Artist James Ransome: Book Illustrations Are A Bridge For Young Readers Ransome is well-known and loved for his illustrations, especially for his many children's books. But at age 60 he recently earned an MFA, and is developing a parallel career as a painter.

Illustrators Build A Bridge For Young Readers, Says Artist James Ransome

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Last week, the Society of Illustrators handed out their 63rd annual honors, and James Ransome received a gold medal for his cover of his book, "Who Should Own Black Art." Ransome is a popular and prize-winning illustrator, best known for his many children's books. But lately, he's branching out. Karen Michel met him at his home in New York's Hudson Valley.


KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: James Ransome wears a face mask with the words, this is Funkadelic. One nation under a groove.

JAMES RANSOME: I'm a big Parliament-Funkadelic fan.

MICHEL: So much so that one of their tunes provided the soundtrack when Ransome accepted the gold medal from the Society of Illustrators in an online ceremony. Instead of talking, Ransome held up cue cards with his thanks while bopping to the music.

RANSOME: And that's what will come on sometimes when I'm painting, which is a little different from when I'm illustrating.

MICHEL: That is, when he's composing images to accompany text. Then, he listens to jazz. Though Ransome's well-known and loved for his illustrations, especially for his many children's books, at age 60, he's developing a parallel career as a painter. His acceptance featured the names of some of his influences, including his mentor, Jerry Pinkney, a member of the Society of Illustrators' Hall of Fame.

JERRY PINKNEY: In the very beginning, if you go watching him, you can see his tendencies. He approached his illustrations as a painter would approach a canvas.

MICHEL: Like Pinkney, Ransome focused on books about key African American figures.

PINKNEY: Look at "Before There Was Harriet" (ph) or "Satchel Paige" or "Game Changers." We know where James wants to take us, so we're kind of partnering with him.

MICHEL: Perhaps accompanying him as he swoops overhead, looking down on Harriet Tubman as she guides her passengers on the Underground Railroad, or courtside with Venus and Serena Williams, and perhaps feeling the struggles of a young man with leg braces who becomes a dancer, choreographer and leader of a world-renowned dance company.

ERIN GIUNTA: (Reading) During a break, Robert finally got up the nerve to ask the question that had been on his mind. Do you think I can be the first Black Baryshnikov?

MICHEL: Erin Giunta and her daughters, Edie, who's 10, and Oona, 6, are admirers of Robert Battle and of Ransome's book about him, "My Story, My Dance."

GIUNTA: What did Ms. Munez tell him, Edie?

EDIE: You can be whatever you want to be.

GIUNTA: Oh, you remember this, right? We saw this.

MICHEL: It was written by James' frequent collaborator, his wife, Lesa Cline-Ransome. The illustrations unfold almost like a movie. Some are multiple line drawings on a page, overlain with pastels of an exuberant young man dancing. In many of Ransome's books, he'll combine his paintings and drawings with bits of paper, collaging the images.

RANSOME: I do have bins and boxes of papers everywhere, and that's what I find fascinating - patterns and shapes and colors and how you can reassemble them.

MICHEL: It's kind of analogous to assembling the text that Ransome's given as a starting point for his illustrations.

RANSOME: I'm trying to find this sort of - something that the writer is not necessarily describing or talking. There's a soul, is what I sort of call it. It's sort of in-between space that I'm going for.

MICHEL: For now, Ransome intends to keep up both his art practice and his work as an illustrator.

RANSOME: I feel like, you know, I want to sort of bring them up or sort of be this - put a bridge between what's in their hands - are they holding - and going to a museum.

MICHEL: On the door of Ransome's studio, there's a saying in multicolored letters. Art is not what you see, but what you make others see. For artist and illustrator James Ransome, that applies to his work, whether it's in a book or on a wall. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in slightly upstate New York.


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