Month: December 2012

Meet the Biographer: Don Tate

TateMug662-300x376Don Tate has illustrated over 40 book for children. Earlier this year, he wrote It Jes’ Happened, a picture-book biography of folk artist Bill Traylor. This week, he chatted about using voice to shape character, engaging kids in folk art, and applying his illustration experience to writing.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Bill Traylor’s art, and what made you decide to write about his life?

Don Tate: Author Dianna Aston, a friend, suggested I write Bill’s story. I hadn’t heard of him, so she mailed a newspaper article to me about the artist. I was intrigued. At the time I didn’t consider myself a writer, so I procrastinated for several years before writing a first draft.

Kidsbiographer: Can you describe the research you did to write It Jes’ Happened? What was the most intriguing fact or anecdote you discovered about Traylor and his work during the research process?

Don Tate: It Jes’ Happened was my first foray into the scary world of writing. I wasn’t sure where to start. To begin, I searched online for every article I could find on the subject of Bill Traylor. Then I referred to other books written about the artist (there weren’t many), mostly art books or books about folk art that included snippets about Bill Traylor.

Inconsistencies regarding the events of Bill’s life was the most frustrating part of the research process. His birth date varied from source to source. Even his death date varied. In the end, I relied on scholarly sources.

Another problem was that I couldn’t find much at all about Bill’s life before his 80s. I considered writing a story about the four years he spent as a homeless artist in Montgomery and leave it at that. But I needed to know more. What inspired his art? Why did he start to draw? That’s where studying Bill’s art came in to play. Bill’s art served as a visual journal of his life.

While no one knows exactly why Bill Traylor began to draw, by studying his art it became obvious that he simply poured out years of welled-up memories.

Kidsbiographer: It Jes’ Happened not only celebrates Traylor’s art, but his humor, resilience, and remarkable voice. You include remarks and observations attributed to Traylor in your narrative, which helps develop him as a character. In your author’s note, you mention that various sources attributed different statements to Traylor. How did you decide which lines to include in your text, and which characteristics were you most anxious to convey in his voice?

Don Tate: Charles Shannon spent a lot of time observing Bill as he created his art. He purchased many of Bill’s pieces. On the back of the art, he often recorded comments Bill made while drawing. Bill Traylor’s whimsical sense of humor and his practical look at life around him are what resonated with me. I related to his humor and practicality. I’m a lot like Bill, I saw myself in him. One time Bill made comments about money. He said: “You could have that building over there full of money, but you couldn’t eat it.” I cracked up laughing when I first read that quote. I make similar comments regarding my own family finances.

Somewhere in my research, I came across the quote, “It jes’ happened.” The words were supposedly a response Bill gave to a reporter when asked why he began to draw (though it’s also been said that Bill didn’t respond to the reporter at all, that the words were put into his mouth). I loved the quote, I’d use it as the title of the book. I also used the quote in the story, on the first page. Problem was, I hadn’t noted the source of the quote, so I couldn’t attribute them to a reliable source. I never found the source, so I couldn’t suggest that Bill used those words. However, several other sources (that I documented), including a 1946 edition of Colliers magazine, that featured a story about Bill, quoted him as having answered the reporter by saying, “It jes’ come to me.” I used that line in the story. It worked, but it didn’t make for a smooth title. My editor and I had a discussion, and we decided I could use the words “It Jes’ Happened” as the title of the book, if I wanted to, because it wasn’t intended to be a Bill Traylor quote.

Kidsbiographer: Children’s biographies are among the few books in which kids encounter adult protagonists. It Jes’ Happened is a particularly remarkable story as the subject is not only a former slave, but the very latest of late bloomers: he didn’t start drawing until he was 85 years old. How did Traylor’s age shape the way you approached the narrative?

Don Tate: Good question. Bill was a homeless octogenarian, born a hundred-and-fifty years ago. He was an unknown figure that most kids — or adults — would know about. How would this story attract the interest of a young reader, say 7- to 11- years-old? That was the challenge. I met the challenge by beginning the story with a scene where Bill drew pictures surrounded by children (which is often what happened). Everyone likes to draw, or at least likes people who can draw.

As far as words, I think young readers are attracted to rhythm. So I tried to tell the story with a bouncy beat, a rhythmic flow. And I used the refrain, “Bill saved up memories deep inside.” Hopefully, my words were inviting to young readers. Certainly, Greg Christie’s bold and colorful art will draw them in.

Kidsbiographer: Although It Jes’ Happened is your authorial debut, you have had a successful career as an illustrator. How did your illustration experience and your knowledge of visual art influence your stylistic decisions during this project?

Don Tate: Many of the scenes that I wrote were inspired by Bill Traylor’s artwork. Bill loved to portray animals, especially mules. Since I had a great quote of Bill talking about his stubborn mule, that became a scene. Bill also portrayed scenes later entitled “exciting events,” wherein people danced, ran around around, climbed buildings, hunted on horseback with dogs. This inspired the Saturday night party scene. Bill Traylor’s “Preacher and Congregation” inspired the worship scene.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about this picture-book biography?

Don Tate: At a recent school visit, kids made a book and filled it with drawings they created. They drew pictures in Bill’s style, much like Greg Christie did for the book. Children loved Bill’s art! When I first wrote the book, I wasn’t sure how children would respond to his art. Bill had a wonderful sense of color, line, shape, space. He had a consistent style. But his art has been described by some as rough and primitive. It’s like folk art, not slick and photo realistic with dramatic highlights and shadow. I’m thrilled that children love Bill Traylor’s art — they got it!

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current upcoming projects?

Don Tate: I have three projects on the horizon. Hope’s Gift publishes later this month. It is written by my friend and colleague at the Brown Bookshelf (, Kelly Starling Lyons. It’s a story to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

I’m currently finishing up a book written by Eve Bunting. Without giving too much away, it’s a day-in-the-life type of story that celebrates the life of a great American hero. Then I’ll move on to a nonfiction book written by my good friend, Chris Barton (Shark vs. Train). Much to be thankful for here.

Meet the Biographer: Jeri Chase Ferris

jeriihorseJeri Chase Ferris has penned children’s biographies of Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, Matthew Henson, Marian Anderson, and other American figures in civil rights, the arts, and sciences. Earlier this year, she published Noah Webster &  His Words, a picture-book biography of the man behind the institution that is Webster’s Dictionary. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about overlooked American heroes, the surprising aspects of serious figures, and her absorption with history.

Kidsbiographer: Noah Webster helped create American English, he was an intellectual and political force during his lifetime, and through his dictionaries, he has a continuing presence in American life. Yet I don’t remember learning much about him during my school years. How did you decide to write a picture-book biography of this Founding Father of American spelling?

Jeri Chase Ferris: I write about people who made a difference for the good in America, but are relatively unknown, or what they did is unknown. For example, ARCTIC EXPLORER is the biography of Matthew Henson, the black co-discoverer of the North Pole. NATIVE AMERICAN DOCTOR is the biography of Susan LaFlesche Picotte, the first woman Native American doctor. WHAT ARE YOU FIGURING NOW? is the biography of Benjamin Banneker, the black man who built the first wooden clock in America, helped survey Washington D.C., wrote more almanacs than Benjamin Franklin did … Well, you get the idea. These heroes were mostly unknown.

So why Noah Webster? Everybody knows about Webster, right? He wrote Webster’s Dictionary, right? Right. But what else did Noah do? When you read NOAH WEBSTER & HIS WORDS,  you will learn how vital he was in keeping our fledging [one that is new] nation together; how he influenced our Constitution; how his books united America, and much, much more.

And why a picture book biography? I had written an earlier chapter book biography of Noah (WHAT DO YOU MEAN?), which sadly went out of print. Teachers and librarians often asked me for that book, and I was embarrassed to say it was not available. So, having sent off my Siege of Leningrad historical fiction to my agent, I decided to have another go at Noah, this time a picture book.

Kidsbiographer: Can you tell me about the research you did to write Noah Webster and His Words?

Jeri Chase Ferris: I love history and research! I’m a historian and wanna-be archaeologist, and prefer digging up facts to just about anything.

For my first bio of Noah, I dug into all the books and research already done on him, my husband Tom and I traveled to Noah’s geographical sites, and I corresponded with Noah’s great-great-great-grand son. That was like touching history itself, and added to the primary source material that is so critical to a NF work.

For NOAH WEBSTER & HIS WORDS, I reviewed all my previous research and happily explored additional new books and many new websites. I worked with the director of the NW Foundation, who read and vetted several versions of the ms. until it finally passed muster, and a researcher at Merriam-Webster provided some great definition ideas.

Kidsbiographer: Noah Webster is not only an appealing biographical subject; he makes a quirky, delightful picture-book character. When you wrote Noah Webster and his Words, how did you balance his humorous traits – his opinion of his own abilities, for example – with his admirable qualities: his diligence and his utmost dedication to education and the American people?

Jeri Chase Ferris: Very carefully.

He really was opinionated and really did believe he was right in his opinions. He would go on at great length to prove his positions, sometimes in the face of public ridicule. I admired his fortitude and the fact that despite being occasionally discouraged and depressed, he was never silenced by others’ negative opinions. He bounced back, sometimes even with humor, to “correct” his critics. He was convinced that Americans needed a national head of state, a national set of rules, standard spelling (at that time, the same word might be spelled ten different ways in ten different places), American history and reading and geography books, and ultimately, needed an American dictionary.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of the book is its suitability for reading out loud. The picture-book biography begins and ends with “Noah Webster always knew he was right,” which constitutes a narrative punchline. Also, the book contains a lot of word play, even apart from the dictionary definitions. How did you give the book its lively aural quality?

Jeri Chase Ferris: I had such fun with Noah and his quirkiness and stolid self-discipline and the various sides of his personality (he loved dancing and singing – who would have guessed?) that the liveliness couldn’t help but appear. I’m delighted you like it!

Kidsbiographer: What lessons do you hope children will take away from Noah Webster and His Words about dictionaries and language in general?

Jeri Chase Ferris: Language is fun!

Definitions will surprise you!

The more words you know, the more you can say!

And from Noah himself – never give up when you believe you are right.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Jeri Chase Ferris: Sure would.

The Siege of Leningrad ms. I mentioned earlier, THE LAST MOUSE IN LENINGRAD, is still being edited. It’s based on the life of a Russian friend who, beginning at age 10, miraculously survived 900 days of deprivation, freezing and starvation when Leningrad was surrounded by German troops during WWII. This book began the evening my husband and I were having dinner with our dear friends in their small Leningrad apt. It was Christmas for us (not for them) and they had decorated a tiny fir tree for the occasion. Leonid said, during dinner, “When I look at the yulka (fir tree) I always remember the Siege. Then we did not decorate the tree. We ate it.” At that moment I knew I had to tell this story.

Also, I’m working on a MG historical fiction set on the Ohio River, about 1800.

Also, I’m starting a MG historical fiction set at the California Russian settlement of Fort Ross, about 1815.

Also, I’m thinking about a historical fiction picture book about a young immigrant girl in 1880s New England who had only one blouse and one skirt, and who …

Did I mention I love history?