Jacqueline Woodson dedicates This Is the Rope to her mother, grandmother, and the millions of African Americans who took part in The Great Migration in search of “better jobs, better treatment, better education and better lives.” Working on this book made Woodson feel even more deeply the struggle that her own family members engaged in for the sake of future generations. While writing, the author says she reached back into her past and viewed pictures that were “part of my brain. I looked at pictures of Greenville, South Carolina where we lived, and saw those pine trees…. With those trees came the ground and the smell of pine needles and then came what people talked about and how they traveled. So this book started from the place of smell more than sight…it was a different way of coming to a story.”

Woodson writes for a variety of ages, but she says she knew this would be a picture book from the first line; she says that her audience is dictated by how she first hears the story and how the lines form on the page. “Picture books come out more poetically with more clear lines breaks,” she says. “From the beginning, This Is the Rope felt very concrete and visual to me.” Though the rope in the story is fictional—Woodson says no one object was handed down through her family—the story made her realize that “everyone who comes to a new place comes with the hope that this new place is going to be better. So the rope in the story becomes that unifying thing, hope.”

Illustrator James Ransome’s double-page spread oil paintings (full of what Kirkus calls “sun-infused yellows”) bring that sense of hope to the book. Woodson loves his illustrations; a favorite is the view of the child’s room with Prince and Michael Jackson posters on the wall, though she also loves the  illustration of family photographs on top of a piano with the rope winding through them. “This book represents the marriage of author and illustrator in such a beautiful way,” she says. “I believe those are his family pictures on the piano.…Even though I wrote the story, he’s interpreted it in this wonderful way. He brings such depth to the pictures and they become a part of your psyche so the words stay with you.”

Ransome—who has illustrated Woodson’s work before and considers her a friend—says his goal is always to “try to find a voice or a different vision for each book.  I always start with the manuscript. Sometimes I’m influenced by things I see as well, paintings, movies, other books— things I’m reading, the time period itself.”

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Finding everyday photographs for this story’s ‘60s to ‘70s setting was a challenge, but one Ransome enjoyed. It’s hard to find examples of clothing and hair styles, he explains—not those showing “glamor or the extreme dressy outfits or Sonny and Cher wearing something bizarre but just regular people going to work. Figuring out the fashions of the time meant doing a little research.” Ransome looked at photos, including from his own family “along with anything I could geJames Ransomet my hands on to help me capture that time.”

When asked whether he has his own favorite artistic moment or illustration from this book, Ransome points to the opening page. “That’s the one with the house and the girl jumping rope for the first time. The almost-silhouette of the girl, the shadow on the ground, the mother in the background, the play of flat shapes along with the realistic shapes—that’s one of my favorites. I love that house, love the colors.  Some of the things I did sort of echo what a James Ransome painting looks like—my philosophy of painting is really in that.”

Ransome says that the rich, golden tones he used capture for him a warm feeling about family and connections. “And I tried to bring that warmth through as a thread.” Asked whether he has his own family connection to the Great Migration, Ransome says, “Absolutely: all my uncles and aunts. My  grandmother had 10 children; everyone migrated to all parts of the north except for one.”

A busy illustrator, Ransome says This Is the Rope was “a long time in the making. I really tried to put a lot of detail in this book. I worked on it for six months stopping only to go to cWoodson Coveronferences or school visits. It was a long process.” For each of the realistic illustrations, he explains, he must “build scenes. I can’t go to place, take a photograph and say that’s the place in the painting. These places don’t exist; the paintings are a combination of photos from different places that I put together to create an image I’ve sketched out. It takes a lot of time!”

Woodson, who’s equally prolific as an author, says she likes her different books for different reasons. This book is special to her because reading it “grounds” her, helping her recall her childhood in the ‘70s. “I’m working on a memoir now, and when I reread This Is the Rope I remember some things I want to write about. This book takes me back. Reading it feels good. It feels immediately and physically true.”

Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Photo above is of illustrator James Ransome.