Author Spotlight: Don Tate

For today’s Author Spotlight, I am interviewing award-winning author and illustrator, Don Tate, whom you may know from his many critically acclaimed children’s books, such as Swish! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping,, High-Flying Harlem Globe Trotters, Carter Reads The Newpaper, and Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. Today, we will be discussing his most recent release Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football Playing Artist Ernie Barnes.

Don, Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m so excited to chat with you about Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes! Would you like to start by telling us a bit about the book?

Thank you for inviting me. PIGSKINS TO PAINTBRUSHES: THE STORY OF FOOTBALL-PLAYING ARTIST ERNIE BARNES (Abrams) tells the story of a kid who was bullied because of his love of art. So often in our society, boys are expected to excel at sports. They’re supposed to do macho things, whatever that is. And when they don’t, they’re often labeled as weak. This was the case with young Ernie Barnes who loved art, poetry, and playing musical instruments. “I was always off somewhere decorating stuff,” Barnes once said. But eventually, in middle and high school, he gave in and played football. He practiced, built himself up, and became quite the sports star, eventually playing in the professional football leagues. But art remained in his heart. After an injury, he quit playing football and started an art career.

What inspired you to create this book? What drew you to Ernie Barnes’ story?

I grew up watching the television show GOOD TIMES. Some of Ernie Barnes’ artwork was featured on that show. For years I thought JJ Evans, the teenage artist on the show, painted that artwork. The real artist was Ernie Barnes, I learned later. My favorite piece was SUGAR SHACK, which displayed at the end of the show behind the credits. Ernie Barnes inspired me as a young artist, as I tried to mimic his style of art. And I know that many other African American illustrators of today’s youth literature were inspired by him. I wanted to write a story that would introduce today’s generation of young artists to Ernie Barnes!

Title: Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes
Author/Illustrator: Don Tate
Publisher: Abrams Books For Young Readers
Published: August 17, 2021
Format: Picture Book

What was the research process like for Pigskins to Paintbrushes

Ernie Barnes’ memoir FROM PADS TO PALETTE was my primary source, but I also relied on numerous interviews he’d given which were printed in newspapers and magazines. I was especially excited about a biography written about Barnes by famed author Alex Haley, which can be found here:  

Which of Ernie Barnes paintings is your favorite and why?

As mentioned, SUGAR SHACK was always a favorite. I loved the portrayal of African Americans dancing, bodies graceful and elongated. Such joy! Other favorites were from his BEAUTY OF THE GHETTO series, like SPRINGBOARD, which features two young girls jumping on a teeter-totter; and THE DRUM MAJOR. Hanging in my studio is a painting of THE ADVOCATE, which is a depiction of an African American lawyer surrounded by books and images representing law. I have a kid who is planning to attend law school in the near future, and this painting reminds me of my son. I was never a sports person, so while I liked his football paintings, I loved the images he created of the Black community even more. 

You are both an author and illustrator. Does your research process look different for books that you are writing and illustrating than from the titles you illustrated for other authors?

When I’m illustrating, I’m always concerned more with what things might have looked like. For instance, in PIGSKINS TO PAINTBRUSHES, there is a scene that Barnes described in his memoir, where, as a child, he’s in a lawyer’s study looking at art books. I really have no idea what that would have looked like, so I need to do some research in order to make an educated guess. 

You are best known for your picture book biographies. Is there something specific that keeps you coming back to the genre?

I like reading biographies. In fact, it was Richard Wright’s memoir BLACK BOY that finally hooked me into reading. I often tell myself that it’s time to tackle some other genre. But then why? I love bios, so that’s likely where I will stay.

If you could spend a day with anyone you’ve written or illustrated a biography about, who would you choose and how would you spend the day?

The Harlem Globetrotters! Wouldn’t that be a blast?!

Who would you say are your biggest influences as an artist? And as an author?

Funny you should ask. I’ve long been influenced by Ernie Barnes. While my artwork today looks nothing like his, my work has always been figurative. I always strived to capture movement and rhythm, and of course I enjoy creating positive and fun images of Black people.

As an author, it’s more difficult to think of a specific influence. When I first started writing, I started reading a book written by a newspaper colleague. His name was Rob Borsellino, and he wrote a column at the DES MOINES REGISTER where we worked. He also wrote a book called “SO I’M TALKING TO THIS GUY.” I read that book so many times! I loved his conversational style. Oftentimes, reviewers describe my work as “conversational,” and I suppose studying Rob’s work influenced me there.

You are one of the founding hosts of Brown Bookshelf. Can you tell us a bit about The Brown Bookshelf and its mission?

The Brown Bookshelf is a blog designed to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers, with book reviews, author and illustrator interviews. You can find more about the Brown Bookshelf at I can’t say how much I love my co-contributors there and the impact they are making on the publishing world. They make publishing a better place.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with Mutually Inclusive’s readers?

Keep in mind, I am not an official spokesperson for Ernie Barnes or the Ernie Barnes Family Trust. I’m simply an author and illustrator, excited to share his story. For more information about Ernie Barnes and to see his artwork, please see the official Ernie Barnes website at

To learn more about Don and his work be sure to visit him online at, and on Instagram @devas_t and Twitter @devas_T.

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