Today we’ll meet London Ladd, the supremely talented illustrator behind Frederick’s Journey (2015), written by Doreen Rappaport. In the process of this interview, you’ll discover what I’ve already learned — that London is a soft-spoken, modest, quietly determined artist with a bright future ahead of him.
London I’m so glad to have you here. Now I can shine my full 15-watt bulb on your awesome talent. I hope you’re wearing sunglasses. Are you ready for this?
Thank you very much. I’m honored to talk to you and share. I’m ready!
As an illustrator who does not write his own books (we’ll get back to that later), you depend on quality manuscripts coming your way. What was your experience first reading Doreen Rappaport’s manuscript for Frederick’s Journey? She’s such an excellent writer and researcher. Are you visualizing images right away?
It was amazing because Douglass is one of my favorite historical figures so this was a dream come true for me as an illustrator. Doreen is great!!! My first time reading her script, images and scenes immediately popped into my head — and as I read it again and again, more would come up. Some would end up in the book, some didn’t.
Okay, so you accepted the job. What’s next? Do you freak out for a week, filled with self-doubt? Or are you a guy who rolls up your sleeves and dives right in? I mean, you are staring at words typed on a bare page. How do you start? Sketching with a pencil, or what?
I wouldn’t say freak out, but take a deep breath, exhale so I can could be focused and determined to do an outstanding job. First I read the script from beginning to end without stopping. Then I read a second time while quickly writing notes and sketching in pencil rough ideas. I’ll repeat the process a few more times. Usually 1/4 of the pages roughly sketched before the next phase . . . research.
In the illustrator’s note at the back of the book, you describe going to places where Frederick Douglas lived, visiting his grave in Rochester, New York, even growing your hair long like him. It sounds like you employ similar techniques to a method actor who seeks to inhabit the character he’s portraying. Tell us about your process of –- I don’t want to say becoming Frederick Douglas -– but your effort to get inside this very strong, historic figure.
Since I look a little like him — I have spots of gray in my hair and facial hair — I decided to grow it out. While my hair was growing I read his powerful autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and watched documentaries of him and the slave era.
So your first big move was to wait for your hair to grow?
Well, while that was happening I also traveled to various important landmarks during his life like his home in Washington DC, Fells Point in Baltimore, and his grave in Rochester. Everything about the book was a magical experience. I’ve never enjoyed working on a project as much as Frederick’s Journey. That’s why I was so immersed.
Tell us a little about the materials you used to create these paintings. And, um, for the sake of my Nation of Readers, just pretend that I’m a complete idiot and –- I know, that’s a huge leap! –- try to use small words.
LOL . . . it’s pretty simple.
I use acrylic paint with touches of colored pencil and pastels on primed illustration board. When sketches are approved by the publisher I put the drawings on board, then start painting with thin layers of acrylic paint while adding thicker layers while applying colored pencil and pastels for desired effects. I’ve been illustrating books for 10 years but I’m still developing my artistic look with each project. I really enjoyed the challenges painting them.
Oh, yeah. “Pretty simple.” Sure. Do you work from models?
Always!!! Besides using myself I use family members, friends, anyone who fits the character. I might ask you if necessary!
Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Do you have a favorite moment in the book? I love the contrast from Frederick’s younger days, when he is vulnerable and hungry, forced to eat from a trough, to when we see him later, hunched over a newspaper -– a reader can sense the power he’s acquiring in that moment.
We see him later in a classic heroic pose, with our perspective looking up at him. He grows in stature as the book progresses. I’m also impressed by that huge, tight head shot that occurs late in the book. You turn the page and it’s like, wow, very stark and effective. There he is, the man. When you finished that painting, that must have been a good day.
Thank you! Yeah, it took me a week to paint that page because I would paint it for a few hours, stop, work on other image from the book then continue working on it the next day or two or three until I was happy enough with it.
There are so many images I love but I would have to say the first three pages: Frederick being taken from his mother (the agony of his mother’s guttural scream as he’s taken), fishing in the river (the comfort of being with his grandmother peacefully fishing, soothing sound of the river and warmth of the sun setting), and separating from grandmother (the sadness in his eyes and his low volume sobbing as young Douglass realizes his grandmother is gone, possibly forever and surrounded by strangers). I see them as linked together as one range of feelings, emotions and sounds.
Yes, enough for a life’s journey in just three pages. It’s amazing what he accomplished after that. Do you have plans for writing your own books, too? I really hope you do. You seem like a quiet guy and, of course, those are the ones who surprise people. Any areas of interest you might want to explore?
I’m usually quiet but sometimes I can have a playful personality. Believe it or not when I was younger I wasn’t quiet . . . . I blame the deadlines for that.
I know you are working really hard right now, London, holding down two jobs in addition to your work as an illustrator. It’s impressive. All I can say is keep it up, keep pushing hard, because you are on the cusp of even greater success.
Thanks, I have a few ideas brewing. I presented one to my agent, Lori Nowicki at Painted Words, and she really liked it so we’ll see where it goes. I don’t want to share anything until a contract is signed. Also my daughter is studying illustration in college so it’s my ultimate dream to work together. She’s so creative I know it will be a lot fun.
I am so glad to hear that. I know it’s a difficult jump for many illustrators to make, a leap outside of your comfort zone. But I push you in particular, London, because we are now in a much needed corrective phase in children’s publishing. We are hearing the call for diversity, and it’s been answered in all sorts of ways. Which is well and good. However, a cautionary note: it’s not nearly enough for white people to write inclusively. It can’t stop there. The diversity movement must be about power. About control and author-ity. Children’s literature needs your story; we need to hear your voice in full. It’s not enough, in my mind, for you to illustrate a white person’s story about slavery, regardless of the integrity of the writing. We need children’s literature to embrace your living story — your sense of humor, your playfulness, your experience, your thoughts and feelings. The good news is that I believe the publishing industry has never been more receptive than it is today. So, yes, I wish you luck with that manuscript. And how nice for you to share that experience, fingers crossed, with your daughter.
True, visually my books don’t look like comics but what influenced me about comic books was the storytelling, emotional depth, and action sequences. I try to bring those elements into my books. Some of my favorite comics were graphic novels, so I would love to illustrate one down the road.
I’d like to see that, too. Hey, London, before I let you go, I see you are a Syracuse guy, born and raised. Do you always wear that orange sweatshirt? And also, favorite Syracuse basketball player of all time. I’m guessing . . . Sherman Douglas. Am I right?
Lol, no I don’t wear the sweatshirt anymore because it can get really warm in the studio and I’ve built up so many layers of paint from cleaning my brushes on it. Sherman Douglas was an amazing player but actually one of my favorite all-time players at SU was Etan Thomas. He wasn’t a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, but during his four years he worked hard developing his game, earned his degree, and had a productive NBA career and is currently involved with community work. What I admire about him was how he worked hard to overcome any challenge. I can relate to that. Plus when I was a student at SU I saw him on campus one day and he was a big dude.
People sure do love the Orangemen in upstate, New York. My good friend went to Syracuse and tells a story about waitressing for some of those players. Let’s just say that she will forever hate on Derrick Coleman. Anyway, what are you working on right now?
I’m working on Midnight Teacher: The Story of Lily Ann Granderson by Janet Halfmann. It’s about a woman who was born into slavery during the mid 19th century who learned to read and write. She secretly taught other slaves to read write at the risk of her life. After the Emancipation Proclamation she started a school to teach former slaves to read and write. What’s so exciting is illustrating such an amazing woman many people might not be familiar with.
I’ll look forward to it.
Thank you, James, this was a lot of fun.
The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function, which works well.
Authors and illustrators previously interviewed include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, and Jeff Mack. Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, and more.