I wanted to publish this before Christmas, but family emergencies have prevailed. Yet just like Harriet Tubman, I forge ever forward. Today’s post is an interview I’m very excited about.
I met James E. Ransome in September at Highlights. His work is phenomenal and his work ethic is even more so. Plus he’s always full of laughter and a joy to be around. He has illustrated and/or written numerous picture books (too many to count!) and has received almost as many accolades. The last few years he has worked on quite a few books in collaboration with his wife, just like the book we will discuss today. You can learn more about him at his website.
Today we will be talking about “Before She Was Harriet,” an amazingly fresh take on Harriet Tubman’s life. It has already received quite a bit of well-deserved attention. It has been named 2017 Top of the List Editor’s Choice for Youth Picture Book by the ALA Booklist, received starred reviews, and nominated for a NAACP image award in the category Outstanding Literary Work for Children, just to name a few. He co-wrote this book with his wife (who has some very interesting thoughts on the book at her blog here). It is stunning (did I say that already?) and I’m so happy to be able to discuss it here.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey? When did you start drawing?
James: It started as a child. I actually started off writing stories, but let me go further back. One of my first memories is of being on a balcony of an apartment building with my stepsisters in New Jersey and I just envied how beautifully they colored. And I remember that we would read stories—I had a set of encyclopedias, and with the set there were these additional books with children’s stories. Reading those, copying and coloring them was something we did to entertain ourselves while we were watching cartoons or playing outside.
Then I moved away from them and I wanted to continue to draw. And I continued to write these simple stories. I was very influenced by the movie “The Dirty Dozen.” These characters go on adventures and save the world, of course. Soldiers. WW2 was a big thing for me. Then I came to New York for the summer and went to a comic book store. You have to understand that I grew up in a very small town, living with my grandmother who didn’t drive. So going into town was kind of a big deal and I never really saw any comic books or anything like them before. Or at least I never noticed them until that summer when my cousin took me to a comic book store where there were so many comic books to choose from. I came home with a stack of Rawhides, Sargent Fury, and others and I started copying them and making up stories. That’s how I got started was with those images.
Me: You have many picture books out now. What draws you to illustrating picture books in particular?
James: I’m a big fan of history and I love stories and the opportunity to create stories for children. All of this can come together when I discover someone who isn’t very popular and either my wife or I will write something. Then we’re able to go to a school where people are more aware of this person. That’s probably one of my greatest joys. But I also just love making pictures. Even from the age of being a young child the idea of making a picture that shows someone what I saw when I read the story was interesting. That’s basically what I do now. I basically make pictures to show people what I see.
Me: I remember you saying that “Before She Was Harriet” was a collaboration with your wife who wrote this story, in more ways than one. Can you talk about that a little bit?
James: I’m used to brainstorming ideas with my wife. I toss her ten ideas and she choses one. We were traveling some place and I was really interested in Harriet for some reason. I wanted to do something about her. I know there has been so many books about her and my wife wasn’t really interested in doing anything about her. Mainly because she’s a huge fan and there are so many books about her. Her thoughts were probably about finding someone else to do a book about.
But I felt that there was something there. I started reading this book about her. It talked about her being older, living in upstate New York, and the idea just came to me: wait a minute, didn’t she have a lot of different names she was called? Where are the stories about her being called by these names? So the thought of her being older and going backwards in time came to be on that trip. I told my wife about it and she wasn’t interested in it at all. I jotted down some notes and handed them to her and she said, “meh, no, nothing there.” Once we returned home, I started fine-tuning the idea. I showed it to her and she said, “I think you have something” and she took it from there.
Me: I’ve heard several author and/or illustrator couples talk about working with their significant other on picture books. What’s it like to work on as many projects with a spouse as you two have? Do you have any rules to keep the peace, to help keep work and home life separate like Andrea Davis Pinkney and her husband?
James: We’re friends with Andrea and Brian actually. We don’t have rules like that. We talk about stuff all the time. An idea comes when I’m in my studio and I may go in the house when she’s in the middle of something. I’ll say, “I have an idea for you,” and she’ll say, “What’s this idea about?” We have no rules or anything about it. We like to share the creative process. We value that.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating (and/or writing) this story about such an amazing woman? As you said, there are already a ton of things written about her so what is one thing that surprised you in working on this book?
James: Probably the most surprising thing to me was the fact that she actually led a group of soldiers to this place in South Carolina to rescue all these people. I knew she was a spy, I knew she was part of the suffrage movement, but the General part was probably what shocked me more than anything else.
Me: Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?
James: It’s a commitment. You have to be committed to your work. You have to be willing to sit down and finish the work. The work that goes into making art and writing is hard, especially the work that goes into writing. Writing is more than stringing a group of sentences together. There’s a lot more to it than that. So often people want it to be easy and it’s not easy. It’s hard work and you have to put it into it. That’s the hard part for most people.
Me: You have illustrated a lot of picture book biographies. Who is one hero, past or present, whom you would love to meet and/or illustrate a book about if you could? No holds barred.
James: The person I’m most interested in right now … well, I’m afraid to even tell! Someone else might do it. How about I skirt the question and say I’m interested in any sort of Blues musician. Muddy Waters was on my list and someone did a book about him that just came out this year. I’m really interested in Jazz and Blues musicians right now.
Me: And it seems to me at least that there is definitely a market for that as they’ve been coming out with more and more titles with those musicians lately.
James: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. There’s lots of titles about them. These are good times to write about them.
Thank you for stopping by James!
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, you really must track down a copy! It’s an incredible take on Harriet Tubman unlike anything I’ve seen before (and that’s a hard thing to accomplish!). And if you’ve become an instant fan of James’ work like I have (he paints every picture by hand you guys!), then you must check out the illustrations in another of his latest picture books, “The Nutcracker in Harlem” written by T.E. McMorrow. The illustrations are stunning. In fact, they have ended up on the cover of The Horn Book magazine! Check it out as well. You won’t be disappointed.