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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.”
DonTate_WNDB_Because
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.”

BECOMING A READER

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.”

James Patterson & Dwyane Wade

James Patterson & Dwyane Wade

Author James Patterson is again teaming up with Miami Heat guard and best-selling author, Dwyane Wade, to show kids the importance of reading for success in life. The second installment of their One-on-One series is dubbed the “All-Star Edition,” and features some of the best NBA players in the game. The webcast, airing April 24 at 1pm EST, is free to schools, libraries, and home viewing via www.JamesPattersonEvents.com, where viewers can sign up in advance to watch.

So, sports were on my mind when I spoke with Patterson about the importance of literacy in kids’ lives. But to Patterson, this is no game. He strives to wake people up to the urgency of this topic saying, “Getting our kids reading is a matter of life and death; this is not about grades or what college these kids might be going to. This is about saving kids’ lives, and if we don’t get our kids reading now, many of them aren’t going to make it.” He recently saw this firsthand when he visited prisons and talked with inmates who haven’t had the benefit of education and are now serving years of their lives incarcerated. Patterson also cites the sad fact that some states base the future need for prison beds on third- and fourth-grade literacy scores.

I have two school-age boys, and worked for a number of years as a mentor, social worker, and teaching assistant, so children’s literacy is obviously an important issue to me. I have seen the type of kids Patterson is trying to reach through programs like the One-on-One series. Reaching boys, who are often reluctant readers and lag behind girls in reading proficiency, is imperative. Here, Patterson gets a big assist from the NBA; his partnership with Wade and NBA Cares shows elite athletes emphasizing reading, which conveys the message to kids—especially boys—that reading is “cool.” He talks of the players’ attitudes and work ethic, athletically and academically, saying, “Their will is unbelievable; they have the will to keep pushing and pushing themselves.” He also lauds Dwyane Wade, a father who stresses academics and literacy, as an excellent role model who realizes the importance of education. Wade is someone many boys strive to emulate on the basketball court, so hopefully the webcast encourages them to emulate him academically as well. Patterson points out that while it is great when dads teach their kids how to ride a bike and throw a baseball, it is “even more important to get them reading.”

“Getting our kids reading is a matter of life and death; this is not about grades or what college these kids might be going to. This is about saving kids’ lives, and if we don’t get our kids reading now, many of them aren’t going to make it.”

– James Patterson

               

          

Patterson stresses that we still need to do more. Parents, grandparents, and caregivers must be responsible and take the initiative to get children reading. Being a reading role model, especially as a father, has always been important to me. Patterson acknowledges that parents don’t have to be reading literary novels; it is important for kids to see parents “reading anything; newspapers, magazines, iPads, anything!” I agree that this is a simple way to be a reading role model; I make a point to show my kids that I am excited about reading, and make sure they see me reading daily.

James Patterson ended our interview together saying emphatically, “Let’s try and get these kids reading!” Maybe it’s because he has teamed up with NBA stars, maybe it’s because he used to be a pretty good basketball player in his day, or maybe I just have sports on my mind … but he sounded to me like a coach breaking a huddle after drawing up a good game plan. Either way, we all should follow “Coach” Patterson’s lead.

Gennifer Choldenko

Gennifer Choldenko, Newbery Honor-Winning Author of Al Capone Does My Shirts

Known as Snot-Nose and various other nicknames during her childhood, friends and relatives may not have believed Gennifer Choldenko would one day be a prolific writer with a Newbery Honor Book. “I don’t think I showed much early sign of anything promising,” says the author, “except that I had a really strange imagination. I would come up with these odd jokes that were not funny at all to anyone else. They called them ‘Gennifer jokes.’ And I loved to make up songs and scenarios.”An avid reader, Choldenko remembers reading books of her own choosing as well as her oldest sister reading out loud to her. “Reading was very important to me. As an adult, you read books and they are memorable; but as a kid, you own them. You really feel like you are a certain character and you really believe it.”

Al Capone Does My Homework book cover

In addition to having positive reading experiences as a child, Choldenko was also introduced to writing at an early age. “My father loved to write. He would come home from work and sit behind an old typewriter and write. I think he was just journaling, but that seemed like a really important part of his day. I remember thinking that he really enjoyed it, and I think that is really part of what planted the writing seed in me.”That writing seed sprouted and began to flourish when she, as a third grader, wrote her first story. “It was about a grain of rice that went down the garbage disposal and all the characters she met down there. She met the coffee grounds man and the half-grapefruit lady…it was a really weird book. But I remember that I loved the process of coming up with ideas. That started me thinking that I would have to do something creative with my life because it was just so fun.”Eventually Choldenko earned a college degree in English and began working as an advertising copywriter. But after several years, she decided that writing copy was not the occupation she wanted to define her life. So, she decided to be an illustrator and earned a second degree in art. Yet, after graduating from art school, she sat down and wrote a novel instead of putting together a portfolio. “The truth is that I am really a writer and not an illustrator.”

Notes from a Liar and Her Dog book cover   No Passengers Beyond This Point book cover   

After writing several novels (that were rejected) and learning important lessons along the way, Choldenko finally achieved her dream of having a novel published: Notes from a Liar and Her Dog(2001, Putnam Publishing). “I’m really lucky that I didn’t understand how long and how hard the whole process is. I wouldn’t have done it if I had known. I also think I was deluded about my work—it helps to be deluded. I thought my writing was just great and didn’t realize how far I had to go; whereas when I would illustrate, I would see just how far I really had to go!”Though her first novel achieved success in its own right as aSchool Library Journal Best Book of the Year and a California Book Award winner, it was her sophomore novel, Al Capone Does My Shirts (2004, Putnam Publishing) that really thrust her into the literary spotlight. The first of a trilogy, the Al Capone book was a Newbery Honor Book and a Best Book of the Year as designated by School Library JournalKirkus, and Publishers Weekly. The following two books in the series, Al Capone Shines My Shoes(2009, Dial Books for Young Readers) and Al Capone Does My Homework (2013, Dial Books for Young Readers), have also achieved numerous accolades and awards.

Al Capone Does My Shirts book cover   Al Capone Shines My Shoes book cover

Choldenko enjoys learning and pursues opportunities to add to her knowledge base. One of her long-time interests was Alcatraz and Al Capone. “I get so excited about what I am passionate about and want to find out more information. You would not believe what all I know about Alcatraz now,” laughs Choldenko. “It is a little scary!”As part of her research for the Al Capone series, Choldenko volunteered on Alcatraz. From spending hours poring over historical documents and books housed in a little library on Alcatraz to sharing her knowledge with guests on the island, Choldenko continually added to her knowledge base. “I started to become part of the Alcatraz community and am now a member of the Alcatraz Alumni Association. I have friends who are ex-guards or who grew up on the island. And this summer, I had my favorite prisoner, Robert Luke, from Alcatraz over to my house!”

I think it is important to engage a kid in the story and not have the reading be the issue. No book is one size fits all. You have to try and find a book that excites the kid even if it is a goofy book like Captain Underpants. If I ever met Dav Pilkey I would kiss him because he got so many boys to believe that reading is fun. If it is a book and kids are reading, it is good because it is a start. And from that, you build.

According to Choldenko, there are no more Al Capone books in the works despite their popularity. Rather, she is working on new projects and has a novel, The Monkey’s Secret, on the spring 2015 release list. “I have lots of ideas and just want to live long enough to write all the books I want to write. I want to keep trying new things and connect with readers. I just want to transfer my passion to the page, and I hope my books will last and have staying power.”

Rita Marshall & Etienne Delessert

Rita Marshall & Etienne Delessert, Popular Creators of the I Hate to Read Series

February is “I Love to Read” month, and Rita Marshall and Etienne Delessert, the well known creators of the popular I Hate to Read (2013, The Creative Company) books, are passionate about introducing children to good books. Delessert is a respected artist with world-wide acclaim for his surreal work; and Marshall is a key player at The Creative Company where she works with Publisher Tom Peterson to determine which books are going to be published, to hire writers and illustrators, and to design the books.

In 1992 the married couple and collaborative team first introduced readers to Victor Dickens, a young boy who believes he dislikes reading, in I Hate to Read. Then, in 2007, the couple brought back Victor Dickens as a teenager in I Still Hate to Read! (The Creative Company).

“We had a son in that rebel, teenage stage at the time. He didn’t want to talk to us and didn’t want us to know what he was reading or studying. A lot of that second story came from him,” concedes Marshall. Delessert is quick to add, “Our son is now 26 and living in New York. He is in the technology business and doing great!” The couple attributes much of his success to reading to him as a child. “We read to him a lot,” says Delessert.

Rereleased in 2013, I Hate to Read, with its rich and fanciful illustrations and pithy text, is garnering a whole new audience of fans. “It had gone out of print, and we at Creative are trying to bring back classic out-of-print titles and give them a new look. We edited the text down because kids seem reluctant to read more than a few sentences per page,” says Marshall, “but it is a way to bring old books back to life. I Still Hate to Read! is still in print, so another version probably will not come out, and I don’t anticipate another book. We are very busy with other projects!”

The busy couple first met in the 1970s. American-born Marshall was working as an art director in Denver, Colorado, and Swiss-born Delessert had become a renowned artist who had built a business and a team to create illustrations, films, and books.

“I was already collecting books of Etienne’s when I had the great opportunity of hiring him for a big job for Bell Telephone. I went to Switzerland to work with him, and I never really returned. I was there for a week and then took the work back and said, ‘Here’s the work. I fell in love. I’m moving to Switzerland.’ I was young,” laughs Marshall.

“We got along so well,” says Delessert of their early relationship, “a few years later we had a son and have had a very nice life together.”

“We started out in Switzerland working at the same table in a little apartment,” recalls Marshall. “Then we moved after four years to Connecticut. We still had one large table and were still sitting together. But Etienne is a total slob, and I am obsessively clean. His garbage kept moving over and squeezing my clean side of the table. Finally, I said, ‘I’ve had it! I’m almost 40 years old and I have to have my own table!’ I think Etienne felt like it was almost a divorce when I moved to the other side of the room and got my own table.”

Marshall continues, “I had to start hiring people because I had so much work and the FedEx man kept coming in and out of the house. So Etienne decided to build a studio with two floors. Then we had our own floors. But he would eavesdrop on all my conversations and meetings with employees. He would yell down, ‘Can you speak louder? I can’t hear what you are saying to each other!’ That’s a little bit of a joke, but he eventually moved out of the studio and into the attic of the house. So now I have the whole studio and he has the whole attic of the house.”

“We both have strong personalities,” says Delessert, “but we can have little fights and then get along fine afterward.”

Though both are definitely opinionated, Marshall and Delessert are united in their mission to create and introduce intelligent, quality literature and artwork to readers. “I would say we both have very similar standards of what is good and what is bad,” says Marshall.

“It is troubling in today’s world where the future of nations depends on the ability of the young adults to create things by asking questions. You have to start very early asking children questions. It is really an insult to children to assume they don’t or can’t understand. When parents fight and divorce, when death happens, kids know what is happening. They want to be left alone, sometimes, and have space to think for themselves. Only good fiction can provoke a similar kind of attitude.”

–Etienne Delessert

“A good book has to have its own identity,” says Delessert. “It should be funny, intelligent, well drawn with nice art; and the text and visuals should match. I feel these days that not enough great fiction with a lot of imagination is being produced. If you go to the ‘best sellers’ lists, the books are flat. Many times there is more nonfiction than fiction, and I feel that kids in this competitive world should be faced with deep, important questions found in well written books. Too many of the millions of books printed around the world are so flat, indulgent, and lazy in their intellectual stimulation.”

“Most of the best sellers are very superficial, cute, and designy,” agrees Marshall. “Kids love them, but they are not challenging at all. That is our biggest frustration with the publishing market, and that is why we have such great respect for Tom Peterson at The Creative Company. He will still take those chances on publishing books even if they won’t be big sellers. There is nobody else around that is doing that.”

One of those new projects is a book Delessert just signed with Creative. “The final title is not yet settled,” says Delessert, “but it is a book about the circus. I always wanted to do a circus story, but it needed a point of view. This one is a different way of telling the story. Each spread is a story in itself but part of the bigger story, and the characters in the circus ask direct questions to the reader.” It is due to be published within the United States in a year or so and released a little sooner in Europe.

Chris Van Dusen

Chris Van Dusen, Award-winning Picture Book Author/Illustrator

“I was a very reluctant reader,” confesses Chris Van Dusen, an award-winning author/illustrator of children’s books. “As a child, I would sit on my mom’s lap and she would read Dr. Seuss books, Robert McCloskey books, and all these other books to me. I would enjoy the stories, but I was really enthralled with the illustrations.” Those illustrations combined with an active imagination and parents who encouraged artistic endeavors are really what set Van Dusen on the path to becoming an illustrator.

“I was born in 1960, so we didn’t have all those screen distractions that kids have nowadays. On top of that, I have four brothers and we would go out and play. If the weather was not good, then all my brothers and I would just sit at the kitchen table and draw. We would look at each other’s drawings, compare them, and always try to do a bit better than each other.”

It wasn’t until Van Dusen read the original Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang that he discovered books—beyond their illustrations—could be interesting and reading could be for pleasure. “It was the first book I recall reading just for the fun of it—not because anyone said I had to read it. That was a life-changing experience for me because I realized all the places books could take you, and I thought, ‘Wow! This is great!’”

“The thing that is most rewarding is when a teacher will turn my books into creative projects with students. That is really heartwarming. I get big packages in the mail of kids’ drawings, and it is really neat that they do that. That is the best compliment I can receive.”

When it came time for Van Dusen to attend college, he had developed a love of reading; but it was his passion for art that determined his course of study. “I majored in painting and thought I would either graduate and become a famous painter, or I would be a college teacher. But neither of those ideas really worked out the way I thought they would.”

Instead of pursuing the painting career, Van Dusen worked as a waiter for several years before being hired as an art director for a start-up magazine. “I began doing some cartoons, and then I illustrated some features in the magazine. Then, I got a job at a greeting card company when all the alternative greeting card companies were really hot. That company was sold to a larger company in New Jersey, and I was told I could either move to New Jersey or I could go out on my own.” It was 1988, and Van Dusen chose to stay in Maine and become a freelance illustrator. “And that is how I really started my career.”

One day as he was working on an illustration, an image popped into his head. He saw a guy sitting in a boat that was stuck way up in the top of a tree. “I just sketched the image out and set it off to the side and went back to work. But I kept looking at it and wondered what I could do with it. Then I thought, ‘well, how would that guy even get up in the tree?’ And that little sketch was actually what started the whole book career because I built my first book, Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee (2000, Chronicle), loosely based on it.”

Today, Van Dusen has written and illustrated eight of his own books. And in each, he includes an image of Mr. Magee. “In all the books I’ve written, somewhere there is a little Mr. Magee in one of the pictures. He is in all my books, even the ones he really shouldn’t be in like King Hugo’s Huge Ego (2011, Candlewick Press). Another thing I stick in my books is my sons’ initials. There are all kinds of little surprises in there! Kids just like finding stuff like that.”

Van Dusen not only writes and illustrates his own books, but he also illustrates the work of other authors such as Mac Barnett and Kate DiCamillo. “I want stories that really excite me. The stories I look for are stories that have a sense of adventure and sort of a silly aspect as well. My illustrations tend to be on the cartoony side, so I look for stories that have that kind of wacky, cartoony sense.” This year, Van Dusen serves as the illustrator for new books that fit his criteria precisely: President Taft is Stuck in the Bath (2014, Candlewick Press) and a series of books called Tales from Deckawoo Drive (2014, Candlewick Press).

“The President Taft book is just so funny. I think kids will like it because it has an authority figure who gets caught in a really embarrassing situation. I have also heard that teachers will like it because there is a historical aspect and it will be a fun classroom book.” Fans of Mercy Watson will recognize Deckawoo Drive as the place where the porcine wonder embarks on her rollicking adventures. “What Kate has done is taken favorite characters from the original Mercy Watson series and built new stories around each one. The minute I read the first book, I fell in love with them all over again. They are just sweet, really nice stories.”

   
 

 

 

 

David Wiesner

David Wiesner, Three-time Caldecott Medal Winner

One might assume that David Wiesner was born an accomplished artist. He is a celebrated author/illustrator with numerous awards, honors, and even three Caldecott medals and two Caldecott Honors. However, when he visits classrooms and gives presentations, examples of his early work suggest otherwise. “My parents saved everything I drew, so kids can see what I did when I was five years old, seven, eleven, and so on. For the most part, it all looks like what any kid at those ages would do.”

As a child, Wiesner spent his days playing with neighborhood friends. They enjoyed make-believe activities, playing games, and exploring their surroundings: the woods, a swamp, and even a cemetery. These early adventures built an active imagination in the young boy. That imagination was further engaged during trips to the library where he would immerse himself in the wealth of imagery found in art history books and natural history books. Eventually, art became his creative outlet.

“I was always interested in drawing, and by the time I was in elementary school, everyone knew me as the kid who drew all the time.” As he continued to draw and to refine his skill, he discovered his passion was not to simply draw, but to tell stories in pictures and in sequential images. “Comic books were an enormous influence on me; it was the first place I saw visual story telling. Everything I do today I learned in comic books.”

 Dinosaur Drawings, 8 years old


Flying Refrigerators Drawing, 15 years old

It was during art school when a teacher and mentor, David Macaulay, demonstrated through teaching and through his own work what a picture book could be. Then, when Wiesner discovered Lynd Ward’s wordless books, he realized he had found his calling. “The more I looked at the picture-book field and realized the amazing range of work that was being done, it started to feel like a place where the things I was thinking about could fit in. I realized I wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to do it in books.”

Since his eureka moment—his epiphany—Wiesner has not stopped telling stories through images. As an author/illustrator, he begins every book with a visual stimulus and then the act of drawing sparks the ideas. “I have plenty of interesting images, but they don’t all evolve into great stories. I have to get the initial idea down and then ask: What is going on in the pictures? What is this story about? Who is it about? And that analysis, that exploration of ideas, reveals the story. Once the story has come together, then I am free to build that world with detail and nuance and humor and visually interesting things.”


His latest venture into the picture book world is Mr. Wuffles (Clarion Books, 2013). The book’s main character is based on his cat, Cricket. Though the intent was not to write a book for the cat, the images and attitude reflect her. “Whenever I use animals, I want to stay anatomically true to how they move. With this book, I took movies of our cat by attaching a camera to a pole and holding it above the floor. I would try to get the cat to jump and to play and to walk to capture very specific animal body language.”

“The sad thing that I often see is very young kids saying ‘I can’t draw.’ They’ve already hit this point where there is an assumption that pictures should look a certain way. I’m trying to break down those ideas and preconceptions because there is no ‘right’ way. How to draw better is teachable. What is not teachable is the idea. It is much more important for kids to draw ideas that excite them without worrying about what others think.”

In addition to body language, Wiesner also incorporated language in the form of dialogue. “Language was a big part of the story all along, but it is in dialogue you can’t read. The languages the aliens and the bugs and the cat use are different for each species. That was really neat to create an interesting visual language. I’m interested to hear if kids actually try to read it.”

This month, Wiesner begins his fall tour to promote Mr. Wuffles. He also continues to sketch ideas and to develop story lines. “I am working on a graphic novel now and I have a couple of other picture books that I’m beginning to work on. That is enough to keep me occupied for a while.”

Linda Sue Park Newbery Medal-Winning Author

Linda Sue Park Newbery Medal-Winning Author

“I became a writer because I was, and still am, a reader,” says Linda Sue Park, an award-winning author and Newbery Medalist for A Single Shard (Clarian Books, 2001). As a young child, Park began her writing career by composing poetry. She also read a lot. “I loved to read. I read so much as a child that I think the elements that make a good story got osmosed into me!”

Park’s journey to becoming an author took twists and turns as she explored careers in public relations, journalism, and teaching English as a second language. “It is not like becoming a doctor where a path is laid out for you. I believe everybody has to find their own. For me, I did a lot of different jobs that required writing.” As an avid reader, Park thought that she would like to write a book someday but she didn’t want to be one of those people who only think about and/or talk about writing a book but never do. “I knew there was a really good chance that I might never be published, but I wanted to finish something for myself. It turns out, the first thing I tackled was the manuscript that eventually became Seesaw Girl (Clarian, 1999).”

The following year, Park’s highly acclaimed Kite Fighters (Clarian, 2000) was released followed by the Newbery Medalist, A Single Shard. Since then, the flow of books and the awards have continued at a steady pace with the most recent addition, Xander’s Panda Party (Clarion, 2013). “I’ve just had the most amazing and fortunate career!”

“I believe with all my heart that what goes on when you get kids to love story is far more than entertainment. It has to do with decoding and problem solving and critical thinking—all these things people want to associate with sciences. Well, you can get the training in a lot sooner and a lot deeper through literature. There is no aspect of later-in-life learning that story will not help.”

In the beginning, Park, an Asian-American, admits to writingbecause she wanted to learn more about Korea and Korean history; and writing is one of the most effective ways for her to learn. She had no intention to bring minority characters to children’s books. However, the Newbery did change her perspective. “Because of the Newbery, I have become more conscious of the lack of diversity in children’s books, and I feel a responsibility to contribute toward more diversity as my career continues.”

Though it was also never her conscious intention, Park has found her books are contributing to the pool of resources that support Common Core State Standards (CCSS). “There are some wonderful writers who see what is missing in the market, but my brain simply refuses to work that way. I write stories because I love the stories and I love the characters and I want people to know about them. It turns out that my work is fact-based enough to meet the requirements. That’s been a wonderful surprise.”

As Park continues to write novels and poetry, she also continues to feed her mind and spirit with reading. “I love to read across genres and ages, books for adults and for young people. My one criterion is that it must be a good book because nobody has time for a bad book. I will read fiction and nonfiction, poetry, history, memoir, mystery, fantasy. I’ll read anything as long as it is good.”

Linda Sue Park books

What defines a “good” book for Park? Just two things: compellingness and stickiness. “With what I call compellingness, I want to feel like I don’t want to put the book down because it has so captured my attention. With stickiness, I want it to stick afterwards—I want to be thinking about it after I close the book. And if it sticks with me longer than a year, then it goes from being a ‘good’ book to being a ‘great’ book!”

Steve Jenkins

Steve Jenkins, Award-winning Author & Illustrator

One of the most creative, award-winning authors and illustrators of children’s books actually never thought much about the medium until he and his wife, Robin Page, started having children. Both Jenkins and Page worked in graphic arts and had established their own successful design firm, Jenkins & Page. But when the children came, a new idea began to form.

“Robin nor I had really given much thought to making children’s books until we had kids of our own and started reading to them all the time,” confesses Steve Jenkins, winner of numerous awards including a Caldecott Honor. “All of a sudden, we were immersed in this world of picture books. At some point, I realized that, having all of these design tools and experience, we could create picture books, too.”

“I understand the intent of the Common Core State Standards, and I obviously like the fact that there is an emphasis on nonfiction. Of course, fiction is important: it is a wonderful way to live other lives. But I also think kids are really curious about the world because it is so mysterious. Many of them will lose that curiosity if it is not nurtured a bit, which is sad. As they grow up, there will be a bunch of issues that will require them being able to think about evidence and deciding whether information is valid and makes sense. I think nonfiction, especially about the natural world, is where that can start. Children can begin to see how science works, and the world will start to make more sense and not seem like such a random, irrational place.”

At the time, Jenkins and Page were living and working in New York. Jenkins decided to approach a friend in the publishing world with his idea about entering the picture book market. The friend heard that Houghton Mifflin had started a new imprint and was looking for projects. Jenkins put together a couple of proposals, gathered some samples, and took them in. The publisher immediately liked them and bought them both. “It was kind of ridiculously pain free compared to stories I hear of multiple rejections.”

Jenkins published two or three of his own books and Page published a few books on her own, including a counting book and sticker books. However, a natural working partnership established with their design firm easily led the couple to begin collaborating on book projects as well. “I believe the first book we made together was Animals in Flight (2001, Houghton Mifflin Company). That was a rewarding process.” Today, the pair continues to publish their own books as well as work together on projects.

“When we work on a book together, Robin usually comes up with the initial idea and then we kick it back and forth. Robin will do much of the initial research and will sketch layouts and put the rough book together to see the page sequence and how the images will work. From that I will do the final sketches and illustrations. The text is on a parallel track.”

Jenkins’ illustrations are made using his cut- and torn-paper technique to create collages. “I was always interested in drawing and illustration, but I wasn’t particularly skilled at it. Collage uses a lot of what I used as a designer: color, size, shape, and contrast. I had done a lot of book covers with collage, so when I started thinking about making children’s books, it seemed like a natural place to start.”

The collages Jenkins creates invite readers to lean in and study the various textures which combine to reveal his amazing images. Where does he find unique papers to use? Many come from a shop in New York City that carries imported handmade papers. Jenkins also uses sources online and in other countries. “I am always on the lookout without knowing what the paper will be used for. Now I kind of know what kinds of papers are likely to come in handy.”

Occasionally, Jenkins is unable to find exactly what he needs for projects. In those cases, he will make his own papers. For example, in Down, Down, Down (2009, Houghton Mifflin), each spread required a blue that became incrementally darker. “I couldn’t find manufactured papers to go through the spectrum, so I ended up making my own.”

From start to finish, a book may take up to two years to be published, so Jenkins is always working on something new. Currently, he and Page are creating a book about animal faces and what the facial features actually mean; and Page is working on a book about chickens. This month Animals Upside Down (August 2013, Houghton Mifflin), a collaborative book by Jenkins and Page, will be released. And in October, Jenkins’ next solo book will be launched.The Animal Book (October 2013, Houghton Mifflin) features more than 200 pages filled with illustrations and facts about the animal world.