Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrator James E. Ransome, who most recently brought musical prodigy Joseph Boulogne to young readers in Before There Was Mozart, have collaborated once more, this time to create Words Set Me Free, the story of young Frederick Douglass and his determined quest for literacy.
Though Douglass is a well-known historical figure, few may know of his passion to learn to read as a young slave, or how reading opened the door to a full and dignified life. Here the author and illustrator (who also collaborate as husband and wife) discuss their joint work on this book.
Find more collaborations from the husband-and-wife team of Lesa Cline-Ransome & James E. Ransome.
What attracted you to this project?
Lesa Cline-Ransome: I was looking for an idea for a new biography. Looking through several books, I came across Frederick Douglass. His story was so fascinating that I went and got his autobiography—and was completely transfixed. What came across to me was his rage at being treated as inhuman, his courage, his perseverance.
Can you tell me about your interest in writing biographies?
LCR: I’m not ready to call myself a biography writer, but I am nosy…I love peeking into the lives of other people! I like finding the most interesting parts of their lives and reinterpreting them for a new group of readers. I also love the stories of unsung heroes, how they overcame obstacles.
How did you decide to cast your book in the first person?
LCR: I believe it’s the first book I’ve written in first person; it was probably because of Douglass’ sense of passion. I almost felt I was channeling his emotion…so it felt a like natural fit to go with the first person. That’s the way it came out.
Is the title something that rings true in your own life, too?
LCR: Yes, I have a passion for words and reading and stories. So his story of equating literacy with freedom—how words and stories can open up your world in a way that nothing else can—that’s what I wanted to convey with the title.
Tell me about collaborating with your husband.
LCR: Actually, a lot of time passes between my writing and his illustrating. So by the time he’s ready to illustrate the book, I’m absorbed in the next project. Which makes it easier to let go! The real back-and-forth part of the project is early in the writing. For example, when the honeymoon phase of a project turns sour, I will often tell him about what I have discovered, share passages I am working on and he’ll offer input. But usually we’re not working on same project at same time.
What do you each like best about collaborating?
LCR: It’s fun tossing ideas back and forth. That’s nice. James is my pitchman –he’s always pitching ideas. We enjoy sharing our interests with each other and how they may overlap; it’s a nice bonding experience for a marriage of 22 years. And making a book together is a little like giving birth—a baby you both have. When that box of books arrives, it’s great—here's what we created.
James E. Ransome: What I enjoy is hearing the story as it develops, as she’s reading me snippets of it. That prompts me to start thinking about a project early rather than coming in cold. It’s a wonderful asset. Also the research books Lesa collects become part of my research as well. It’s efficient. For some projects, we have had to travel and take photographs, visit sites where events took place. So when I come to the project, there’s already so much there.
James, can you tell me about working on Words Set Me Free—what was your favorite artistic moment or illustration from this book?
JER: There were quite a few. I really respond to the illustration that gave us the idea for the book’s cover…Douglass is reading a newspaper, and the sun’s going down. I am not sure what it is…something about people working in the background, about education and labor and his fierce desire to complete something while the sun’s setting. And he’s so absorbed he’s not aware of the time. It reminds me of the scene in the film The Color Purple where Celie’s reading a letter from her sister—some of that was in my subconscious when I was creating the image.
What about Frederick Douglass got you excited about working on this project together?
JER: Douglass is such a huge personality—in some ways, it’s a little frightening to deal with someone like him. You’re a little afraid to discover something that might make you dislike him. He’s this mountain of a personality passed around throughout my life. But it was wonderful to have time to create images for this book, to meet the challenge of painting him respectfully, and capturing his special personality in this story.
LCR: One of my favorite images is the one where he’s standing before a ship with white sails [reading the words carpenters scribbled on timbers and masts]. Something about that image speaks to his innocence, his earnestness. He became a new hero we discovered together. I can’t say this about every book—but it’s my favorite book to date.