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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Don Tate and Review of William Still and His Freedom Stories

It is my distinct honor and privilege to interview the extremely talented author/illustrator Don Tate.

Don Tate lives in Austin, Texas, with his family. He is one of the founding hosts of the 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.

Don is the award-winning author/illustrator numerous picture book biographies, including Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man on Earth (Charlesbridge, 2017), and Ezra Jack Keats Book award winners Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree, 2015) and It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started To Draw (Lee & Low Books, 2012),

He is also the award-winning illustrator of about 80 critically acclaimed books for children, including Carter Reads The Newspaper (Peachtree Publishing, 2019), Stalebread Charlie and the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band (Clarion, 2018), No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas (Knopf, Oct. 2018), Par-Tay! Dance of the Veggies (and their friends)(Alazar, 2018), Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge, 2016), The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans, 2015), and The Cart That Carried Martin (Charlesbridge, 2013).

His most recent author/illustrated picture book, William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad, released November 1st.

Welcome Don thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.

Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my work.

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you illustrate? How long have you been illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to illustrate?)

I prefer nonfiction. I love stories about little-known historical figures. Most of the books that I’ve written and/or illustrated have been about African Americans like Lonnie Johnson, an inventor and creator of the Super-Soaker squirt gun; George Moses Horton, a poet; Junius G. Groves, a businessman; and Eugen Sandow, a bodybuilder. I’ve been illustrating books and educational products for 30-plus years, but I didn’t start writing until about 2009. I illustrate out of my home studio in Austin, Texas.

You've definitely found some fascinating individuals who deserve their 'day in the sun.' What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I’m fairly transparent on my social networks, so there’s not much I haven’t already revealed there. Because I like to work out and swim, folks think I’m a health food nut. While I do like to eat healthy, I have a sweet tooth. I’ve been known to sit my work aside, get in my car, and go on a hunt for pie. Or cake. Or cobbler. Or chocolate.

We all need a little 'guilty pleasure' in our lives. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

Do you remember that “It Gets Better” project, with a mission to uplift the LGBTQIA+ community? I’d borrow those words and tell my eight-year-old self that indeed, things will get better. I was an extremely shy kid. I rarely talked. I didn’t have friends. I didn’t express myself except through art. I felt like I was living inside of a bubble. But I continued to do that thing that I was good at: I kept my hands busy making things, building things, drawing things, sewing things. Art made me feel good about myself and is what eventually got me out of that bubble.

I am so glad you did! I love your illustrations and am grateful you stretched into writing as well. What attracted you to, or inspired you to write, William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad?

I discovered the name of William Still while flipping through a biographical dictionary of African Americans. I was inspired by his story of helping African Americans who had been enslaved but had escaped and were trying to find freedom. A free Black abolitionist. A conductor on the Underground Railroad. A civil rights activist who eventually became one of the richest Black men of his time. Why had I not heard of this man who funded many of Harriet Tubman’s rescues? I did my research and realized that his story was overdue to be told.

Wow! You've created a beautiful tribute to William Still. Like William Still and His Freedom Stories, most of your recent books have been biographies (or historical fiction), what attracted you to Par-Tay! Dance of the Veggies (And Their Friends) by Eloise Greenfield (Alazar Press 2018)?

That’s easy: author Eloise Greenfield. She’s an African American literary trailblazer. The project had the tiniest of tiny budgets, but I didn’t mind. An opportunity to share a byline with a legend? I jumped on that.

Text © Eloise Greenfield, 2018. Image © Don Tate, 2018.

It was so fun to see this extra side of your illustrative personality. What is your preferred medium? Is that what you used in William Still and His Freedom Stories?

© Don Tate, 2020.

I don’t really have a preferred medium. I like to change things up and try new mediums and techniques—at least before I went digital. Today, I use a Cintiq with various illustration programs. This still allows me to use a variety of digital tools. I let the feel of the story dictate the direction of the visuals.

I'll never forget your presentation at a conference in Georgia, where you showed us how you use your Cintiq! What kind of research did you do for William Still and His Freedom Stories? Did you encounter any challenges? Was it more of less difficult than your research for Strong As Sandow (2017), Poet (2015), or It Jes’ Happened (2012)?

My primary resource was William Still’s book The Underground Rail Road. In it, he published stories about his experiences as a “conductor” on the railroad and the freedom seeking people who passed through it on their way farther north. That book published in 1872, but in a later edition, he included more biographical material.

I also used Still’s Journal C of the Underground Railroad, which is a record of the people who passed through his line of Philadelphia’s Underground Railroad system.

It's a rare treasure to have such a resource when writing a biography of a little-known figure. Do you prefer being the illustrator or the author/illustrator? Why?

I often tell kids that writing a book is much the same as illustrating one, only I’m using different tools. When I illustrate, I use pens, pencils, or a computer to paint a picture. When I write, I use nouns, verbs, and adjectives to paint a picture. Writing and drawing are all very visual.

I like that description. When you author a book, which comes first, the text or the images? What is the hardest thing for you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books?

For me, the story comes first. I need a narrative to begin with before I can start to see the story. Maybe because I come from a background in commercial art. The hardest thing about writing is getting through that first draft. I usually have a huge mound of research materials, and so trying to figure out what to include in the story and not to include can be challenging. For me, even after all these years, writing and illustrating is a challenge. But I like the challenge. I like problem solving, which is what drives me to do my best work.

I guess the challenge is what makes it worth it. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I wasn’t much of a reader as a child. Some of my favorite books were our Better Homes and Garden Illustrated Encyclopedia, and our Funk and Wagnalls Young Student Encyclopedias. I liked these books because they were well illustrated and factual. I guess I’ve always been a nonfiction reader.

Is there something you want your readers to know about William Still and His Freedom Stories?

I think the end papers are pretty cool. We’ve reproduced the page from Still’s Journal C with an entry from the night Harriet Tubman passed through on December 29, 1854. I also includes the names of the six young men that she had rescued. I learned later that Still’Vigilance Committee replaced their worn-out shoes and provided them with funds. On the closing end papers, we’ve typeset the entry for clarity. It’s a very nice primary source that we’ve provided with the story.

That's so cool. How are you staying creative? What things are you doing to “prime the well”?

I continue to write and illustrate books. I have several in the works today, and now I’m working on a graphic novel memoir. Exercise keeps me going, I walk 4 to 5 miles a day and swim several times a week.

Anyone every accuse you of being 'superman'? Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’m in the process of finishing off my next book, PIGSKINS TO PAINTBRUSHES: THE STORY OF FOOTBALL-PLAYING ARTIST ERNIE BARNES. Another book on the subject beat mine to market, so I had to rewrite my story and push it to a later pub date. It will now publish in the fall of 2021.

I can't wait to see this one! Thank you, Don for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.

To find out more about Don Tate, or get in touch with him:

Review of William Still and His Freedom Stories:

The Father of the Underground Railroad

I have yet to find a book illustrated or created by Don Tate that I have not fallen in love with. This one will not be the exception. With a masterful touch, Tate explores the influences, dreams, and determination of an important, but little-known, American. And brings to light, the contributions of a brave man who helped many succeed and reconnect with family on their road to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

William Still and His Freedom Stories:

The Father of the Underground Railroad

Author/Illustrator: Don Tate

Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Co. (2020)

Ages: 6-10



Underground Railroad, slavery, history, collecting stories, and helping others.


The remarkable, little-known story of William Still, known as the Father of the Underground Railroad from award-winning author-illustrator Don Tate

William Still's parents escaped slavery but had to leave two of their children behind, a tragedy that haunted the family. As a young man, William went to work for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, where he raised money, planned rescues, and helped freedom seekers who had traveled north. And then one day, a strangely familiar man came into William's office, searching for information about his long-lost family. Could it be?

Motivated by his own family’s experience, William began collecting the stories of thousands of other freedom seekers. As a result, he was able to reunite other families and build a remarkable source of information, including encounters with Harriet Tubman, Henry "Box" Brown, and William and Ellen Craft.

Don Tate brings to life the incredible, stranger-than-fiction true story of William Still’s life and work as a record keeper of enslaved people who had fled to freedom. Tate’s powerful words and artwork are sure to inspire readers in this first-ever picture book biography of the Father of the Underground Railroad.

Opening Lines:

This story begins

at a time when the United States

was split in two.

In the North,

Black people were free.

In the South,

they were enslaved by whites.

Slavery was a nightmare -

Backbreaking work under the scorching sun.

Threats of lashing-or worse.

No pay.

Children were separated

from their mommas and poppas,

brothers and sisters.

Sold away at auction,

never to be seen again.

What I Liked about this book:

In a very child-friendly, moving, narrative nonfiction biography, Don Tate highlights the inspirational actions of a little known, but very important person to the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad.

Following a straight-forward description of enslavement in general and of William Still's parents in particular, Tate explains how William's father bought his freedom. How his mother, leaving behind two sons, escaped north with his sisters. And how they reunited in New Jersey, where William was born the youngest of fifteen children.

© Don Tate, 2020.

At the age of eight, in a moment that "defined the rest of his life," William guided a neighbor twenty miles through the woods to escape from slave hunters. With amazing detail and emotion, Tate explores the hardships and discrimination that William faced growing up. As well as his deep thirst for knowledge and excitement.

With beautiful lyricism, Tate describes how at twenty-one, William sets out with "three dollars in his pocket, and a billion dollars in pride" to "plant himself . . . in east Philadelphia." Eventually finding work as the office clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, William worked hard work, gained respect, and climbed the ranks until he became manager and then the leader of a committee helping people on the Underground Railroad.

© Don Tate, 2020.

Through stunning visuals and powerful, succinct text, Tate shows how people hoping for freedom, followed the northern star to Philadelphia. And how they arrived, "Cut-up. Broken. Marred and maimed. Frantic. Fearful. And fed-up. But hopeful." So much pain, anxiety, and heartbreak is contained in so few words. The vastness and danger of the night in the full bleed image forms a beautiful juxtaposition to the framed safe harbor of William's house. Lyrical and forceful text combines with beautifully expressive illustrations to create a masterful biography.

After one of his brothers escapes and is reunited with his mother, William started recording the stories and every detail of those he helped, in the hopes of reuniting other families. The book continues to detail William's amazing work with the Anti-Slavery Society and the Underground Railroad and the ultimate disposition of William's Freedom Stories. This biography is a beautiful ode to William Still; a man who deserves recognition for his major role in the abolitionist movement. It is a book that should definitely be in every library.


- interview a grandparent, other relative, or neighbor. Write down, or draw an image, of a story important to them.

- read Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, and The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud. How are they similar or different?


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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