People often ask me how it now feels to be an author. The question always stumps me. I’ve illustrated nearly 50 trade and educational books for kids. There’s no question I’m an illustrator. But as an author, I only have one book under my belt — It Jes’ Happened. The book published last year and won a New Voices honor from Lee & Low Books. It received three starred reviews from major review journals. It landed on several end-of-the-year best of lists. And it won an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer honor award. Still, I’d ponder, does one book make me an author? Or did I simply have a stroke of good luck? I’d feel more confident acknowledging myself as a working author if I could sell a second manuscript.
Well, my second manuscript has sold!
SLAVE POET OF CHAPEL HILL (tentative title), a children’s nonfiction picture book that I wrote and will illustrate, was acquired by Peachtree Publishers, sold by my agent, Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
So, how does it feel to be an author? Fantabulous! Indeed, I am an author.
April is always a busy month, and this year was no exception. I made a brief visit to my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. I presented at several schools. I went to a fancy ball. And then there was the Hattieburg festival where I accepted the Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Honor, and then The Texas Book Festival in San Antonio. And that was only the first two weeks! The last two weeks was all about preparing for IRA (International Reading Association) and TLA (Texas Library Association). Whew!
One of the coolest things at the Kaigler festival were the medallions featuring the images of legendary children’s literature creators.
Madeleine L’Engle’s and Ezra Jack Keats’ actual Newbery and Caldecott medals!
Texas Book Festival
On April 13, I was a featured author in the Texas Book Festival’s San Antonio edition. This was the first time the festival was held in San Antonio. It was quite the classy event. The day kicked off with a yummy breakfast, then festival organizers welcomed authors and a few politicians spoke. I presented to an enthusiastic audience in the afternoon.
Mega-award-winning author, Cynthia Levinson
Author Lupe Ruiz-Flores, illustrator Carolyn Flores, and I had great time.
IRA (International Reading Association)
The following weekend, I returned to San Antonio to speak at the International Reading Association conference. I spoke alongside author friend, Cynthia Levinson and several other Texas literacy organizations. Cynthia spoke about her book, WE’VE GOT A JOB! I spoke about IT JES’ HAPPENED. The conference was a blast, and I was quite tired when it was all over. But I had one more conference to go: TLA.
Author-illustrator Jeff Crosby, illustrator Terry Widener sign our books at the International Reading Association conference
Signing books at the Penguin booth.
TLA (Texas Library Association)
I’ve attended the Texas Librarian every year since moving to Texas. It’s always a good time. I get to meet lots of librarians. I get a chance to catch up with editors that I’ve worked with throughout the years but haven’t met in person. I also get to meet many authors and illustrators known only through social networks. This year the conference felt a little different to me, like I finally got my groove on. Throughout the conference I was approached by librarians whose schools I’ve visited in the past, as well as librarians whose schools I’m visiting later this year. Many wandered up just wanting to congratulate me on recent successes. That was kinda cool. This year I signed in the author area, which can be a lonely and scary place, especially if no one shows up. But that didn’t happen. I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception — the line never stopped!
Author E Kristin Anderson and I with her Dear Teen Me anthology
Signing with fellow Sweethearts, Jessica Anderson and PJ Hoover
I’m kind of happy that April is over. It was busy. But I had a great time.
I interrupt Wendall Minor’s book signing for a quick picture.
I arrived in Hattiesburg a day early, where I attended a lecture given by acclaimed and legendary illustrator Wendell Minor. By ‘legendary’ think: Lee Harper, Mary Higgins Clark, David McCullough. These are just a few of the authors whose books are covered with Wendell’s art. Wendell’s session was inspiring, emotional, funny and engaging. It set the stage for what promised to be a magical few days ahead.
Somehow I got a seat next to Jon Scieszka! Yes, that’s his ear!
On Thursday morning, Jon Scieszka was presented with The University of Southern Mississippi De Grummond 2013 Award Medal. A book signing by all featured authors and illustrators followed his lecture.
The Ezra Jack Keats Awards luncheon was my highlight of the day. Ellen Ruffin, curator of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, served as a delightful master of ceremony. It was a grand event and we were treated like royalty. But the ceremony was upstaged by no other than a tornado! Yes! During honor book winner, Jennifer Lanthier’s acceptance speech (I was up next), tornado warnings beeped from every smart phone in the ball room. We were then herded into a stairwell—all 300 of us! — authors, illustrators, librarians, university staff. It was quite memorable and even entertaining. The weather cleared in about 30 minutes and the festivities continued. Following a few tornado jokes — “Your speech almost bought the house down.” — Jennifer resumed her speech.
When I was called on stage, I gave a very brief acceptance speech, thanking the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, the University of Southern Mississippi, my wife and my God. And then I was presented with a cool commemorative plaque featuring the one and only Ezra Jack Keats.
Later that evening, we were treated to a private dinner and reception. I’m talking hors d’oeuvres to die for with a string quartet (or some other type of fancy music — these folks were classy!). Honorees who sat at the head table were Julie Fogliano, author winner (And Then It’s Spring); Hyewon Yum, illustration winner (Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten); Jennifer Lanthier, author honor winner (The Stamp Collector); Don Tate (It Jes’ Happened), author honor winner. Honorees not present were Mara Rockliff, K.G. Campbell, Sanjay Patel.
From left to right, Don Tate, Hyewon Yum, Julie Fogliano, Jennifer Lanthier,
Other highlights: Getting to meet the wonderful K.T. Horning in person (I was too nervous to ask for a picture). Receiving a handshake from Eric Rohmann following the awards presentations. Always a warm reception from Candice Fleming. I had the best escorts looking out for me: Kay, Harvey, Loleeta.
The Ezra Jack Keats New Writer and Illustrator Awards were established to recognize and encourage authors and illustrators starting out in the field of children’s books. As the illustrator of numerous picture books for children, I am certainly not a newbie to the field. But It Jes’ Happened was my first authored book. What a way to walk in confidence as a new writer!
Click the below video of my introduction:
Nervously awaiting to give my acceptance speech
Delivering my acceptance speech
The award is beautiful, this picture does not do it justice
Visiting the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection with medallions on display, also where some of Ezra Jack Keats original art is on display
Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the Texas Book Festival’s Reading Rock Stars program in the Rio Grande Valley. The program makes it possible for thousands of children to get new books and meet the authors who write them. I spoke at Perez Elementary and Hinojosa Elementary. At both schools, I was greeted by enthusiastic librarians, students, teachers and parents. And I was especially honored by the writing and artwork that the children created after reading my book, It Jes’ Happened. I can’t thank the Texas Book Festival enough.
Students join me in drawing activities
My young introducer presents me with a gift basket.
This past February, in honor of Black History Month, I created a sketch each day featuring figures from Black history. I tried to limit myself to five minutes per sketch. Some days I was more successful than others. I posted the images on my personal Facebook page. The response was overwhelmingly positive, so I decided to make the sketches available as a free download. Please feel free to print these images and use them in your classroom, library, or for your own personal use. Children may enjoy collecting the images and looking the figures up on the internet to get more information.
March kicks off what looks to be a busy and exciting spring speaking schedule. Last week I spoke at schools in Fort Worth, Texas — Remington Point, J.T. Stevens, George C. Clarke, and Van Zandt-Guinn elementary schools. Wow — what enthusiastic students! The wonderful librarians had prepared the students well. I returned to Austin with gifts and photos and wonderful memories. Below is a look at my spring speaking schedule, along with a few pics from my Fort Worth tour.
March 19 — Texas Book Festival, Reading Rock Stars, Rio Grande Valley
March 25– Region 13, Librarian’s Conference, Austin
March 27 — Groveton Elementary, Groveton Texas
April 4 — Metz and Webb Elementary schools, Austin, Texas
April 8 — Bernice Hart Elementary School, Austin, Texas
April 13– Texas Book Festival, San Antonio
April 20 and 21– International Reading Association, book signing with Penguin, presentation to literacy groups
April 26 and 27– Texas Library Association, book signing with Penguin, reception with the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels
May 1 — Dallas school
May 2 — Polser Elementary, Dallas
May 3 — Luella Merrett Elementary
May 9 — Greentree Elementary, Houston
May 10 — Eiland Elementary, Houston
Photos in the post are teachers, students and parents of George C. Clarke Elementary, used with permission.
Last week I kicked-off the newest book that I illustrated, Hope’s Gift,which is written by Kelly Starling Lyons. The kickoff began last Thursday in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I spoke at North Carolina State University. Several middle school reading groups, college students and faculty, gathered to watch as I presented my books, art and career path. It was a high energy, enthusiastic group.
That evening, Kelly Starling Lyons and I launched Hope’s Gift at Richard B. Harris Library. We spoke about our career paths and what inspired the story behind the book. Kelly talked about themes in Hope’s Gift — Freedom, The Emancipation Proclamation, Freedom’s Eve, Heartbreak Day, and I followed up with drawing demonstrations. Civil War re-enactors engaged the kids with Civil War artifacts, while a history archivist spoke to kids about exploring their roots. Afterwards we dined at The Pit Authentic Barbecue.
Kelly and I with Civil War re-enactors.
Civil War artifacts included cotton bolls, mullet bullets, band-aids, harmonica, spectacles, match books, etc.
The event was well supported!
On Friday I presented at Wiley Elementary School. Unfortunately the weather in Raleigh wasn’t cooperating — ice, snow — so the day was cut in half when school was canceled. However the faculty at the school was creative! They beamed my one presentation into all the classrooms so all of the kids could enjoy. Here’s a writeup created by the Wiley PTA.
Last but not least, on Saturday Kelly and I presented at the North Carolina History Museum’s 12th Annual African American Cultural Celebration, and then we signed book afterwards. I had a blast in North Carolina, and I look forward to returning soon.
This past April, I made my authorial debut with It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw. It’s a picture book about outsider artist, Bill Traylor. When I think back over the year, many words come to mind. A few: Overwhelm, anger, relief, excitement, worry. Not to mention, happy, happy, happy! Here was my year:
Overwhelm As the illustrator of many books, publication birthdays weren’t new to me. They were usually quiet. They came with little fanfare. I rarely even bothered to celebrate publication days, too busy illustrating whatever book I was working on at the time. But as a debut author, I wanted publication day to be special.
The problem was that I didn’t have time to celebrate. I was completing a tour of 25 school visits in Irving, Texas, followed by three days of visits in Alexandria, Va. I was finalizing illustrations for my next book, Hope’s Gift. I was preparing to deliver keynote speeches at the Texas Library Association and International Reading Association conferences. Then there was the High Museum presentation. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed and stressed. In fact, I stressed until I made myself sick. Stress is not good on the body.
What did I learn? To prepare better. As the author of a book, it’s especially important to make time for promotion and celebration. With my next authored book, I’ll allow my schedule to slow down during the few weeks leading up to publication day. Book birthdays are supposed to be fun!
The path to publication for It Jes’ Happened was a long and winding road, filled with many breathtaking views and potholes along the way. The path, however, was not out of the ordinary for publishing. Some books simply take longer than others to publish. It Jes’ Happened required a few years of simmering.
I wrote the book in 2004. It won Lee & Low Books New Voices Honor in 2005. Lee & Low acquired the manuscript in 2007. It was supposed to publish in 2009. Then it was supposed to publish in 2010. Then in 2011. Possibly in 2012, I was told.
During that 8 year span, I began to avoid talking about the book because I was angry and embarrassed. My author friends knew how long book publishing could take. But other people — family, newspaper colleagues, church friends — I feared might think I was lying about having a book coming out.
What did I learn? To be patient. As an illustrator, I get a polished manuscript and a deadline. I know nothing about the author’s path to acquisition. I have no idea how many how many agents or editors passed on the manuscript before it found a publishing home. I don’t know how many times the book was revised, or how long the revision process lasted.
When I voiced my frustrations, about the long process with my editor, she finally said, “The book will publish when it publishes. There’s no hurry.”
No, that didn’t make me feel any better.
Looking back, however, my editor was right. Luck and timing in this business is crucial, I’ve come to believe. Had the book published in 2009, would it have found the same success? I don’t know. What I do know is that I recently lost my job. Soon I’ll be a full time author and illustrator. The success of It Jes’ Happened came along at just the right time. With all the attention from the book, school visit requests are pouring in.
When my editor sent an email congratulating Greg and I for having received our first review — a starred one from Kirkus — I quickly got over my anger issues. Soon after that, we received another review. It came from Booklist, another star! And then the wonderful review from Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse #8 Production. I was elated. I couldn’t stop smiling. The stars and positive reviews were the highpoint of my publishing career.
I had three book launch celebrations. One at Menchaca Elementary school where my son attended at the time. Two others at the High Museum in Atlanta and at BookPeople in Austin, respectively. In spite of the fact that I suffered immense back pain at both events, I had the time of my life. Soon after, we received our third starred review from School Library Journal. This led to more excitement — and more worry.
I really hate to admit this in public, but the past month or so has been filled with anxiety and worry. In the past few months, It Jes’ Happened has been recognized on several end-of-year Best-of lists. Good thing, yes. This has never happened to me.
Friends, colleagues, teachers, librarians, they get excited upon hearing the news, and they say things like, “You’re gonna get a big award.”
Really? I mean, one hopes. But I never, ever — EVER — considered being in that category. And now that I have, it kinda ruins everything, because . . . what if that doesn’t happen? Would folks feel let down? Would I let my publisher down? And how would I feel?
Typically this is one of my favorite times of the publishing year, when all the best-of lists come out. I’m kind of a children’s book author and illustrator fanboy. I love cheering on all of my favorite children’s books and creators. I love to predict who will get this or that award. But this year, I stopped cheering. I’d see books written or illustrated by my favorite creators and instead of responding enthusiastically with, “Yay, I love that book!” I’d feel sweat beading up on my forehead and and respond with, “Oh my freaking gosh, look at that damn good book!” I even cursed a few really wonderful books. This is crazy talk, I know.
Ug, I didn’t anticipate this. Not at all.
Another thing I didn’t anticipate is that I started to fear writing in public. I love to blog, but this year, I cut way back. As a published author, I feared putting stuff out there unedited, wrongly tensed, or written with bad grammar. Before the book published, I didn’t worry about that stuff too much. I figured, I’m an illustrator, I’m supposed to spell bad. But as an author, with a starred book, I’d somehow prove myself a fraud. “Look at his awful writing on the blog,” they’d say. “Did he really write that book?”
What I learned: I’m in this business because I love to write and illustrate for children. Not because of lists or awards or blog mentions. For whatever reason, those things cause anxiety for me anyway, more than anything else.
From here on out, I’m going to focus on the real prize: Writing and illustrating my next best book. Because that’s what truly makes me happy, happy, happy.
It’s been an incredible year. Thank you for all the support.
The mother of a young reader sends me this note: “Zack LOVES It Jes Happened. He’s fascinated that it’s about a real person. His introduction to slaves/slavery happened at age 3 with the story of baby Moses whose parents were “Hebrew slaves…” No need to connect the dots all the way for him yet, but he understood the story It Jes Happened with no explanation needed. And I MUST read the extra biographical piece at the end every time. And now Zack has big plans to draw the memories he has “saved up deep inside” in all of his 4 years. lol Amazing job, Don!”