Today’s picture book is three things in one: two nonfiction biographies I’ve never heard before all told through glorious poetry.
Lesa Cline-Ransome is the author of more than twenty books for young readers including the award-winning Finding Langston trilogy. Her work has received a plethora of honors, including dozens of starred reviews, NAACP Image Award nominations, a Coretta Scott King honor, the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and a Christopher Award. Her work has been named to ALA Notable Books and Bank Street Best Children’s Book lists and she lives in the Hudson Valley region of New York. You can learn more about her at her website.
OF WALDEN POND: HENRY DAVID THOREAU, FREDERIC TUDOR, AND THE POND BETWEEN is a nonfiction picture book biography of not one, but two amazing figures in history. This book manages to not only weave their stories and their lives together (rightfully so, as they were neighbors on the same famous pond), but does so using poetry. That it can do all that in a way that seems easy, is mind boggling. We picture book writers and poets know that this is no easy feat. Even more astonishing is the respect the text and the illustrations give to the reader, assuming a sense of intelligence that can put pieces together without being blatantly told every aspect of these stories. Phenomenal! I couldn’t wait to talk about it with Lesa and share this book with you, my dear readers.
Me: I can’t imagine anyone isn’t familiar with your work, but can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey? When did you start writing? How did that lead to where you are now as an author of this book?
Lesa: Well, it certainly seems like a lifetime ago when I began writing. But I believed, and still do, that it is often the detours in life that lead you exactly where you need to be. I began my writing journey as a reader who devoured books in my local library as a young girl and was considered a strong writer and encouraged in all of my high school English classes. But because I didn’t truly understand the process of how to become a writer, I went off to college to study Fashion Marketing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. But, instead of being focused on my major, I took every writing course that was offered at Pratt. After I graduated, I worked as a copywriter until I went to graduate school to earn a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education. I worked in the New York City public school system, and then I was a full-time stay at home mom, raising my four children, and then as a publicist for my local library before venturing into writing for children. I am now a full-time reader and finally, happily, a full-time writer.
Me: Wow! What a journey. By this point in your career, you have written many amazing nonfiction picture book biographies. You have quite a knack for transforming stories I’ve heard a hundred times into brand new stories that just sing. What gave you the idea to combine both of these biographies into one story?
Lesa: As a child, I absolutely hated reading biographies. They were often stories of people who seemingly lived perfect lives, were perfect students and had perfect families. Where is the story in that? Any good story needs conflict and in any good biography young readers need to see not just what made a person great, but the many ways that we as flawed human beings can still do great things. We make mistakes, we have been the victims of injustice, we fail, and sometimes we have horrible families, But the beauty of us is that we quite often have the ability to achieve great things not only when times are good, but also when times are tough.
In Of Walden Pond, I thought the story of one man drawn to the beauty of nature, living simply in his spare cabin in solitude, surrounded by the beauty of Walden Pond was a perfect contrast to a debt-ridden entrepreneur driven to Walden Pond by his greed and need to harvest ice in a last-ditch attempt to earn a place in Boston society and make a fortune. Thoreau’s tranquil life was interrupted by the noise of Tudor’s harvesting, and was recorded in his journal. Those writings later made their way into Thoreau’s book Walden, and after Tudor ships sent the harvested ice overseas to sell in India, he achieved the wealth he dreamed while simultaneously creating innovative methods of insulation and refrigeration. Their stories become a perfect illustration of the large and small ways our lives impact each other and the world beyond.
Me: Can you tell us a bit about your research process? How long did it take you to research all the different facts and tidbits that went into this book?
Lesa: I began by reading the book The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle and diving into research about the ice trade. In between that research, I read passages from Thoreau’s writings. I also like to research over a period of a few months, around a subject by reading about other figures from the time period. In this case it was Ralph Waldo Emerson, (and friend to Thoreau), Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and a book called Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts which discussed the generations of freed slaves and their children who lived in Walden Woods. It is so important to get a sense of the time period, the news, music, literature and art of the era, to give you a better sense of how your subject lived in the world.
It is also very important for me to leave my office as part of my research, and visit the homes and areas where my subjects lived so that I can walk in the shoes of the characters I am writing about. So, I spent time walking through Concord, MA, and sat in Thoreau’s recreated cabin, at his desk and, of course, visiting Walden Pond and imagining its splendor in 1846-47 when the lives of Thoreau and Tudor intersected.
Me: I love that. I also love the way you used poetry to tell this story. Your poems are short and concise, yet beautifully written. Why did you decide to take that approach? Was this story always told in poetry from your first draft?
Lesa: This book absolutely came to me in verse. And it seemed a natural choice to continue to try to emulate Thoreau’s poetic language. I believe sometimes the best way to tell a story is to tell less of it, not more. By using only the sparest of language, writers are able to both evoke the mood and capture the essence of a subject.
Me: Ashley Benham Yazdani’s illustrations in this book are wonderful! She has so many beautiful details, like that image of the ship sailing across the globe, leaving a trail of Walden pond in its wake. GORGEOUS! Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Lesa: I think that spread was pretty magical for me as well. But I loved the way in which she utilized a unique perspective-looking down at scenes from up above–to give viewers intimate views of nature, inside Thoreau’s cabin and winter landscapes.
Also, I loved the way many of the pages had a lot of space on the page which matched the spareness of the text.
Me: You have written many books over the last few years. What is one thing that still managed to surprise you in writing this story?
Lesa: Learning about Tudor’s innovative uses of insulation–sawdust, hay, tanbark, straw– that led to discoveries in insulation used in the very first ice boxes and early refrigerators was a huge surprise.
Oh and that Thoreau and I share a birthday.
Me: LOL! That’s awesome. Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Lesa: That I will keep short and sweet: Read. Every single day. When you are reading you are learning everything there is to know about character development, dialogue, structure, pacing, voice and setting. It is impossible to be a writer without first being a reader.
That is great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Lesa.
Dear readers, this book is released into the world TODAY! It’s an incredible biography, a passage of time, a story of two lives woven together (and yet separately), and beautiful poetry. Trust me when I say this is a book you won’t want to miss!