My two major requirements for a book of any length are  a good story in  a true setting. Lacking either leaves me dissatisfied and empty. It Jes’ Happened, a nonfiction picture book by Don Tate, meets both requirements – and won both the Lee and Low New Voices Award and the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Award. It traces the story of Bill Traylor from his days as the son of slaves working in the cotton fields to the end of his life when he received acclaim and a showing in the New South Art Gallery as a folk artist. [And yes, I did meet the author at the recent book festival. Don is a fine young man.]
Having grown up among people in cotton-growing communities, my ear is tuned to their language and reacts when it’s right like a musician who hears a fine piece of music done well. Don Tate uses the words of the South, with sparse use of dialect, to bring Bill Traylor and his world to life. A few examples:
• When painting, he favored a rich spare palette of colors.
• The women sang up a storm.
• “Bird on top of the basket and he don’t know it,” Bill joked.
Don’s telling makes me think of a song with a refrain. For the first half of the book, each short segment of Bill’s life is followed by some form of “Bill saved up memories of these times deep inside.” In the second half, Bill paints these memories into pictures on scrap cardboard and old paper cartons.
Like many artists, Bill Traylor receives more honor for his work today than when he was producing it. Currently, a tour of his work is in progress to several cities.
It Jes’ Happened honors Bill Traylor as a person first and then as an artist. This nonfiction book reads like a story, and I predict a child will request it for repeated bedtime readings. I also predict that this “New Writer” will have other books to follow.