Mavis Sings Dylan, and Obama Steps Away

In honoring the eight years of Obama’s presidency, an idea went around Facebook for people to temporarily change their profile images to a photograph celebrating the first family. There were so many images from which to choose, but I went with this one. There he is in a quiet moment, a man, a father, listening.

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And as for my tangled feelings today, here’s a moment taken from Martin Scorcese’s documentary on Bob Dylan from a few years back. I remember watching this the first time. I thought it was extraordinary.

Still do.

Carry on.

5 QUESTIONS with LONDON LADD, illustrator of “Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglas”

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Today we’ll meet London Ladd, the supremely talented illustrator behind Frederick’s Journey (2015), written by Doreen Rappaport. In the process of this interview, you’ll discover what I’ve already learned — that London is a soft-spoken, modest, quietly determined artist with a bright future ahead of him.

London I’m so glad to have you here. Now I can shine my full 15-watt bulb on your awesome talent. I hope you’re wearing sunglasses. Are you ready for this?

Thank you very much. I’m honored to talk to you and share. I’m ready!

As an illustrator who does not write his own books (we’ll get back to that later), you depend on quality manuscripts coming your way. What was your experience first reading Doreen Rappaport’s manuscript for Frederick’s Journey? She’s such an excellent writer and researcher. Are you visualizing images right away?

It was amazing because Douglass is one of my favorite historical figures so this was a dream come true for me as an illustrator. Doreen is great!!! My first time reading her script, images and scenes immediately popped into my head — and as I read it again and again, more would come up. Some would end up in the book, some didn’t.

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Okay, so you accepted the job. What’s next? Do you freak out for a week, filled with self-doubt? Or are you a guy who rolls up your sleeves and dives right in? I mean, you are staring at words typed on a bare page. How do you start? Sketching with a pencil, or what?

I wouldn’t say freak out, but take a deep breath, exhale so I can could be focused and determined to do an outstanding job. First I read the script from beginning to end without stopping. Then I read a second time while quickly writing notes and sketching in pencil rough ideas. I’ll repeat the process a few more times. Usually 1/4 of the pages roughly sketched before the next phase . . . research.

In the illustrator’s note at the back of the book, you describe going to places where Frederick Douglas lived, visiting his grave in Rochester, New York, even growing your hair long like him. It sounds like you employ similar techniques to a method actor who seeks to inhabit the character he’s portraying. Tell us about your process of –- I don’t want to say becoming Frederick Douglas -– but your effort to get inside this very strong, historic figure.

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Since I look a little like him — I have spots of gray in my hair and facial hair — I decided to grow it out. While my hair was growing I read his powerful autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and watched documentaries of him and the slave era.

So your first big move was to wait for your hair to grow?

Well, while that was happening I also traveled to various important landmarks during his life like his home in Washington DC, Fells Point in Baltimore, and his grave in Rochester. Everything about the book was a magical experience. I’ve never enjoyed working on a project as much as Frederick’s Journey. That’s why I was so immersed.

Tell us a little about the materials you used to create these paintings. And, um, for the sake of my Nation of Readers, just pretend that I’m a complete idiot and –- I know, that’s a huge leap! –- try to use small words.

LOL . . . it’s pretty simple. 

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I use acrylic paint with touches of colored pencil and pastels on primed illustration board. When sketches are approved by the publisher I put the drawings on board, then start painting with thin layers of acrylic paint while adding thicker layers while applying colored pencil and pastels for desired effects. I’ve been illustrating books for 10 years but I’m still developing my artistic look with each project. I really enjoyed the challenges painting them.

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Oh, yeah. “Pretty simple.” Sure. Do you work from models?

Always!!! Besides using myself I use family members, friends, anyone who fits the character. I might ask you if necessary!

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Do you have a favorite moment in the book? I love the contrast from Frederick’s younger days, when he is vulnerable and hungry, forced to eat from a trough, to when we see him later, hunched over a newspaper -– a reader can sense the power he’s acquiring in that moment.

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We see him later in a classic heroic pose, with our perspective looking up at him. He grows in stature as the book progresses. I’m also impressed by that huge, tight head shot that occurs late in the book. You turn the page and it’s like, wow, very stark and effective. There he is, the man. When you finished that painting, that must have been a good day.

Thank you! Yeah, it took me a week to paint that page because I would paint it for a few hours, stop, work on other image from the book then continue working on it the next day or two or three until I was happy enough with it.

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There are so many images I love but I would have to say the first three pages: Frederick being taken from his mother (the agony of his mother’s guttural scream as he’s taken), fishing in the river (the comfort of being with his grandmother peacefully fishing, soothing sound of the river and warmth of the sun setting), and separating from grandmother (the sadness in his eyes and his low volume sobbing as young Douglass realizes his grandmother is gone, possibly forever and surrounded by strangers). I see them as linked together as one range of feelings, emotions and sounds.

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Yes, enough for a life’s journey in just three pages. It’s amazing what he accomplished after that. Do you have plans for writing your own books, too? I really hope you do. You seem like a quiet guy and, of course, those are the ones who surprise people. Any areas of interest you might want to explore?

I’m usually quiet but sometimes I can have a playful personality. Believe it or not when I was younger I wasn’t quiet . . . . I blame the deadlines for that.

I know you are working really hard right now, London, holding down two jobs in addition to your work as an illustrator. It’s impressive. All I can say is keep it up, keep pushing hard, because you are on the cusp of even greater success.

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Thanks, I have a few ideas brewing. I presented one to my agent, Lori Nowicki at Painted Words, and she really liked it so we’ll see where it goes. I don’t want to share anything until a contract is signed. Also my daughter is studying illustration in college so it’s my ultimate dream to work together. She’s so creative I know it will be a lot fun.

I am so glad to hear that. I know it’s a difficult jump for many illustrators to make, a leap outside of your comfort zone. But I push you in particular, London, because we are now in a much needed corrective phase in children’s publishing. We are hearing the call for diversity, and it’s been answered in all sorts of ways. Which is well and good. However, a cautionary note: it’s not nearly enough for white people to write inclusively. It can’t stop there. The diversity movement must be about power. About control and author-ity. Children’s literature needs your story; we need to hear your voice in full. It’s not enough, in my mind, for you to illustrate a white person’s story about slavery, regardless of the integrity of the writing. We need children’s literature to embrace your living story — your sense of humor, your playfulness, your experience, your thoughts and feelings. The good news is that I believe the publishing industry has never been more receptive than it is today. So, yes, I wish you luck with that manuscript. And how nice for you to share that experience, fingers crossed, with your daughter.

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Thank you!!!  I definitely understand what you’re saying.  Also it’s vital to have more diversity with the decision-makers in publishing like art directors, associate art directors, editors, graphic designers, etc.  
 
Exactly right. And CEOs, too, while we’re at it. Somewhere I read that you loved comics as a kid. It’s amazing how often I hear that from illustrators, the singular importance and impact of those old comic books. But I don’t really see that visual influence in your work. Am I wrong about that? Or is that something you might try down the line?

True, visually my books don’t look like comics but what influenced me about comic books was the storytelling, emotional depth, and action sequences. I try to bring those elements into my books. Some of my favorite comics were graphic novels, so I would love to illustrate one down the road.

I’d like to see that, too. Hey, London, before I let you go, I see you are a Syracuse guy, born and raised. Do you always wear that orange sweatshirt? And also, favorite Syracuse basketball player of all time. I’m guessing . . . Sherman Douglas. Am I right?

No love for the Shermanator? Here's Etan Thomas instead. Yes, London, big dude.

No love for the Shermanator? Here’s Etan Thomas instead. Yes, London, big dude.

Lol, no I don’t wear the sweatshirt anymore because it can get really warm in the studio and I’ve built up so many layers of paint from cleaning my brushes on it. Sherman Douglas was an amazing player but actually one of my favorite all-time players at SU was Etan Thomas. He wasn’t a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, but during his four years he worked hard developing his game, earned his degree, and had a productive NBA career and is currently involved with community work. What I admire about him was how he worked hard to overcome any challenge. I can relate to that. Plus when I was a student at SU I saw him on campus one day and he was a big dude.

People sure do love the Orangemen in upstate, New York. My good friend went to Syracuse and tells a story about waitressing for some of those players. Let’s just say that she will forever hate on Derrick Coleman. Anyway, what are you working on right now?

I’m working on Midnight Teacher: The Story of Lily Ann Granderson by Janet Halfmann. It’s about a woman who was born into slavery during the mid 19th century who learned to read and write. She secretly taught other slaves to read write at the risk of her life. After the Emancipation Proclamation she started a school to teach former slaves to read and write. What’s so exciting is illustrating such an amazing woman many people might not be familiar with.

I’ll look forward to it.

Thank you, James, this was a lot of fun.

 

The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function, which works well. 

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, and Jeff Mack. Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, and more.

 

 

 

COVER REVEAL: “Better Off Undead”

After becoming undead, 

Adrian Lazarus 

has to survive middle school.

 

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ADRIAN LAZARUS has met with a curious fate. He’s returned from the dead (after a bad bike accident, no helmet), yet not a lot has changed. He still has to attend middle school. Adrian has always been something of a misfit. But it’s not just being a zombie that makes Adrian feel like an outcast. He notices the world has changed, too: bees are vanishing, forest fires are burning, seas are rising, super-flus are spreading. Even so, the holographic advertisements in the night sky assure people that all is well. But Adrian and his friends –- a beekeeping boy, a mysterious new girl who just might see into the future, and Talal, a seventh-grade sleuth –- aren’t convinced. When they discover a birdlike drone has been spying on Adrian, the clues lead to two shadowy corporate billionaires. What could they possibly want with Adrian?

 

PUB DETAILS: Macmillan, October, 2017, Ages 10-up.

Cover illustration by Andrew Arnold.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #241: From Zeynep in Istanbul, Turkey!

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This email traveled a long way . . .

 

Dear James Preller ;

Hello my name is Zeynep. I am writing you from Istanbul – Turkey. This year I am a 5th grader in Hisar Schools and my teacher gave us one of your books to read for a project and I just finished reading your book.

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First of all,I read “The Case Of The Bicycle Bandit”. When I started reading the book it made me excited immediately because the book starts with dialogue which makes it easy to read. Two pages after I understood what the story will be about. I like that there isn’t so much description in the book however It sometimes makes us hard to understand the characters. For Example, I don’t know so much about Jigsaw, is he a nice boy or naughty boy? How is his relationship with his mother and father? Or where do they live? I looked for these questions answers but I couldn’t find them anywhere.

I always liked this moment in the book when Mila consoles a distraught Ralphie. He looks around and the outside world reflects his inner emotions: "His eyes followed a bird circling in the sky. It circled once, twice, three times. Then it flew off. Leaving behind an empty sky."

JP COMMENT: I always liked this moment in the book when Mila consoles a distraught Ralphie. He looks around and the outside world reflects his inner emotions: “His eyes followed a bird circling in the sky. It circled once, twice, three times. Then it flew off. Leaving behind an empty sky.” Lovely illustration by Jamie Smith. Just right.

Finally I have to say that when I read that it was Ralph’s brother who stole the bicycle I was surprised! I couldn’t believe it. I think you did a great job by writing this mystery book because I couldn’t guess and solve the puzzle myself while I was reading.

I hope that you can continue your series in a successful and fun way.

Thank you,

Zeynep

I replied:

Zeynep, 

Greetings from Delmar, New York!

It’s exciting for me to hear from you, all the way from Istanbul. I’ve never been there. And despite books and movies, I still find it difficult to imagine your world. I wish you could have sent me a picture of your school or family or something/anything.

Or your cat! How do you say “meow” in Turkish?

It’s amazing that a book can bring us together like this. I’ve been lucky enough to have some of my books translated into other languages — Spanish, German, Korean, Japanese, Greek, Arabic, Indonesian, and more — but it always leaves me in awe.

Could there really be a young man in Turkey turning the pages of a book I wrote in 2001?

I guess so!

Thank you, friend.

Books are small objects that we read alone, usually in silence, often away from others. But they are also connectors, portals, ways of bringing people together. A shared experience. Pretty cool when you think about. We go off by ourselves to connect with other people, across time and space.

I was inspired by my own childhood for the “Bicycle Bandit.” I’m the youngest of seven children, with four big brothers who were 7-12 years older than me. I watched them as if they were creatures from another world. Neal, Bill, John, and Al. Well, behind our house we had a shed that was packed with battered old bicycles in all sorts of disrepair. Missing tires, rusty chains, torn seats, twisted fenders. They’d love to patch the bicycles together from broken parts and pieces. That’s where I got the idea from Ralphie’s bike, “Old Rusty.”

This is my family, minus Maggie, who is the prettiest of all. Gavin, Lisa, JP, and Nick. These are not our normal clothes. We are headed to a wedding.

This is my family, minus Maggie, who is in the all-time “Top 5” Best Looking Prellers. From left: Gavin, Lisa, JP, and Nick. These are not our normal clothes. We are headed to a wedding. And we’re going to dance. Badly.

 

This is Maggie.

This is Maggie.

I am married and we have three children. Our oldest, Nick, lives in nearly Albany in an apartment with two friends. He’s 23 years old. My other two kids, Gavin (17) and Maggie (16) live with us. Tonight Gavin has to work as a busboy in a nearby restaurant. Maggie is at crew practice; she is an athlete who rows on the Hudson River. Very strong! My wife is still at work. I think I might order a pizza pie tonight. But I’ll have to bundle up. Last I looked, it was 19 degrees fahrenheit outside. Brrrr.

Sound good to you?

Thanks again for your note. I tried to give you a little better sense of my world. Feel free to write back if you wish.

My best,

James Preller

POSTSCRIPT: I am thrilled to report that this book, long out of print, will be re-released this summer by Macmillan, along with these other Jigsaw Jones titles: The Case of the Smelly Sneaker, The Case of the Mummy Mystery, The Case of the Glow-in-the-Dark Ghost, and the brand new title, The Case from Outer Space.

Celebrate National Poetry Month (April) with a FREE POSTER

Teachers, librarians, book store owners! Follow this link for a FREE POSTER created by artist Maira Kalman — who happens to be great! — commissioned by the Academy of American Poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.

The organization distributes more than 100,000 free posters to schools, libraries, and bookstores from sea to shining sea. Just click on the link to fill out the easy form while supplies last.

Support poetry, share your love for the written word, and beautify your wall. Sorry I could make that image bigger, but it’s the best I could find.

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Additional information the Academy of American Poets:

National Poetry Month is the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of readers, students, K-12 teachers, librarians, booksellers, literary events curators, publishers, bloggers, and, of course, poets marking poetry’s important place in our culture and our lives. 

While we celebrate poets and poetry year-round, the Academy of American Poets was inspired by the successful celebrations of Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March), and founded National Poetry Month in April 1996 with an aim to: