Lesa Cline-Ransome is the author of numerous nonfiction and historical fiction titles for young readers. Her verse biography of Harriet Tubman, Before She Was Harriet, illustrated by her husband and frequent collaborator James E. Ransome, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and received a Coretta Scott King Honor for Illustration, among other accolades. Her debut middle grade novel, Finding Langston, won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and earned the Coretta Scott King Award Author Honor. In addition to illustrating several other award-winning books, James is also a recipient of the ALA Children’s Literature Legacy Award. We asked the couple to interview each other about their new picture book, Fighting with Love: The Legacy of John Lewis, their creative approaches, and their evolving connections to history.

Lesa Cline-Ransome: Well, this may be a first, the two of us interviewing each other. Let’s hope things don’t go off the rails.

James E. Ransome: Don’t worry. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.

Lesa: I have so many questions I’d love to ask you that in the busy-ness of our lives I never really have the opportunity to ask. Here goes…

Growing up, I was never much of a fan of history. I lived for English class and Friday spelling tests! But for me, history was dates and past eras that had no connection to my life. That changed over the years as I began to see history as stories and opportunities to reveal the truth of diverse human experiences as well as the inner lives and forgotten narratives of people of color. What is your own connection to history?

James: Because art wasn’t offered in my school, history was one of my favorite subjects until I reached high school. I actually loved the battles and dates because they gave you markers. I think names are great examples of how people influenced history. I have to say, Ken Burns gave voice to how I always thought history should be taught—through stories.

Lesa: Well, that’s what I love now about history, the way that the past connects us to the present and our future through story and the lessons it teaches us about ourselves and our place in the world. What I enjoyed so much about the period in history of John Lewis’s life is the way that I discovered so many interesting aspects of the civil rights movement and new parts of history that I was never taught growing up in the ’70’s in my classrooms in Malden, Massachusetts.

James: There are layers in history where when you pull back one, other layers are revealed. But you always want to remember that history has different perspectives. As the saying goes: “Until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”

James: The one question I’ve always had for you is about process. When you write a bio, you never just tell the basic story: the person is born, they went to school, and they became great. You seem to always find something—a quality that readers can relate to. For example, in Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams, you focused on the relationship between the sisters rather than them being tennis stars.

That's what I love now about history, the way that the past connects us to the present and our future through story.
–Lesa Cline-Ransome

Lesa: That focus essentially came from sharing a room with my older sister Linda, who tormented me throughout my childhood. I couldn’t imagine how two sisters could ever have such a tight bond! When I begin writing about a subject, I am not just investigating their background and their accomplishments. I am also trying to figure out what events in their early lives shaped them. And probably because I wasn’t a great student of history, I am also trying to understand how the period in which they lived played a role in who they became. And of course, just like with the Williams sisters, I am always looking for some type of personal connection. With John Lewis, the connection was easy to find.

James: I’m probably most impressed by your system of writing. I don’t see you varying from your step-by-step process. Where did your creative process derive from?

Lesa: I wish I had a more writerly answer, but basically the research determines how I tell the story. I’ve always been such a fan of John Lewis—his work, his passion, his continued fight for justice. But it wasn’t until I really began to read about his early beginnings that I discovered that because he took a trip to Upstate New York to visit family, he was able to experience integration and witness Blacks and whites living in community for the first time. He saw a world outside of his own experience that changed his world view. Living in Alabama and seeing the ways the hard work of his family and community weren’t valued and rewarded made him realize the stark inequalities that existed, and that inspired the fight inside of him to make a change.

I mentioned earlier our differences, but we also have so many shared loves: music, food, art, and of course, our four beautiful children. I so love the way you brought the story of John Lewis to life in Fighting with Love with your warmth and sensitivity. I wonder, and I promise you won’t hurt my feelings, but do you think of me specifically when you come up with ideas for book projects?

James: Well as you know, I’m always coming up with book ideas. In fact, my part-time job is pitching ideas to you for projects. The problem is that you turn down 90% of them. But the reason I pitch ideas to you first is that I am impressed with your imagination, so I just hope that I can create images that match your manuscript .

Lesa: Flattery gets you everywhere. When you were creating images for this book, did you feel that being from the South helped to inform your approach?

James: Absolutely. I was a kid during this era, and I often reflect on my time growing up in the South to help me make the images. I was born at the end of Jim Crow and had personal experiences of living in a home with no indoor plumbing and [being in] a segregated school system where my class was the first in the county to integrate. So when I am creating images of John Lewis and his family sharecropping, I can relate to their lifestyle because those systems were just beginning to come apart when I was coming up in North Carolina in the 1970s. My grandparents were sharecroppers and my grandmother took me out into the fields to have the experience of picking cotton. When I read John Lewis’s story, I tried to capture even in the back-breaking labor, the beauty of the landscape, the people, the colors—the green fields, the white cotton, the blue skies.

Lesa: Well you certainly succeeded in blending both the pain and beauty of the time period and of John Lewis’s incredible life. Thank you again, James Ransome. As always, it’s been a pleasure working with you.

Fighting with Love: The Legacy of John Lewis by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illus. by James E. Ransome. S&S/Wiseman, $18.99 Jan. 9 ISBN 978-1-5344-9662-0