February is Black History Month and we have a new and inspiring book to help you celebrate. Under the Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke, illustrated by London Ladd, tells the little-known story of the first contraband camp of the American Civil War.
One night in 1861, three escaped slaves made their way
from the Confederate line to a Union-held fort where they were declared
“contraband of war” and granted protection. As word spread, thousands of
runaway slaves poured into the fort. These “contrabands” made a home
for themselves, building the first African-American community in the
country. In 1863 they bore witness to one of the first readings of the
Emancipation Proclamation—beneath the sheltering branches of the tree
now known as Emancipation Oak.
London took a moment to speak with Unabridged about what it was like to illustrate this important picture book.
What was it about the manuscript for Under the Freedom Tree that made you want to illustrate the book?
This was a fascinating part of not only African American history, but American history that I had no idea existed. The actions of three men led to the first African American contraband camp and eventually their own self-sustaining free community. Here during the era of slavery, African Americans could learn to read and write and build their community.
How challenging (or easy!) was it to illustrate the story of Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory?
The most challenging aspect was when I gathered all the research. As I dug deeper I would find more details that would catch my interest. I had to force myself to focus on the information needed rather than get lost in the vast amount of information available.
The easy part of this project was going to visit the actual location of the events. Visiting Fort Monroe and standing where the three men launched at Sewell's Point and standing next to the Emancipation Oak was a moving experience.
Most authors and illustrators don't get the chance to work closely with each other--oftentimes, they never even meet! Yet you and Susan worked very closely to create Under the Freedom Tree. What was the process like? Have you had similar experiences with other authors in the past?
This is the first time I have actually worked with the author of the book I illustrated. It was very nice to connect with Susan because we shared similar visions for the book. She lives in Virginia, right near the Emancipation Oak, and therefore was able to show me some of the sites that I went to visit and had great insight.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to as an illustrator?
Most importantly a story has to speak to my heart. I'm drawn to stories of perseverance, survival, and overcoming obstacles. I think it's fascinating to illustrate stories that show the strength of the human spirit.
Are you influenced or inspired by the work of other children's book illustrators? If so, who and why?
The answer to this is a big fat YES! I have so many illustrators that I love and constantly refer to when I need a creative push. I'm a big fan of classics like NC Wyeth, Dean Cornwell, Jessie Wilcox Smith, and John Lagotta, but there are current illustrators that I just marvel at and study intensely: Greg Manchess because of his color palette, how he applies his paint, his brush stroke technique, and the way he captures subject matter whether it's something still and quiet or action-packed; James Gurney because the guy is the epitome of an illustrator--extremely knowledgeable, amazingly creative, constantly working on his craft, and eagerly sharing his knowledge with anyone who asks; Chris Van Allsburg is a master storyteller with his expressive characters and beautifully designed books. I also admire other phenomenal modern age illustrators like Kadir Nelson, Brian Collier, Jerry Pinkney, David Shannon, Gary Kelley...just to name a few.