It Jes’ Happened joins the RIF 2013-2014 STEAM Multicultural Booklist

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I am pleased to announce that It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw has been selected by Reading Is Fundamental’s 2013-2014 Multicultural Book Collection. This list is comprised of 40 children’s books for grades K-5. Each book in the collection was carefully reviewed and selected by RIF’s Literacy Services team with guidelines provided by RIF’s Literature Advisory Board and Multicultural Advisory Committee, national panels of educators and experts in books for children.

Each book will also have an accompanying set of activities developed in accordance with the new Common Core standards. Educators, parents and community volunteers alike are sure to enjoy sharing this collection and activities with children.

Thanks to the generous support of Macy’s, more than 600 book collections will be donated to RIF programs serving children in low-income communities throughout the U.S.

Click here to download a copy of the guide!


Winners announcement!

603526_495373203869993_2116115699_n-1Announcing the winners of my drawing for signed copies of The Cart That Carried Martin, written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by me. And the winners are:

Tammy Fishman

Gina Jones 

Ramona Browne

La Rosa Brown

Patti Garner 

The response to this giveaway was amazing. I received nearly 100 entries within the first two hours, and over 200 entries before the days end. And it didn’t stop there, as more people entered throughout the next two weeks.

Originally, I’d planned to give away two signed copies. But given the overwhelming response, I felt compelled to give away more. I’ll be in contact with the winners.

Thank you for your support.



Medal Worship: How I Stuck My Head In The Clouds and Got Crushed


Next week officially kicks off the season when youth literature creators will be presented with awards for the best books of 2013 — shiny medals embossed with the words Caldecott, Newbery, and so many others. No doubt our kidlit community will laud the winners. Their stellar works deserve to be celebrated.

But my thoughts will also be will be with those who are predicted to win, but ultimately will not. Ever think about those people? Here is my story:

Two years ago, my first authored book published to nice reviews. Soon after, my email box filled with notes from my editor, “GOOD NEWS!” in each subject line. I received “GOOD NEWS!” from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and The Horn Book. I received “GOOD NEWS!” from teachers and librarians who wrote complimentary reviews on their blogs. I received “GOOD NEWS!” from readers who posted nice comments on Goodreads and Amazon. Colleagues also sent congratulatory notes about my book’s success.

It was an amazing time, but I didn’t let the “GOOD NEWS!” go to my head and distract me too much. I was too busy doing what I do, illustrating my next book and writing another book. I had my head on straight . . . at that time.

As the year inched forward and then came to a close, the “GOOD NEWS!” did not slow down. My book made several Best-Of and Notable lists. It was included in mock discussions concerning those big January awards. Librarians at schools where I visited predicted that I would win. Friends, family, and colleagues said things like, “Don, it looks like you may get one of those shiny stickers.”

That should have been “GOOD NEWS!” right there, right? But no, it wasn’t. Because that’s when I allowed the “GOOD NEWS!” to distract my focus. Yes, folks, I turned from my work and drank the Kool-Aid — a poison that shot me in a downward spiral for the next month-and-a-half. Soon writing and illustrating became second in order behind tracking all the “GOOD NEWS!”

STARSI Googled the books of past winners. I counted the stars that each book had earned. I studied their reviews. I read their media coverage. I made calculations. According to my math, everyone was right: There would be a Caldecott, Siebert or Coretta in my near future! But which one? To answer that question, I continued my full-time job of mining the internet for more “GOOD NEWS!”

On the weekend leading up to the day of the awards, I was in Raleigh, North Carolina launching a new book. But my attention kept getting diverted to my other book as more accolades rained in.

“I’m proud of you,” people said, “looks like you may get one of those awards.”

My heart grew bigger and more confident with each prediction. It became not a matter of if, but when. When my book would receive that sparkly sticker.

When I returned home to Austin, there was an email from the marketing department of my publishing house with a reminder to alert them should receive The Call.

Oh my gosh, The Call. I hadn’t considered The Call. My concern quickly vanished to reemerged as a full blown panic attack. Who might call me? A person or an entire committee? And how should I respond? I’m not one to display a lot of emotion, so screaming like a Price Is Right contestant was out of the question. So, maybe I’d play it cool. I’d act totally unaware.

“Hello,” I’d answer the phone with a hint of annoyance at receiving a call so early. “Is this Mom? Why are you calling me so early, I’m still trying to sleep?”

I rehearsed various scenarios.eyes

That morning, my alarm went off at 5:15 a.m. I had been awake all night. My right eye twitched uncontrollably — a nervous condition that only happens when get overly anxious. When I rubbed my eye, I noticed my hand shaking. My heart pounded fast, and I felt like I was out of breath. I thought I would pass out even before climbing out of bed.

This is crazy, I thought. Why had winning this one award become so important to me? My 30-year, 50-book career hadn’t proved any success? Now I needed an embossed silver sticker to validate something for someone? I felt ashamed. I crawled out of bed and got my son ready for school.

By 6 a.m., I hadn’t received The Call. Not to worry, though, it was early. I drove my son to the bus stop and rushed home. Alone in my studio, I waited.

Thirty minutes later, still no call. I checked my email. A Google Alert: A former Caldecott Honor winner had declared the illustrator of my book as a best-of for that year. A Caldecott winner. That pretty much removed any doubt.

7 a.m., no call. No worries, though. There’s a time zone difference. And besides, maybe the illustrator of the book got The Call, which would’ve been totally cool by me. Still, I waited.

Thirty minutes later, no call. Maybe I’m an honor winner, I thought. Maybe honor winners receive The Call after everyone else.

By 8 a.m., I was worried. I checked my email. There were more messages from friends wishing me good luck. “I’m rooting for you today,” one said. “This is your day,” said another. I checked Facebook. There were more messages of good luck. I felt like I was on a giant national stage and the entire kidlit community was watching me, waiting for me to do something that I had no control over.

9 a.m. No call.

When the announcements were finally made that afternoon, my book was not announced.

I was devastated. Tears? Well, I’ll leave that to your imagination.

I hope this post doesn’t read as sour grapes. I don’t mean it that way. I’m simply painting a picture of what it can look like for those who don’t win, especially if they’ve been drinking the “GOOD NEWS!”

For me, this post was about analyzing what I’d learned from an awful experience, a reminder to myself to stay focused on my craft, to polish my words, to perfect my artwork. It’s not about the “GOOD NEWS!” And it’s definitely not about awards (which are always nice, but out of my control).

I love my career. I love my kidlit community. I love to write and illustrate. And I love the great works that my colleagues throughout this industry have created. So at the end of the day, that’s what really matters to me — wonderfully authored and illustrated children’s literature.

The sticker? Well, it did come later.

So, you may ask, will I tune in to watch the awards next week? Um . . . no. I will not watch the webcast. I am knee-deep in illustrating another book. But, yes, I will listen to the awards as I sketch, of course. I wouldn’t miss them for anything. I’ve had a year to get my head back on straight and realign my priorities.

Next week, I look forward to cheering my friends and colleagues on to victory. And I have my own predictions: Go Locomotive! Go Mr. Tiger! Go Parrots Over Puerto Rico! And cheers to everyone who wins an award next week, and especially to those who do not.


Check back soon for tips on keeping your head on straight, out of the clouds, and focused on what really matters.

New Media Photos

Oftentimes for school visits and other literary events, organizers ask for a mug shot and  bio. Typically, because I’m just not that organized, I go rummaging through my iPhoto photo albums, or I take a quick selfie. But over holidays, I had professional author photos taken by the every so talented Sam Bond Photography. Sam’s work is simply stunning. I’m also in the process of using these photos to create a downloadable media packet that would include short and longer bios. Check back soon! In the meantime, feel free to use any of these photos for events. And, I have more, this is only a sampling. Thanks for your support.


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Summing up the past few years: Flying High! And sometimes low.

don2013So it’s true, when one door closes, another opens. Cliche? Um, I think not.

Today marks one year to the day when I handed over my security badge to the Austin American-Statesman, the newspaper where I worked for 13 years. It was the job that rescued me from “The Hawk” of  cold Iowa winters (Des Moines), and bought me to sunny warm Austin, Texas.

My last day at the Statesman produced a myriad of emotions. I was sad about leaving the familiar newsroom. I was afraid about losing a steady paycheck. I didn’t want to let my family down. But admittedly, I was also excited about the opportunity to live my dream of being a full-time children’s book illustrator and author, right here in Austin, a hotbed for children’s literature creators.

Losing my job was sad, but it came as no surprise. For years I saw the end coming. I began working in the newspaper industry in the mid 90’s as a news artist for the Des Moines Register before taking the job in Austin. During that span of time, I watched nervously as the newspaper industry shrank like a wool sweater, and then unraveled completely just the same. As newspapers began to offer free content online, circulation dropped. Advertising revenue crashed. Colleagues at other papers lost their jobs. The light at the end of my tunnel looked dim.

Anticipating layoffs, I went part-time. This allowed more time to focus on developing my dream. With less time in the newsroom, I could hone my speaking skills. I could develop a school visit program. I had more time to write. My first authored book, It Jes’ Happened, published early in 2012. By the end of that year, the book earned three starred reviews from major journals. It made several end-of-year Best-Of lists, and the buzz of awards hummed loudly in several kid-lit librarian blogs. My author career took off at the same time my newspaper career ended.

Earlier this year, I finished illustrating THE CART THAT CARRIED MARTIN (Charlesbridge), written by Eve Bunting. The book published to critical acclaim, not to mention received two starred reviews (Booklist, The Bulletin). I also finished illustrating THE AMAZING AGE OF JOHN ROY LYNCH (Eerdmans), written by my friend, Chris Barton. I wrote two picture books. I sold two picture books. And It Jes’ Happened did go on to win an award.

With success as an author, school visit requests multiplied. I spoke and presented at what seemed like a zillion elementary schools, writing/librarian conferences, colleges and universities (Vermont College of Fine Arts was a highlight). Finally I became comfortable as a public speaker. Says a lot for the once cripplingly shy boy who gypped high school speech classes.

2013 hasn’t been all rosy, though. One of our cars broke down, and we haven’t been able to afford another. Sometimes I’ve paid the mortgage late. I’ve had a few sleepless nights worrying about money. Thankfully I have a supportive wife who hasn’t complained about the hole in the kitchen ceiling (drippy water pump, or something), or not having a new dress or shoes when she wants to, or about having to ride the bus to work sometimes (okay, frequently). We’ve been contented with what we have, and we’re making do.

I try not to make it a habit of getting all church-boy on my blog, but if you asked me what I attributed to success over the years, I’d have to say it’s God. I’m a believer. I talk to him a lot, and, apparently, he listens.

Happy New Year to you. May your dreams come true in 2014.

Students of Northwest ISD create high tech reviews of my books

I recently had the pleasure of visiting with students in the Fort Worth, Texas area. I was impressed with the amount of work the students produced in preparation for my visit. They created drawings, wrote essays, designed collage artwork. These kids rocked, I was so proud of them. And not to forget the students at Haslet Elementary, they used high computer apps to create animated reviews of my books and graphic novel-like artwork. Check them out below! Thank you students of Northwest ISD!




























Fun day of text revision

I was supposed to spend the day painting. I’m on deadline with illustrations for my next book. However, I’m on deadline for my next written book, too. To meet the later deadline, I decided to wake up earlier each day and do text revisions for an hour. But that wasn’t getting me very far, and working in small chunks of time slowed my enthusiasm overall. So today, I just decided to plow through that revision. Here’s what I learned:

• I can’t just plow through a picture book revision in one day. As a matter of fact, I think it’s going to take several days. Writing nonfiction is not a simple task. Much less revision. With each text change and editorial request, I must double-check my sources. I can’t afford to get something wrong trying to write pretty words.

• Classical music rocks. Last month, I took a class at The Writing Barn on voice and character with Kathi Appelt, Susan Fletcher, and Uma Krishnaswami. Susan suggested writing to music, the thought of which made me dizzy and distracted. Even with classical music. But I gave it a try today. Classical music is soothing, and somehow blocks out other distractions — like my neighbor’s woof-woof-woof barking dog.

• I love writing in the kitchen. Getting out of my painting studio, into another environment is very liberating. Actually I learned this little lesson this summer while writing my next book — that sold last month!

Tomorrow is day two of full-out revision. I’m anxious to discover what else I’ll learn.



Arts Curriculum launch in New York City!


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It Jes’ Happened editor, Louise May; R. Gregory Christie; Kelly McConnell; Don Tate; Kirsten Cappy

This weekend, I debuted my new arts curriculum for It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw in New York city. We held the event at the American Folk Art Museum on the last day of the Bill Traylor exhibit.

Kirsten Cappy and Kelly McConnell demonstrate pictograph activity

Kirsten Cappy and Kelly McConnell demonstrate pictograph activity

The amazing curriculum was a collaboration between Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, and artist and art educator, Kelly McConnell. First off, children toured the Traylor exhibit, observing how the artist used art to tell the story of his life. Then, following a brief reading and talk given by illustrator R. Gregory Christie and myself, children created pictograph journals telling stories of their own lives. The kids were deeply engaged in the activities, and I was so thankful to parents for bringing them out on a busy Saturday. Click here for a free download of the Arts Curriculum.

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On Friday morning, the day before, I spoke at the Brooklyn Public Library. I spoke to a group of about 150 2nd- and 3rd-graders. Thank you to Ms. Paquita Campoverde for organizing the wonderful event. I was invited back to speak at Brooklyn schools, and I can’t wait to return.


My 12-year-old son accompanied me to New York. Between events, we took in the sights of the city. We walked more than 20 blocks from our hotel to see The Empire State Building (we were too chicken to take a ride to the top). We rode a ferry to Staten Island, which offered a nice view of the Statue of Liberty. We visited Times Square and Central Park, and navigated the subway system like pros . . . well, not so pro-like. We got lost. But we had so much fun finding our way.

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It Jes’ Happened has been published for well over a year now. In some ways, this event felt like the end of a journey. However, an end it is not. Lee & Low books do not go out of print, and this Art Curriculum will go along way in keeping the book alive in classrooms and museums.

A special thank you to Kirsten Cappy of Curious City who designed my new website for It Jes’ Happened, and who put this event together flawlessly. Also thank you to the staff of the American Folk Art Museum!


Meeting the CCSS state standards

guideI love visiting schools and sharing my experiences as an author and illustrator with students. Teachers and librarians praise my program as “entertaining and educational,” “fun and engaging,” “professional, yet kid-friendly.” On a recent visit, a librarian said: “You’re the best speaker we’ve ever had!” I pride myself on giving the best experience possible, so her comments gratified me.

Lately, however, there’s been a lot of chatter about the CCSS (Common Core State Standards) for reading, writing, and speaking & listening. This standard applies not only for the content of books, but for the authors and illustrators who present at schools. I ignored the chatter as long as I could afraid that I’d have to include a bunch of testing jargon that would satisfy administrators but fly over the heads of kids. Boring.

Recently a librarian in Florida warn that my upcoming presentations at her school needed to meet the CCSS standards. Yikes! And uh-oh!

No worries, though, I have friends in all the right places. Author and educator Debbie Gonzales approached me about aligning my school visit presentation to meet the CCSS standards. But for almost a year, I procrastinated. Finally I provided Debbie with a point-by-point overview of my presentations. She analyzed my outline, asked questions, tossed out some ideas, and she created a wonderful, detailed guide. It was chock-full of CCSS annotations and followup activities that I can now share with teachers and librarians. And the best part, I don’t have to change a thing about my school visit program! But get this, do plan to change my program just a bit. Why not? Debbie provided me with some good stuff. I now I have the tools to up my game. MOMlogo

Thanks, Debbie!


For more information about Debbie’s school visit CCSS coaching, see her website.