then joined the foreign service, so there was a lot of moving, including to other continents. I loved living in England as a kid, for the candy, excellent television (including kids programs!), and interesting history in the region. We lived in an area where both Roman and Paleolithic/Mesolithic sites (e.g., Stonehenge) were close by, which took hold of my imagination. Liberia was more challenging, but was the most interesting place to live.”


Scaletta’s first book debuted in 2009. It was met with high acclaim and received honors such as being shortlisted for the Mark Twain Readers Award. “I didn’t really appreciate how good Mudville did because like a lot of debut authors, I kind of thought all the good things would happen: bestseller list, movie deal, major awards. Then when a couple of other books came out I realized, hey, I did pretty good with the first one getting as much attention as it did!”

Tanglewood Terror

It was living in Liberia that inspired his second novel, Mamba Point (out of print). The book is full of autobiographical details with everything being true except for the snake. “Linus lives in the same apartment building and has the same day-to-day life as I did,” shares Scaletta. “When I lived in Liberia, even though the culture transition was hard, I knew it was something special and worth writing about.”

In Scaletta’s subsequent books such as The Tanglewood Terror (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2011) and The Winter of the Robots (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013), he has included elements of mystery, fantasy, and humor. Yet, underlying everything is a vein of realism. Scaletta doesn’t shy away from the tough issues that concern young people today. That is especially apparent in his latest book, Winter of the Robots  Rooting for Rafael Rosales (Albert Whitman and Company, 2017).

“I want my books to stick with readers for a while.”

“I’m more of a realist,” acknowledges Scaletta, “and those quieter things—family issues, kids growing up, kids worrying about the future—that’s really what drives me to write. When I grew up that stuff was the norm, and I still haven’t shaken the idea that it’s important that kids discover themselves through books, connecting with characters from emotions and experiences that are familiar, and by showing the character go through something, the reader can learn from it. And I feel like honesty is the best way through. I think I did that best with Maya in Rafael Rosales. She’s right about the bees, but she’s in a place where she can take a lot of things for granted. And the kind of things she wants to do mean real sacrifices. I didn’t want it to be easy.”

Sometimes it is easy for writers to become preachers trying to get messages across to their readers. Not Scaletta. “I don’t have model heroes and avoid moral certainties,” he says. “I don’t want books to tell kids what to believe, but I want to show kids being reflective, and coming to decisions carefully and with empathy. I think that’s one element in all of them. Even the way Jim rationalizes all of his crimes in Winter of the Robots shows a kid who’s grappling with what the right thing to do is. And I want my books to stick with readers for a while. Even if they don’t think, ‘Hey, this book was a hoot,’ maybe weeks later they’re still thinking about it.”

Kurtis with his cat, Torii

Kurtis with his cat, Torii

With five novels and six chapter books to his credit, Scaletta has a growing, eager fan base. So what can readers look forward to seeing from him next? “Nothing soon,” admits Scaletta, “ I cannot write as much as I used to because of my son, and my pace has slowed a lot as a writer, but I do what I can on lunch breaks and weekends and after he goes to bed, though by that time I’m usually too beat to do anything. However, I’m working on something new but am not quite prepared to go public with it … I’ll just say mysteriously that it’s about the power of art and has a dual narrative, like Rafael Rosales.”

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

“Everybody in my family was an avid reader. My mother read a book a day, and there were shelves packed with her paperbacks and stacks of books on every surface. On top of that, both of my parents would read two or three newspapers cover to cover every day and a number of magazines. My brothers and I would often pass books around that we liked. It was one of the few things we could share that didn’t lead to fights.”

Kurtis with his son, Byron

Kurtis with his son, Byron


“I love the Topps books. I wrote them so fast I didn’t appreciate them until I read them to my son; it was like reading them for the first time. I don’t know how I did it. The plotting is really good, great characters, good humor. They were work for hire and belong to Topps and they decided six was enough, but I’d love to do something else like that series again.”

“The best way to reach out to me is email, kurtis@kurtisscaletta.com. I used to have a PO box and loved getting the snail mail, but since I dropped that, email is the only reliable way to contact me. I answer all emails and letters except for ones that are asking for help with book reports.”


Caren Stelson: A Passion for Promoting Peace


On August 9, 1945, six-year-old Sachiko Yasui was living in a world that was suffering the effects of World War II. But that morning was different. It was life-changing for Yasui. For on that day, an atomic bomb was dropped on her hometown of Nagasaki, Japan. Her family and friends died, and she was ostracized for being a bomb survivor.

On August 6, 2005, Caren Stelson was living in relative peace, though the world was filled with plenty of war and unrest. But that morning was different. It was life-changing for Stelson. For on that day, an atomic bomb survivor named Sachiko Yasui spoke at a ceremony in Minneapolis, Minnesota, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Eleven years later, Stelson’s  factual account of Yasui’s experience, entitled Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (Carolrhoda Books, 2016), was published. And since that day, many readers’ lives have been changed as they discover the horrors of war through this firsthand account, and learn how transformative messages of peace can be shared.

In less than a year, Stelson’s book has garnered fans from around the world. It has also been named a Minnesota Book Award Finalist, a Robert F. Sibert Informational Honor Book, and Sachiko received the 2017 Jane Addams Award for Older Children. Further, it was long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Here, author Stelson shares her insights and experiences surrounding the writing and publishing of this timely nonfiction title.

It seems this book all started with your attendance at the WWII commemoration ceremony more than 10 years ago. Why were you at the event?

I can say that one of the beginnings of my Sachiko journey was at 8:00 am, August 6, 2005, at the Lyndale Park Peace Garden ceremony in Minneapolis. As other participants, I came to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the end of WWII.

Lyndale Park

That morning, my mind was not on Hiroshima; I was thinking about my father. At that time, I was deep into researching my father’s WWII military history. I thought I would be writing about him. My father was a highly decorated soldier. During the war, he was also a very young captain in the infantry, fighting his way through Germany.

As many veterans, my father rarely talked to his children about his war experiences. In May 2005, I went on a battlefield tour of Germany with surviving members of my father’s company, now old men, to listen to their stories and meet German veterans who had fought on the other side. At various points along the tour, German veterans welcomed us to their peace ceremonies. It was my first experience witnessing the power of peace and reconciliation between former enemies.

“Peace is not a noun. Peace is a verb. Peace is action. Peace takes courage.”

This battlefield tour could be considered a starting point for my Sachiko journey. But the year I lived in England (2001-02) could also be considered a starting point. That year I explored the art of oral history and interviewed British men and women who had as children of WWII survived wartime bombing. I wondered how the war impacted them as children and as they grew into adulthood.

Who carried hate, fear, and anger with them as they aged? Who internalized the experience of war and turned that experience into a force for good? How did and does this transformation happen? These questions were at the back of my mind at the Lyndale Peace Park on August 6, 2005.

When Sachiko was introduced, I realized her story may be the ultimate story I was searching for. I can still hear my thoughts whirling in my mind, “She survived the atomic bomb. How was that possible?”

Why did you believe Yasui’s story needed to be told more broadly through a book?

That’s an easy question to answer and a hard one. The easy answer is to say, I’m a writer and my mind goes to books. With little effort, I saw Sachiko’s story as a book. The harder question to answer is what possessed me to think I could write this book?

Caren Stelson and Sachiko in Nagasak

Caren Stelson and Sachiko Yasui in Nagasaki

Although I had been immersed in the European theatre of WWII, I didn’t know that much about the war in the Pacific. Why? I’m a history major. Why didn’t I really know what happened to people who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

As Americans, we’ve read about the experiences of those who survived the concentration camps in Europe. We know Anne Frank’s Holocaust story. What of Japan? Yes, we have Sadako’s story of her thousand paper cranes, a story from Hiroshima. But what child speaks for Nagasaki? More importantly, why as a nation, were we not more aware of the hard consequences of the decision to drop the atomic bombs, short term and long, given that our government was responsible for that decision? These became slow burning questions that kept growing hotter and hotter in my mind.

When did you decide to turn those questions into actions?

It took me five years before I decided to reach out to Sachiko and ask if we could work together to write her story for young people in the United States. By this time, I had finished a MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University.

Caren presenting Sachiko to the mayor in Nagasaki along with Lerner employees

Caren presenting “Sachiko” to the mayor in Nagasaki along with Lerner employees and others involved in the book.

As a writer for young people, with my teaching experience, my work in school publishing, and my interviews and oral history experiences, I thought I had the ability to capture Sachiko’s story—perhaps even an obligation to bring this story to light. I had no idea how challenging writing this book would be. If someone had told me up front what it would take to write Sachiko and how long, I probably would have been too scared to try.

How did the process of writing this book affect you?

To write Sachiko’s story, I traveled to Nagasaki five times to walk through nuclear war with her. I imagined living in the aftermath. I had nightmares when I returned home. I interviewed other hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors, read as much as I could, both narratives and history from various perspectives, and discovered events more complicated, controversial, and painful than I had expected.

As we moved through Sachiko’s unfolding story, I found I needed to heal from the writing of this difficult story as Sachiko needed to heal from her experience. By following in Sachiko’s footsteps, I studied the works of Helen Keller, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other peacemakers; as I did, I found myself stronger, more resilient, and more focused on my own pathways to peace.


So in your search for personal healing and peace, did you find inspiration in the life or words of specific individuals?

We live in turbulent times. As an adolescent, I grew up in turbulent times—the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, assassinations, the civil rights movement, the marches against the Vietnam War. The world felt very unstable to me then, too.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great inspiration to me as a teenager as he was for Sachiko. I read or reread nearly all of King’s speeches as I worked on Sachiko. His words ring as true now as they did in the 1960s.

“Don’t lose sight of people who inspire you, and you won’t lose sight of the person you hope to become.”

Today, I am a great admirer of Congressman John Lewis. The award-winning March: Book 3 (Top Shelf Productions, 2016) captures Lewis’s bravery. His call for justice from the halls of Congress makes it clear that the work of peace and justice is never done. Lewis reminds us that peace is not a noun. Peace is a verb. Peace is action. Peace takes courage. Peace is sweat and effort to bring justice to our homes, neighborhood, country, world. As we know so well today, there is much more peace and justice work to do.

What advice or counsel do you have for those growing up now?

Several years ago, I came across a quote from Newbery Award-winning author Katherine Paterson. She wrote, “I was already wise by the time I was eleven. There was no way my parents could have protected me from the world as it was. I had already seen too much. What I needed was not an outer guard, but an inner strength. I needed to know one could endure the loss of paradise.”

Sooner or later, we realize we need the inner strength to become the person we want to be in the world. I would say to young people, develop your inner strength for the work ahead. Study. Read widely. (Ask your librarian to suggest titles of life-changing books.) Feed your curiosity. Test yourself. Open yourself to friendships. Reach out in service. Don’t lose sight of people who inspire you, and you won’t lose sight of the person you hope to become.

Since Sachiko was published, it has received numerous accolades including being long-listed for the prestigious National Book Award. Did you ever expect your book to receive this response?

I’ve been totally caught off guard by the awards and accolades given to Sachiko and totally humbled by all of them.

The publishing process with Carolrhoda/Lerner Publishing Group was so intense; I didn’t have time to think about what would happen once Sachiko stepped out into the world. What I learned was that an award-winning book happens when the editor and designer bring as much passion to a book as the author.

Interior Spread of Sachiko

Interior Spread of “Sachiko”

My fabulous editor Carol Hinz and I continued to refine the manuscript right up until the last moment. I had final discussions with Japanese history professors to check facts. I had last minute SKYPE phone calls to Sachiko in Nagasaki to verify small details. My Minneapolis translator, Keiko Kawakami, helped us with the Japanese glossary, a decision at the end of the process. All the while, insightful book designer Danielle Carnito worked to add the visual presentation to deepen the story.

When Sachiko was first published, my greatest hope was that the book would do justice to Sachiko’s life and my readers would draw strength and inspiration from her story. My second hope was to reawaken my readers to the existential danger of nuclear weapons. No one should forget the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What are you working on now and what can readers look forward to seeing from you soon?

I’ve been spending much of my time talking to schools and various groups about Sachiko. My audiences have been from ages 10 to 90. Grandmothers for Peace was as eager to hear about Sachiko’s story as were fifth graders.

I’ve also been volunteering for the nonprofit organization, World Citizen. World Citizen’s mission is to “empower communities to educate for a just and peaceful world.” I continue to support the Saint Paul-Nagasaki Sister City Committee, an organization crucial to my research in Nagasaki. I also created the Sachiko Scholarship for Peace with portions of the proceeds from the book to fund student exchanges between Minnesota and Nagasaki.

All these activities are gratifying, but I’m also eager to get back to my writing desk. Unfinished manuscripts are calling—and so is a brand new grandbaby in Boston.


Explore Space and STEM with Author Andrea Beaty

For someone who never even thought about becoming a writer until she was about 30 years old, Andrea Beaty’s books have been enjoyed and shared by countless readers around the globe and even in outer space. Yes, outer space! Beaty’s book, Rosie Revere, Engineer (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013), was an official selection of the Story Time From Space program.

“To see astronaut Kate Rubins read Rosie Revere, Engineer from the International Space Station is so far beyond my wildest dreams! It came about because I met astronaut Alvin Drew at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in D.C. I gave him a copy of Rosie Revere as a thank you for all he has done to help our country and the world via his work. He is actually one of the founders of Story Time From Space, and he shared the book with the others in the program. It’s a great program that shares videos of lots of books plus videos of astronauts performing experiments that can be done by classrooms and families as well. Combining literacy and space is a brilliant way to get kids excited about both!”

Beaty_BookCovers copy

Beaty is no novice when it comes to combining literacy with science. As a child, she grew up in a house filled with books and spent much of her time reading and exploring the outdoors. “We didn’t have cable TV then and certainly not the Internet. So while I watched more than my fair share of TV, most of it was public television. Through PBS and wandering the fields and forests around my town, I learned about the natural world and grew to love science. Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ was a big influence on me and James Herriot’s All Things Great and Small series of books tipped the scales for me.”

“I was raised in a very small village of about 300 people. My father was a coal miner who was a big believer in education as a great equalizer and my mother was a voracious reader. I was a big reader as a kid and devoured Nancy Drew mysteries and Agatha Christie, and I wanted to be a spy or a detective!”

When it came time for Beaty to go to college, choosing her major was easy. “I studied biology and computer science which was a fairly new area of study back then. I loved them both. I didn’t really think about writing until many years later when I had kids and was reading picture books. They were so amazing compared to the bulk of books available when I was a kid. That set me on a whole new path and one that has been delightful!”

Beaty has written across genres but always seems to insert humor even in the most serious of books. “I don’t really think about writing different genres, I just write the book I have and explore the characters which intrigue me. I love humor and have been very pleased that it has worked in my writing. It’s a tricky thing to do. Mostly, I just write what cracks me up. Luckily, I am easily amused.”

In addition to having a knack for including humor in her writing, Beaty also has a talent for writing in verse. “I think of writing a rhyming book as writing a song. I use a dictionary, a book called a Flip Dictionary which helps find terminology on various topics, and a rhyming dictionary. Overall, though, rhyming does come naturally to me.”


Ten years ago, Beaty combined her love of science, writing, humor, and verse to unintentionally create the first of a series of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) books featuring students from Miss Lila Greer’s second-grade class. “I never set out to write STEM-related books or write books about specific careers. I wrote Iggy Peck, Architect (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007) because my son loved building things. I wanted to write a book that explored a kid’s consuming passion for something. So I think of that book as a book about passion.”

“I think that all kids are naturally creative and strong. They get so deeply pulled into their play and it becomes real to them. It is their work (as someone I can’t remember once famously said and which I famously just misquoted). Adults too often fail to give kids credit or think of their ideas as real or important. That annoys me. I find kids far more interesting than adults because for kids, anything is possible. I love that optimism and I think I share it, too.”

Teaming up with illustrator David Roberts, Beaty went on to write Rosie Revere, Engineer as well as Ada Twist, Scientist (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016). “I tried to figure out more about those kids from clues in David Roberts’ amazing illustrations in Iggy Peck. So I AM finally a detective after all! Rosie is about persistence, and Ada is about curiosity. They are coincidentally about engineering, science, and architecture, too, and that has been a lovely thing. We need books that can inspire kids to get interested in STEM because we have a lot of problems to conquer in the world that will need STEM-capable people to fix!”

So what is next? Will there be more books featuring students from Miss Greer’s class? “I don’t know if there will be a book for every kid in Miss Lila Greer’s class. I will write stories as the kids reveal their personalities to me and as long as it’s fun. My new book is Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2017). Iggy Peck will have a similar book in the fall. They are fun projects and all about brainstorming and getting creative about engineering and architecture. Also, we have created an initiative to help educators and parents help kids become more critical thinkers. To that end, we have created a series of posters to inspire kids to “Read. Question. Think.” They are available for a free download on my website.”



“Illustrator David Roberts is a magician and a wizard and a genius. He sneaks so many hidden gems into all his illustrations. He does it without telling anyone so it’s always a great treasure hunt when illustrations arrive at my door. I love it. I have found dozens of hidden connections among the books. Iggy’s parents make a cameo in Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014). Iggy’s cat shows up in Ada Twist, Scientist. All the hats in Madame Chapeau are based on real hats by famous designers and also ones that David designed. There’s more about that on my website.”


Celebrating National Poetry Month with Marilyn Singer

Marilyn_officeAs the inventor of reverso poetry and the author of numerous books of poems, Marilyn Singer is a poster child for National Poetry Month. “Usually, when April rolls around, I get to celebrate poetry by doing interviews, Skype visits with schools, and sometimes bookstore appearances,” the award-winning author and poet says.

Singer has been writing poetry since third grade. Often she will recite one of her first poems, “My Ocean Fright,” when making presentations. “I think that even with its problematic grammar, it gives an indication of some of my early interests in language, humor, love of animals, and imagination.” That love of language, nature, and imagination grew as the years passed, and Singer became an English teacher in order to share her appreciation of language with young people.

“My parents read poetry and sang to me, so I developed an appreciation at a young age. I loved the musicality and I loved the words.”

“I taught high school English,” shares Singer, “which involved both literature and composition. Poetry was a major part of my curriculum. I used both poems and lyrics frequently, and I always read those aloud. I think that appreciating poetry starts with hearing it.”

Though she does not believe a love of poetry can be “taught”, Singer is a strong proponent for encouraging an appreciation of poetry by modeling it. “Teachers and parents can become more comfortable with poetry by reading it themselves and finding the poems that sing to them—and that includes a lot of works written for children. Then they can read these to their students and children and encourage the kids to read or recite them back. Parents and teachers can and should be playful with poetry. On my website is a piece I wrote for School Library Journal entitled “Knock Poetry Off the Pedestal” which includes a variety of ideas for using poetry in classrooms and can also be adapted by parents.”

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Mirror Mirror

Mirror Mirror

“Today, I’m still moved by how poems get to the heart of the matter (and often the matters of the heart). I really appreciate the specificity of language and the capturing of perception and emotion in a small space.”

These days, poetry seems to come in all forms. But what makes a good poem? For those who are learning to appreciate poetry, Singer has some counsel: “Poetry is not always easy to define. If it rhymes, it’s a poem—but it may not be a good one. And, of course, not all poems need to or do rhyme. Recent Wilder Award-winner Nikki Grimes once said about verse novels that if you read ‘page after page after page without once encountering a metaphor, a simile, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, meter, or any other poetic element,’ it’s not poetry. That’s not saying those books are bad—just that they’re not actually verse. Not only do I agree with that, but I think it tells you something of what a poem is. It needs those elements. Again, though, the elements alone don’t create a good poem. A good poem, whether narrated by a character or by the poet her/himself, uses words wonderfully, and it uses them to capture specific moments in a fresh way, a way that makes the reader exclaim with delight, ‘Yes, that’s it! That’s right!’”

Mirror Mirror_Resized

Mirror Mirror


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Echo Echo_Resized

Echo Echo

As many teachers, librarians, and parents can attest, not everyone loves poetry. In fact, there are some who think they despise it. Singer has advice for these readers as well. “To those who are convinced they ‘hate’ poetry, I say you just haven’t found the poetry you like yet. One of my good friends thought he disliked poetry until he read my book, Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse (Dutton Children’s Books, 2010). He, his wife, and her family took turns reading it around the dinner table. He said he’d never enjoyed poems before. Heaven only knows which ones he’d encountered before, but I do think he is now more willing to look at other poetry collections with a less-jaundiced eye to discover what he does, in fact, like.”

“Poetry is a reflection of the imagination—a combination of seeing things in a new way, wondering about those things, and appreciating that wonder. It pairs beautifully with all studies. It’s fun to compare what fog is scientifically and how a poet views it, or to read a prose piece on a president and see how that person is presented in a poem, or to discover how a myth can be turned on its head or to put into words the feeling you get when you hit a home run. Poetry can make you think, and through its music, it can also aim straight for the soul.”

Singer’s first collection of poetry, Turtle in July, was published by Simon & Schuster nearly 30 years ago. However, in the early 2000s, she accidentally discovered a new form of poetry she later called reverso poetry. “One day I was watching my cat snuggled in a chair and this popped into my head:

A cat                        Incomplete:
without                   A chair
a chair:                   without
Incomplete.           a cat.

“That little poem got me excited and I wondered if I could write more like it. So I did. The poems were on a variety of topics, but quite a few of them were based on fairy tales. I called the poems ‘reversos,’ but it was my wonderful husband, Steve Aronson, who actually came up with the word. Before that I was calling them ‘up and down poems,’ but he said we needed something better, and presto, the word ‘reverso’ was born!”

Writing reversos is not as simple as it may seem. There are strict rules to follow which qualify poems to be included in this poetry category.

1. Each reverso consists of two halves.
2. When the lines of the first half are reversed, they can have changes ONLY in punctuation and capitalization.
3. The second half must say something completely different from the first half.

Feel the Beat

Feel the Beat

Echo Echo

Echo Echo

“I’ve spoken with school groups and have been delighted to discover that kids of all ages have been trying to write reversos, sometimes with really fine results. Some published poets have been writing them as well. Jon Arno Lawson published several good ones in his book, The Hobo’s Crowbar (Porcupine’s Quill, 2016).”

Of course, Singer also has several collections of reversos to her credit with Mirror Mirror being the first. “I don’t yet know when or if I’ll be writing more collections of reversos, but I have been slipping single poems into other poetry books of mine. For example, there’s a reverso about Richard Nixon in Rutherford B., Who Was He? (Disney-Hyperion, 2013), illustrated by John Hendrix, and there’s one in my forthcoming book of poems about New Year celebrations entitled Every Month Is a New Year, which will be published by Lee & Low this coming fall (2017) and illustrated by Susan L. Roth. I intend to keep sneaking them into other books as well.”


Rutherford B. Who Was He?

In addition to writing reversos, Singer continues to write poetry books, picture books, and even a novel. “Coming out next year are Have You Heard About Lady Bird? (Disney-Hyperion), poems about our First Ladies, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter; I’m the Big One Now (Wordsong/Boyds Mills), poems about seminal moments for five- and six-year-olds, illustrated by Jana Christy; and my sixth picture book about Tallulah, a young ballet student, Tallulah’s Ice Skates (Clarion), illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Currently, I’m working on another poetry book about presidential pets for Disney-Hyperion and, heaven help me, a middle-grade novel, which is a ghost story.”

“Poetry can make you laugh, as well as cry, think, get angry or happy!”

And what is Marilyn Singer doing for National Poetry Month? “This year, to kick off the month, I’m having a party/signing to launch my latest poetry book, Feel the Beat!: Dance Poems that Zing from Salsa to Swing (Dial, 2017), illustrated by Kristi Valiant. It’s a series of poems in the rhythms of social dances and it includes a CD of me reading the poems to original music by Jonathon Roberts. There will be readings, demos, and, oh yes, dancing!”

Marilyn at podium_Mirror_Mirror


By Marilyn Singer, Age 8

When I was walking on the ocean floor,
there were many sights to adore.
But one sight gave me a fright.
It was a whale with a long tail
that I simply drat,
and I went so close that with his tail
he went spat, spat, spat.


By Marilyn Singer
(Source: http://marilynsinger.net/onwriting/ten-tips-for-writing-poetry/)

  1. Pay attention to the world around you—little things, big things, people, animals, buildings, events, etc. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, feel?
  2. Listen to words and sentences. What kind of music do they have? How is the music of poetry different from the music of songs?
  3. Read all kinds of poetry. Which poems do you like and why?
  4. Read what you write out loud. How does it sound? How could it sound better?
  5. Ask yourself: does this poem have to rhyme? Would it be good or better if it didn’t? If it should rhyme, what kind of rhyme would be best? (For example, 1st and 2nd lines rhyme; 3rd and 4th lines rhyme—“Roses are red/So is your head/Violets are blue/So is your shoe”; or 1st and 3rd lines rhyme; 2nd and 4th lines rhyme—“What is your name?/Who is your mother?/This poem is quite lame/I should try another.”
  6. Ask yourself: does this poem sound phoney? Don’t stick in big words or extra words just because you think a poem ought to have them.
  7. A title is part of a poem. It can tell you what the poem is about. It can even be another line of the poem.
  8. Before you write, think about what you want your whole poem to say.
  9. If you end up saying something else, that’s okay, too. Poet X.J. Kennedy says, “You intend to write a poem about dogs, say, and poodle is the first word you’re going to find a rhyme for. You might want to talk about police dogs, Saint Bernards, and terriers, but your need for a rhyme will lead you to noodle and strudel. The darned poem will make you forget about dogs and write about food instead.”
  10. Go wild. Be funny. Be serious. Be whatever you want! Use your imagination, your own way of seeing.

Duncan Tonatiuh: From Comics to Codex

Duncan_Medal_ Alma-Ramos_McDermott“I became interested in writing when I was in elementary school,” says Duncan Tonatiuh, award-winning author and illustrator. “A cousin of mine came to visit me during the summer. He brought a stack of comic books with him. Soon after, I began collecting Spider-Man and X-Men comics myself. I also began to imagine my own superheroes and make little books with the drawings and stories I created. I have been drawing since.”

Tonatiuh spent his early years in San Miguel de Allende, a small city in central Mexico. When he was 16, he came to the United States. “I did not like my high school in San Miguel, and an American cousin of mine encouraged me to visit his school in Massachusetts. It was an arts-oriented progressive boarding school called Buxton. I liked it so I applied and got a very good scholarship to attend. After I graduated from Buxton, I went to Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College—both schools are part of the New School University in New York City. There I focused on illustration and writing.”


The Princess and the Warrior page spread


The Princess and the Warrior page spread


The Princess and the Warrior page spread

“I think it is important for children to see themselves in the books they read. When a child sees people like him in a book, he feels excited to read and feels proud of his culture. He realizes his voice and experiences are important.”

At college in New York, Tonatiuh made a friend named Sergio who was a Mixtec. That friendship influenced Tonatiuh to discover and develop his signature style inspired by ancient codices. “My thesis in college was about my Mixtec friend, Sergio. Mixtecs are an indigenous group from the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla in Mexico. My thesis was a short comic book about his journey to the U.S. When I first began working on the project, I went to my university’s library and looked up Mixtec artwork. I found images of Mixtec codex from the 14th century. I had seen similar artwork before, but that day I was struck by how the images were stylized by the flatness, geometry, and repetition of color. I decided I was going to draw in a similar style and make a modern-day codex of my friend’s journey.”

DearPrimoThis thesis project became Tonatiuh’s key to entering the publishing world. “A professor in college really liked the artwork I was creating for my thesis. She had illustrated some children’s books and was friends with an editor at Abrams. She showed him my work and introduced me to him. Howard, the editor, liked my artwork and told me that if he received a manuscript that suited my style, he would get in touch with me. I told him that I liked writing, too, and that I was taking some classes in school. Sometime later, while I was still finishing my thesis project, I had an idea for a picture book. It was about two cousins that would write letters to each other. One lived in a rural community in Mexico, and one lived in an urban center in the United States. I revised the story many times but it eventually became my first book, Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010).”

Since Tonatiuh’s books were published, his award-winning work has stood apart. His stories focusing on Hispanic culture and issues have won high recognition including multiple Pura Belpré Medals, multiple Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Awards, and inclusion on the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books list. He has even presented a Tedx Talk entitled “Life on the Other Side/La Vida en el Otro Lado.Princess and the Warrior with Medal

“I am both Mexican and American. I have lived in both countries. I have family in both nations and I feel at

home in both places. I feel very lucky that I have two passports and that I can enter and exit Mexico and the U.S. as I please. A lot of people don’t have that privilege.”

Though Tonatiuh has not walked the path of undocumented migrants or experienced discrimination, he has chosen to write stories addressing these perspectives, such as Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale (Abrams, 2013) and Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Méndez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Abrams, 2014).

“As a Mexican American author and illustrator, I feel it is important for me to talk about critical issues since such a limited number of books do so. I definitely agree with and support the call for more diversity in children’s literature. The statistics are very upsetting. Even though Latinx children are one of the largest groups in U.S. schools, only about 3% of all the children’s books are about or by a Latinx. Diverse books are important for all children, not just Latinx. When kids encounter people that are different than themselves in books, they are less likely to be afraid or have prejudices towards others when they are adults.”

Funny-BonesWorking from his home in San Miguel, Mexico, Tonatiuh stays busy creating books and making school visits in person and via Skype. He also speaks at public libraries, universities, and conferences. “My presDuncan_Daughter_Diego_Rivera_Statueentations for children are not that different from my presentations for adults. I usually share a little bit about my journey to becoming an author-illustrator. I talk about the process of making a book, and about the issues and topics that inspire my work.”

Currently, Tonatiuh is in the process of revisiting his thesis project from college; with an anticipated publish date for next year. “It will fold out like an accordion the way Mixtec codex did. This book is geared towards adults and teenagers. It will tell the story of a Mixteco’s journey to the United States, but it will also be about his fight to improve the working conditions at his job regardless of his legal status.” And later this year, Tonatiuh’s newest book will be published. “It is called Danza! Amalia Hernández and el Ballet Folklórico de México (Abrams, August 2017).

“For a year or so I did not have a TV in my house. I would borrow a book from my school’s library every day to entertain myself in the afternoons. My favorite books were the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Because I liked reading, I became interested in writing. Whenever I had a writing assignment at school, I would get carried away. That interest continued and grew in high school and later on in college.”

“I feel very fortunate for all the support my books have received. I really love making books, and I want to continue doing it for many, many years. Hopefully in the years to come, people will still find my work interesting and relevant.”

What’s in a Name?image1

“My full name is Duncan Tonatiuh Smith Hernández. Tonatiuh is my middle name. My father’s last name is Smith and my mother’s is Hernández. I decided to sign my books Duncan Tonatiuh because I think it better reflects what my work is about. Tonatiuh means sun or god of the sun in Nahuatl. Nahuatl is the language the Aztecs and other people from the central region of Mexico spoke. Since my artwork is inspired by pre-Columbian art, it made sense to me to use Tonatiuh.”

What is Latinx?

“Latinx (pronounced “La-TEEN-ex”) is a gender-inclusive way of referring to people of Latin American descent. Used by activists and some academics, the term is gaining traction among the general public, after having been featured in publications such as NPR to Latina.”


Author S.E. Hinton

S.E. Hinton: Celebrating 50 Years of The Outsiders Staying Gold

Fifty years ago, The Outsiders was first introduced to readers. A young outsider herself, Susan Eloise (S.E.) Hinton wrote about the life she saw and lived as a teenager. She wrote about the passion and the pain involved in finding one’s place, making one’s mark, and staying true to one’s self. And readers responded—then and now. HiresContractINTSince first being published in 1967 by Viking Press, The Outsiders has sold more than 14 million copies making it the bestselling young adult novel.

Hinton was just a 16-year-old student at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she wrote The Outsiders. But she had been writing for years prior. “I began writing in grade school, eager to make my own stories happen the way I wanted to. I had access to the local library, but my family thought my writing was some weird phase I would outgrow. I had some great English teachers who encouraged me through grade school, middle school, high school. I also made a D in creative writing the year (junior in high school) I wrote The Outsiders.”

“My first memories of reading? I loved it!! I was one of those little girl horse nuts and distinctly remember checking Peanuts the Pony (D.C. Heath and Co., 1941) out of the library. I loved all the horse books, but the book I read over and over again was Duff, The Story of a Bear (Longmans, 1950). I recently re-read it and was very proud of my young self. It’s no Disney bear story!”

Though she wrote The Outsiders as a high school student, it didn’t sell until she was a freshman at the University of Tulsa. Many considered the book and the author immediate sensations, but Hinton takes a more modest approach. “Honestly I did not get much attention and success, it built gradually.”

Hinton went on to complete her education and her student teaching before getting married, starting a family, and settling into a writing career. “I realized early on I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. Teachers are my heroes. They have more guts and energy than I’ll ever have. So many are coming up with creative ways to use The Outsiders in the classroom—they have better ideas than I do!”

The Outsiders in Chinese

The Outsiders in Chinese

The Outsiders in Dutch

The Outsiders
in Dutch

The Outsiders in Hebrew

The Outsiders in Hebrew

The Outsiders in Spanish

The Outsiders in Spanish

The Outsiders in German

The Outsiders in German

Eventually The Outsiders was made into a feature film, as were other Hinton novels, and she continued to publish new books as the years passed. Though many of her follow-up works attained success in their own right, nothing has matched the following of The Outsiders. In many classrooms it has been used as required reading. However, the popular book has not been welcomed in every school—a fact that doesn’t bother Hinton too much. “It’s been required much more than it’s been banned. And now grandparents are sharing it with their grandkids. I think the first hostile reaction was to the idea that not all teens were living in a ’50s sitcom. People know better nowadays.”


“Aspiring authors: Read and practice. Worry about the writing, not the publishing. Publishing is changing rapidly. Make sure you have something worth publishing before you try. I was writing constantly for eight years before I wrote The Outsiders. If you’re young, you will have to come up with a book as good as the adults are publishing. Nobody is going to say ‘pretty good for a fourteen-year-old’ and invest in a book. It has to be good.”

In honor of the golden anniversary of The Outsiders, Penguin Random House released a 50th Anniversary Edition in 2016. It not only contains the classic tale, but also bonus material and photographs. “I love the 50th anniversary edition of The Outsiders. By now, I’m not really surprised it still has a following. I was surprised by that on the 20th anniversary. I think everyone identifies with the feeling of being an outsider, even in their own ‘group.’ I wrote it at the right time of life, teens still identify with the strong swings of emotion.”

Platinum paperback

The Outsiders Platinum Paperback

premium paperback cover

The Outsiders Premium Paperback

The Outsiders Alternate Viking Hardcover

The Outsiders Alternate Viking Hardcover

Viking 40th anniversary edition

The Outsiders Viking 40th Anniversary Edition

These days, Hinton continues to write. Her focus has been mostly on screen plays and she has been working on an adult paranormal comedy thriller. Beyond that, the notoriously private author really doesn’t offer many more details other than: “I am so bored with myself that I could live happily ever after with no more questions!”


Award-winning Author and Illustrator Don Tate Charts His Own Path to Success

PoetFrom a young age, Don Tate loved drawing. But reading? No. That was of no interest to him—unless the books and magazines had to do with art or drawing.

“As a child, I could read well. I just wasn’t interested in reading. Reading, writing, words were not me. In fact, speaking was not me either, as that involved the use of words which always seemed to fail me. I was an artist, and I preferred drawing and making things over reading. I liked reading our Better Homes and Gardens Family Medical Guide and our Funk & Wagnalls Young Students Encyclopedia. These books were filled with real stuff. I’ve always preferred nonfiction, I guess.”

Tate’s aunt, Eleanora E. Tate, was a journalist and writer of middle grade novels. So through her work, he saw book illustrating as a possible career option. But he never considered himself an author nor did he develop an interest in the written word.

“Art was my way of expressing myself.”

When it came time to pursue a college education, Tate attended a two-year community college. Illustration classes were limited, so he learned by trial and error. “I’m a self-trained illustrator. When I wanted to learn how to paint in oils, I bought a book about oil painting. Same with acrylic and watercolors.”

DonPeachtree booth - Must use After college, Tate was hired as a book designer for an education publishing company in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. His illustration skills were quickly discovered, and he became the company’s illustrator as well, illustrating books and posters, advertising pieces, and teaching guides. It was a good start for a young artist facing racial challenges.

“I had been told over and again by members of my family, a college illustration instructor, and some early employers that commercial art was not a field for black people in Des Moines, where I grew up and graduated college. In fact, a boss at a print shop where I worked shortly out of college told me that I was welcome to work for his company as long as I wanted because, as a black person, no one else in town would hire me. My second employer, an advertising executive, said the same thing.”

Many would find those statements offensive and discouraging, but not Tate. “Honestly, I don’t think they meant any harm; they were being realistic. The field of commercial art, at that time in Des Moines, was not a welcome place for a black person.” BookCovers_2

Tate didn’t let the naysayers hold him back. He was confident in his work and tenacious in his efforts to create. For example, he convinced an art director at a publishing company to hire him full time even though there was great skepticism. “He gave me a chance at a very low salary, and I set out to prove to the company that I was just as capable as everyone else—if not better. Within a year my salary was raised three times to get my pay in line with everyone else. And when I left seven years later, they were the ones begging me to stay.”
So when did the award-winning artist finally break into children’s book illustration? It was when he worked as a graphics reporter for the newspaper industry creating infographics for stories. “I felt like a fish out of water. My art was best suited for picture books, and I knew that all along. So while I worked for newspapers, I moonlighted for the children’s publishing business. When newspapers nearly died out, I was let go. And I’ve been writing and illustrating full time ever since.”

Today, Tate has illustrated more than 50 children’s books and has authored two titles, including the multi-award winning Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree Publishers, 2015) that he also illustrated. Most of the books Tate works on tell the stories of black people who made significant contributions to society but haven’t received the recognition that was due them.

“Black people have always been the focus of my art because that’s who I am and that’s what I know best. I know about white people too—I mean, geez, I’m from Iowa. But my art has always been a reflection of my black experience. When I entered publishing, I took that world along with me.”

Whoosh Beyond his art, Tate has chosen to write about great black people, too. “I’m inspired by stories of little-known people who accomplished great things in the face of adversity. Early on, as a writer, I wrote about historical figures suggested by friends. It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low Books, 2012) and Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton were suggested to me by writing friends Diana Aston and Chris Barton, respectively. Hopefully these figures will inspire children to dream big in spite of obstacles that may seem to stand in their way.”


Don posing inder Poet historical marker
“In high school, Edgar Allen Poe, John Steinbeck, and Henry David Thoreau were assigned reading. That along with a lot of Greek and Roman myths. I’m sure they were wonderful books, but I refused to read them. It wasn’t until I was out of school, after college, when I discovered a book called Black Boy by Richard Wright, and I became a forever reader. Honestly, I don’t even remember what the story was about, that was 30 years ago. I do remember the main character was black and male, something I wasn’t used to seeing in books. I went on to read many of Richard Wright’s other books, and books by Gordon Parks, Claude Brown, Alex Haley, Malcolm X, others—all books featuring black male characters. After a lifetime with no interest in books, I’d finally found myself.”

Don_Tate_Drawing Tate has also branched out beyond picture books to write short stories for middle-grade readers, including pieces submitted to Been There, Done That: School Dazed (Grosset & Dunlap, 2016). “ʽDance Like you Draw’ is my short story contribution to the anthology. It’s a humorous story about a boy whose mother forces him to participate in a ‘charm school’ cotillion. The piece was inspired by my nonfiction story, a personal memoir, ‘Wiz Kid,’ also in the anthology. Picture books are my first love, so I’ll never move away from them. But I do plan to write longer pieces, maybe branching off into middle grade novels, or perhaps YA—but who knows?”

Though Tate’s schedule is filled with tour activities, school visits, and speeches, he continues to focus his time on creating books to inspire young people. “I have several books in the works. My next book, which I authored and illustrated, is called Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth (Charlesbridge, August 2017). It’s a picture book biography of Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow, who popularized physical fitness (and six-pack abs), and inspired men, women, and children across the globe to pay more attention to their health. I also have a book coming out soon about William Still, a free black man who helped hundreds of enslaved people escape through the Underground Railroad system.”

“I’ve visited hundreds of schools. Kids are the reason I get to have this amazing career, so I always welcome the opportunity to meet my readers. In my presentations, I cover my journey from young artist and reluctant reader to published author and illustrator, and I keep it interactive—it’s not about me, it’s about the kids, they want to get involved. There are many young doodlers and poets who may not realize they can turn their talents into a great career. I strive to give kids a memory they can carry with them for a lifetime.”

Don in studioAfter 30 years in art and publishing, Tate knows breaking into the children’s book market can be tough. Though he felt frustrated at the challenges he faced, he never stopped trying. “I’m one of the lucky ones; I’m blessed. That said, finding success came slowly. Success does not happen overnight. For me, it took 30 years before anyone even realized I was here! Early on, the publishing industry lured me with the promise of publishing my work by filling a niche—white editors were looking for talented black illustrators to create art for books writing about the black experience. So that was the path I followed. It was a good one for me.”