It Jes’ Happened and more from Don Tate

Today’s Perfect Picture Book Friday post features a man of seemingly endless talents, author /illustrator Don Tate. Looking forward to meeting him at the WOW retreat and learning about his process, with text and art!

Title: It Jes’ HapIMG_1115pened, When Bill Traylor Started to Draw
Written by: Don Tate
Illustrated by: R. Gregory Christie
Lee and Low, 2012, biography
Suitable for ages: 8-12
Lexile: 830L
Themes/topics: folk art, African American painters

It was early summer in Montgomery, Alabama, 1939. On downtown Monroe Avenue, an elderly man sat on a wooden crate. With a board laid across his lap and the stub of a pencil grasped in his hand, he began to draw a picture on the back of a discarded laundry soap box.
Who was this man, and what caused him to start drawing at the age of eighty-five? His name was Bill Traylor, and if people had asked him, he might had said, “It jes’ come to me.”

Overview (from
Growing up as an enslaved boy on an Alabama cotton farm, Bill Traylor worked all day in the hot fields. When slavery ended, Bill’s family stayed on the farm as sharecroppers. There Bill grew to manhood, raised his own family, and cared for the land and his animals.
By 1935 Bill was eighty-one and all alone on his farm. So he packed his bag and moved to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. Lonely and poor, he wandered the busy downtown streets. But deep within himself Bill had a reservoir of memories of working and living on the land, and soon those memories blossomed into pictures. Bill began to draw people, places, and animals from his earlier life, as well as scenes of the city around him.
Today Bill Traylor is considered to be one of the most important self-taught American folk artists. Winner of Lee & Low’s New Voices Award Honor, It Jes’ Happened is a lively tribute to this man who has enriched the world with more than twelve hundred warm, energetic, and often humorous pictures.

Activities and Resources:
Draw or paint a memory using “found” objects as your tools.
Author Website
Activity Guide 

Why I like this book:
The length of Tate’s text might deter some readers, but it’s worth slowing down and taking the time to immerse yourself in the rich details of the experiences that shaped Traylor’s life. Tate moves from his usual role as illustrator to share a different time and way of life, this time through words. The line “Bill saved up these memories deep inside” echoes through the text until the memories flow forth in a unique form of art. This portrait of a humble, hardworking man who found strength in creating art provides a great example for young readers and artists who might wonder what they have to offer.

dontate_poetpage-620x576-2ALSO check out Don Tate’s latest work, as author and illustrator:

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton
Peachtree Publishers, 2015, biography (another award winner)

Overview (from
George loved words. But George was enslaved.
Forced to work long hours, George was unable to attend school or learn how to read. But he was determined—he listened to the white children’s lessons and learned the alphabet. Then he taught himself to read. Soon, he began composing poetry in his head and reciting it as he sold fruits and vegetables on a nearby college campus. News of the slave poet traveled quickly among the students, and before long, George had customers for his poems. But George was still enslaved. Would he ever be free?
In this powerful biography of George Moses Horton, the first southern African-American man to be published, Don Tate tells an inspiring and moving story of talent and determination.

Activity Guide

Don Tate is best known for his work as an illustrator.

IMG_1114Here’s one award-winning favorite:
The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, written by Chris Barton, Eerdmans 2015, biography

Overview (from
John Roy Lynch spent most of his childhood as a slave in Mississippi, but all of that changed with the Emancipation Proclamation. Suddenly people like John Roy could have paying jobs and attend school. While many people in the South were unhappy with the social change, John Roy thrived in the new era. He was appointed to serve as justice of the peace and was eventually elected into the United States Congress.
This biography, with its informative backmatter and splendid illustrations, gives readers an in-depth look at the Reconstruction period through the life of one of the first African-American congressmen.

Activity Guide

What I love most about Don Tate’s illustrations are the expressive faces and historical details that add so much emotion and context to the story.

Visit author Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books for a plethora of picture books listed by title and topic/theme, each with teacher/parent resources.

2 thoughts on “It Jes’ Happened and more from Don Tate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.