Carter G. Woodson was born to two formerly enslaved people ten years after the end of the Civil War. Though his father could not read, he believed in being an informed citizen. So Carter read the newspaper to him every day. When he was still a teenager, Carter went to work in the coal mines. There he met a man named Oliver Jones, and Oliver did something important: he asked Carter not only to read to him and the other miners, but also research and find more information on the subjects that interested them. “My interest in penetrating the past of my people was deepened,” Carter wrote. His journey would take him many more years, traveling around the world and transforming the way people thought about history.
Author Deborah Hopkinson and illustrator Don Tate answered our questions about the creation of Carter Reads the Newspaper and the importance of learning from stories like Carter G. Woodson’s.
Q: What interested you in Carter’s story and the role he played in American history?
Hopkinson: In 2007, a book I wrote (Up Before Daybreak: Cotton and People in America) was named a Carter G. Woodson Honor Book by the National Council of the Social Studies. I had heard of Dr. Woodson before then, but I became interested in his life at that time, and began trying to learn more. My first drafts of this picture book date back to 2009, so it’s been a long time in the making.
Q: Don, what made you want to take on this project?
Tate: I love stories that offer an opportunity to highlight the lives of little-known African-American heroes. I was familiar with the name of Carter G. Woodson, but I didn’t know why. When I realized that he was known as the “Father of Black History,” the man who inspired the Black History Month observation, I knew I had to illustrate the story. I was surprised Woodson’s story hadn’t already been told.
Q: Carter Reads the Newspaper is the first-ever trade picture book biography of Carter G. Woodson. Why do you think there aren’t more children’s books about him?
Hopkinson: There have been some books about Dr. Woodson, including a 1991 book, Carter G. Woodson, The Father of Black History, by the team of Patricia and Frederick McKissack, who created so many wonderful books. But perhaps there have been few books because he wrote little about his own life. And it’s not so easy to illustrate picture books about historians and educators. But Don Tate’s luminous artwork brings Carter G. Woodson to life. And I love how the themes of newspapers and reading are woven into the story.
Q: What was your research process like? Was it difficult to find reliable sources from so long ago?
Hopkinson: I often start with an academic source and follow the breadcrumbs from there. I tell students research is much like being a detective.
I found Jacqueline Goggin’s Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993) an excellent launching point. One challenge in writing about Dr. Woodson’s life is that he wrote little that was autobiographical. But he did share some insights into his life, including his time with Oliver Jones, in an essay entitled “My Recollections of Veterans of the Civil War,” published in 1944 in his journal, The Negro History Bulletin, a copy of which I was able to track down.
Q: Are there any interesting parts from Carter’s story you had to leave out of the text?
Hopkinson: There is one wonderful anecdote I came across; it was relayed by the late historian and scholar, Dr. John Hope Franklin. When he was first starting out, he attended the same conference as Dr. Woodson. One day, Dr. Franklin received a telegram about a family emergency. As a courtesy, Dr. Franklin went to tell Dr. Woodson that he needed to leave early. Knowing that the young scholar had few resources, without a second thought Dr. Woodson reached into his pocket and said, and I am paraphrasing, “Do you have the fare?”
Q: What is your illustration process like, Don?
Tate: My illustration process begins with thumbnail sketches―tiny sketches that allow me to plan out the book. I create them without much visual research at first. At that point, I just want to focus on dividing up the text from spread to spread. It’s important to pace the story, from full-page spreads to single vignettes.
As I’m sketching, I wonder what things really might have looked like. Author Deborah Hopkinson begins Woodson’s story in his childhood. His family lived on a Virginia farm, about ten years following the Civil War. My question: what did the farm look like? That’s where hours of research come in. I may not find that exact farmhouse, but I look for other farms from that era in that area.
Q: How did you research for this book?
Tate: Thankfully, the author shared research materials with me that she used to write the story. But then I did my own visual research. I found pictures on the Internet by searching sites like Google and Bing. I contacted librarians at the Chicago Public Library. I found more images on The Library of Congress website. I even looked up some articles published in Woodson’s Journal of Negro History. It’s important to inform my drawings as much as possible.
In an early scene, Hopkinson writes about young Carter attending school. With a picture book, the author doesn’t include details of what that scene might have looked like. That’s where my job as a visual researcher kicks in. What would a classroom way back then have looked like? How would the teacher have dressed? Wore her hair? These are clues to the time period. At first, I drew the teacher as a young woman because, well, most of my teachers have been women. Research revealed to me, however, that Carter’s uncles ran the school he attended, and they were his teachers. I had to redraw that scene.
Q: How do you believe the illustrations further the importance of the story?
Tate: The illustrations do the work that the words cannot. With a picture book, the author must tell the story with few words. The illustrations flesh out the story; they say what the words cannot.
In addition, this is a story about a Black historical figure. It highlights Black History Month. It also introduces many other Black historical figures. The author of the book, however, is White. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. Skin color shouldn’t limit what people are allowed to write about. Deborah Hopkinson is a wonderful, award-winning writer, who I’m proud to have had an opportunity to collaborate with. But with all that Black history inside one book, I think it’s important that a Black person have an opportunity to contribute to its making. Black history has often been told through all-White lenses, contributing to misrepresentations.
As the illustrator, I’m telling my people’s history. So, it’s particularly important for me to get the visuals right, best I can. I think it’s also important for kids of color to know that they can grow up to be writers and illustrators of books, too, because―hey, one of the creators of this book looks like me!
Q: Deborah, in your Author’s Note, you quoted Carter: “The teaching of the whole truth will help us in the direction of a real democracy.” Why did you choose this quote and what does it mean to you?
Hopkinson: I think it’s an amazing quote, and just as relevant today as it was in the 1940s. I first became interested in history in fourth grade. I liked to read about girls and women in the past, and I devoured whatever biographies I could find. But there weren’t many. I also have a clear memory of reading fascinating tidbits about people in the shaded boxes of my history textbook. However, most of the book seemed to be about generals and presidents―just names and dates to memorize.
Today, we have more books to share during Black History Month and Women’s History Month (and beyond), and, hopefully, an ever-expanding number of diverse voices. It’s really exciting to see these new, amazing stories, and of course, much more needs to be done. But I hope these books will help young readers develop a more inclusive history of our country and give them a deeper understanding of the struggles to attain social justice and equality in a democracy.
Q: Don, your “Illustrator’s Note” mentions that you did not have many opportunities to learn about Black history in school. What does it mean to you to know current and future generations of students are given more opportunities to learn about these important moments in Black history?
Tate: It’s good that current generations are exposed to more Black history than when I was a kid. But more work is needed. Often, the same handful of historical figures show up time and again in books. My son learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks in school. But what about other important figures? Another book I wrote is called Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. It’s the true story of an enslaved man who taught himself to read and later wrote poetry protesting his enslavement. While Horton’s story wasn’t in my son’s classroom history books, he can now be discovered in school libraries. Thank you, librarians!
Q: Can you tell us a little more about the figure heads on the front and back endpapers?
Tate: I’m always looking for opportunities to share even more information with my readers. Carter Reads the Newspaper speaks to the origins of Black History Month. Black history taught in schools begins with slavery. I wanted my readers to know that Black history stretches back to the beginning of time.
The challenge was finding pre-slavery figures to feature―and quickly, because I was working against an approaching deadline! African societies preserved histories through art, written and oral forms. There were rich kingdoms with powerful kings and queens. Societies with their own languages, cultures, politics, religions. But European countries colonized Africa, robbing its people of their natural resources, land, and heritage. A lot of their histories were lost forever. It doesn’t mean those histories don’t exist—they do! You just have to dig.
I opened the endpapers with figures like Taharqua, an Egyptian pharaoh, last ruler of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. I also featured Queen Amina of Zaria, who was a fierce warrior queen, the first woman to become the Sarauniya (queen) in a male-dominated society. I closed the endpapers with two of my favorite living historical figures: Michelle and Barack Obama.
My hope is that readers will be inspired by these historical figures and do more research on their own.
Q: What about Carter’s story stuck with you the most?
Tate: The scene where young Carter reads the newspaper to a group of coal miners was a powerful moment. Most of these men, I imagine, were illiterate. They learned about life outside the mines through Carter. The message of literacy, and how reading can change lives, is a common theme in both Carter Reads the Newspaper and Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. The theme of educating oneself also spoke to me.
Q: Why do you believe it is important for young readers of all backgrounds to learn about Carter’s story?
Hopkinson: Carter G. Woodson addressed this himself, I think.
In an article in the Negro History Bulletin entitled “How to Make Negro History Week Count,” Carter wrote about the importance of school and public libraries and he foreshadowed today’s calls for more books by and about people of color: “Ask repeatedly for such books. Show that there is a demand for them.”
He added, “Why should any children be given the opportunity to learn only the half truth…?” He argued that half-truths only perpetuated bias.
Q: At one point in the story, you mention that Carter’s father believed in being an informed citizen which is why he encouraged Carter to read to him. Do you think it is important for young readers today to be informed citizens?
Hopkinson: Yes, absolutely. When I wrote drafts of this book some years ago, I couldn’t imagine the extent to which journalists would be under attack as they are now. But the skills Dr. Woodson learned as a reader and a historian are those historical-thinking principles I try to emphasize when I visit schools: sourcing, contextualizing, corroboration, and close reading. These are the skills that citizens of the 21st century need in order to grapple with serious and complex issues, most especially climate change.
Q: How is Carter’s story relevant in today’s society?
Hopkinson: Carter was surrounded by curious, determined, and hard-working role models. I think it’s clear that he lived by those values of hard work and perseverance, and that all of us benefit today because of it. I hope Carter’s story highlights the value of life-long learning by reading, studying, and taking the time to become informed about issues.
Q: What else do you hope young readers take away from this book?
Hopkinson: I hope the story of Dr. Woodson’s life makes them curious about their own families, and encourages them to ask people they know about their own lives. I also hope readers come away with a sense that the past is peopled by extraordinary individuals we might not necessarily know about. I love how Don Tate’s endpapers featuring figures in Black history help to illustrate that.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the art within the story, and from the book as a whole?
Tate: Simple: Knowing your history is knowing yourself.