The Amazing Story and Illustrations of James Ransome

“What makes illustrating books so exciting is that because each book has a special voice, my approach toward each is different. Whether it be through my choice of palette, design or perspective, there is always a desire to experiment and explore what makes each book unique.” – James Ransome

The recent  BYU Books for Young Readers Conference featured more than just prominent authors; it showcased  illustrators as well, including James Ransome. His wife, Lesa, spoke yesterday, and it was now his turn. James Ransome has been illustrating books for over 31 years and was named by the Children’s Book Council as being one of the 75 authors and illustrators that everyone should know. One of the most recent books he illustrated was Northbound. It is a story of two children who meet aboard a train, and although they live in the same neighborhood, they had never met because of segregation.

Other more recent books he has illustrated include Before She Was Harriet, Sweet Clara and The Freedom Quilt. In addition to illustrating children’s books, Ransome has painted murals. For example, he painted three murals at The Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition, he painted a train traveling through the New York countryside, which is featured on New York subway trains.

Ransome started his presentation by dedicating it to Mr. Floyd Cooper, a fellow artist who had passed away the day before. He said that they started their artwork at nearly the same time and that they used to go to conferences together. “I probably wouldn’t be here without his friendship and influence,” he stated.  

After that, Ransome spent a lot of time talking about his childhood and how his love of art began. The school in the town he grew up in northeastern North Carolina had no art classes, and there were no family or friends who really influenced him. “My first art teacher was comic books,” he said. From there, anything he saw in magazines or on tv became primers for him, along with drawing books from his elementary school library.

As a teenager, Ransome moved to Bergenfield, N.J., whose high school had a dedicated art program and during high school, he created and edited Super 8 films, which were then entered into contests. Upon graduating high school, he went to Pratt Institute. His original career objective was to become a sports illustrator and work for Sports Illustrated, and indeed, it looked as though he was on his way. He created a piece during his senior year at Pratt of bicyclists riding under a big tree. The work was entered into a contest sponsored by The Society of Illustrators, who put the piece on the cover of their magazine and awarded him a scholarship. Over time, that work became quite popular and was even featured on a Citibank calendar.

Not long after college, he attended a conference on how to illustrate children’s books, and his wife also brought home a book for him, The Patchwork Quilt illustrated by Jerry Pickney. At that point, Ransome decided, “Maybe in between my sports illustrations, I can do a children’s book. Nothing really serious.” He soon, however, got a job with a publishing company and was offered his first book to illustrate, Do Like Kyla, which is “a story about a little girl who does everything her big sister does….and we spend a day with them.”  He loved the experience, and there was no turning back from illustrating children’s books after that.

After discussing how he became an illustrator, Ransome took us on a tour of his workshop in his home in Rhinebeck, NY., which he converted from a garage. During the tour, he shows off his painting table, which he was given when he was 17 years old and which has been with him ever since, and his lightbox, which is a table with lights underneath. He uses the lightbox when using tracing paper to do his illustrations because it allows him to see through the paper. Tracing paper was an important element discussed in that conference he had attended years prior when he was first getting started, and Jerry Pinkney used it too, so he decided this was important and adopted its use to his studio.

Ransome also discusses the use of different artistic techniques that help his illustrations come to life and tell the story as well as different artistic mediums he uses to create his artwork including oils, acrylics, pastels, water colors, and collages. Mr. Ransome stated, “I really don’t want to be a painter. I want to be an image maker and use a variety of materials.

Toward the end of his presentation, Ransome talked about a project he always wanted to work on and got the chance: telling the story of Venus and Serena Williams. The resulting book, written by his wife Lesa and illustrated by him, was titled Gamechangers. Initially, Lesa didn’t want to do a project on the Williams sisters, but when the publisher liked the idea, she accepted it.  He also discussed the book, The Creation, written by James Weldon Johnson, which won him the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration.

Other books that Ransome illustrated that he mentioned by name include Red Dancing Shoes, How Many Stars in the Sky?, and All the Light in the Night. Northbound, the recent book mentioned at the beginning of this blog, is a story about slavery. “I’ve done a lot of stories about slavery over a 31-year period,” stated Mr. Ransome, and indeed he has. Other books illustrated by Mr. Ransome that cover slavery include The Wagon, Freedom’s Fruit, Under The Quilt of Night, Building a New Land, Let My People Go, and My Name Is Truth. A book he just completed illustrating that has not even been released yet is Sonny Collins Plays the Bridge.

James Ransome’s presentation was brilliant, inspirational, and informative with too much information to state in this blog. Now that I know a lot more about him, I look forward to finding more examples of his work on my own and use his story as a driving force going forward.

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