Elizabeth Crook on her new novel “THE WHICH WAY TREE”

Elizabeth Crook’s latest novel The Which Way Tree is an epic southern tale. It chronicles the dangerous endeavors of Samantha Shreve, a 12-year-old girl growing up in Austin, Texas, just after the Civil War. After witnessing a panther kill her mother, she sets out with a hodge-podge team of characters to slay the evil beast—which, around these parts, is known as El Demonio de Dos Dedos. Told from the point of view of her older brother Ben, the story feels both authentic and intimate.

Crook is the award-winning author of five books, including Monday, Monday, a fictional account of the 1960 mass shooting at The University of Texas at Austin, which won the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. Our intern Marisa asked her a few questions about her new book, which is available at your local bookstore or library now!

 

What was the research process like for this book?

A lot of fun. It involved the usual plunge into history books, articles, old authentic journals and letters from the period—a lot of reading and note taking about everything from the politics of the time to the specifics of daily life. And then of course it involved deciding what was relevant to the story and what wasn’t—and leaving a lot of it out. It was more fun than it sounds! Essentially, as a writer, you have to know the history intimately enough to step into that time every day and get around without being recognized as an imposter.

 

In your mind, how does this book veer from or continue themes you’ve explored in your previous books?

That’s hard to say: my books differ vastly in subject matter. The most common theme is humanity running up against inhumanity during various kinds of chaos.  For the most part my characters, in all five books, tend to be good people trying to make their way through actual historical, and often violent, events. They often make grave mistakes in the ways they try to navigate. The books portray some amount of loss and sadness but aren’t depressing, I hope. There’s a big difference between a book that makes you sad at moments and a book that leaves you depressed. I wouldn’t want to write the latter. The Which Way Tree deals with heavy subject matter, as my other books do also, but what readers often comment on is the humor in Benjamin’s storytelling.

 

Why did you decide to write this book now?

When my son was fourteen he got lost in the canyons in Bandera County one night, and was finally located by search helicopters after a nine hour hunt, during which a mountain lion was spotted trailing through the canyon into which he had disappered. It was the scariest night of my life and left me obsessed with mountain lions and their attacks on humans. I read everything I could find on the subject. I guess I wrote this story partly because I had run out of real life accounts to obsess over.   

 

What challenges did you face writing this book and how did you try to overcome them?

Actually The Which Way Tree presented fewer challenges than my other books and was more fun to write. Every chapter rolled naturally into the next. I suppose the greatest challege was how to frame it. A boy Benjamin’s age wouldn’t simply sit down and write this tale, so I needed to give him a plausible reason for doing so. It took some figuring and brainstorming, but in the end I decided to write the story as testimony to a war crime, under mandate of a judge, in order to justify its existence.  

 

The book tells the story of an epic tale, akin to that of “The Whale” (Moby-Dick) which you mention several times throughout. Yet, the book itself isn’t too lengthy. How did you manage that?

Benjamin is recounting events that deal with a small cast of characters during a brief amount of time. He doesn’t elaborate, he just tells what happened. So the story covers a lot of ground quickly. For instance, here’s the brief paragraph at the end of a chapter, when Benjamin and three other characters set out to fetch a panther tracking dog:

“We fed the goats, turned the chickens loose in the yard to scratch, tossed cobs out for the pigs should they come up from the creek, mounted up and started off. It was about noon at that time.” Having Benjamin tell the story kept me from wasting any words in describing how things are done. They’re just done.  

 

When writing books that take place in a different time period, do you ever feel a pressure to make them relevant to today? If so, why and how do you achieve that?

No, I never strive for that. If I’m telling a story set in the past, it stays where it’s rooted. If there are themes relevant to today, it’s only because human nature tends to lead us into the same kind of predicaments repeatedly.

Celebrate Black Literature: A Q&A with Liara Tamani

Join us in celebrating Black Literature as we continue to highlight black Texas authors, readers, and contributors to the literary community in a series of blog posts. Thus far, we’ve had contributions from  TBF Community Ambassador Peggy Terryaward-winning children’s author and illustrator Don TateDr. Rosalind Oliphant Jones, founder of the Austin African American Book Festival, the new Austin Public Library director Roosevelt Weeks. and Texas Sci-fi author Nicky Drayden.

Today, we’re happy to share this thoughtful Q&A with lovely Houston YA writer (and 2017 Texas Book Festival author) Liara Tamani! Tamani, “a strong believer in following your heart, even when you don’t know exactly where it’s taking you,” holds a BA from Duke University and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College and has had a rather exciting and varied career path on her way to becoming a writer: she’s been “a marketing coordinator for the Houston Rockets & Comets, a production assistant for Girlfriends (TV show), a home accessories designer, a floral designer, and yoga and dance teacher.” She was raised in Houston, and lives there now with her daughter and her succulent collection.

 

Texas Book Festival: What made you want to write for teens? 

 

Liara Tamani: I can’t say that I set out with the intention to write for teens, but I can say that I feel honored to be writing for them now. When I wrote Calling My Name, I wasn’t thinking about where it would be placed on the shelf. I was blissfully living in the land of Let Me Write the Best Book I Possibly Can and was completely naïve about the business side of publishing.

After I finished the book and started sending it out to agents, I learned the voice was best suited for the YA market, which didn’t surprise me. I’d written the book for my teenage self.

Calling My Name is the book I desperately needed as a teenager. I needed a book to let me know it was okay to think differently than all the people around me. I needed a book to let me know it was okay, necessary even, to find my own way, to figure out what I believed and who I wanted to be. I needed a book to let me know that the best guide in my life would be my own intuition.

It fills me up when I think about teens reading my words and possibly taking away these lessons. Teens have so much power. But when they are mentally trapped inside the expectations and opinions and beliefs of other people, it’s hard to realize that power.

To be able to write for young people, to be able to help them connect to all of the beauty and power and light and intelligence that resides within them, is a huge honor. And I’m grateful for it. Teens will change the world.

 

TBF: You have quite the prestigious CV (undergrad at Duke, law school at Harvard, design school at Otis, earning an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts). What lead you to writing? Was it a life-long dream or a sudden inspiration?

 

LT: I’ve always been a writer. I just didn’t know it. Trying to live up to the expectations of my dad, who wanted me to become lawyer, disconnected me from my own dreams.

All throughout middle school and high school, English was my favorite subject. I loved reading and took a lot of pride in my writing. Writers were who I saw myself in. My college admission essays were about my deep connection to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. But I still didn’t know I was a writer.

In college, I majored in Political Science (because that was the major I thought would best prepare me for law school), but I squeezed in literature whenever I could. For a history term paper, I wrote about Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African American female poet. For a political science term paper, I wrote in depth about W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk. My professors always accused my writing of being too literary. They wanted me to write more straight forward, to take out all of my “flowery” language. But I still didn’t know I was a writer.

In order to connect to the dormant dream living inside of me, I had to shed other people’s expectations and opinions of me. I had to trust myself. And I eventually did, mostly because I couldn’t face the sadness of living a life without passion. The first step I took was dropping out of Harvard Law, despite what everybody thought about it (and believe me, people had their thoughts).

After law school, I chose to move to Los Angeles, a place with lots of sun and a large creative community. Around the time I started writing, I was running my own design company and reading a lot of fiction, something I actually had the mental space for because I wasn’t studying all the time. I’d recently finished reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer when I sat down one night at my drafting table with my laptop and started writing. It felt like home. And from then on, I knew.

 

 

TBF: Calling My Name is set in Houston, where you grew up. What do you love most in writing about Houston? What are the pros and cons about writing a book set in your home city?

 

LT: I love representing Houston! When people from other parts of the country and world think of Texas, they often still picture cows and horses and fields. Texas has a lot of that, sure, but it’s so much more than that. Houston is the fourth largest city in the county. And it’s the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the country, but we don’t see that in its representation. I love that Calling My Name allows people to see Houston through the eyes of a young, black girl living in the suburbs. A very common experience in Houston (and in the south in general), but not one that’s well represented.

And teenagers of color know this. On my high school visits in Houston this year, the students were geeked about the book taking place in Houston and about me being from Houston. I loved witnessing their pride. Everybody wants and deserves to see themselves in books and TV and film. Everybody wants and deserves to be represented.

I also loved learning more about my hometown while researching the setting. I was on Google Maps travelling down streets I’ve never been down before. It was cool exploring Houston.

In summary, I loved everything about writing a book set in Houston. 🙂 No cons.

 

TBF: What are you working on now?

 

LT: Book two! I’m soooo excited about my second novel. It’s very different from my first, but I absolutely love it. It’s written in alternating first person perspectives (girl-boy), and the whole book takes place over the span of two months. By comparison, Calling My Name takes place over five years. I don’t want to give away too many details about the new book because I’m not finished with it yet. But it’s coming! And I can’t wait for everyone to read it! And it’s also set in Houston—this time, present-day Houston.

I also just finished a short story that will appear in a YA anthology edited by Ibi Zoboi entitled Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America. In it, my words will be alongside the words of some of my favorite writers, including Renée Waston, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Jason Reynolds. I’m so thrilled. Look out for it next year!

 

Celebrate Black Literature: A Q&A with Nicky Drayden

Join us in celebrating Black Literature! We are working to recognize Black History Month by highlighting black Texas authors, readers, and contributors to the literary community in a series of blog posts. Thus far, we’ve had contributions from  TBF Community Ambassador Peggy Terryaward-winning children’s author and illustrator Don TateDr. Rosalind Oliphant Jones, the founder of the Austin African American Book Festival, and the new Austin Public Library director Roosevelt Weeks.

Today, we have an exciting Q&A with Austin resident and 2017 Texas Book Festival author Nicky Drayden! Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she’s not buried in code. Her debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa brimming with demigods, robots, and hallucinogenic hijinks. See more of her work on her website,  or catch her on Twitter. Keep an eye out for Drayden’s forthcoming novel Temper, coming out from Harper Voyager on August 7, 2018!

You can also catch Drayden this coming Saturday, on February 24 at the second annual Celebration of Diverse Literary Voices of Texas at the new Central Library (Living Room, 6th floor) from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., presented by the Austin Public Library and KAZI Book Review. We’ll see you there!

 

Texas Book Festival: What inspired you to write Science Fiction/Fantasy? Similarly, what drew you to setting the book in South Africa?

 

Nicky Drayden: Science Fiction and Fantasy are in my bones. “E.T.” was the first movie I saw in a theater, so maybe that has something to do with it. I must have watched “Starman” a million times and one of my first memories is of begging my dad to watch “Superman” every single day when I was three years old. But I didn’t have a label for the shows I liked until much, much later. “Small Wonder,” “Mork and Mindy,” “Alf,” “Quantum Leap,” “Buck Rogers.” They just entertained me, and when I started writing, those were the kind of stories I wanted to tell.

South Africa drew me in as a setting because I traveled to Port Elizabeth back when I was in college, and I thought it’d be interesting to imagine how the experiences I had there could translate into a work of speculative fiction. Obviously, I didn’t come across any disenfranchised demigoddesses or sentient robots while there, but many of the highlights from my visit are featured in the book, for example, we toured some of the rural townships where people live in tin shacks, met teenagers who had recently gone through the circumcision rite, and bought hand-carved souvenirs from local artists. And it seemed like everywhere we went, there were these little cute antelopes called dik-diks rummaging around the city, kind of in a similar way some places have deer overpopulation problems, so those things all got worked into the book.

It was a lot of fun to relive my memories through my writing and to project how South Africa’s unique challenges and strengths would intersect with technological and scientific advancements over the next fifty years.

 

TBF: What kind of research did you do for The Prey of Gods? Was it difficult to write from so many different perspectives, from such different characters?

 

ND: I read articles and novels by South African authors, and—this one’s a bit odd—I dug into the comment sections of a few South African online magazines. People tend not to filter themselves in the comments section, so you can get an interesting glimpse of the issues people are dealing with. I also enlisted a few South African beta readers, and they helped to hone the story, filling in the gaps in my experience with rich texture and delectable details for readers to savor.

I loved the challenge of weaving the characters’ stories together in a cohesive manner. Most of the characters have never met before the story begins, but they’re all connected in various and multiple ways. For example, in Sydney’s first chapter, she’s giving a magical manicure to a woman who’s attending a fundraiser for Councilman Stoker. In another scene, Rita Natrajan, the pop diva in the story, unknowingly shares a robot taxi with Muzi’s brother-in-law and is secretly romantic with Muzi’s best friend’s cousin. It’s a knotty tangle of threads, but I think a few snags make the tapestry more interesting.

 

TBF: How do you go about world-building (one of the most important/hardest parts of SFF, but often is “invisible labor”)?

 

ND: I don’t know if it’s invisible, because readers can tell when you’ve just got a city full of prop buildings. I draw maps with labeled thoroughfares, floorplans of my character’s homes. Figure out their birthdays and zodiac signs. I pick out photographs of what they look like, what clothes they wear, what the buildings look like, and any significant objects mentioned in the book so my descriptions have some grit. Having world-building clear in my mind when I’m writing comes out not necessarily a big info dump, but in telling details. The lapel pin on a character’s jacket, the type of necklace a character wears and why. Details beget details, so the more you know going into the novel, the deeper it will lead you.

 

TBF: Who are some of your favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers? Who has had an influence on your writing?

 

ND: Neal Stephenson is my favorite author. I had a writing mentor back in the day, and we were out at Half Price Books, and he pulled Crypotonomicon from the shelf and pretty much forced me to buy it. He was nearly shaking recalling a submarine scene. So I bought it and read it. And from then on, I was hooked. I’d never read anything with so much depth and attention to detail. When I read Stephenson’s Seveneves, I felt like I’d earned an honorary degree in orbital mechanics.

On the fantasy side, I like N. K. Jemisin. I started her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and literally could not putit down. It was a good thing I was on vacation at the time, or I would have had to take a sick day. Her worlds are completely immersive, and the characters are so deep, and she’s not shy about jerking your emotions around.

There are also a ton of up-and-coming authors I’ve got my eye on. I was blown away by Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey. If you’re into generation ships and awesome world-building, Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter will sweep you away. And Viscera by Gabriel Squailia is both hauntingly dark and delightfully funny.

 

TBF: What was the best part of writing The Prey of Gods?

 

ND: I loved creating these characters who are all horribly flawed. Of the six main characters, any of them could be the antagonist of the story, which I think makes them easy for readers to connect to in some ways and challenges them in others. Nomvula, a ten-year-old girl coming to grips with her newfound powers, commits atrocities worse than the villainess of the story. Muzi, a teenager with mind control, makes bad decision after bad decision. Nearly every page you want to shake some sense into him, but you never stop cheering for him. They’re all complicated, frustrating, and relatable.

 

TBF: What advice would you give to new and/or up and coming black authors in science fiction? 

 

ND: Guard your writing time. Guard the vision for your story when accepting feedback. It takes quite a while to hone your craft, and it’s all but impossible to do so in a vacuum, so most young black writers will come up against well-meaning critiquers and editors who can do real damage to a manuscript, or worse, to the writer’s sensibilities.

Your story might not always make sense to others, but that doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong. It might be that your craft isn’t fully developed yet, and you need more experience to pull it off. Maybe it just needs to find the right set of eyes. So write more, read more, keep submitting and keep challenging yourself to grow as a writer and a person.

 

TBF: What are you working on next?

 

ND: I just finished copyedits on Temper, which is coming out August 7th. I’m really excited about this one, and though it is also set in a (fictionalized) South Africa, it was a whole set of different challenges because I was both building a world from scratch while drawing upon existing cultural references.

It’s about a wayward teenaged boy named Auben Mutze who starts hearing voices that speak to his dangerous side—encouraging him to perform evil deeds that go beyond innocent mischief. Lechery, deceit, and vanity run rampant. And then there are the inexplicable blood cravings…

It’s a mix of science fiction and fantasy like The Prey of Gods, though this one dips a little into horror and dark humor as well.

Celebrate Black Literature: A Q&A with Austin Public Library Director Roosevelt Weeks

Join us in celebrating Black History Month! For the month of February, Texas Book Festival is working to recognize Black History Month by highlighting black Texas authors, readers, and notable contributors to the literary community in a series of blog posts. So far, we’ve had contributions from  TBF Community Ambassador Peggy Terry who shared a fantastic list of books coming out in 2018, award-winning children’s author and illustrator Don Tate who took the time to answer some questions, and Dr. Rosalind Oliphant Jones, the founder of the Austin African American Book Festival and the Folktales Black Women’s Literary Society.

Today, we’re excited to present wisdom from new Austin Public Library director Roosevelt Weeks, who comes to APL from the Houston Public Library system (where he was the much-beloved Deputy Director of Administration) and started in his new position last September. Weeks, a veteran of several Texas libraries, is a brilliant addition to our Austin literary community and we look forward to working alongside him in his exciting new role!

Also, we highly recommend checking out the Celebration of Diverse Literary Voices of Texas at the new Central Library (Living Room, 6th floor) on February 24, 2018 from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., presented by the Austin Public Library and KAZI Book Review for the second year running.

Join notable Texas authors (including several previous Texas Book Festival authors) for “author readings as well as panel discussions on cultural diversity, African American education, Mexican American literature and social justice in literature.”

We’ll see you there!

 

What drew you to pursue a career in libraries?

I was volunteering at the Pasadena Public Library providing computer training to customers. A customer told me she needed help learning Microsoft Word so she could get a promotion on her job. I worked with her for about 3 weeks and she came in the library one day and told me she got the job! At this point, I realize the importance of libraries and what they mean to the community.

 

What’s your favorite part of working in the library system? What are some of the most important roles libraries play in Austin (and Texas at large) today?

Meeting people with different background and culture. I love getting out into the community and talking about the importance of reading and the impact libraries how on communities.

 

What are you most looking forward to in your position here at APL?

Working with the various community and community leaders in identifying needed programs and services. Every community is different and I don’t believe in providing cookie-cutter programs and services. Programs and services should be meaningful and life changing.

 

What advice would you give to young black people considering a library degree and career?

If you want to make a difference in your community, a library career is for you. The pay will not make you rich, but it will give you a decent living. There are not enough librarians of color and we need more of them. Libraries and library workers should represent the community they serve. It makes a difference when you walk into a library and you see people that look like you and understand some of the challenges you face.

 

Is there anything you wish more people knew about APL (or even about libraries in general)? What programs/ events do you want to highlight/ make sure Austinites don’t miss?
Libraries are open and free to everybody from all walks of life. If you are looking for ways to start a business, we can help. If you are looking to develop a new skill, we can provide with the resources. If you are looking for entertainment, we have movies and programs from many genres and cultures. If you are looking for a good book, we have millions waiting for you! All of our library locations are safe and welcoming for you to come in to have meetings or just to relax. Finally, all Austinites must come visit our New Central Library. It is six floors of pure delight and excitement, but describing the Central Library makes it hard to do it justice. You must come visit to really appreciate it.

 

What are you reading right now? What are some of the books coming out in 2018 you’re most looking forward to?

I am currently reading We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled by Wendy Pearlman and Thursday Night Lights by Michael Hurd (a 2017 Texas Book Festival author). I am looking forward to reading The President Is Missing by James Patterson and Bill Clinton, and Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosely.

Celebrate Black Literature: A Q&A With Dr. Rosalind Oliphant Jones

Join us in celebrating Black History Month! For the month of February, Texas Book Festival is recognizing Black History Month by highlighting black Texas authors, readers, and notable contributors to the literary community in a series of blog posts. So far, we’ve had contributions from  TBF Community Ambassador Peggy Terry, who shared a fantastic list of books coming out in 2018, and award-winning children’s author and illustrator Don Tate who took the time to answer some questions.

Today, we’re excited to say we got to ask some questions of Austin legend Dr. Rosalind Oliphant Jones, the founder of the Austin African American Book Festival and the Folktales Black Women’s Literary Society, which grew out of her fantastic independent bookstore Folktales (which closed in 1999). Oliphant Jones has brought countless award-winning and best-selling black authors to Austin both through her bookstore and the AABF, from Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Gwendolyn Brooks to YA author sensation Angie Thomas, whose debut novel spent more than 40 weeks at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Oliphant Jones has done immeasurable work for our community.

The 12th annual Austin African American Book Festival (AABF) will take place June 23, 2018 at the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural, and Genealogy Center. Don’t miss this vibrant, one-of-a-kind event!

 

The African American Book Festival Committee (L to R): Peggy Terry, Carol Wright, AABF Founder and Director Rosalind Oliphant Jones, and Anne Boyd

 

Texas Book Festival: What inspired you to start the Austin African American Book Festival?

Rosalind Oliphant Jones: When, in December 1999, it made good business sense to close the doors to Folktales, the Black themed bookstore I launched in the Austin area, I was left both devastated and relieved. I had given so much of myself to this venture, but even though I was exhausted and broke, none of that tarnished my love of books.

Longtime supporters constantly asked if I planned to reopen or if I was ever going to do any more author events. While I had no plans to reopen a full service operation I was organizing a few things here and there:  The Folktales Black Women’s Literary Society was going strong, I organized the Afrocentric Book Club at the high school where I was then teaching, and I also hosted a few author signings and book events around town.

From there, I saw the pioneering Harlem Book Fair, which has been held annually for the past 2 decades, as the creative impetus to start something similar and just as meaningful and influential here.

TBF: How has your experience opening and running Folktales, a successful community bookstore, informed your experience co-founding and running the AABF?

ROJ: Last year marked my 25th year as a bookseller! One thing I realize about great booksellers is they don’t just sell books; they also sell and cultivate a wonderfully multifaceted literary experience.

What we have been able to do with the festival is appeal to a reader’s desire to connect with authors both beloved and newly discovered and to share a kinship with readers in search of that same connection. There is so much excitement in meeting authors and hearing them discuss their work, and with Folktales and the Austin African American Book Festival, we have facilitated space for hundreds of authors to engage with readers in this community. I am really proud of that.

TBF: What’s your favorite part of interacting with authors and readers (through Folktales, the Austin African American Book Festival, Folktales Black Women’s Literary Society, and in any other ways)?

ROJ: I am absolutely fascinated by the work writers do. I am curious to know what their inspirations are, their favorite books, other authors they know, and more!

Back in 1994, Austin Community College brought the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks to town. Folktales hosted a book signing for her and there was also a private dinner in her honor. I asked so many questions, all of which she graciously answered! At one point, in the midst of our conversation, which included lots of laughing, she looks at me and says something like, “You ask questions like that of a writer.” It was a goldenmoment for sure! This is just one unforgettable moment I have experienced while doing this very rewarding work. There are so many other wonderful stories I could relay about my interactions with writers and readers.

 

TBF: What do you look for when inviting authors and speakers to the AABF?

ROJ: It’s hard for me to put into words what we look for when putting together our festival. With a circle of very smart, charismatic friends who read across genres, we gather for tea or coffee or lunch to discuss books, brainstorm ideas, and create what has, for the last 11 years, culminated into something we believe has been very special and worthwhile for the community.

 

TBF: You’re someone who’s been a major community leader in promoting and supporting black literature and media for some time. Have you seen a shift the ways major publishing houses (and Hollywood) produce or respond to black stories?

ROJ: The world is constantly shifting and publishing houses are no different. When Folktales opened in 1992, it was the “Age of Terry McMillan.” Her first two novels Mama and Disappearing Acts were popular, but then came Waiting to Exhale and the success of that book jolted the publishing industry. Suddenly, the masses realized what many of us already knew: Black people buy books! As a result, we saw this wonderful proliferation of more Black authors getting publishing deals. We saw Black centered products like greeting cards, gift wrap, novelty items, T-shirts—it was thrilling to behold! Unfortunately, by the year 2000, things started slowly winding down. We saw more bookstores closing and some publishers began shifting their focus from a more varied landscape of black literature to a narrower emphasis on urban fiction.

There is talk that we are about to witness another renaissance! The excitement surrounding the Black Panther movie has certainly been contagious! And the fact that it has its origins in comic books and graphic novels counts it as a definite plus for the literary world as well.

 

TBF: Could you share an anecdote or two about the AABF?

ROJ: A powerful moment for me was the year historian Dr. Arnold Rampersad was our keynote speaker. Dr. Rampersad is celebrated for his acclaimed biographies on Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Ellison. He was extremely complimentary of the festival and in his opening remarks had created this beautiful tapestry connecting all the authors on program. Later, when we were walking through the museum, he asked me, “Where are the children, where are the youth?”

It revealed a troubling omission, as we had planned that particular festival with little attention to youth programming. It was an oversight we have worked very hard not to repeat.

TBF: What are you reading right now? What book or two (or more are you most looking forward to this year?

ROJ: I hope to complete the Old Testament by mid-year. I am in the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 18. I just finished Priscilla Shirer’s devotional Awaken: 90 Days with the God Who Speaks, which was uplifting.

I am also loving and learning from the fabulous never before published photographs and interesting backstories in Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives.

I just picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, which I am looking forward to reading it as well as all the books I am told I will be inspired to read as I make my way through it!

I expanded the health section in my library after I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016. I am all about being a healthy and informed survivor! I just re-read The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which provided far too many lessons to recount here. I am also making plenty of highlights and notes in the margins of my copies of The Metabolic Approach to Cancer by Dr. Natasha Winters and Jess Higgins Kelley and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

I cannot wait to be among the first to read Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave, which is due out in May, and I am also looking forward to Angie Thomas’ sophomore release, On the Come Up, in June.

Celebrate Black Literature: A Q&A with Don Tate

The Texas Book Festival Celebrates Black Literature! For the month of February, the Texas Book Festival is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting black Texas authors, readers, and notable contributors to the literary community in a series of blog posts. Last week, TBF Community Ambassador Peggy Terry shared a fantastic list of books coming out in 2018 that she recommends reading, and today, award-winning children’s author and illustrator Don Tate has taken the time to answer some questions we had for him. In addition to being an award-winning author and the illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children, Austinite Don Tate is an outspoken advocate for diversity in publishing, a founding host of The Brown Bookshelf, a Texas Book Festival author, and a long-time TBF supporter and volunteer.

When you’re finished reading here, we recommend you check out the fantastic kid lit blog The Brown Bookshelf, “a blog designed to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers, with book reviews, author and illustrator interviews.” The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days Later series for Black History Month features interviews with large number of amazing black authors and illustrators of children’s, middle grade, and young adult literature.

Happy reading!

 

 

Texas Book Festival: What draws you to Children’s literature? Was writing for kids a conscious choice or more the age group you felt inspired to speak to?

Don Tate: Early in my career, I worked at an educational publishing company. My job was to design and illustrate children’s basal books and teaching proucts. The job required some travel to library and literacy conferences. I was inspired by teachers and librarians, who were passionate about children’s literacy. I wanted in on that! Eventually, I illustrated a book for that publishing house called Retold African Myths, written by Eleanora E. Tate.  That was thirty-something years ago, and I’ve never looked back. I love using my art to tell stories for young people. Writing came much later, though—like twenty years later!

 

TBF: I know you’ve written about how, as a kid, you were drawn more to art and drawing than to reading (largely because of the terrible lack of black representation in literature when you were growing up). But how did you first get into art and illustration?

DT: I’ve been an artist as long as I’ve been on this earth. There wasn’t a moment when I accidentally discovered that I liked art. As a child, my hands were always busy drawing and making stuff. I made things like choo-choo trains and cars from empty toilet paper rolls. I created elaborate puppets from socks or from patterns I created. I created macramé wall hangings from twine and beads.  I always had some kind of project in the works. Thankfully, my mom supported my artistic endeavors, even when it meant tearing the house apart and putting it back together. I attended a vocational-technical high school. My core area of study was commercial and advertising art. While there, I became less interested in creating art for art’s sake, though. I liked creating art for a specific purpose: a magazine layout, a t-shirt design, a story! I liked commercial art, or narrative art.

 

TBF: What’s your illustration process look like? How does that compare to your writing process?

DT: My illustration and writing process are similar. When I visit schools, I tell kids that writing is similar to painting a picture. With a picture, I use a paintbrush, a pencil, or some other drawing tool. When I  write, I paint with words. I create worlds using very visual word choices.

With my illustrations, I begin with a rough draft. Same with a written manuscript. The first draft of an illustration or a manuscript is messy. But that’s okay, that draft is like a lump of clay that I can then mold into a story. Because my books focus on history, writing and illustrating both require a lot of research. And before any of that reaches my editor’s eyes, I revise my words and illustrations many times.

 

TBF: What sort of stories do you look for in your writing and/or illustrating? What are some of the elements that you were drawn to in past books you’ve written and illustrated?

DT: I like stories about little-known people who’ve done great things in the face of adversity. These stories inspire me. In my book,  It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low), which I wrote, a homeless man and former slave with no art training becomes one of the most important outsider artists in the country. In Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree), which I wrote and illustrated, an enslaved poet becomes the first African American in the south to get a book published, at a time when it was against the law to teach a black man to read. With Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth (Charlesbridge), which I also wrote and illustrated, a weak and sickly child grows up to become known as the Father of Bodybuilding and “The Strongest Man on Earth.” These men overcame great obstacles to achieve success. These stories inspire kids to work hard and never give up.

 

TBF: Tell us about your work on the kid lit blog, The Brown Bookshelf:

DT: The Brown Bookshelf was started by YA authors Varian Johnson and Paula Chase-Hyman. They wanted to start an online initiative to support African American children’s book creators, whose works often fly under the radar of the publishing industry. I was invited  to join a whole team of writers and illustrators to contribute to the blog. Together, we work to shine a light on the myriad of diverse voices creating books for young people. February is when we host our “28 Days Later” campaign, where we highlight an African American book creator each day of the month with interviews and guest post. Be sure to check out our 2018 campaign!

 

TBF: I know you do a lot of school visits and events with kids: what’s it like getting to meet your audience like that? What’s one of the best stories that’s come out of interacting with your young readers?

DT: I love meeting my young readers. While they are excited about meeting me, I am equally as excited to meeting them. I’m thankful to school librarians for bringing us all together—authors and illustrators and readers. I’ve had a lot funny and interesting experiences while visiting schools, however one of the most memorable moments happened this past October at the Texas Book Festival. Students at Brushy Creek Elementary School in Round Rock sang a tribute to me and my book Strong as Sandow:

 

TBF: What advice would you give to young authors and illustrators of color? What encouragement?

DT: Polish your craft. Writers: Read and write a lot. And stop worrying about having to find an illustrator, that’s what publishers do. Illustrators: Draw a lot, practice. There is more of an emphasis on diversity in publishing lately, so opportunities are broadening. I’m seeing more faces of color on the covers of children’s books, lately. Most times, however, the creators of those books are not People of Color.  Everyone is answering that call for more diversity, so we’re easily marginalized.  So, Author or Illustrator of Color—get to creating, your voice is needed. While it’s important for a Black child to see Black people represented in the books they read, it’s equally important that they know Black people write and illustrate the books they read. They know this by opening that book jacket flap and seeing a book creator that looks like them.

 

TBF: What, at least to you, is the best part of writing for kids?

DT: Supporting literacy. Knowledge is power, and therefore books are powerful.

 

TBF: What are you working on now?

DT: I have several books on the publication horizon that I illustrated:

Par-tay! Dance of the Veggies (and Their Friends)

Written by the legendary Eloise Greenfield and published by Alazar in April, 2018.

Stalebread Charlie and the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band

This book, written by Michael Mahin and published by Clarion in July, 2018, is the fictionalized account of the true story seven homeless street kids who helped inspire a new genre of music called spasm.

No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas

Written by Tonya Bolden and published by Knopf in October, 2018.

So that’s it for me this year—dancing kids, dancing veggies, and potatoes galore!