James Ransome

The illustrator for episodes 2, 6, and 10 of the Exquisite Corpse Adventure is James Ransome, named by the Children's Book Council as one of the 75 authors and illustrators everyone should know. Ransome was born in rural North Carolina in a small town called Rich Square. He vividly remembers reading the Bible to his grandmother and being struck by the drama and detail of the illustrations. With little or no opportunity to take art classes at his school or in his community, Ransome enrolled in a correspondence course called "How to Draw Gags and Cartoons and Get Rich, Rich, Rich!"

In high school, Ransome became interested in photography and filmmaking, studies that helped him to understand how perspective and cropping can add drama to an image and how to pace a story and control how a story unfolds — all of which he brings to his work as a book illustrator. At the Pratt Institute (where he earned his BFA), Ransome was introduced to the great painters and watercolorists Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Edgar Degas, who have had a major influence on his own work.

Prompt for grades K-2 (Level I)

Harriet Powers Bible Quilt

Quilts are a recurring theme in Ransome's books, from a charming folk art ABCs (Quilt Alphabet) to the story of an African American girl's escape from slavery (Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt). Quilts symbolize comfort and home — and they can weave a story through imagery, color, and pattern. Imagine a quilt that tells your family's story. What colors, patterns, and images would it have, and why? You can use this simple 9-square template or border template as a starting point for your quilt, or make your own pattern. Write 4 or 5 sentences explaining the story of your family quilt.

Resources on quilts >

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Prompt for grades 3-5 (Level II)

Ransome is deeply interested in folktales, particularly African American stories and their origins in African storytelling traditions. In A Pride of African Tales (by Donna Washington), Ransome contributes richly colored watercolors to illustrate a classic trickster tale, cautionary tale, fable, pourquoi story, and more. Pourquoi tales — sometimes called "origin stories" — are fictional stories that explain why something is the way it is ("pourquoi" means "why?" in French): Why birds fly, why the crow is black, or why there are monkeys in the world. The most well-known may be Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. Many legends and folktales are pourquoi stories. Tall tales can include origin story elements, too. Remember Pecos Bill taming his horse, Widow Maker? That ornery critter bucked and kicked so much that he dug out the Grand Canyon!

The world is full of amazing creatures. Try writing your own pourquoi story, explaining to your friends how your animal got to be the way it is today. What animal will you choose? What unique physical characteristic or behavior does the animal have that intrigues you? Let your imagination go wild…

Resources on pourquoi stories >

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Prompt for grades 6-8 (Level III)

Nearly all of Ransome's books are about people, fictional or real. He has collaborated with his wife, Lesa Cline-Ransome on a number of picture book biographies: Satchel Paige, Helen Keller, and Marshall Taylor, a little-known 19th century champion cyclist. Select a famous or accomplished-but-not-quite-famous person you would like to know more about. Dig into primary sources to find out what people said and thought about this person. Now comes the fun part: create a portrait through words by sharing an anecdote about the person that really brings him or her to life, using picturesque language, simile and metaphor, and lively dialogue. Add a bit of hyperbole, if it works! Remember, this is not a timeline of the person's life, but a snapshot of a single event or detailed description that really helps the reader picture that person in their mind.
Length: 150–250 words.

Here are two examples of good descriptive writing from Ransome's book Satchel Paige:

"[When he stood on the mound], his foot looked to be about a mile long, and when he shot [the ball] into the air, it seemed to block out the sun. Satch's arm seemed to stretch on forever, winding, bending, twisting."

"From the first breath of spring till the cool rush of fall he would ride. Sometimes he joined his teammates on rickety old buses, bumping along on back roads studded with potholes so deep, players would have to hold on to their seats (and stomachs) just to keep from spilling into the aisles."

Researching and writing biography >

Resources on descriptive writing >

Using primary sources >

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Prompt for grades 9-12 (Level IV)

This Is the Dream is a beautiful book about the power of nonviolent change. Through simple verse and dramatic use of collage images, the authors (Diane Shore and Jessica Alexander) and Ransome tell the story of the civil rights movement and the brave contributions of ordinary people. In his illustrations, Ransome combines rich oil paintings with real photographs of the times. He says, "As I was growing up, I often saw the searing film clips and photographs from the civil rights movement, and I knew I somehow wanted to incorporate those images…" It also gave him the chance to look more closely at the work of two great artists who have influenced his own creative development: Romare Bearden and Robert Rauschenburg.

Identify a human rights story or major event from recent history that you want to research. From primary sources, identify images from newspapers, books, magazines, broadsides, and posters that tell the story in the most dynamic and authentic way. Create a collage with the images; you can also incorporate other imagery and text into the collage if you like. Think about how cropping and juxtaposition affect the power of the overall composition. Write a one-page essay or poem about the event to accompany your collage. (Note: please scan the collage and submit the jpeg file along with your written piece.)

Using primary sources >

Resources on collage technique and artists >

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More about James Ransome

More about quilts

More about pourquoi stories

More about biography

More about primary sources

More about collage

More about descriptive writing

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