How Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome Find Inspiration in the Little Things

The award-winning, author-illustrator duo speak to each other about illustrator's block, the Great Migration, and drawing inspiration from family histories past and present.

The characters in Lesa Cline-Ransome's books are familiar with movement; it's not always voluntary and sometimes it's painful, but it often leads to exciting personal growth. In Leaving Lymon, Cline-Ransome's companion novel to 2018's Finding Langston, an unfamiliar path shapes a whole new set of circumstances for the boy readers know only as Langston's classmate and bully. In their picture book Overground Railroad, the husband-wife, author-illustrator duo brings the Great Migration to dazzling life through poetry and collage. The pair teamed up once again to discuss Southern roots, messy workspaces, and the value of keeping abundant inspiration close by.

 

James Ransome: Lesa, you have such engaging characters in your books. Are these characters completely fictional, or are they based on real people?

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome: As you know, many of the nonfiction picture books I write are based on historical figures, so embarking on these fictional projects was a bit of a departure for me. Both of these books are based in the 1940s and focus on the Great Migration—a period beginning in the early 1900s, when blacks left the South for the North. When I started working on them, I thought about my family. My mother, Ernestine Howard, left Charlottesville, VA, in 1930 at the age of five and traveled north to Everett, MA. My father, William Cline, left Shelby, NC, at 11 years old with his mother and younger brother for Providence. But nearly all of my characters have elements of family members; they are an endless source of humor and inspiration in equal parts. James, you also migrated from the South to New Jersey as a teenager. Do you feel that being from North Carolina impacted the way you illustrated Overground Railroad?

 

JR: I have a very strong connection to the South. I think that usually appears in my work through the subtle details based on homes that I visited, like a potbellied stove or a braided rug. I also have tremendous respect for the region and the people, and I want that to come through in the sensitive way in which I portray home, family, and community.

Photo by John Halpern

Most people would be surprised to know how much you read. When we travel, you usually bring books, magazines, and newspapers. How do you find the time to read as much as you do? Why do you feel it is important, and what writers are your greatest inspiration?

LC-R: The poet Jane Kenyon once wrote, “Read good books, have good sentences in your ears,” and that is the mantra I live by. When I feel stuck with my writing, I often realize it is because I haven’t been reading enough. Reading feeds my writing and helps me see how others have solved issues of dialogue, character development, plot, and voice. It is also my favorite hobby. Give me a book, or a great magazine or newspaper article, and a good cup of tea and I can withstand nearly anything—delayed flights, long waits in doctor’s offices, loud, annoying conversations on crowded trains—because I am instantly transported. I can’t tell you how many times I have missed stops or haven’t heard my name being called because I was lost in the pages of a book. I seize every moment to read because my TBR (To Be Read) stack grows higher each day! I listen to audiobooks in the car, read before I go to sleep each night and at my desk while eating lunch, and carry a book in my purse so that I can read while waiting in lines. I have many go-to authors: Tonya Bolden, Laurie Halse Anderson, Neil Shusterman, Renée Watson, and Gary Paulsen are just a few. People always ask me about overcoming writer’s block. Do you think there such a thing as illustrator’s block?

JR: What I enjoy most about this business is the problem-solving. When I have a manuscript and a blank piece of paper in front of me, my job is to figure out how to tell the story visually. There are times when it takes me longer than others, but that is part of the challenge. And it is a shared challenge with the editor and the art director. So, I guess the answer is no. I don’t get illustrators block because as a visual person, I always seek out visual stimulation. 

 

LC-R: When I walk into your studio, I see a mess, but you probably see the makings of creative genius. What do you feel makes an inspiring workspace?

JR: I don’t feel like the workspace itself has to inspire you. I think your workspace has to be comfortable. What you are seeing is not necessarily the way I like to keep my space, but when there are a lot of projects I am juggling, the studio tends to get messy! I like to have images on the walls that inspire me. When people come into my studio, I tell them that the images they see are created by other artists as a way of reminding me to think outside of the box. I love to listen to music and watch movies on my laptop while I am working, and I love being surrounded by family photographs, mainly of the kids and friends. I love the vases I have filled with cotton bolls sent by someone I met in North Carolina. They keep me connected to my Southern roots. I love to have flowers and plants and mementos from my travels. But the most important thing in my studio is the number of windows—five total—which flood the studio with light and let me view wildlife like deer, turkey, and foxes in my wooded backyard while I’m working. That helps me relax and remember to slow down.

Lesa, what do you like most about my work? 

LC-R: I love the fresh approach you bring to each book. Sometimes it scares me because I know you have to be creative within very strict deadlines, but I am always surprised by the innovative ways you think about each project. You play with composition, medium, type placement, and your color palette. You do that by always looking at various art forms and as a result, you continue to grow as an artist. Who is your favorite writer to work with?

JR: You mean after Deborah Hopkinson, Jerdine Nolen and, Jacqueline Woodson? Definitely Lesa Cline-Ransome. I think the dialogue in your novels is incredibly authentic. I know Toni Morrison is one of your favorite authors, and I often hear her influence in your work. I, too, am a fan of Morrison’s work, and I know what you are going for; but you often go beyond what I even imagine. I love when you come into the studio and share the very early drafts of your stories; I can hear their progression. In Overground Railroad, the way in which you weave Frederick Douglass’s story, the Great Migration, your family history, and the history of African Americans is pure magic.

LC-R: Great answer!


Lesa Cline-Ransome has written many books for children, including Before She Was Harriet, which received five starred reviews, a Coretta Scott King Honor, and a Christopher Award, and her debut middle grade novel Finding Langston, which received a Coretta Scott King Honor and five starred reviews. James Ransome's numerous accolades include a Coretta Scott King Medal, three Coretta Scott King Honors, and an NAACP Image Award. James and Lesa are frequent collaborators and live in upstate New York.

 

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Ashleigh Williams

Ashleigh Williams (awilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is the Assistant Editor of Chapter Books and Middle Grade for School Library Journal. Find them on Twitter @bombus_vagans.

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