“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. 

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 12.23.41 PM

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…


WHOOSH sketchcolor2

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.



Pre-#NY16SCBWI Interview: Sophie Blackall


Dear Illustrators,TeamBlog_Widget_LA2015_team[1]

Haven’t decided whether to attend the 17th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC or not? Well, here’s a reason to sign up today: beloved illustrator Sophie Blackall will be on faculty leading a pre-conference illustration intensive. Now don’t procrastinate any longer, go sign up!

Blackall is a Brooklyn-based Australian artist who has illustrated over thirty books for children, including Ruby’s Wish, Big Red Lollipop, The Baby Tree, A Fine Dessert, Finding Winnie and the New York Times bestselling series, Ivy and Bean. She has won the Ezra Jack Keats Award, the Founder’s Award from the Society of Illustrators, a Horn Book Honor, a Golden Kite Honor and two books have been New York Times Top Ten Picture Books.Finding[1]

I’m pleased to host an interview today with Sophie Blackall:

Don: Sophie, it’s such an honor to interview you here. I’ve been a fan for quite a long time.

Sophie: Thank you, Don, right back at you!

Don: In an earlier blog post, I once joked about the need for an entire section of a bookstore to be dedicated to you and your many books. How many books are you juggling at once now? Can you talk a bit about your process of managing several books at once?

A-Fine-Dessert[1]Sophie: Kids always ask how long it took to do the drawings for a book, and often I find myself saying, “A year”, which feels about right. Then I do the math and realize I have done at least two (and up to four) picture books and a chapter book and a bunch of other projects every year for the past 13 years. And THEN I realize that I haven’t had a proper weekend in about 13 years. And then I feel like taking a nap. AND THEN I talk to Dan Santat who once did 13 books in a year. And then I get back to work. All of which is to say I am trying very hard to do fewer books. It’s hard when you are supporting a family and you have college fees on the horizon and you’ve chosen a job which is – as often as not – a labor of love. But if it wasn’t true love, I’d have switched careers long ago.

Don: You’ve illustrated just about every type and genre of book for youth readers. What types of manuscripts attract your attention?

image2[1]Sophie: I work so far ahead that if I take on a manuscript, I probably won’t start work on it for three years. Recently I’ve been saying no to almost everything (which is terrifying), so that I can close this gap and feel a bit more spontaneous. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s a bit like ordering something off a menu and not being able to eat it for three years. Am I sure I’m still going to feel like steak frites with truffle mayo when the time comes? (probably, but you never know, I may have a vegetarian phase.)
I have been incredibly fortunate to work with some fantastic writers, including Meg Rosoff, Annie Barrows, Judith Viorst, Aldous Huxley, Matthew Olshan. They are all funny and have distinctive voices and they get kids. This last is extremely important.

I also have a secret list of authors I would love to work with. It would be hard to say no to any of them, should I be lucky enough to be offered a manuscript.

Don: Your subway poster is a wonderful work of art, yet it has nothing to do with children’s books. What are some other way’s you’ve used your art in your career?

MTA.subway1[1]Sophie: I like to draw for grown ups, which is not really very different from drawing for children except for the subject matter. I have also had the honor and privilege of illustrating projects for UNICEF, the Gates Foundation and Save the Children, which have taken me to Congo and India, Rwanda and Bhutan. My favorite things in the world are children, drawing and travel, and these projects combine all three.

Don: BABY TREE (Nancy Paulsen Books) is a story that you wrote and illustrated. Can you talk about your transformation from illustrator to writer? Fears, goals, self discovery.

Sophie: I credit my editor, Nancy Paulsen with reminding me to write. She asked why I hadn’t written more of my own books, and I said I had a bunch of half-finished stories on my desktop. She gave me an end-of-Summer deadline, promised me lunch, and over sushi in September I delivered THE BABY TREE. I am writing more of my own picture books now. It’s fun to happen upon a story and then throw oneself legitimately into research, and then in the process uncover another story, and another… I think this might be familiar to you! These books usually begin with something I want to draw. And then I read everything I can find on the topic. And because writing is still relatively new, it seems a) easier and b) more fun, than drawing which is HARD. A kid asked me recently if I found drawing relaxing. Ha! Drawing is a stressful, terrifying, frustrating, dreadful past time. Did I say earlier it was one of my favorite things? Yes, well, it’s that too. But painting is the reward for drawing. Painting is pure joy.

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 Sophie Blackall at #16NYSCBWI?

theBabytree[1]Sophie: I’m thrilled to be presenting at the Winter conference, if indeed we have any Winter this year.
The theme is building and sustaining an illustration career. I’ve been doing this for a while, but it hasn’t all been roses. Or picture books. I illustrated a magazine column on stain removal. I painted signs for a supermarket. I did before-and-after liposuction diagrams. Yup.

But throughout these trying times, I thought to myself: I am learning something about illustration with each horrible assignment. It still counts as drawing. I am scraping together my rent with MY ART. And I’m not working in a tollbooth. (Which happens to be my worst case job. Needless to say I’m grateful to the many toll booth workers in the world.)

So, we will be talking about how to make a living doing what you love.

Don: Thank you, Sophie!

Be sure to check out Sophie Blackall’s session, How to Avoid Working In a *_______ (*your worst case occupation here), Making a Living Doing What You Love, on Friday at 9:50 am.

Click here for more information about the17th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC and to register for the full day Illustrator’s Intensive.

Pre-#NY16SCBWI Interview: David Saylor

TeamBlog_Widget_LA2015_team[1]Here it is, the week of Christmas, when I should be decking halls and wrapping gifts. But I love my job, so the fa-la-la-la-la will just have to wait. Instead, I’m conducting a pre-#NY16SCBWI interview with a super cool conference faculty member. Luckily, David Saylor was totally game, this last second (quite literally) before his holiday break. I guess he loves his work as much as I do.saylor_sm[1]

Saylor is vice-president and creative director for the Scholastic Trade Publishing Group and the founder of Scholastic’s ground-breaking graphic novel imprint, Graphix. In addition, he was the art director for the American editions of Harry Potter. Saylor’s most recent books (art direction and design) include THE PRINCESS AND THE PONY by Kate Beaton; 8: AN ANIMAL ALPHABET by Elisha Cooper; WHERE’S WALRUS? AND PENGUIN? by Stephen Savage; and THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by C. Clement Moore and David Ercolini. Other books that appear in this interview are also books that he’s art directed.

Princess and the Pony FINAL TEXT.pdfDon: David, it’s such an honor to interview you here.

David: :-) Thank you—I’m very happy to help!

Don: When considering a new illustrator, someone you haven’t worked with before, what qualities do you look for in their art?

David: I’m always looking for artwork that has a great narrative sense, meaning that the artwork extends and amplifies the story. All picture book artwork needs to capture a moment that’s very specific to the story, but it also needs to include all sorts of details and emotion to build a believable world beyond the basic plot.

Don: The artist?thF90JTZTX

David: If I haven’t worked with an artist before, I like to make sure we’re in agreement on the stages of how we’ll make the book, whether it’s starting with character sketches, rough thumbnails, full dummy, or color samples. And I love to work with an artist who has an interesting vision for a book and then the consistency and skills to create a memorable book.

8 an animal alphabet[1]Don: When developing a portfolio, what are three important things for an illustrator to consider?


  1. Show work in your portfolio that’s appropriate to children’s books.
  2. Show work that is consistently great.
  3. Show work that evokes an emotional response: artwork that makes the viewer feel something.

Don: Social networking. I’ve heard some industry professionals say that using Instagram or other networks are now paramount to an illustrator getting discovered. What are your thoughts on the subject?

David: It’s essential these days to showcase your work on a website, blog, or tumblr page. Online is where most art directors and editors will go (these days) to see the variety of work an artist creates. I myself am not on social media like Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, so I prefer it when artists have sites that are easily accessible and don’t require signing up for anything or creating an online account. My sense is that social media is more useful for publicity purposes and keeping in touch with fans, though it can also be used for industry networking.Walrus-and-Penguin[1]

Don: As an illustrator of color myself, and a member of the We Need Diverse Books team, I’ve taken notice of Scholastic’s list, it’s nicely diverse. Can you offer some tips to illustrators who are looking to illustrate diversely, across their race/culture/experience.

David: It’s up to publishers to reflect the world around us in the books we create. We need to be more aggressive to find and hire illustrators who represent all cultures and communities. It’s heartbreaking when children can’t see themselves reflected in contemporary books. And all illustrators need to think about being inclusive and culturally accurate. If you’re going to illustrate humans in your work, then it’s crucial to paint and represent kids of all cultures and backgrounds, not just your own familiar world.

glamourpuss[1]Don: When I first got into the business, artists dropped portfolios off at publishing houses or advertised in source books. Later, they moved to online portfolio services. What is the best way to get an art directors attention today?

David: See above: social networking and having an online presence of some sort. And then by being active in an organization like SCBWI where you can meet professionals and show them your work. I think it has always been hard to get noticed, and sometimes getting somewhere means finding an agent to represent your work to publishers. Even though publishers generally don’t review portfolios anymore, we do go where artists are: schools and conferences. And many artists come to our attention through agents.

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 David Saylor at 16NYSCBWI? (just a short tease, something to get people excited about signing up for your intensive.

David: I promise to be brutally honest :-)

Freedom Tour Austin Launch

Last month, I launched my book, POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON, in the North Carolina area, under the banner of the Freedom Tour: A Children’s Literature Book Tour. Last weekend, I bought the tour home to Austin, with a celebration at the George Washington Carver Museum. I was honored to be joined by fellow collaborators Kelly Starling Lyons and Chris Barton. Kelly is the author of the book I illustrated, Hope’s Gift. Chris is the author of, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, in which I illustrated. The event was a rousing success, with so many friends and the local community turning out to celebrate our books with us. Here is a glimpse of the special day.

Kelly Starling Lyons, Chris Barton, Don Tate
Cakelustrator Akiko White created this beautiful specialty cake!
Cakelustrator Akiko White created this beautiful specialty cake!
Buffalo Soldiers, Heritage Outreach Program
image1 (1)
Shelley Ann Jackson, Lalena Fisher, Jeff Crosby, and families, all came out to help make the day successful. Thankful to these friends.


The Typewriter Rodeo Poetry Group was a big hit! They wrote poetry on the spot for guests, using vintage typewriters.

_DSC7779 _DSC7766 12108189_936464149725544_8994538253349852609_n _DSC7813 12109043_936464699725489_1874238918846911039_n


12141532_10208267894683024_4639817087581428712_nOn the day before the Carver event, Kelly and I spoke at Menchaca Elementary, which was the perfect way to kick off the Freedom Tour weekend.

image5 image4 image6


Holding my book about George Moses Horton alongside of the highway marker that honors him.
Holding my book about George Moses Horton alongside of the highway marker that honors him.

While visiting schools last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I asked students why authors have book launches. Their answers varied. “Because they like parties,” they answered, and “Well, why not?” My answer: because creating a book is not easy, and when it finally publishes, authors need to celebrate that milestone. Last week in the North Carolina “triangle” area, I did just that—I celebrated the publication of POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON!

Richard B. Harrison Library, Raleigh, N.C.

On Monday we held our first celebration at the Richardson B. Harris Library in Raleigh. It was an enthusiastic crowd that set the tone for the week. The highlight of the evening was having a descendant of Poet Horton in attendance.

On Tuesday, I presented to an excited student body at Northside Elementary in Chapel Hill. That evening, I had dinner with the publisher of a future book (written by Eloise Greenfield) and was also joined by Dr. Pauletta Bracy, a national children’s literature dynamo! Dr. Gulla, who runs Alazar Press, presented me with two books written and signed by Ashley Bryan, who also publishes with them. It was a wonderful evening.

Northside Elementary School in Chapel Hill, N.C. created a beautiful display to honor Poet Horton and my book. Thank you!
Northside Elementary School in Chapel Hill, N.C. created a beautiful display to honor Poet Horton and my book. Thank you!

Wednesday, I spoke at two schools, Perry Harrison Elementary and Horton Middle School, named after Poet Horton. In the evening, McIntyre’s Books hosted a second launch celebration, which was a standing room only event! McIntyre’s is a charming bookstore in the center of the scenic and celebrated Fearrington Village. My literary agent was present, as well as many family members of Poet Horton. And we sold out of the books—a good problem to have!

Signage in front of McIntyre’s Books advertised the evening event
McIntyre’s Bookstore

McIntyre’s Book Store. Before the evening was over, it was a standing room only!

During a Q&A, someone asked me to read from the book.

It was such an honor to stand alongside of many of Poet Horton’s descendants!

On Thursday I was interviewed on the local radio station, WUNC. Bob Anthony, a curator at the North Carolina Collection’s Wilson’s Library, joined me. It was a great interview; I spoke about the process and inspiration behind creating the book, while Bob filled in all the details about Horton and history in North Carolina, as related to the poet and Chapel Hill.


Thursday evening was like a dream come true. When I first conceived to write Horton’s story, I wanted to be able to return to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to launch the book. That happened on Thursday night! And the people in the community turned out too. A highlight was handing a copy of the book to the UNC-Chapel Hill researchers who helped me to write the story, as well as a curator at the Hope Plantation, who offered hours of help. Again, books sold out. 

This Horton descendant came to three of my launch events! Thank you, Marian Horton and the entire Horton family


Friday’s school visit was at Alderman Elementary on Greenboro, N.C., where I spoke alongside author Kelly Starling Lyons.  After that, I was free for the day, and my wife joined me for afternoon fun! We hung out at that wonderful Fearrington Village hotel. We ride bikes, ate fancy food, and hobnobbed with fancy people. 

Author Kelly Starling Lyons and I present at Alderman Elementary in Greensboro, N.C.
Author Kelly Starling Lyons and I present at Alderman Elementary in Greensboro, N.C.; center is the wonderful librarian there who hosted this event.

Saturday’s event at the Chapel Hill Public library was the biggest event of the week by far, and again, we sold out of books. I spoke for an half hour then the youth poetry group, The Sacrificial Poets (who are just amazing) performed their poetry. They spoke about freedom and inspiring children and they were just great. We also launched the poetry guide created by the Sacrificial Poets.

Signing books at the Chapel Hill Public Library
The Sacrificial Poets (SacPoe) performed their moving poetry
Big support from the SCBWI-Carolinas!

Chapel Hill Public Library

#TatePoetLaunch was an unforgettable week, which happened as a result of my winning the SCBWI Launch Grant!

Eric Rohmann: The Pre-#LA15SCBWI Conference Interview

220px-Eric_rohmann_2012For my next and final #LA15SCBWI pre-conference interview, I had the pleasure of interviewing Caldecott-winning author and illustrator, Eric Rohmann. I first met Eric and his marvelously talented wife, author Candace Fleming, at a Texas Library Association conference. Since then, I’ve come to know Eric and Candace as two of the nicest and most generous people in our business—two of the biggest names in children’s publishing, yet they greet everyone graciously and with humility. Later on, I heard Eric speak about page design and page turns at a Highlights Foundation workshop, and I walked away a better bookmaker having heard him speak.

For today’s interview, I changed things up a bit. Rather than my asking the questions, I put questions out to Eric’s fans on social networks. Here’s what Eric said about social networking, and what his fans  wanted to know about him:

Eric: No matter how many times I log into my MySpace page (after the dial-up modem has finally connected) I read about this “Facebook”.
Harold Underdown: Do people still make “Half-a-bee” jokes or have you been able to move on?

Eric: (Smiles) If this is what I think it is, I’d forgotten… But now that you bring it up my facial tick has returned.

Henry L. Herz: Any tricks for creating really voicey characters?

Eric: I always read aloud.  Then, I get someone else to read it aloud.  Also, write characters you know.  I could not write Huck Finn’s words, or the words of a geisha in 19th Century Japan, but I can write a suburban kid in the midwest (or a Rabbit or a boy with a pumpkin for a head…)

cvr_oh-no_200Larry Dane Brimmer: What is life like with Candy Fleming?

Eric: Glorious…  It’s been wonderful  to  make pictures for some of her stories.  She appears to have a future in the business.  Selfishly,  it’s great to have a clever, creative brain consider my work.  She is always my first eyes and ears.  You know her, Larry, and I think you know she knows her books.

Nick Bruel:  Without exaggeration, Eric Rohmann is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met.  He’s incredibly politically astute and can probably speak with authority on nearly anything. Ask him about his process- what materials he uses, etc.

Eric: (Blushing crimson…I’m  particularly  conversant about 14th century gender-fluid poetry,  the role of giant pandas in the discovery of the atom, and  Icelandic-Cuban cuisine (Ice Cube?). Readers, of course, see the finished book— that’s the point– and so they don’t often think about the process.  The writer/artist thinks mostly about making the book. When I ask other illustrators to buy or trade their work they will typically part with finished pictures but not the preparatory art that lead to the book.  The important part of the artistic life is making something.

Matthew Winner: What’s Eric’s artistic weapon of choice at the moment? cvr_bone-dog_300_ds

Eric: I use any good 2B drawing pencil and sepia drawing ink. I use Gamblin oil-based relief printmaking ink (intense pigment load!).  My oil paint and watercolors are made by Windsor and Newton.  The watercolor brushes I use are sable (costly, but last forever).  I write in my journal/sketchbook with a TWSBI fountain pen filled with diluted blue-black Noodler’s ink. My wood cut tools of choice are made in Japan by the same workshop that makes  samurai swords.  WMD, indeed.

Matthew Cordell: Ask him about his pet tarantula. I mean, what’s up with that?

Eric: Gosh Matt, last time we were at your house we kinda lost Betty somewhere in your living room.  Good news, the venom only paralyzes.  Death is really, really rare.

John L. Bell: He’s notable for having worked in such different styles for different books. He’s no doubt spoken about that, but it’s still fascinating.

Eric: The choice of technique must always arise from the story.  When I write or read a story I want to illustrate I try lots of things until I find some way that best and most clearly tells that story.  Story is all and everything.

Rohmann--RabbitCathy Bonnell: After so many beautifully successful books, is there one by another children’s book author/illustrator you wish you had done?

Eric: The list is long.  I look in wonder at any book  that I could not have made but wish I had.  The Carrot Seed is perfect; so are Milo’s Hat Trick, Officer Buckle and Gloria, Clever Jack takes the Cake, and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.  Mo Willems and Kevin Henkes appear to have some connection with the childlike mind that I only dream about. I know why the books work. I can take them apart and intellectually explain their wonders.  But I cannot make those books and so they appear to be wrought by magic.

Kelly Milner Halls: Will he ever do another dinosaur book?

Eric: Odd… I have recently been reading books about dinosaurs again.  It’s that thing old guys do—go back to what you loved as a kid… (#Rosebud).  I won’t make another dino book unless I can find an idea as good or better than Time Flies.  Candy and I have a non-fiction book about giant squid next year.  Not dinosaurs, but mysterious monsters, big and scary.

Kathy Doherty: Does he and Candace have more books in the making?

Eric: The aforementioned Giant Squid (Roaring Brook, 2016), Bulldozer Helps Out        (Simon and Schuster, 2017), and a few other projects I need to talk her into letting me work on. Yes, they are that good.

Gregg T Golson: Can he write a sequel to My Friend Rabbit?maxresdefault

Eric: Every time I read Rabbit to school groups I am confused by just how I made that book. It’s a freaking mystery to the guy who made it!  In truth, I’m just as curious about what happened those characters.  In my notebooks I have sketches and storyboards of possible stories, but so far they all are lame shadows of the first book.  Alas…

Marjie Podzielinski: Favorite media to work in?

Eric: The one I’m not working with at the time. You always try to challenge yourself because hardship makes a better book— but it also makes trouble.  When I am making prints I long for the simple, direct process of oil painting and when I’m making watercolors I wonder how much better life would be making prints.  The anxiety is killing me. I hope it lasts forever.

Don Tate: Can you give us an idea about what you’ll talk about at #LA15SCBWI?

Eric: I’m going to talk about the language of pictures— how a good picture book uses words and pictures in concert, one feeding and enhancing the other.  Pictures in a book are not just decorations but full partners in the storytelling.  I’ll also yell at people and complain about stuff, lamenting youth culture and the flavorlessness of supermarket tomatoes.