Interview: Lesa Cline-Ransome Steps Out

Lesa Cline Ransome is on fire, producing the finest work of her already-impressive career. Fresh off the award-winning success of When She Was Harriet, illustrated by Lesa’s husband, James Ransome (no slouch himself!), she has a promising new novel coming out, Finding Langston. Come spend a few minutes with us. We talk about writing, research, serial murderers, and so on.

I’m trying to remember when and how we first met. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Any recollection? It was at one of those “things” that authors sometimes do.

Well, I don’t want to brag, but I have a pretty good memory. I believe we first met at a NYS Reading Assoc. event, but the first opportunity we had to talk was in Princeton when we were walking together to the party after the book signing and you were telling me about a book you loved. I wish I could say my memory is so great that I recall the title, but I don’t.

Ha, that sounds like most of my conversations: “Listen to this song, read this book, see this movie!” And, of course, we’ve eaten wings in Buffalo and chatted just recently at the great Children’s Book Festival in Hudson. I’ve asked you this before, but how do you tackle a well-known subject like Harriet Tubman, a historical figure who has been written about, and written about, and written about in the past? It must be a challenge to bring something new to the conversation.

That was indeed the challenge in writing Before She was Harriet, which is why I waited so long to tell her story. If I can’t find a new and inventive way to tell a story, or provide information about a subject’s life that allows young readers to engage in a different way, then I really don’t want to write it. So, it was only when James told me that he had discovered the many other lives she lived, as a nurse, a suffragist, a union spy and general in the army, that I knew I had found a new way to tell her story and a way in which kids could learn something new about her heroism and a life dedicated to the service of others.

Speaking of James, what was it like working with the illustrator –- who happens to be your husband? Do you try to stay out of each other’s way? Do you peer over each other’s shoulders, give friendly advice? Do you cluck, “Hmmm, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” What’s the process like?

The only way we can remain married is to stay in our own lanes. I trust him as one of my readers who gives valuable feedback during the many stages of the manuscript and he trusts my input on the pieces he is working on, but trust is the key word here. We have to allow each other our space to create without too much input from the other in order to protect our creative process, and most importantly, our marriage. It helps that when I finish a manuscript he often doesn’t begin illustrating until at least two years later, which gives me some distance from the story.

I interviewed Leo and Diane Dillon about 25 years ago. They used to swap pieces of artwork, passing it back and forth, drawing on top of each other’s work. Amazing. 

Perhaps that is because they were both illustrators, but if James and I handed our work back and forth, I have a feeling it would not go as seamlessly. I feel we each have our strengths in our own fields and we need to respect our those boundaries.

Tell us about your brand new novel, Finding Langston?

Finding Langston was such a joy to write. I’ve always written pretty long picture books, so the transition to middle grade was a natural one. After reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, I knew that there were pieces of story in that book I wanted to tell and I found it in the fictional Langston, a young boy travelling north from rural Alabama with his father after the death of his mother. In Chicago, Langston doesn’t fit with his country accent and clothes and he is bullied. But one day he escapes and finds his way into a library, a place he’s never been allowed to enter in the south, and his discovery of books and the poetry of Langston Hughes transforms his world in ways he never quite expected.

To be clear, it’s not that there weren’t libraries down South. But as a black boy, he wasn’t allowed access? The danger of an educated mind.

There were absolutely libraries in the south during that period, but very few that were integrated.  In rural areas, there were virtually none.  In Finding Langston, Langston would occasionally go into town with his father for supplies and he passed a building with a public library sign out front.  When he asked his father about it, he was told “it was a building for white folks, and that meant I couldn’t go in.”  When he got home and asked his mother, she said, “They don’t let black folks in libraries…” but when he discovers the library in Chicago, filled with blacks, his world is forever changed.

By the way, my goodness, that cover is gorgeous. 
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Probably no surprise that James insisted on illustrating the cover for my first novel. 

Nice to have connections. Obviously, a book like this involves a ton of research.

A ton, but writing so many picture book biographies meant that I had a lot of research on hand. And it can be incredibly rewarding to spend days researching trees native to Alabama or the elevated el trains in Chicago or the history of segregated libraries. I almost always find material for potential books.  

On school visits, readers always ask about ideas. I tell them that ideas are the easy part. It’s sitting down and doing the work that takes the real effort.

I agree.  It’s that tricky part of getting the ideas in your head to translate into a narrative that is engaging that’s the real challenge.

I have to say, Lesa, I am so impressed. You are really spreading your wings. I mean, it’s just a beautiful thing to watch. I’m really happy for you. Obviously, clearly, you are thriving — doing great and meaningful work. If we were in a bar, I’d say to the bartender, “Yeah, I’ll drink what she’s having.” What’s your secret?

Wow, thank you! I don’t know if there’s a secret, but I am incredibly curious about the world and people. And I feel there are so many stories to tell about courage, and hope and history. I am always inspired by the incredible books I read for pleasure, for my book group, that are recommended to me. I feel like I have so much growing to do as a writer, I have to keep plugging away.

Finding Langston is a departure for you. It’s exciting to see you take on a longer work. All those pesky words.

Definitely a departure, but a welcome one. Getting to go deeper into a character’s motivation meant that I grew to love Langston. When I wasn’t at my desk writing, I’d wonder about him, miss him. The hardest part was letting the book end.

I’m curious about that moment when you realized that, hey, wow, this is a book. A lot of ideas fizzle. You think you’ve got something, but it fades away. A dead end or just an unrealized notion. But sometimes there’s a moment when the story makes a turn and then you know, deep down, this is actually going to become a finished work! How did that work for you with Langston? Did it come during the research? During the writing? 

Nearly every time I make a plan to write a certain story, I take a turn into the story I am meant to write. The original version of this story is so different from the final version. That’s the best part about writing. Letting the story unfold the way it is supposed to.

Do you make an outline for Langston? Or try to find the path as you wrote?

I’m new to novel writing, so I approached it as an expanded picture book.  I didn’t make an outline, but I had a sense of how the story would unfold.  I think the beauty of storytelling is letting the characters lead despite what you planned for them.

Behind every great woman . . .

So what’s James working on these days?

He just completed a story he wrote called The Bell Rang and he is now starting another book with author Jerdine Nolan. James will also begin work soon on a pet project, The History of Football, with author Fred Bowen.

I have a vague idea that you live in Poughkeepsie, is that right? Isn’t that where the mass murderer had all those bodies buried under his house?

We moved from Poughkeepsie to Rhinebeck shortly after that event and we’ve been here for almost 15 years. That guy’s house was directly across the street from my childrens’ pediatrician. They were there for their annual physicals, and while we were waiting in a room, the nurse told me to not look out the windows. So, of course, I looked out the windows —

Of course —

— and there were tons of news crews and trucks outside. When she came in again, I asked what was going on and she whispered in my ear, that they had just arrested a serial killer. My kids still love that story. They feel like they were part of a historic event.

 

Uh-oh.

Is that where you are from originally?

I am originally from Malden, MA, so sorry to tell you I am a die hard New England Patriots fan. 

That doesn’t bother me a bit, Lesa. I grew up a Jets fan, but that part of my heart has shriveled up and died. I want to thank you stopping by. I’m a big fan and thrilled by your much-deserved success. Keep on rolling.

Thank you!

——

I enjoy meeting and learning from other writers and illustrators. Hopefully you feel the same way. To explore more interviews from my award-winning (not really) series of conversations,  click and scroll, baby, scroll. You’ll find interviews with London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Bruce Coville, Lizzy Rockwell, Aaron Becker, Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Nina Crews, Jeff Mack, and assorted other big shots. You’ll also find some more random things under the “Interviews and Appreciations” icon on the right sidebar. We’re here to shine a light on the good stuff!

Some recent things from yours truly . . .

          

AND COMING IN JANUARY . . . a new series!

This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever

In Short Hills, NJ, at Hartshorn Elementary, they sure do know how to treat an author right. Look at that beautiful wall of welcome.

Now let’s zoom in for a closer look . . .

Yeah, I pretty much love this. Note to Self: Get the name of the art teacher who created it so I can thank her properly. Because obviously she’s some kind of genius.

A School with an Idea Worth Stealing

I had a happy experience on a recent evening at Ichabod Crane Primary School in Valatie, NY. I was one of two authors invited to an annual event at the school: Young Authors Night. The other invited guest was the brilliant Doreen Rappaport, who writes widely-acclaimed picture-book biographies. I’d met Doreen before and she’s simply the best; her work is second to none. We were asked to come from 4:00 – 6:00 to sign books. That’s it, just sit and sign. However, no payment — but we were assured that the Ichabod Crane community comes out strong for this event. 

Well, they sure did.

When I entered the school, I passed a large room lined with tables. On each table, neatly laid out, were books written by students. Each class, grades K-3, had its own table of handsomely-produced, original books. (This was the “young” authors section of the evening; Doreen and I represented a somewhat older demographic.) Tonight was the night when parents were invited to celebrate their children’s work. The not-so-young guest authors were stationed around the corner in a small library. Out in the hallway, a famed local bookseller, Rondi Brower, had set up an attractive display of our books. Note to potential idea-stealers: Rondi’s role is indispensable here. Partnering with a local bookstore is an essential part of the evening. (Oh, and a portion of the sales go to the school, so it’s a fundraiser, too.)

Inside the library, I was offered a chair, a desk, and a pen. Same deal for Doreen, across the room. Doreen and I chatted a bit, traded war stories, while the librarian, Alanna Moss, gracefully attended to last-minute details. Frequent readers of James Preller Dot Com may recognize “Miss Moss,” for she’s the librarian who hilariously had herself duct-taped to a wall to motivate end-of-year book returns. At almost 4:00, we took our places. “They’ll start coming in soon,” Alanna informed us.

I hope so, I thought.

Oh, and one other key detail: The school has been hosting this event for many years, always on the day of the school budget vote. Smart, right? It helps get parents out of the house, they visit the school, support literacy, vote “yes” for the budget, all before dinner. Genius. And an idea worth stealing!


I signed books nonstop for two hours. Same with Doreen.

No question that a huge part of the night’s success can be attributed to the aforementioned Miss Moss, who did so much advance work prepping the students. She shared our books in the library, building anticipation and excitement for the “big night,” inspiring young readers to come on out and get their books signed by real (and evidently still live) authors.

“Get ’em while we last!”

I have one last image to share. Because the lines are long and the event is so well-organized, students came to my table with their names neatly printed on Post-It notes. This is extremely helpful and efficient, and it also frees us up to discuss topics other than how exactly to spell, say, MacKenzee. I’d take the note, slap it on the table, sign the book, we’d chat a bit — “What are you doing this summer?” “What was your book about?””Any brothers or sisters?” “Have you read Jigsaw Jones before?” the usual light banter — and move on to the next. Toward the end of the night, my desk looked like this:

 

This is just to say: Thank you, good folks at Ichabod Crane Primary School for letting me share a slice of this special night. It was impressive all the way around, particularly the way the families came out for their children — to support literacy, to vote, to have some family fun. A true community of readers. Well done!

Fan Mail Wednesday #273: Avigayil from Inwood!

 

 

You all buckled up? Let’s go. Because Avigayil is learning how to write letters.

I replied . . . 

Dear Avigayil from Inwood!

What an interesting name you have. I’ve received many letters, and signed a lot of books, but you are my first Avigayil. Congratulations.

Am I your first James? Or Jimmy? Or Jimbo?

For someone who is just learning how to write letters, you did an excellent job. Thanks especially for including the stamped, self-addressed envelope. That saved me time and money!

I’m glad you liked The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster and The Case of the Race Against Time. The second title features a bad haircut –- and let me tell you, I’ve had a few. I remember looking in the mirror and feeling sad. Ack! My head!

I wrote a new Jigsaw Jones book last year, titled The Case from Outer Space. I had a great time writing it, and maybe even made myself laugh here and there. I’m working on a new one right now. The title will be, The Case of the Hat Burglar. It centers around the “Lost and Found” at Jigsaw’s school.

Do you have a “Lost & Found” at your school? What do you think would happen if most of the hats were suddenly . . . missing? It’s time for Jigsaw and Mila to solve a new case.

But first, I guess I’ve got to write the book. When I start, I take notes and do a lot of thinking and planning. I don’t actually start writing until several weeks go by. Right now, I’m almost ready to begin. Thanks for your letter, Avigayil. Great job!

Your friend,

James Preller

Climate Change, Alfred Hitchcock, and BETTER OFF UNDEAD

A freaky, zombie-esque storyboard from Hitchcock's "The Birds."

A freaky, zombie-esque storyboard from Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

 

The springboard concept for my novel, Better Off Undead, was that Adrian Lazerus would become a zombie who, post-accident, returns transformed to middle school. The ultimate misfit, outsider. And as far as the rest of the world knew, the only zombie on the planet. (If you want more zombies, you’re going to have to demand a sequel.)

Yes, the zombie, that’s a preposterous idea. And, I thought, an interesting metaphor. So I went with it. Along the way, I asked myself why Adrian had reanimated. What was going on? Looking around, I realized this was a “world gone wrong” story.

An inspiration for this notion surely came from Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “The Birds,” which is a classic “world gone wrong” story. I think in retrospect I’ve long been impressed by the film’s central idea. When the natural world goes out of whack, everything goes off-balance. The center cannot hold. That poem by Yeats, another inspiration.

birds-film-poster

It did not require a great imaginative leap. Look around: the world is going wrong in many ways. Climate change is a leading cause of much of it. Droughts and wildfires, extreme weather, superflus, Zika viruses, melting ice caps, and on and on. So I ended up taking a lot of different elements that are in the news today, blowing them up a little bit, and employing those issues as context for Adrian’s story, which is set in the not-so-distant future. Adrian himself is a result of a world gone wrong, but he’s also existing within it. Like the rest of us.

Here’s an excerpt of a recent article by Lauren Weber in The Huffington Post, titled “Mosquito- and Tick-Borne Diseases Have Tripled, But the CDC Won’t Say It’s Climate Change“:

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The number of Americans who have gotten sick from mosquito, tick and flea bites more than tripled between 2004 to 2016, according to new figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also said that local and state public health departments are unequipped to properly combat the surge of disease from insects.

Since 2004, nine new diseases have been introduced in the United States, including the chikungunya and Zika viruses. Diseases already endemic to the country, such as Lyme disease, shot up, contributing to these high case counts. Experts warn Lyme disease diagnosis numbers can be up to 10 times higher than currently reported.

“The numbers are really staggering,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “The increase that we’re seeing over a very short time period is unprecedented.”

I could site dozens of articles that served as seeds for the ideas, {FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400sometimes presented off-handedly, matter-of-factly, in the book. Adrian’s father, for example, is away in Africa working for Corporate, a for-hire soldier fighting in the “Water Wars.” Just read about water security issues if you think that’s far-fetched. Or consider white nose syndrome and the importance of bats. In the novel, Zander and Adrian come across a dead bat while on their way to the local pizza joint. Zander has a keen interest in nature — bees and beekeeping play a pivotal role in this book — so they pause and take note of it. Look at this. A dead bat. White nose syndrome. And they move on.

Here’s an excerpt from a February article in The New Yorker by J.R. Sullivan, “A Fatal Disease Is Ravaging America’s Bats, and Scientists are Struggling to Stop It“:

As of September, 2017, the disease had spread to thirty-one states, some of which have suffered ninety-per-cent declines in their bat populations; the crisis, which began in New York, now extends as far west as Washington. “I think most states would say it’s not a matter of if white nose is going to show up but when,” Kelly Poole, the endangered-species coördinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, told me. The disease disrupts the bats’ hibernation, causing them to wake up in winter, exert energy looking for food, and, in time, starve. It is almost always fatal, leaving caves full of bones in its wake. Scientists have yet to find a cure or treatment. “I get a sense that we may actually be witnessing the extinction of a couple of species, at least regionally,” Gumbert said. “We may not lose a species completely, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we did.”

Sullivan-A-Fatal-Disease-Ravaging-Americas-Bats

In a state such as Iowa, where the economy is based largely on agriculture, white nose is particularly worrisome. According to a study published in 2011 in the journal Science, bats consume enough insects to save U.S. farmers an estimated $22.9 billion a year in pest control and crop damage, a conclusion echoed by a follow-up study in 2015. The findings suggest that a nationwide decline in bats could result in higher food prices, owing to an uptick in pesticide use and a reduction in crop yields. “That cost gets passed down to the consumer, and you start seeing it at the grocery stores,” Piper Roby, Copperhead’s research director, told me. She also noted that increased pesticide use means more harmful chemicals in the ecosystem. “It’s just this cascade effect if you remove a top-down predator, and you start to see the effects of it years later,” she said.

In one key scene, a queen bee speaks an important line. (Yes, it surprised me, too; my first talking bee!) She delivers only three words to Gia: “It all connects.”

And she’s absolutely right, especially when it comes to climate change.

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