A Crabby Lady -The Story of Suzanne Tate
Thirty years ago, when Suzanne Tate and James Melvin first published Crabby and Nabby: A Tale of Two Crabs there were no plans for a second, third, fourth or even a 39th book, which they are up to now, in the Nature Series.
At the time, Suzanne was producing and selling prints for Melvin—who is an extraordinarily talented artist—into a market that is nothing at all like the print market of today. She was hoping, she once observed, that the book would introduce Melvin to a wider market.
“Back then you had to do 5000 (prints) at a time. It took a while to sell them,” she said. “The art print market was not nearly as crowded as it is now,” she added.
The source for the book came from her life. At the time she and her late husband Everett were shedding crabs in addition to their Nags Head Art business, so she already knew enough to create a story.
She also had a built-in market because of the contacts she had made selling prints…and it was a market where she would have little if any competition for her book.
“I was acquainted with a lot of different gift shops,” she explained. “I already had the customers in place. They weren’t bookstores. Even today, 90 maybe 95% of my books are sold in gift shops. The art prints had sold well, so when I came with the book Crabby and Nabby they were quite willing to try it.”
Sales were good and then magic happened.
“It was the teachers who discovered it.,” she said. “They even called me on the phone and asked me what is number two in the nature series.”
“I called it number one of the nature series. And I had no idea what number two was going to be,” she laughed.
Number two in the series was Billy Bluefish: A Tale of Big Blues. Like all of the books in the Nature Series, Billy Bluefish was scientifically accurate, told a good story that children loved and had a message—in this case about bullying.
“I was bullied in school. Because I was cross-eyed,” she said.
She grew up in Ohio in a home that seemed to nurture a streak of independence and a love of selling.
“I think I got it (love of selling) from my father. I think with my father, it was pitching the idea. He was an insurance broker. Whenever he sold a policy he was excited,” she said.
“I would always have something to sell. I had a little stand by the highway,” she recalled.
The independence? That came later when she graduated from high school and left for college at the University of New Mexico where she earned a degree in anthropology and biology in 1952.
The US Navy came calling, offered to bring her in as a commissioned officer and as she had noted in the past, it was more money than she had ever earned.
She was stationed in Charleston, SC when she met shrimp boat Captain Everett Tate, who originally hailed from the Outer Banks.
“He was captain of a shrimp boat. I went on the shrimp boat because I wanted to know what they caught. I wasn’t after a man,” Suzanne remarked. “I married him two months later. I would have married him in two weeks,” she said and laughed.
The story of her whirlwind romance leads to an interesting family tale.
Afraid of her parent’s reaction to Everett if she told them she was going to get married so quickly, she said nothing.
“I had a brother-in-law who I would tell him things and then he would tell my parents,” she said. “And he told my parents that I was going to get married and they didn’t say very much.”
The silence may have been explained in a letter Suzanne recently found.
“Last year I was reading the letters that my father was writing to my mother when …he was in WWI. He said, ‘I have missed you. You know I didn’t tell my parents that we are married.’”
Everett passed away in 2008. Suzanne has remarried, marrying Hatteras native Billy Gray.
Everett and Suzanne returned to the Outer Banks in 1961, where her mother-in-law, Ruth Scarborough Tate was postmaster of Duck. As Suzanne got to know the area, she fell in love with it and her background in anthropology came to the fore.
The first book Suzanne produced was not Crabby and Nabby. Two years before it’s publication, Duck Tales, an oral history of Duck as told by her mother-in-law was written. The book has been renamed Bring Me Duck to avoid confusion with the Disney movie.
Three other oral histories followed— Whalehead from the recollections of Norris Austin, Memories of Manteo and Logs and Moonshine: Tales of Buffalo City. Whalehead is no longer available.
The oral histories seem to bring Suzanne back to her educational roots.
“Anthropology is people. The thread of it is history or the social factors,” she said.
Her 39th book will be one of her most ambitious. Every year monarch butterflies return from Mexico to South Nags Head. Like all of her books, the story is based on science and Suzanne has become fascinated with the life cycle of butterflies.
She begins by pointing to a common misunderstanding about them. “It’s not a cocoon. It’s a chrysalis,” she said, which is absolutely correct. Moths pupate in cocoons; butterflies in a chrysalis.
“They fly along the coast from here…They go to Mexico to the mountains,” she said. “There’s much more to this story than maybe you know,” she said.
And, it seems, more to her story as well.
Suzanne Tate’s latest Nature Series book will be available before summer.