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March 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Booklist Top of the List Interview
This year’s Top of the List Picture Book is Before She Was Harriet (Holiday), by the award-winning team of writer Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrator James E. Ransome. In a finely tuned poetic text, illustrated with stirring paintings, the book looks back at the life of Harriet Tubman and the many roles she lived through: slave, conductor on the Underground Railroad, Union spy, and so much more. The Ransomes (who have another book coming in August: Finding Langston by Lesa, with cover illustration by James) discussed with Booklist the genesis, challenges, and rewards of creating the book.
The life of Harriet Tubman has been explored in children’s books before, but you brought something new to the telling. How did the idea of going backward through the stages of her life come to you? Was it daunting to think about writing about a figure who already has been covered in such depth?
LESA: Telling the story of my lifelong hero was incredibly daunting. Harriet’s story had been told many times over by many talented writers, and I wasn’t sure what more I could offer to a narrative on her life. So when James approached me with the idea for this story, I initially refused to write it. He is, however, very persistent—when he convincingly showed me his research revealing the many roles she played throughout history, I knew he had found something unique. But finding a way to tell this story still presented a challenge. By beginning the story at the end of her life, it offers the chance to show the years and wrinkles fade away as Harriet recounts the many lives she has lived.
Each writer brings a piece of themselves to each story. Even with the same subject matter, the focus can be entirely different. My goal was twofold: first, I wanted to showcase for young readers the many lives of Harriet, not just as a conductor on the Underground Railroad but the portions of her life, also devoted to the service of others, that are often overlooked in history books. And second, on a personal level, I have a mother who is 92 years old, whose life story is so rich and varied. This prompted me to tell Harriet’s story from the perspective of an older woman reflecting on her life. The reverse chronological format is almost like flipping through a photo album of someone’s life and stopping to pause at the most interesting parts.
By beginning with an elderly Harriet, it is a reminder that even though the years have slowed her, we can still see glimpses of the fire within her. For Harriet and for all of us, the twilight years are a culmination of past stories often propelled by the dreams of our youth.
Part of the power of this book is the strength and simplicity of the text. Was it difficult to pare it down when there are so many things to say about Harriet Tubman?
LESA: I am often thankful for my editor’s pen, but in this case, I wanted each of Harriet’s many accomplishments to have the ability to shine, which they couldn’t do if they were loaded down with heavy text. The limited text in Harriet helped to mirror the raw emotion and the quiet strength of a powerful figure. Also, as the illustrations did so much of the storytelling in this book, the words and images needed to balance each other.
Lesa, would you talk a bit about research and revision? James, would you weigh in here as well? Your paintings jump off the pages. What kind of research did you do? How do you take a woman’s face and move it back in time? And, in general, what is your artistic process?
LESA: I spend a lot of time researching and taking notes, looking at photographs, and visiting historic sites if possible. Because I have also written books about Frederick Douglass, slavery, and the Underground Railroad, I already had many notes on Harriet Tubman. I generally begin by looking through my notes, hoping to get a sense of how I want to tell the story. It’s often informed by the research rather than the other way around. With Harriet, I continued to add stanzas each time I stumbled on a new piece of information until I finally had to stop reading. There was more I could have added, but with picture books, there is a point at which your editor tells you to stop.
JAMES: I have many books on the topic of slavery, so the research does not take that long. In rare cases, the idea for some books comes naturally. The last time I can recall this happening was with Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (1993), and this book had a similar flow. Once I have the idea, the most challenging part is composing an interesting narrative picture. I am not really moving the face back in time but changing the environment and the costuming to give the illusion of time passing.
I do bring in models. In this case, it was a cousin, and the older and younger Harriets were played by friends of the family. I bring these models into the studio, photograph them, and then I find the settings I would like to place them in—either from the photos I take, books, or online sources. I then place them in those environments using tracing paper. By using three to four layers of tracing paper, I compose the images into one final drawing, which is then transferred onto the paper I am going to work on. Finally, I paint—in this case, watercolors, but I generally use a variety of mediums, from oils to acrylics to collage.
This brings me to the question of how you work together. With most picture books, the author and artist never even meet. What’s it like to work closely with a collaborator who also happens to be your spouse?
LESA: For the most part, the collaborative process for James and me is a very separate one, and begins and ends at the brainstorming stage. When we find a project we are interested in working on together, I head off to research, write, and work with my editor, and James begins illustrating anywhere between one to three years later. But, with Harriet, the process was different. When James approached me with the idea, he already had thoughts about the format, which we discussed together. When I began writing, he made additional suggestions. I typically read all of my manuscripts to him because it’s important to hear work read aloud and get feedback that way. On the art end, as I watched the book progress, I also made more comments than usual—in fact, I loved one image so much, I suggested it for the cover. For the both of us, it was the right project at the right time, and we were very much in sync with the way in which we saw the book taking shape.
There are so many inspirational moments in the life of Harriet Tubman. What do you take away from it?
LESA: Through my research of Harriet, I felt a renewed sense of awe in her courage, her perseverance in the face of adversity, and her faith. For me, and I hope for women and girls around the world, her life serves as evidence of how one person’s voice and life can impact many.
JAMES: She is just a remarkable person with a tremendous amount of courage. As I continue to go back to Harriet, I am increasingly astonished with how she continues to be a rich resource and example for us all.
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