2021 Texas Writer Award Recipient: Don Tate

The Texas Book Festival awards the Texas Writer Award each year to a Texas author who has made a significant contribution to the literary arts. Previous recipients include Tim O’Brien, Sarah Bird, Sandra Cisneros, Steven Weinberg, and Pat Mora.

This year, we are honored to name Don Tate as the recipient of the 2021 Texas Writer Award.  

Don’s story:

“Born with a pencil in his hand,” Don recalls that for as early as he can remember, he was always drawing and making things with his hands. He felt that he was always an artist.

What Don didn’t see himself as, or didn’t think it was possible to imagine himself as, however, was a writer. Don wasn’t a reader in his youth. He didn’t see himself represented in books and believed that the world of writers and words were for white people.

But he had an aunt, Eleanor E. Tate, who was a trailblazer. She was the first black journalist at the Des Moines Register and also wrote young adult fiction. When one of her books, Just an Overnight Guest, was adapted for TV, Don attended the premiere at the Des Moines Public Library. For Don, “it was the moment I realized I could be a book creator. It gave me permission to dream.”

Don moved to Austin in 1999 to work at the Austin American-Statesman as graphics reporter, a career he had started in Iowa at the Des Moines Register. Joining the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (SCWBI), he credits the encouragement he found within the children’s book writing community, and especially the mentoring he received from Cynthia Leitich Smith, as instrumental in launching his career as an illustrator and writer.

Don’s first book publication as an illustrator was Say Hey: A Song of Willie Mays, followed by many book illustrator credits including Summer Sun Risin’, Black All Around!, Ron’s Big Mission, She loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story, Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, Hope’s Gift, The Cart That Carried Martin, and The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch.

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw marked Don’s debut as an author and was illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. For his very first book, Don was recognized as the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor winner in 2012.

He wrote and illustrated his next book, Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree Publishers, 2015). Poet went on to receive multiple awards and Don made history as the first two-time recipient of an Ezra Jack Keats award.

In recent years, Don has been busy as ever, publishing and illustrating books that celebrate the important stories and contributions of blacks in American history. Don is a 2021 Texas Book Festival author with his latest book, Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes. Passionate about raising the awareness of Black voices writing for young readers, Don is the founding host of The Brown Bookshelf. Don also gives so much of his time to inspire young readers through school visits to elementary schools across Texas and beyond. He participates frequently in Texas Book Festival’s Reading Rock Stars program as a featured author and illustrator.

Overcoming his insecurities about being a writer and as an award-winning author and illustrator of more than 80 books, Don reflects:

“What I discovered is that writing is just like illustrating, but using different tools. With illustration, I’m using my stylus and graphics program. With writing, I’m using nouns, verbs, and adjectives.”


Recommended Reads by Asian-American Authors

In any given year, I read a fair number of books by Asian-American authors. The breadth of books by emerging and established Asian-American authors is exciting and encouraging, and I’m frankly thrilled that there are more great books by AAPI authors than I can possibly get to tackling in my TBR pile. This was not always so, and I’m envious of kids today who can read Linda Sue Park, Minh Lê, Grace Lin, Arree Chung, and Gene Luen Yang (to name just a few) along with Beverly Cleary (RIP), Roald Dahl, Sydney Taylor, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and all the children’s authors I loved to read as a kid. I wonder what it would have done to and for my identity, my sense of worth and belonging, had those narratives been widely available and celebrated in my youth. That representation is one of the many reasons our Reading Rock Stars and Real Reads programs are so, so important. I’m definitely making up for lost time now with the rich variety in AAPI adult lit today, and I hope to see even more of it in the years ahead.

I’m of course distressed and alarmed by the rise in attacks against Asian-Americans this past year, and it’s been a struggle to make sense of that hate in the context of my work at TBF. A person who has the capacity to randomly and viciously attack another human on the street is, I would venture to guess, not reading literature. So what does the call to action to amplify AAPI voices mean when the aggressors, or those that sympathize with their racist sentiments, are not listening or interested in learning? Who are we talking to when we talk about amplifying AAPI voices if those who most need to hear that message are not going to receive it? It’s yet another reason why it’s so important for children to be exposed to the perspectives and experiences of others through literature so they don’t grow up unable to see the humanity in people who look different from them.  I’ve concluded that we—the readers and writers, the ones who care about and champion the inherent diversity within the human story—have the important job of even more loudly proclaiming our support for the AAPI community, for the Black community, for the Latinx community, and for all diverse communities—to show that there are more of us than there are of them.

So read more AAPI authors with me, with TBF, and share the books you like and love with those around you, and let’s show up those bullies.

Charles Yu’s National Book Award-winning Interior Chinatown is structured as a screenplay exploring and exposing stereotypes in American film and culture through the experiences of Willis Wu, an aspiring actor who is trapped in a hall of mirrors of clichéd roles where there is no place for Asian humanity in a binary world of black and white.
Twitter: @charles_yu

We loved hosting Kevin Kwan at the 2020 Texas Book Festival for his latest bestselling novel, Sex and Vanity, where he retells and reimagines E.M. Forster’s Room with a View through multi-racial and fabulously wealthy characters on Capri.
Instagram: @kevinkwanbooks
Twitter: @kevinkwanbooks

If you missed reading Ocean Vuong’s poetic and celebrated debut novel in 2019, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is most definitely worth picking up, with a narrative constructed a Vietnamese son’s letter to his illiterate mother.
Instagram: @ocean_vuong

I knew A.H. Kim in my childhood when our parents were part of a close immigrant community in Buffalo, New York, and am so proud that she’s published her first book, A Good Family, that’s a page-turner about family members behaving badly, with vivid details on the lives and flaws of the aspirational class.
Instagram: @ahkim.writer
Twitter: @AhkimAuthor

Susan Choi, another TBF alum who was at our 2019 Festival for her National Book Award-winning Trust Exercise, is a book I’m still thinking about, with its complex narrative structure, unreliable narrators, and layered treatment of adolescence, power, and abuse.
Instagram: @susanmchoi

Shirkers filmmaker Sandi Tan’s newly released Lurkers details the lives of three families who live on Santa Claus Lane in an LA suburb that feels very LA in the you-don’t-know-your-neighbors kind of way. Its dark humor and subject matter are not for the sentimental, but perfect for readers who will appreciate Tan’s cinematic style, unflinching portrayal of race, family dynamics, sexual predation, and alienation.
Instagram: @_sanditan_
Twitter: @sanditan

Don’t be intimidated by the page count in Chang-Rae Lee’s latest masterpiece, My Year Abroad. Just jump in and ride the waves of this wildly creative and crazy narrative. Lee’s latest is a departure from his more somber earlier work. Here, you meet and fall in love with Tiller, a somewhat lost college student looking for purpose and direction, and the mesmerizing Pong, a Chinese entrepreneur chasing fulfillment via material excess and chemistry-laden concoctions. Tiller is haunted by the past as he tries to find absolution in the present and his place in the disorienting landscape of American materialism, tribalism, complacency, dishonesty, and aspiration. Lee writes with such precision that you can’t help but experience the novel as both the very entertaining/disturbing story of Tiller’s experiences and the telescoping out to an ever-widening lens on the American condition of hope, longing, and dislocation. Lee’s writing is exuberant–sentences that hum and sing, chock-full of clever allusions and philosophy. It’s a surfeit but go ahead and feast along, just like his characters do.

Five recommended books for Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month

March and April brought much more than lambs and showers this year, to say the least, but one thing I’m really enjoying about May under quarantine is that it’s Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month AND the first time in a long while that I’ve tried to garden. Gardening for me = putting some supermarket herbs into pots, plus getting extra credit for keeping alive the volunteer tomato plants that cropped up in our yard. Like everyone else, I’ve had good and bad days, but the more optimistic, hopeful ones always involve puttering around outside in my “garden” and reading. I’m excited to share some AAPI reads I pulled from my bookshelves and hope you’ll get lost in one of these reads this month.

Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee

This is a marvelous book, a classic really, and if you’ve never read it, you must. It contains one of the most compelling openings of a novel – where the protagonist Henry Park describes the note his estranged wife leaves him:

You are surreptitious
B+ student of life
First thing hummer of Wagner and Strauss
illegal alien
emotional alien
genre bug
Yellow peril: neo-American
great in bed
poppa’s boy
______ analyst (you fill in)

Henry Park, it turns out, is a spy of sorts. This is one of the OG immigrant narratives of dislocation, with a suspenseful plot, incredibly crafted and clever prose, and psychological depth in spades. I pulled this off my shelf for this blog and just started re-reading it and couldn’t stop because Lee’s writing just draws you in, it’s so good.

Buy Native Speaker here.

Palm of the Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata

Attention span short much these days? Yet still aspiring to reach a higher literary plane in your reading? This collection of stories by Nobel Prize-winning author Kawabata might be the ticket. These stories are gems you can imagine holding in the palm of your hand, offering painterly transporting vignettes, some stories just a single page and none more than four. Featuring named and unnamed characters and types (the law student, the boy, the wife, the maid), the stories carry a fairy-tale and parable quality while respecting the reader enough not to telegraph an obvious message or lesson.

Buy Palm of the Hand Stories here.

Kim JiYoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Originally published in South Korea in 2016, this novel became a huge bestseller in Korea and abroad and was just released in the U.S. last month. The story follows thirty-three-old mother and wife Jiyoung whose psychological break-down manifests in the impersonation of other women in her life. Spare in length and prose, the novel reminds me a bit of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian in its stark delineation of a severely patriarchal culture.

Buy Kim JiYoung, Born 1982 here.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I can’t rec a list of Asian and Asian-American reads without a shout-out to my sister, Min Jin Lee. If you somehow never read Pachinko, then quarantine is a great time to immerse yourself in her award-winning, deservedly celebrated, and deeply satisfying novel. If you’re a Westerner, you might at first feel like you are reading about another place and time (Korea and Japan in the first half of the last century), but will soon feel the ways that its exploration of race, family, and society resonate with the here and now.

Buy Pachinko here.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Unless you were in early quarantine through the entirety of 2019, you have likely heard of this multiple-award winning debut novel by Ocean Vuong. I thought I would include it since we have just celebrated Mother’s Day and the novel is composed as a son’s letter to his illiterate mother, transcribing his personal history and the history of Vietnam through stunningly vivid images and experiences.

Buy On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous here.

Looking for more book recommendations? TBF staffer Nicole Wielga recommends coming-of-age books for Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month here.