Drawing on Nature
“I don’t know that the Nature Series would have ever happened if I hadn’t begun reading to my grandson,” says Tate, a spunky and down-to-earth 85-year-old with a contagious smile and an unwavering love for art and everything natural.
The characters in Tate’s books — like the beloved Izzie Lizzie Alligator, Billy Bluefish and Tammy Turtle — have become an integral part of the Outer Banks childhood experience, as much as Mr. Rogers and Big Bird to the PBS generation. What many Outer Bankers don’t realize is that the books’ readership has grown far beyond these barrier islands.
Tate and her illustrator, local artist James Melvin, came together 30 years ago — she as the owner of an arts publishing business called Nags Head Art, he as an artist new to the region. The two clicked. When Tate wrote her debut book, Crabby & Nabby, based on her experiences in the family’s crab-shedding operation, she picked Melvin to illustrate. The book hit the presses in 1988.
In the 28 years since, each character Tate has dreamt up and Melvin has brought to life has won the hearts of children around the world — and taught valuable lessons about life and nature along the way.
Their Nature Series now has 37 titles, and their History Series has five. They’ve also published teaching guides, coloring books and sticker books, plus a book about Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s. The books are sold all across the United States and in numerous other countries. Because they are biologically accurate — Tate consults experts when writing — they are used as teaching tools in classrooms and are sold in all the major aquariums in the country. More than 3 million copies of their books have been sold.
Tate’s fascination with the natural world began at an early age. As she was growing up on a farm in Ohio, her mother instilled in her an unfaltering love for nature. As a young adult, she studied anthropology and archaeology at the University of New Mexico. After college she joined the Navy and met the man she married, Everett Tate, in Charleston, S.C., in 1953. Everett very fittingly invited her on a first date aboard his shrimp trawler.
Everett was a native of Duck, and the two ended up on the Outer Banks. Everett was postmaster at Nags Head and pursued his love of commercial fishing, and Tate embarked on a venture of her own with Nags Head Art.
An elaborate storyteller and waterman, Everett was instrumental in feeding Tate’s imagination until he died in 2008. In fact, she wrote the first draft of Billy Bluefish while out on his boat.
“He was a great inspiration to me,” she says. She has since remarried, to a Hatterasman.
“It may be that I am able to put myself at their level,” she says. “Whether I am writing about a fish, a crab or a sand dollar, I always become that creature. And for a full week or more, I am fully immersed in the book. Everything else is shut out.”
Melvin, a native of Roseboro, N.C., near Fayetteville, goes into the same creative mode when bringing to life the creatures of Tate’s imagination. With a background in fine art, he has managed to expand his talents into the arena of children’s illustration.
“I try to keep it very basic,” says Melvin in his Nags Head studio, which is filled with his work that draws on the natural beauty and serenity of the Outer Banks. “Kids love to draw, and I try to keep it simple to show them that it is easy to draw using basic shapes. I don’t want to make the characters untouchable.”
Melvin adds that it is difficult to describe the feeling he gets when he hears that the books have inspired children to read.
“It’s just joy,” he says.
One of the best things about working with Melvin, Tate says, is his openness to suggestions.
“He is very receptive to ideas about illustrations and he really listens,” she says.
Melvin shares the same fondness for the author.
“When I read a story, I feel what she is feeling,” he says.
Tate’s favorite story is Salty Sea Gull: A Tale of an Old Salt because it teaches children respect for elders. Not to mention that she has always been fascinated by sea gulls. Melvin’s favorite is Spunky Spot: A Tale of One Smart Fish. He likes the message it sends about the dangers of drugs.
If there’s one thing Tate’s readers are just dying to know, it’s why she capitalizes HELPFUL HUMANS in her books.
“Author license,” says Tate. “I wanted to emphasize it. Teachers pick up on that and encourage their students to be helpful humans. And children look for it. They write to tell me how they have been helpful humans.”
After publishing their newest book, Speedy Ghost Crab: A Tale of a Beach Dweller, Tate says she’s just in the thinking state.
But give her some time and soon children everywhere will have another book and character to learn from and love.