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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!

Illustrator-London-Ladd

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.

Under-The-Freedom-Tree-jpg

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.

Under-The-Freedom-Tree p4-5_300-jpg

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.

UnderFreedomTree -0-11_300-jpg

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!

Susan-VanHecke-jpg

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.

Under-The-Freedom-Tree-p4-5_300-jpg

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

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Despair, Courage and Triumph: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglas

Once I started reading Frederick Douglas for Kids: The Life and Times with 21 Activities, ($16.95, Chicago Review Press, Ages 9 and up) I couldn’t put the book down. (Even the Olympic Games could not distract me!) Douglas’ life story, as brilliantly and thoroughly told by author Nancy I. Sanders, is one of great risk and reward, despair and triumph.

Born as Frederick Augustine Washington Baily, the young slave boy from Baltimore, Maryland was taken from his mother, lived with his grandmother and then was sent into slavery at a young age.  Throughout the book we learn how he spoke out against the atrocities of slavery and took the most courageous risks through the Underground Railroad to become a free man. We also discover that his name was changed to protect his true identity. His life was one of many hardships and tragedies, yet he rose above it all to become a revered speaker against slavery, an author and a leader in the abolitionist and civil rights movements.

I really enjoyed every aspect of this book. In addition to the astounding life story of Douglas, there many excellent photographs and feature boxes with fascinating facts about other abolitionists and key figures of the era. The 21 activities in the book, such as forming a debate club, taking action in the current world slave market and making a carpet bag, are among the best I’ve seen in any of the Chicago Review Press books I’ve read.  In the back of the book are resources and a detailed index I found myself using often to cross-reference information.

Now that I’ve read this book, I am so much more knowledgeable about not only Douglas, but also slavery, the Civil War, civil rights and the abolitionist movement. Frederick Douglas will live on as one of the bravest and brightest Americans in history, and reading this book will inspire children to think about what they should stand up for – or against.  Simply put, Frederick Douglas for Kids: The Life and Times with 21 Activities an invaluable resource and a spectacular book that should be read by every American child (and parent too).

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