It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw

Author: Don Tate

Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie

Published: 2012

Publisher: Lee & Low Books

It Jes’ Happened is a biography of outsider artist Bill Traylor, a former slave who at the age of 83 began to draw pictures based on his memories and observations of rural and urban life.

Click here to download the It Jes’ Happened Teacher Activity Guide.



“Tate crafts prose that is clear and specific, the lively text sometimes surrounded by playful figures cavorting off the pages as Traylor draws them. An important picture-book biography that lovingly introduces this “outsider” artist to a new generation.  ***Starred Review***

School Library Journal
“. . . the story of this man’s life is an introduction to a noted American folk artist of the 20th century, and a refreshing reminder that artistic talent is not limited by age or formal training.” ***Starred Review***


Booklist (ALA) 
“Best known as an illustrator, Tate writes with an appealing rhythm and repetition, and with simple eloquence, he describes Traylor’s work: the “rectangles became bodies; circles became heads and eyes; lines became outstretched arms, hands, and legs.” ***Starred Review***

Publisher’s Weekly
“In understated prose, Tate imagines the wellspring of memories that might have contributed to Traylor’s outpouring of art so late in life . . . in this thoughtful reflection on the nature of creative inspiration and a man who “has come to be regarded as one of the most important self-taught American folk artists.”

The Horn Book
Christie’s own flat primitive style is a perfect match for Traylor’s story . . . But the real artistry here is in Don Tate’s finely crafted account of Traylor’s first eighty years; the ordinary events in the life of an ordinary African American man are made notable by Tate’s repetition of the line: “Bill saved up memories of these times deep inside.” When these memories later burst into art, they are made all the more meaningful.”


Named one of the Top 10 Biographies for Youth: 2012, Booklist Online

A recommended biography by The Horn Book 

Elizabeth Bird, “A Fuse #8 Production”
Give[s] kids a sense of how a person can have power while being effectively invisible to the greater world. Kids themselves are often invisible to others. Maybe Bill will help some of them see that art lets you be heard, albeit silently sometimes. A great book, a great subject, and a great use of two notable author/illustrator talents.

Nancy Bo Flood
“”This biography tells the story of an artist, but also of a time when this country needed healing and blacks and whites were learning a new way of working together.”

A Wrung Sponge
““Traylor gave us the gift of his best memories. Tate and Christie have passed it on in this charming biography . . . Perhaps it is Tate’s own career as an artist and illustrator that gives him a particularly keen understanding of Traylor’s life and work. This is his first book as an author, although it is clear there will be many more coming. The manuscript won him the Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award before it was even picked up by an editor for publication.”

The San Francisco Children’s Fiction Examiner
““Bill Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama in 1854. After the defeat of The story of Bill Traylor and his simple, yet moving artwork is the subject of “It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw” by Don Tate and R. Gregory Christie. In images reminiscent of those created by Bill and accompanied by a smooth and flowing text, the story of how Bill’s art came to be appreciated and celebrated comes to life. It is also the story of Bill’s life before he became an artist.”

The Birmingham Times
It Jes’ Happened offers an excellent story and illustration that any child would love, posing a wonderful history lesson about a brilliant self-taught artist.

Waking Brain Cells
“Tate does not shy away from truly embracing Traylor in this picture book. The book has more words than many picture books, but they are necessary to truly recreate both the memories of Bill Traylor and the amazing transformation to artist that happened so late in his life. The writing is solid and smooth, building a full life before your eyes.”

Cherub Book Reviews
Don Tate superbly weaves a fascinating history of an artist and his circumstances. R. Gregory Christie strikes a perfect balance between representing Traylor’s work and his own, with lush colors and transcendent shapes and figures. Lucky find at the library!

The Crimson Review of Children’s & YA Literature
“In this beautiful, pictographic biography of Bill Traylor, a former slave-turned-self-taught-artist at age 83, Don Tate introduces children to a lively soul who has seen some hard times during his slave labor in Alabama.”

Library Media Connection
“This title captures the highlights of Bill’s life in text easy enough for a beginning biography. The illustrations, rendered in acrylic and gouache, echo Bill’s untutored style and work well with the story. . . . The book is a great addition for art, Black History, or biography sections.”

“It Jes’ Happened is an important book on a few levels. It introduces young readers to Traylor’s work, to folk art, and to the idea that people from even the most marginal backgrounds have talent and stories to share.”

“Tate’s writing along with Christie’s illustrations does a fantastic job of bringing Traylor’s story to a new audience.”

2012 year end Best-Of lists

New York Public Library, Children’s Books: 100 Titles for Reading & Sharing, 2012
Kirkus, Best Children’s Books of 2012
Booklist Editor’s Choice, 2012

Booklist Top 10 Books for Youth, 2012, Arts

Booklist Top 10 Black History Books for Youth, 2013

Booklist Top 10 Books for Youth, 2012, Biography