Frederick’s Journey and an Interview with London Ladd

FREDERICK’S JOURNEY:
THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS
An Interview With Illustrator London Ladd

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Written by Doreen Rappaport
Illustrated by London Ladd
(Disney/Jump at the Sun; $17.99, Ages 6-8)

What’s the first thing I noticed when picking up my review copy of Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass? The piercing eyes of Douglass in illustrator London Ladd’s cover portrait and the absence of a title on the front. Then, gripped by the story, I devoured the book, not once, but twice in my initial read throughs of this expertly crafted picture book. Part  of the Big Words series, Frederick’s Journey effortlessly pairs Rappaport’s thoughtful biography of this former slave turned author, abolitionist and ultimately free man with Douglass’ actual words. “Douglass had traveled far – from slave to free man, from illiterate to educated, from powerless to powerful. It had been a difficult journey.” The book ends with this quote from Douglass, “What is possible for me is possible for you.” As a picture book, Frederick’s Journey is brought to life by Ladd’s inspiring artwork. I’ve interviewed this talented illustrator once before, but felt compelled to reach out again, this time for his insight on creating the illustrations and what working on the book meant to him.

An Interview with London Ladd

GRWR: Please tell us how you came to be connected with this project?

London Ladd: The publisher contacted my agent at Painted Words, Lori Nowicki, to see if I would be interested. I read the title of the manuscript [and] the answer was a definite yes. Once I read the through the manuscript I was so moved by it, so eager to get started.

GRWR: How do you decide what medium you’ll use for each book you illustrate and what did you choose for Frederick’s Journey and why?

LADD: For my illustration career I’ve primarily use acrylic with minor touched of pastels and colored pencils on illustration board if necessary. People says acrylics are challenging to use, but I love its flexibility because you can make it look like watercolor with layered thin washes or heavy opaque application like oils. It’s something I’ve always been comfortable using and quick drying is excellent for fast approaching deadlines.

GRWR: You mention in the back matter Illustrator’s Note how deep you dove into the research to really understand your subject including actually posing yourself in front of a mirror and reciting lines. Was there any particular text from Rappaport or quote from Douglass that you found most inspiring for this story’s artwork?

LADD: Rappaport’s text was so excellent with the way she gracefully combined her text with Douglass’ own quotes. But his autobiography was so powerful because you’re getting a first hand account in all its detail of his experience as a slave during the 19th century. Each page was filled with so much raw, honest, brutal, heart breaking material. So many vivid images would pop into my head from sadness, anger.

GRWR: Was there one particular image in the book that most resonated for you?

LADD: I think the first three images [see below] as a whole really resonate for me deeply due to the range of emotions and sounds I hear from the heart wrenching scream of Frederick’s mother as he’s being taken from her, the peacefulness of the river when he’s fishing with his grandmother, and his low weeping as he suddenly realizes his grandmother is gone and now his new life begins in the institution of slavery.

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Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

 

GRWR: You travelled to a lot of places in Douglass’s history, which place made the biggest impression on you?

LADD: Wow it’s so hard to pick one. Visiting his home in Anacostia was powerful. But I’ll have to go with a trip to Rochester in 2006. During my last semester in college I enrolled in an African American religious history course and the final was this amazing project where you had to travel to historical locations involved in the Underground Railroad in and around the Central New York area like Harriet Tubman’s grave and church in Auburn, NY. Well it happens that Douglass’ grave at Mount Hope Cemetery (Susan B. Anthony is buried there, too) in Rochester NY was on the list. The cemetery is huge and his grave is by the front street nearby so vehicles drive by constantly so it can be a little noisy. When walking to his grave it was so quiet with only a slight wind blowing. Being at his gravesite was moving. I just stood there silently for 20 minutes with many emotions going through my mind. After visiting his grave there was this incredible interactive Douglass exhibit at a local nearby museum and I’ll never forget it. So much on display like his North Star press, part of a house with hidden area for slaves, a double-sided mirror that when you dim the lights Douglass’ face appeared on the other side, an exhibit where you lay in a really small area like slave did during the middle passage (that had a strong impact on me) and so much more. Ten years later and it’s still one of my favorite museum exhibits.

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Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

GRWR: Not many illustrators get a front cover portrait with no title as an assignment. That’s a huge honor and your cover is outstanding. Can you tell us more about how that decision was made?

LADD: Thank you so much. That’s what makes the Big Words series so unique from other book series because each biography has this beautiful portrait of a well known person with the title on the back. That’s why I worked so hard on trying to not only capture Douglass’ likeness, but his essence. 

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd

Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

GRWR: In a previous interview here you said “The human spirit interests me. I love stories of a person or people achieving through difficult circumstances by enduring, surviving and overcoming.” Douglass clearly exemplified that spirit. Who else, either living or deceased would you like to portray next in your artwork or in a story of your own creation?

LADD: Ernest Shackleton! I would love to illustrate Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance. An absolutely amazing story of when, in the early 20th century, he and his crew were stranded near Antarctica for nearly two years and everyone survived. It’s a testament to his tremendous leadership during the whole ordeal.

This Shackleton quote sums up my attitude towards any challenges I face. “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd

Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

 

GRWR: It’s said art is a universal language. What is it about making art and teaching it as well that speaks to you?

LADD: I think to be able to share with other people is something very important to me. I wouldn’t be here without the help of other people so it’s always been my goal to pay it forward when possible.

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd

Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

London_LaddGRWR: Can you share with us anything else about your experience working on Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass?

LADD: I truly loved working on this book and I’m so thankful to have been part of such a special project. Hopefully young people will learn, enjoy and appreciate the life of Frederick Douglass.

A huge thank you to London Ladd for this candid and informative interview. 

Click here to download a teacher’s guide.

  • Interview by Ronna Mandel

Lend a Hand by John Frank with illustrations by London Ladd

LEND A HAND:
Poems about Giving
Written by John Frank
Illustrated by London Ladd
(Lee & Low Books; $17.95, Ages 4-10)

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During National Poetry Month I’ll be reviewing a bunch of my recent faves. Lend a Hand by John Frank with illustrations by London Ladd is one of them. With its 14 poems about kindness, caring and volunteering, this beautiful picture book is heartwarming and inspiring. I can’t think of a child, parent, teacher or caregiver who wouldn’t enjoy having Lend a Hand to return to again and again

The opening poem called Sandwich is touching and brings a smile to my face each time I read it. It’s about a a young girl who shares half her sandwich with “the new kid sitting alone with only the words of a book to feed her.” I hope that if my kids were in this situation they would be as thoughtful. I am also encouraged that other children reading or being read this poem will look at that new student sitting by themselves in their school cafeteria, perhaps without a lunch of their own, with a new paradigm in place.

There’s a short, but sweet poem called Puppy about the selfless act of raising a service dog who’ll be “someone’s eyes one day” that is moving in its simplicity. The one below, called Jammin’ really struck a chord with me because it highlights a coming together of generations that I feel is so important for youngsters to see. I can actually picture one of my son’s friends doing the exact thing this lad does, stopping by to jam with a much older, possibly lonely, fellow musician.

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Interior spread from Lend a Hand by John Frank with illustrations by London Ladd, Lew & Low Books, ©2014.

 

In Home Run, a klutzy kid in PE is given a few winning baseball pointers by a more experienced classmate who takes the time to help when another student might not necessarily care. Song, with its hopeful message about the music from a student choir reaching into the soul of a wheelchair bound nursing home resident, brings tears to my eyes. And No Charge, about passing a kindness forward after one’s been done to you should impress upon youngsters that some of the best rewards are not financial.

One of the most catchy poems is Bus Ride with a rhythm and beat matching the music the narrator is listening to through his earphones. This poem, a most ideal read-aloud, demonstrates how we can all be considerate by giving up a seat on a crowded bus to someone who needs it more than we do. But it’s really teaching empathy, helping children to realize that every situation is not always just about them. Rather than avert his eyes so he can continue to selfishly occupy a seat that a man with a cane could use, the narrator explains that he deliberately catches the older man’s eye and motions “toward the empty seat” once he’s gotten up. I wish I saw this type of behavior more often on public transportation which is why I felt this poem provided a great example for kids. Frank has put together a meaningful collection of poems populated by diverse individuals and covering timeless themes that will resonate with readers and be a jumping off point for countless conversations about giving. Our kids are never too young to begin learning the importance of empathy and how, in this big, busy world of ours, taking the time to stop and think about someone else can have a powerful, positive and lasting effect.

London Ladd’s acrylic and pastel illustrations are spirited and full of emotion. He explains in the end pages how he works “from photographs” and uses “ordinary people, not professional models, as references for the illustrations.” I loved finding that out because it makes the illustrations feel more real and every moment captured more tender.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Click here for a shareable infographic from Lend a Hand about how to make a difference.

An Interview With London Ladd, Illustrator of Under The Freedom Tree

GRWR CHATS WITH ILLUSTRATOR LONDON LADD

Under The Freedom Tree – a 2014 Junior Library Guild Selection!

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Illustrator London Ladd, Under The Freedom Tree, Copyright © 2014 Charlesbridge Publishing.

Today Good Reads With Ronna and London Ladd discuss how, as the illustrator of Under The Freedom Tree (Charlesbridge, $16.95, Ages 6-9) by Susan VanHecke, he came up with the illustrations for this picture book which we’re highlighting for African American History Month (also known as Black History Month). If you didn’t see yesterday’s post where we interviewed author Susan VanHecke, please click here to read it.

BLOG TOUR & GIVEAWAY
We’re joining other reviewers this week as part of a special Charlesbridge Publishing blog tour and hope you’ll take the time to visit all the bloggers’ sites. We’re also delighted to be giving away one copy of Under The Freedom Tree, so enter by clicking here for a chance to win. This giveaway ends at midnight PST on February 24, 2014. Please be sure to write Freedom Tree in the subject line and include your address. Like us on Facebook for an extra entry. A winner will be chosen by Random.org and notified via email on February 25th. Good luck!

REVIEW
Under The Freedom Tree shares the story of three captured slaves, Frank, James and Shepard, during the Civil War, who take an enormous risk to escape across dangerous waters in Virginia to reach the Union Army on the other side only to discover they are still not totally free. However, with the help of clever General Butler, a lawyer before the Civil War, the three fugitives are able to remain with the Union side on a technicality. The winds of change were beginning to blow in the right direction.

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Cover image, Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Copyright © 2014, Charlesbridge Publishing.

VanHecke delivers a powerful tale told poetically in free verse and based on actual accounts of the creation of America’s first “contraband camps.”  After word of Frank, James and Shepard’s successful escape, others followed suit. First hundreds then thousands.

Runaways.

Stowaways.

Barefoot, mud-crusted.

Better forward than back.

Former slaves built a community in what was known as Slabtown, or the Grand Contraband Camp. By day they worked for the Union, but they were freer than they’d ever been, some living in a home of their own for the very first time.  Silent witness to this all was the majestic old oak tree, the Freedom Tree. Illustrator Ladd conveys so much spirit and emotion in every spread, whether by depicting children being taught under the shade of the oak or the joyful gathering of the community to hear the reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. “Lives forever changed under the Freedom Tree.”

Be sure to sit down with your kids and read this fantastic picture book that helps shed light on a little-known yet inspiring event of the Civil War. Also included are a bibliography and author’s note at the end providing more historical information that helps place many of the events in Under The Freedom Tree in context.

INTERVIEW WITH LONDON LADD

Good Reads With Ronna: When a publisher approaches you with a book to illustrate, do you see the completed manuscript or is it still rough round the edges? I’m curious because I wonder if your illustrations have ever influenced the direction a book can take?

London Ladd: It depends on the publisher. Most of the time I’ll get a completed script, but there have been a few times I will get something that’s in the last stages of editing. It’s minor wording that doesn’t affect my ideas.

Good Reads With Ronna: What is your illustration process, i.e. do you research the subject matter, then sketch and finally paint the art to be used?

London Ladd: I’ll usually read and reread the manuscript, then I do a few small quick thumbnail sketches. After that I start diving into the research and this is the most fun because I get to learn new things, but sometimes I get so involved I get lost and have to pull myself back into focus. After gathering myself I do more sketches to storyboard all the pages. Then I take A LOT of reference photos. I draw the final sketches and send to the publisher for feedback and after things are approved I paint the final artwork.

GRWR: In terms of medium for Under the Freedom Tree, did you use acrylics and combine them with pastels and colored pencils like your bio describes or did you try something different with this book?

Ladd: I primarily use acrylic paint, but recently for Under the Freedom Tree, I’ve combined colored pencils and pastels. I feel it adds more depth to the art and creates a signature look. When I’m working I get messy so my clothes will get covered in paint. It’s a bad habit I’ve tried to stop but I get so locked in I can’t help it. In the past I’ve tried oils on top of the acrylics but when it got on my skin I had bad reactions and discontinued use.

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Interior spread from Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Copyright © 2014, Charlesbridge Publishing.

GRWR: What is your favorite illustration in Under the Freedom Tree?

Ladd: That’s a difficult answer because I really love each illustration in this book for various reasons. If I had to pick one right now it would be the first page with them running because when I first read the manuscript that page came alive so clearly in my mind’s eye and heart. I could vividly hear the sound of the crickets chirping, the pounding feet of the three men in the tall grass, the hurried sound of their breathing in the night as they sneak off. If you watch the book trailer that’s exactly how I saw it in my head.

GRWR: Which was the most difficult to complete and why?

Ladd: I think the page where the people are rebuilding after the Confederate soldiers torched Hampton. I didn’t know how to approach it. What do I show? How do I convey in my illustration the words effectively? When I traveled to Hampton to do more extensive research and see landmarks like Emancipation Oak, Fort Monroe and Sewel’s Point (the spot where the men escaped from) I stopped in the Hampton History Museum and they had this amazing exhibit from that era. There was a replica of a burnt brick wall with an actual photo of Hampton after the fire in 1862. When I saw that I knew exactly how that page should look. It’s funny because without visiting I would have never created that page.

GRWR: Is it difficult as an illustrator to try to capture a unique moment in time and have your illustration convey a mood or incident?

Ladd: Wow that’s a good question. I guess it depends on the project. For March On I wasn’t born during the march on Washington so wanted to capture the moment. What would it be like if I was there and to be a part something so special? For Oprah I felt a connection to her story. I’m also an only child who had a fierce determination to better myself and succeed. With Under the Freedom Tree it was a spiritual experience for me as an African American. The issue of slavery can be a sensitive subject, that’s why it was so important for me to visit the sites and gain a deeper understanding of what I’m illustrating. To see the Emancipation Oak, a 400 year old tree that still stands to this day in person at Hampton University, and to stand on the very shore in Norfolk, VA and look across the Chesapeake Bay, filled me with so many ranges of emotions. The contraband slaves are not widely known in history so I wanted to illustrate their amazing story of bravery, courage and strength with honor.

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Interior spread from Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Copyright © 2014, Charlesbridge Publishing.

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An Interview with Susan VanHecke, author of Under The Freedom Tree

Susan VanHeckeSusan VanHeckeGRWR CHATS WITH AUTHOR SUSAN VANHECKE

Under The Freedom Tree2014 Junior Library Guild Selection!

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Author Susan VanHecke, Copyright © 2014 Charlesbridge Publishing

Today Good Reads With Ronna and Susan VanHecke discuss how the seeds of a story were planted for her new picture book, Under The Freedom Tree (Charlesbridge, $16.95, Ages 6-9) with illustrations by London Ladd, which we’re highlighting for Black History Month.

BLOG TOUR
We’re joining other reviewers this week as part of a special Charlesbridge Publishing blog tour and hope you’ll take the time to visit all the bloggers’ sites. We’re also delighted to be giving away one copy of Under The Freedom Tree, so enter by clicking here for a chance to win. This giveaway ends at midnight PST on February 24, 2014. Please be sure to write Freedom Tree in the subject line and include your address. Like us on Facebook for an extra entry. A winner will be chosen by Random.org and notified via email on February 25th.

Under The Freedom Tree shares the story of three captured slaves, Frank, James and Shepard, during the Civil War, who take an enormous risk to escape across dangerous waters in Virginia to reach the Union Army on the other side only to discover they are still not totally free. However, with the help of clever General Butler, a lawyer before the Civil War, the three fugitives are able to remain with the Union side on a technicality. The winds of change were beginning to blow in the right direction.

Under-The-Freedom-Tree-jpg

Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Charlesbridge Publishing, 2014.

VanHecke delivers a powerful tale told poetically in free verse and based on actual accounts of the creation of America’s first “contraband camps.”  After word of Frank, James and Shepard’s successful escape, others followed suit. First hundreds then thousands.

Runaways.

Stowaways.

Barefoot, mud-crusted.

Better forward than back.

Former slaves built a community in what was known as Slabtown, or the Grand Contraband Camp. By day they worked for the Union, but they were freer than they’d ever been, some living in a home of their own for the very first time.  Silent witness to this all was the majestic old oak tree, the Freedom Tree. Illustrator Ladd conveys so much spirit and emotion in every spread, whether by depicting children being taught under the shade of the oak or the joyful gathering of the community to hear the reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. “Lives forever changed under the Freedom Tree.”

Be sure to sit down with your kids and read this fantastic picture book that helps shed light on a little-known yet inspiring event of the Civil War. Also included are a bibliography and author’s note at the end providing more historical information that helps place many of the events in Under The Freedom Tree in context.

 INTERVIEW

Good Reads With Ronna:  Susan, I had no idea the story would be anything other than straightforward prose, but it was so much more. It was poetic and flowed like the water that carried the three slaves to their eventual freedom. How did you decide upon this form of storytelling?

Susan VanHecke: Thanks so much, Ronna, and your imagery is beautiful! You know, I struggled for quite a while (a couple of years, actually) trying to write the contraband slaves’ story in prose. But it was just too dry, too flat, too distant. I didn’t think it would hold young readers’ attention or get them feeling exactly what was at stake.

Then one day I picked up a collection of the late, great author Virginia Hamilton’s essays and speeches. In it, she described a concept she called “rememory,” an “exquisitely textured recollection, real or imagined.” I liked that idea, especially the texture and imagination parts. I decided to make a personal visit to the Freedom Tree. There in the summer quiet, under those sprawling, sheltering branches, I could feel all those heart-pounding emotions, I could imagine all those daring events, that took place under or near Emancipation Oak.

It was a powerful moment for me, and it definitely shook loose the words. My “rememory” came in the form of free verse. I owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Hamilton.

GRWR: Did you happen upon the history of Frank, James and Shepard accidentally or was their story one you had heard about and always wanted to share with youngsters?

VanHecke: It was totally by accident. Do you ever get those local lifestyle magazines in the mail that are really just slick vehicles for home improvement ads? I was flipping through one of those when it opened to a photo in the back. It was a stunning, sepia-toned image of a spectacular tree. The caption underneath said that this was where area contraband slaves learned to read and write and heard the Emancipation Proclamation, what some consider the first Southern reading of that important document.

I was astonished that I’d never heard of this history, especially since Emancipation Oak is just a few miles from my home. As I researched the full story, I knew I wanted my kids and their classmates to know this exciting, little-known aspect of the Civil War.

GRWR: Under the Freedom Tree is a reminder that even in many places in the North, freedom for slaves was not readily embraced. How did some African American former slaves get to be free while others remained “contraband” until the 13th Amendment?

VanHecke: I’m certainly no expert, but it’s my understanding that former slaves could become free through manumission (emancipated by their owner, usually by “purchasing” themselves) or escaping to the free states of the North. Of course, slave hunters were always on the prowl—in the North and South—and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 created harsh punishments for those who assisted runaways in any way.

That’s what made Union General Benjamin Butler’s “contraband” decision so important. Virginia was a slave state, so by law (the Fugitive Slave Act), Butler had to return to their Confederate owners those three brave souls who rowed under cover of night to Fortress Monroe. But Butler, a lawyer himself, found a loophole: Virginia had just seceded from the United States, so U.S. law no longer applied to it. Virginia was now an enemy of the United States. Therefore, clever Butler was able to declare those escaped slaves “enemy contraband,” since they were being used in the Confederates’ effort to wage war on the Union.

As word spread, more and more slaves escaped and made their way to the Union line, where they too became “contraband.” They weren’t free, and in fact labored for the Union for many months before they were eventually paid for their work. But contraband surely seemed—and ultimately was—one step closer to free.

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Interior spread from Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Copyright © 2014 Charlesbridge Publishing.

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