I can’t believe it, 2016 is in full swing and #NY16SBCWI is only three weeks away. This conference looks to be so much fun, I just can’t wait. In fact, I didn’t wait. I reached out to award-winning illustrator and author James Ransome, who will be on faculty there and asked him a few questions.
Ransome has been illustrating children’s books for over twenty years with almost fifty picture books to his credit. He is the winner of many awards, including the Coretta Scott King and NAACP Image awards. His work is part of both private and public children’s book art collections and a number of commissioned murals, including three for the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ransome is an Assistant Professor in the Illustration Program at Syracuse University and lives in Rhinebeck, New York, with his wife, author, Lesa Cline-Ransome.
Now, let’s get to the interview!
Don: Thanks for the interview, James. I’m excited to host you here.
James: Thanks for the warm comments. I really enjoy your work and envy your dedication to the gym. I only recall us meeting once at NCTE but I feel like I’ve known you for a long time because years ago your Aunt Eleanora Tate told me of your interest in illustration.
Don: I’ve been a fan of your work for many years. When I first got into publishing, I studied your books, considering you a far away mentor. Who were illustrators you studied?
James: In the early days I looked at a lot of illustrators from the Society of Illustrators Annuals, mainly big names like Skip (Malcolm) Liepke, Burt Silverman, Bernie Fuchs, Robert Cunningham and anyone who painted loosely ( Alla prima). But it was Jerry Pinkney who allowed me to visit his studio on a regular basis over a period of ten years that really helped me become the illustrator that I am. And then I befriended Robert Cunningham. What I eventually learned was that these artists were designers and drawers and had a passion for color. I first gained interest in these three elements as a student in a foundation class while at Pratt Institute.
Don: What types of manuscripts are you drawn to?
James: I really don’t have a favorite! I just enjoy the challenge of creating images. Different mediums, formats and media from (video, photography to collage) . I’m an art geek! At this point I’m interested in authors who write from various perspectives and play on language.
Don: In the past few years, it seems that you’ve transitioned in the mediums you use, from oil to watercolors, and now pastel. Can you talk about that transition? What were the challenges, if any?
James: Being an art geek means I enjoy a variety of mediums. I have done books in oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels and mixed media with collage. The desire to work in different mediums actually comes from a number of sources, but I would guess it mostly comes from a class I teach at Syracuse University. The class is entitled Media Arts Techniques where I teach the students a variety of mediums. So, I spend a good deal of time discussing, discovering new materials and studying artists who work in different disciplines. When I pick up a manuscript I try to let the text tell me how and what medium needs to be used for the illustrations. In the future I plan to work in graphite, gouache, collage as well as digitally.
Don: I know that you are also authored many of some of the books you’ve illustrated. Can you talk about your transformation from illustrator to writer? Fears, goals, self discovery.
James: Fear! That’s a great word to illustrate my relationship with writing. I’m not sure if it’s positive or negative but I’m a idea magnet, I have tons of ideas for stories and I pitch them first to my wife, author Lesa Cline-Ransome. She rejects 90% of what I throw her. The stories that I feel the most passionate about I’ll write or contact a writer friend like Deborah Hopkinson. The real truth is that as a child I first wrote and then began drawing images to go along with my WWII adventure stories. I truly enjoy writing and storytelling but it’s very time consuming. Plus, authors are the professionals who have studied the craft of writing often for years. So, you’ll only have a few stories from me from time to time. I would rather spend my time drawing or painting.
Don: I am also a member of the We Need Diverse Books team. What was your first mirror book, a book that featured characters that reflected you?
James: I’m sure the first book with an African American character was Keats’ The Snowy Day. I can’t recall the initial impact. I was in college when my girlfriend, now wife Lesa, gave me a copy of The Patchwork Quilt written by Valerie Flournoy, a book illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. That first opened me up to the idea to illustrating children’s books. I was in the last semester of my senior year. At that time I was doing mostly sport images with the hopes of illustrating for Sports Illustrated. At that point I began making images that included children and received my first book contract within two years of graduating.
Don: I’m thrilled that you will be on faculty at the National SCBWI conference in NYC. Can you tell our readers what to expect from James Ransome at 16NYSCBWI?
James: I will discuss my background that was absent of art with the exception of comic books, how my career began, a few current and past book projects, artistic influences, a tour of my studio, non book projects and my stages in illustrating a book. My presentation is more of a motivational speech that places more emphasis on hard work than talent.
Click here for more information about the17th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC.