A “STRONG AS SANDOW” book launch celebration! A visual report

Yesterday, I held a book launch celebration for my new book, STRONG AS SANDOW: HOW EUGEN SANDOW BECAME THE STRONGEST MAN ON EARTH (Charlesbridge, 2017). We held it at BookPeople, Austin’s wonderful independent book store. Attendees described the day as: “Wowza,” “stupendous,” “fantastic.” And most of all, “STRONG!” After I spoke, raw food health guru, Andrew Perlot, served as our resident strongman, performing human kettlebell and barbell. We followed up with physical fitness games for the kids. “The Sandow” cake was created by illustrator and cake maker (cakelustrator) Akiko White. See the cake in the making here!

It was a fun day! Here’s a look:


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Whoosh! is a A Cook Prize Honor Book and a Children’s Choice Nominee!

FAMILIES of DEEP textWhoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge, 2016), written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate is a 2017 Cook Prize Finalist. The Cook Prize honors the best science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) picture book published for children aged eight to ten and is the only national children’s choice award honoring a STEM book.

In addition, Whoosh! is also a finalists for the 10th Annual Children’s and Teen Choice Book Awards, 2017! Children across the country will vote for the finalists through the last day of Children’s Book Week.


How Attending the SCBWI National Conferences Can Help Writers/Illustrators of Color

As a book creator of color, I know how intimidating it can be to attend TeamBlog_Widget_LA2015_team[1]a children’s book writing and illustrating conference, in a sea of people who don’t look like you (especially if you’ve never attended a conference). But I also understand that giving in to fear is the best way to never realizing your dreams. I met author Andrea J Loney at an SCBWI conference in New York a few years ago. She is African American, and she was one of the few other people of color I met that weekend. Since that time, I’ve witnessed her career bloom. I know that SCBWI had to play a part in that growth, and so I asked her to write a blog post that might inspire and encourage other creators of color to invest in their careers and experience an SCBWI national conference. Slots are still open, it’s not too late! — Don Tate

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Guest Post by Andrea J Loney

Fifteen years ago, I decided that I wanted to be a children’s book writer. I joined The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and enjoyed the newsletter, but I didn’t attend any meetings or local writers’ events. And when I looked at information for the huge national conference near my home in Los Angeles, I thought, “No way am I doing this! It’s so much money! And it’s a whole three-day weekend? And what if the people there are snobby?” The mere thought of the conference terrified me.

So I continued to write my stories in isolation, learn my craft from articles on the internet and books in the library, and collect my rejection letters in despair until I finally gave up writing children’s books altogether.

Then three years ago, after rejoining SCBWI, attending local SCBWI writing events, and joining a critique group, I went to my first national conference in Los Angeles and was blown away by how helpful it was. Attending that conference felt like slapping a rocket booster on my writing career. Everything took off after then.

So here are the top six ways that attending SCBWI national conferences have helped me as a writer of color:

  1. At the first conference I attended in 2014, Lin Oliver told us that there were about 1,200 attendees and that roughly half of us were published. She said that the other half were pre-published (as opposed to “aspiring”). Spending three days with so many published writers really shifted my thinking about my career. It was at that first conference that I really saw myself as a professional. I sold my first book five months after that weekend.
  2. As conference attendees, we received writing and illustration craft information directly from working professionals. This was so different than reading an article on the internet or even taking a class at a college. Getting information on the state of the juvenile publishing industry from writers, illustrators, editors, agents and other people who are right in the middle of it was invaluable.
  3. We also were able to connect with and speak directly with agents, editors, and published authors and illustrators. I signed up for a critique and got great feedback on a manuscript from an editor. I spoke to an agent at a meal. After her workshop, I spoke with an author whose book I love and got her take on how I could improve my own work. And most importantly for me, I met people in the industry who would later support my efforts to get published.
  4. After the main conference days, there were “socials” which provide an opportunity to meet other writers and critique each other’s work. It was through these socials that I met some of my critique partners. We still meet regularly and we are all committed to studying our craft, improving our work, and getting published. Also, it was at the conferences that I made connections with many other writers of color.
  5. Being a writer of color at the SCBWI national conference meant that I created a presence. People noticed me and I used that to my advantage. When the question of diversity came up in a talk or a presentation, it was not an abstract or theoretical discussion for some of the attendees, because there I was, a black writer, sitting right next to them. When other writers of color entered the room, I saw them, they saw me, and everyone else saw us. Writers of color made up a small percentage of most of the conferences I’ve gone to, but when we are there, we do make an impression. And the greater the number of us in attendance, the greater the varieties of those impressions.
  6. Lastly, by attending the national SCBWI conferences, I’ve gotten to meet all sorts of children’s book professionals (published and pre-published) from all over the country. And do you know what most of these people have in common? They love children’s books and the people who make them. Kit Lit people tend to be genuinely friendly, generous, and enthusiastic – I’ve never in my life felt so welcomed by a creative industry. And I have learned so many things about writing and the industry from the folks I met at these conferences. And when success finally did come for me, many of the people I’d met at the conferences cheered me on, invited me to their blogs, and promoted my books on social media. So now I can say that I joined a nation-wide children’s literature tribe by attending these conferences.

So if you do decide to join us at one of the national conferences (New York in February and/or Los Angeles in July), here are some tips to prepare for a great experience:

    • Bring your business cards! Don’t have any? Try Vista Print or Overnight Prints. You can even make them on your own printer. Before I had any books to sell, I put my photograph on my business cards so people might remember me. You can also include your email address, social media info, etc.
    • Bring a notebook and be sure to take notes not just on what the speakers are saying, but on any new ideas that pop up during the talks. These speeches and workshops can be incredibly inspirational and I always leave the conferences with at least 15 new story ideas.
    • Before the conference, familiarize yourself with the work of the speakers/workshop leaders. It helps to put the information they share in context, and even better, if you have a question about their books, you may get the answer directly from the source.
    • Dress business casual, but wear comfortable shoes and layers since room temperatures can vary. You’ll probably see lots of cardigans! And don’t be afraid to add your personal style to your conference wardrobe.
    • Be prepared to meet at least three new people and to give an “elevator pitch” on your book project. You never know who may have just the right information to help you get to the next step. You never know who you may help.
    • Have fun and congratulate yourself for making an important investment in your creative career.

And if you’re coming to the SCBWI NY17 or the SCBWI LA17 conferences, come say hi! I’ll be the bespectacled chick with the flower in my Sisterlocks and wearing a Bunnybear pin.


Andrea J Loney is the author of BUNNYBEAR (Albert Whitman & Company, Jan 2017), the New Voices award-winning picture book biography TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE! (Lee & Low Books, May 2017), and DOUBLE BASS BLUES (Knopf, Spring 2019).

“Strong As Sandow” cover release

I’d hoped to do an official cover release for my next book, “Strong As Sandow,”  with one of my favorite kidlit champions like John Schu of Watch. Connect. Read., Cynsations, or All The Wonders. But I got busy with my current book, I let it slip, and suddenly, it was on Amazon and other sites–which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. So…drumroll, since the cat’s out the bag, I’m posting the official cover release here. Ta-da!

“Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man on Earth” written and illustrated by me, will publish with Charlesbridge in the fall of 2017. It’s the story of Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow, who is known as the Father of Modern-Day Bodybuilding. You can learn more about him here.

More news on this coming soon!


Illumine Awards gala

This past weekend, I had the honor of accepting an Illumine Award (children’s literature), given out at a star-studded gala at the W Hotel in downtown Austin. The award was given by the Friend’s of Austin Public Library Foundation, honoring members of the Austin community for outstanding literary achievement. Other honorees were Tim O’Brien (fiction), and Amy Gentry (first book).

It was wonderful to receive this nice recognition from my hometown public library system, and it was even more thrilling that so many of my friends came to support me (aka “Don Tate Appreciation Society). I was floored. I kept thinking, Gosh, a lot of my friends just so happen to be here. And then at some point, I realized, they were there to support me! *tear*

Here is a look at the magical night.

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“Whoosh!” Research and texting with Lonnie Johnson

whoosh-cvr_largeSo in this installment, I’ll talk about research for the book Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, written by Chris Barton. For research, I wanted to interview Mr. Lonnie Johnson. I had so many visual questions. But for awhile, I didn’t think I would be able to talk to him. I tried calling and sending emails, but to no luck. Finally, I just began to sketch the book using some available resources, and, well, making some educated guesses.

But I worried about getting something wrong. In fact, I worried and procrastinated so much that missed my first deadline. Turned out, missing that deadline was a blessing in disguise. One day many months later, his secretary called, and an hour later, I was on the phone with the creator of the Super Soaker water gun!

Johnson was a pleasure to talk to, jovial, we laughed quite a bit. He’s definitely a smart guy, some of tumblr_mi53q0SWzL1qzuf8co1_500his scientific jargon flew right over my head! With his permission, I recorded our conversation. He graciously answered my questions, and even offered me his personal phone number where I could  text him with followup questions. It was a tremendously generous gesture—though he joked, “If you give out my phone number, I’ll come through this phone to get you!” I didn’t tell a soul, not even Chris Barton!

With my questions now answered, I felt better about completing my sketches. But as I sketched more questions came up. The Super Soaker had undergone many stages of prototypes. Which one should I picture at various stages of the story? I asked Mr. Johnson in a text message.

A few weeks later while waiting in my car before a school visit, an image of a gun popped up on the screen of my phone. It alarmed me. The gun was large, long with a white barrel. My heart skipped. Was someone threatening me? That’s when I realized the photo had come from Mr. Johnson. He’d sent images of early prototypes of his Super Soaker.


I continued sketching, but I had more questions. The beginning of the story begins with young Lonnie Johnson being creative in his make-shift kitchen workshop, with various things from the junk yard spread across the table. An early version of the manuscript mentioned a Chinaberry shooter in the scene. What in the heck was that? A quick Google returned several results. I created a sketch, but I was unsure. Below was my guess as to what his shooter might have looked like:


After our phone conversation, I realized my guess was wrong. I created another quick sketch and texted it off to Mr. Johnson. He answered my question with his own sketch of what his shooter would have looked like and how it would have worked. I wasn’t too far off, but now I had what I needed to be 100-percent correct!


And that’s how I worked over the next few months. I sketched, sent questions off to Mr. Johnson. He answered my questions, sometimes with more sketches. In another scene, teenage Johnson creates a robot to enter in a high school science fair. He named the robot Linex, and controlled it using a remote control. I had a somewhat great photo of the actual robot, but not the remote control. I visualized a hand-held remote control, but I was very wrong. I shot off my sketch to Mr. Johnson, and he drew a sketch of what it really looked like–it was tabletop size!—almost as big as the robot itself. I decided that it was too complicated to include in the scene, and so I pictured Linex only. See below. 

unnamed copy

There were several other communications between us. He helped me to visualize his job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, too. I envisioned him working with some complex engineer-y looking equipment, with TV screens and a plethora of knobs and wires. Mr. Johnson said absolutely not. His position at NASA was more of a desk job, so he suggested that I picture him behind a desk or delivering a PowerPoint, which I did.

I haven’t had a chance to speak with Mr. Johnson since, but fingers crossed that he liked the book. He certainly praised The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch(!).

Illustrating Lonnie Johnson’s story, Whoosh!

whoosh-cvr_largeSometime in the early 2000s, I received an email from writer Chris Barton inviting me to lunch. That meeting began a friendship that would last well into the future and result in the collaboration of two picture books.

Our first collaboration, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans, 2015), published last April, 2015. Today marks the publication of our second collaboration: Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge). As of today, it has garnered two starred reviews, in addition to becoming a Junior Library Guild Selection.

I’ve illustrated many picture books and picture book biographies, but this book was different than others. For one, although I’ve illustrated digitally for more than 20 years for editorial and educational publishing, Whoosh! was my first fully digitally illustrated trade picture book. Secondly, unlike many other subjects I’ve written and/or illustrated about—Willie Mays, Effa Manley, George Moses Horton, John Roy Lynch—Lonnie Johnson is still living. He lives and works today in Atlanta, Georgia, at his company, Johnson Research & Development Co. For that reason, being just a phone call or email away, I thought illustrating his story would be easier. Well, it was. And it was not.

I begin all of the books I illustrate by creating thumbnail sketches. I use them to begin discussions with my editor and art director, they are my initial thoughts or plan for what will become the final book.

WHOOSH thumbnails

Following the thumbnail sketches, I begin to think about the style and medium I’ll use. Most illustrators take years to develop a look or two for their work, a trademark style. With Maurice Sendak, think dark, haunting, richly detailed ink and wash. With Kadir Nelson, think figurative, portraiture with dramatic lighting, he’s like a modern Renaissance guy. Me, I don’t really have a style. I like to change things up based upon the feel or appropriateness of the text, the subject, or, heck, the deadline presented.

The image above was my first attempt at developing a style for Whoosh! I like vector art, it has the feel of old-time tempera paint, clean, sharp, child-friendly. In addition, I was ready to break in my new Cintiq. But this sketch was rejected as too hard-edged, commercial looking. Ug!—I couldn’t think of anything more hard-edged and commercial than the Super Soaker water gun! But I lost that battle. 

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I continued to experiment—with digital art and with natural media. Each time, my art director preferred my natural media look, like how I illustrated Hope’s Gift. I wasn’t ready to give up though. I liked the freedom that digital art offered, that I could easily experiment without having to start over. Changes could easily be made. Below I experimented with hard lines and subtle texture. Rejected, rejected, rejected…


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I created one more sample using Manga Studio, below, trying to match the look of Hope’s Gift. They loved it! And that’s when I sprang it on them that I’d created that sample digitally. I had the go-ahead to paint in Manga Studio.

Sample to Diane

At that point, I was ready to begin the research process. Author, Chris Barton, had conducted several telephone interviews with Lonnie Johnson and shared them with me—great! But as the illustrator, I wanted to talk to Johnson, too. I needed to know what things looked like. Did I imagine his childhood bamboo shooter accurately? And what did his early water gun prototypes look like? His house? The ages of his children at certain points in his life. Heck, the race of his first wife, since I’d need to picture his family—I didn’t want to guess. These visual details were not on the internet or in Barton’s interviews. I had so many questions, but for whatever reason, I could not make contact with Lonnie Johnson myself. Dilemma. Later this week, I’ll talk more about the research process.

Photo Report: Ezra Jack Keats Book Awards ceremony

Last week, I had the honor of accepting the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for new writer, for my book POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON. The awards ceremony was held at the University of Southern Mississippi, as a part of the 49th Annual Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival. It was a grand event, to say the least. They made us feel like rock stars! While there, I also toured the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, which archives many of the original materials of Ezra Jack Keats. Here is a photo report of the event!


Signing a copy of POET for author/storyteller Tim Tingle
This year would have been the 100th birthday of Ezra Jack Keats
Book signing following the awards presentations
Very cool trophies were handed out. Here’s me with Keats Illustrator winner, Phoebe Wahl
All the winners together!
And I delivered an acceptance speech and was only a tad bit nervous
Receiving the award from no other than author Lois Lowry!
Group shot of the Ezra Jack Keats Book winners and honor winners
Illustrators Rowboat Watkins, Ryan Higgins, Don Tate

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2016 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award

2016_BookAward_coversPR2-720x449[1]I’m pleased to announce that I am a winner of the 30th Annual Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for my book POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON. “You are the first!” said Deborah Pope, Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, “to win an EJK Honor and the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award.”

Three years ago when I won the award, was one of the proudest moments of my career. I never imagined being considered again. Learning the news of a second award came as a total shock and surprise. There has always been a special place in my heart for Ezra Jack Keats. When he chose to picture brown children in his books, he chose to acknowledge me. I wasn’t invisible to him. In a way, I feel like he’s acknowledged me again–and now again, with this award bearing his name. As a creator of color in a field that sorely lacks diversity, it can be easy to sometimes feel unseen. This award serves as a reminder to me that I am not invisible and that my work matters. Thank you Ezra Jack Keats foundation and de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at The University of Southern Mississippi for this remarkable distinction. And congratulations to Phoebe Wahl (for Sonya’s Chickens),  who is the illustrator recipient. Congrats to all the winners!

The 2016 award ceremony will be held on April 7th during the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at The University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. And the icing on the cake: I will receive a gold medallion and an honorarium of $1,000!

Pre-#NY16SCBWI Interview: James Ransome

JamesRansome2009April300dpiSmaller[1]I can’t believe it, 2016 is in full swing and #NY16SBCWI is only three weeks away. This conference looks to be so much fun, I just can’t wait. In fact, I didn’t wait. I reached out to award-winning illustrator and author James Ransome, who will be on faculty there and asked him a few questions.TeamBlog_Widget_LA2015_team[1]

Ransome has been illustrating children’s books for over twenty years with almost fifty picture books to his credit.  He is the winner of many awards, including the Coretta Scott King and NAACP Image awards. His work is part of both private and public children’s book art collections and a number of commissioned murals, including three for the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ransome is an Assistant Professor in the Illustration Program at Syracuse University and lives in Rhinebeck, New York, with his wife, author, Lesa Cline-Ransome.

Now, let’s get to the interview!

Don: Thanks for the interview, James. I’m excited to host you here.
9781430110873[1]James: Thanks for the warm comments. I really enjoy your work and envy your dedication to the gym. I only recall us meeting once at NCTE but I feel like I’ve known you for a long time because years ago your Aunt Eleanora Tate told me of your interest in illustration.
Don: I’ve been a fan of your work for many years. When I first got into publishing, I studied your books, considering you a far away mentor. Who were illustrators you studied?
James: In the early days I looked at a lot of illustrators from the Society of Illustrators Annuals, mainly big names like Skip (Malcolm) Liepke, Burt Silverman, Bernie Fuchs, Robert Cunningham and anyone who painted loosely ( Alla prima). But it was Jerry Pinkney who allowed me to visit his studio on a regular basis over a period of ten years that really helped me become the illustrator that I am.  And then I befriended Robert Cunningham. What I eventually learned was that these artists were designers and drawers and had a passion for color. I first gained interest in these three elements as a student in a foundation class while at Pratt Institute.  visitingDay300[1]
Don: What types of manuscripts are you drawn to?
James: I really don’t have a favorite! I just enjoy the challenge of creating images. Different mediums, formats and media from (video, photography to collage) . I’m an art geek! At this point I’m interested in authors who write from various perspectives and play on language.
Don: In the past few years, it seems that you’ve transitioned in the mediums you use, from oil to watercolors, and now pastel. Can you talk about that transition? What were the challenges, if any?
78f871c5ff8236e3d5d87587ea4fb650[1]James: Being an art geek means I enjoy a variety of mediums. I have done books in oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels and mixed media with collage.  The desire to work in different mediums actually comes from a number of sources, but I would guess it mostly comes from a class I teach at Syracuse University. The class is entitled Media Arts Techniques where I teach the students a variety of mediums. So, I spend a good deal of time discussing, discovering new materials and studying artists who work in different disciplines. When I pick up a manuscript I try to let the text tell me how and what medium needs to be used for the illustrations. In the future I plan to work in graphite, gouache, collage as well as digitally.
Don: I know that you are also authored many of some of the books you’ve illustrated. Can you talk about your transformation from illustrator to writer? Fears, goals, self discovery.
James: Fear! That’s a great word to illustrate my relationship with writing. I’m not sure if grandmama[1]it’s positive or negative but I’m a idea magnet, I have tons of ideas for stories and I pitch them first to my wife, author Lesa Cline-Ransome. She rejects 90% of what I throw her. The stories that I feel the most passionate about I’ll write or contact a writer friend like Deborah Hopkinson.  The real truth is that as a child I first wrote and then began drawing images to go along with my WWII adventure stories.  I truly enjoy writing and storytelling but it’s very time consuming.  Plus, authors are the professionals who have studied the craft of writing often for years. So, you’ll only have a few stories from me from time to time. I would rather spend my time drawing or painting.


Don: I am also a member of the We Need Diverse Books team. What was your first mirror book, a book that featured characters that reflected you?
James: I’m sure the first book with an African American character was Keats’ The Snowy Day. I can’t recall the initial impact. I was in college when my girlfriend, now wife Lesa, gave me a copy of The Patchwork Quilt written by Valerie Flournoy, a book illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. That first opened me up to the idea to illustrating children’s books. I was in the last semester of my senior year. At that time I was doing mostly sport images with the hopes of illustrating for Sports Illustrated. At that point I began making images that included children and received my first book contract within two years of graduating.

Don: I’m thrilled that you will be on faculty at the National SCBWI conference in NYC. Can you tell our readers what to expect from James Ransome at 16NYSCBWI?
James: I will discuss my background that was absent of art with the exception of comic books, how my career began, a few current and past book projects, artistic influences, a tour of my studio, non book projects and my stages in illustrating a book. My presentation is more of a motivational speech that places more emphasis on hard work than talent.


Be sure to check out James Ransome’s session, In Full Swing: Running Building and Jacket My Story My Dance[1]Steering Your Career , on Friday at 11am.

Click here for more information about the17th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC.