by Sharron L. McElmeel

Ransome often incorporates his own history and images of people he knows into the books he illustrates.

His insatiable interest in comic books and Mad Magazine led him to draw and to enroll in a correspondence course, "How to Draw Gags and Cartoons and Get Rich, Rich, Rich!" which didn't make him rich but did teach him the basics of drawing cartoon characters.

I have long admired James E. Ransome's illustrations, and I am not alone. The Children's Book Council named him one of 75 authors and illustrators that everyone should know. He has received the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration. Three of the books he illustrated have been Reading Rainbow selections. His work is displayed as a mural for the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, in private and public collections, and in dozens of children's books. His illustrations have been discussed as having a "rich style and muted palette."

To know the books Ransome has illustrated is to have a sense of his talent. His illustrations can be found in The Wagon by Tony Johnston (Tambourine, 1996); Uncle Jed's Barbershop by Margaree King Mitchell (Simon & Schuster, 1993); Aunt Flossie's Hats (and Crab Cakes Later) by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard (Clarion, 1991); and my all-time favorite, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson (Knopf, 1993). Ransome has also created book jackets, including the jacket for Storyteller's Beads by Jane Kurtz (Harcourt Brace, 1998).

He was born on September 25, 1961, and grew up in Rich Square, North Carolina, a town he says has "only three traffic lights, no museums, no art galleries, and no art classes." His insatiable interest in comic books and Mad Magazine led him to draw and to enroll in a correspondence course, "How to Draw Gags and Cartoons and Get Rich, Rich, Rich!" which didn't make him rich but did teach him the basics of drawing cartoon characters.

During Ransome's sophomore year in high school, his family moved north to Bergenfield, New Jersey, a suburb directly across from Manhattan. At his new high school, he found all types of art classes, including filmmaking. Eventually he attended Pratt Institute, where he developed an interest in sports illustrating. But then in his senior year he saw Valerie Flournoy's The Patchwork Quilt, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (E.P. Dutton, 1985), began painting children, and soon was illustrating children's books. Jerry Pinkney, an instructor at Pratt, became his friend and mentor. Richard Jackson gave Ransome's career a start-his first illustrative assignment, for Angela Johnson's Do Like Kyla (Orchard, 1990)-and other editors helped him make his indelible mark.

Where Ransome grew up in North Carolina, there was a swamp behind his house. One day he ventured into that swamp and came home muddy. He got a spanking, not for the mud but because the swamp was inhabited by alligators. The memory of that danger, the alligators lurking in dark waters, furnished the concept for his second book by Deborah Hopkinson, Under the Quilt of Night (Atheneum, 2001), in which he incorporates the images of many menaces, as well as symbols of safe haven. When African Americans followed the stars to freedom, Ransome says, they also looked for an indigo spot on an article hung on a clothesline or near a door, a signal that the house welcomed slaves. Earlier, in Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, he had helped document the use of quilts and quilt patterns to pass coded maps and messages to other slaves.

Ransome often incorporates his own history and images of people he knows into the books he illustrates. In illustrating Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, he used as models a girl and her mother whom he had met at a book fair in New Jersey. The mother was a reading teacher. Before long, the whole family, including father and brother, became part of the illustrations. Ransome dedicated the illustrations to "Emma Ransom, the first slave of Pattie and General Matt W. Ransom, and all the other Ransom slaves on Verona Plantation." The author, Deborah Hopkinson, changed a line of text in the book to name the plantation where Clara lived to Verona Plantation to cement the connection. Some time after the slave days, Ransom descendants added an "e" to their name. "The plantation owner's home," says the illustrator, "appears in a lot of my books."

"There are pieces of myself in all of my books," he says. "Aunt Flossie reminds me of my grandmother and the homes of her friends she would take me to as a child. As for Uncle Jed, my own father is a barber, and my father-in-law posed for the role of Uncle Jed." Ransome's illustrations are meticulously created in a vibrant, rich portrait style. He admires Edgar Degas' pattern and design and the work of Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and Joaquin Sorolla.

When Ransome accepts a manuscript to illustrate, he begins with sketches and lays out the book in terms of how it might be divided and what illustrations are going to be juxtaposed with which blocks of text. During one conference appearance I attended, he shared the sketchbook for a forthcoming book. It was clear he was not yet satisfied that he had "captured" the book. By the next morning when we boarded a small plane to fly across Kansas, he had another full set of sketches to share what he had created overnight. Once Ransome is satisfied with his sketches he sends them off to the art editor.

Ransome feels that it is his job as an illustrator to "put the sprinkles on the ice cream"-and he does just that. He often draws with acrylic or oil since "that medium provides more realistic images." His first four books were painted on canvas, but now he uses a special board covered with a wash that tones down the white. His pencil sketch is made directly onto the board, and then the faces and arms are painted, and finally the background is painted. He works across the board from left to right, working on each figure as it appears on the page.

One of Ransome's most recent books is a biography of Satchel Paige, written by his wife Lesa Cline-Ransome (Simon & Schuster, 2000). The book gave James a chance to combine children's book illustration with sports illustration. In 2001, Ransome's illustrations will focus on a more contemporary topic when Scholastic publishes Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson. The story is that of a young girl and her grandmother who visit the girl's father in prison. Ransome's illustrations are also scheduled to appear in It is the wind, I think by Ferida Wolff, a book currently being put on HarperCollins' 2003 publication schedule.

The Ransomes and their three children, Jaime, Maya, and Malcolm, and Dalmatian Clinton, live in Poughkeepsie, New York, in a large white house formerly owned by a doctor who saw patients in his house. The former waiting room is now Ransome's studio, and the hallway to the dining room is an art gallery of sorts. The artist also has an office where he deals with the business side of his work. There he keeps extensive research files, books, magazines, and photos and pictures filed by category. When he is not working on illustrating or the business of his work, Ransome spends as much time as possible with family and friends.

"If I have any time left over," he says, "I divide it among my other passions: painting for myself, gardening, and sailing."


Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books.

This article first appeared in  Library Talk (first publication rights only) Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel.  The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use. First appeared:  Library Talk, May/Jun2001, Vol. 14 Issue 3, p26, 2p    Current Source:

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