It’s Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday! Visit Kid Lit Frenzy to find out what others are reading.
This week, I’m highlighting an excellent picture book biography, It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, written by Don Tate and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.
This is a beautifully written and illustrated book that tells the story of Bill Traylor, a self-taught folk artist whose entire body of work was produced when he was in his late 80s. He was born into slavery and spent his life post-emancipation sharecropping on his former master’s land. As an old man, he left the farm and moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he ended up homeless after he had trouble finding work.
That’s when he began to draw. He sat on the sidewalks of Montgomery as people passed by, and he drew pictures of the scenes around him as well as pictures inspired by his long life. Over the next few years, he produced well over a thousand drawings! He was “discovered” by another artist, Charles Shannon, who gave him supplies (only some of which he used) and who was also instrumental in getting Traylor’s work shown at a couple of exhibitions. There wasn’t much interest, but Shannon held onto Traylor’s work and began showing it again in the 1970s. Now, Traylor’s art is displayed in many museums.
Don Tate shares his discovery of Traylor and his process for researching and writing the book in a guest post at Cynsations. There were some real challenges in finding enough information about Traylor’s first 80 years to write the book: Tate’s solution to that problem creates an elegant and memorable structure and reinforces the theme in It Jes’ Happened.
I think R. Gregory Christie’s folk-art style work is perfect for It Jes’ Happened, but many readers wondered why Tate, who is a well-known, award-winning illustrator himself, didn’t illustrate his own book. Tate wrote an interesting blog post answering that question.