Interview with author and illustrator James Rumford
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Author and illustrator James Rumford had a varied career before becoming a chldren's writer, including working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad and Afghansistan and a Fulbright lecturer in Rwanda. James was forty-six when his long-held dream of creating children's books came to fruition with the publication of his first book The Cloudmakers, thanks to the insistent encouragement of retired librarian and story-teller Harriet Oberhuas. In 1986 James set up his own letter press Mānoa Press, creating fine limited-edition handmade books.
In the last fifteen years, James has written many more beautifully crafted books, often focusing on different alphabets and writing forms from around the world. He has won many awards, including Jane Addams Peace honor awards for Sequoyah and Silent Music, winner also of a Charlotte Zolotow honor and the Peace Corps Writers Award for Best Children's Writing. His book Traveling Man won the Middle East Outreach Council 2001 Book Award for the best picture book for children and young adults.
James' picture book Rain School has been selected for inclusion in the 2011 Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set.
James lives with his wife in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Can you tell us a bit about your time in Chad as a teacher and how it inspired you to write Rain School? What in the present triggered you to go back to your time in Chad nigh on forty years ago now?
Being in the Peace Corps is a transformative experience for everyone. My wife and I spent four years in the Peace Corps (three in Chad and one in Afghanistan), then came back to America with points of view that were often difficult to share with our friends and colleagues. One of them was that a modern building does not a school make. It is amazing to realize that it is the teacher that matters first and foremost. It is the teacher that educates, not the building, the campus, the school song. Perhaps this was in the back of my mind when I wrote Rain School several years ago. Also in my mind was the desire to write another story like Mango Rain, which I had published in Brazil under the title Chuva de Manga. The success of that book coaxed me into thinking of other times in Chad when the rain played an important part in understanding the culture and the people of Chad. By the way, Mango Rain will be published in English this year by BookPartners, a new company out of Florida.
For most readers of the book, the thought of actually building their school before they can sit down and learn will be a completely alien concept – but one of the joys of the narrative is the total acceptance of this scenario as the status quo. What do you hope the book will instil in its readers?
First, I think that kids love building things. I think that they can totally identify with building a school. Kids never see the impossibility of a project. They only see its possibilities. In a series of questions I wrote on my website as a follow up to reading Rain School, I asked, “If you could build a dream school, what would it look like?” I bet some kids would really take off answering this question. Second, I think it is important for some children to realize that not everyone has a nice, clean school to go to and that this awareness can lead to a new understanding about the world—not that there are poor, less fortunate people in the world—not at all, but that there are people who make do with what they have and that, even without the newest technology, education can take place.
You cite your Mango Rain and rain scenes by Japanese artists Kitagawa Utamaro (ca. 1752-1806) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) as the inspiration for your illustrations for Rain School . Can you give us some background to both these connections?
The idea for Mango Rain came to me while I was in Chad, before I had even thought of really becoming a children’s book writer and illustrator. I found the notion of a little rain that occurred in January, during the dry season, very poetic. That rain provided just enough water to the mango tree so that it could blossom and bear fruit six months later.
Years later I wrote a story of the mango rain and illustrated it. No publisher was interested in it in America, but in Brazil it found an audience. I decided that the illustrations should be loose. I also wanted the dusty feeling of Chad; so I chose pastels to give that effect—and I chose the colors of the mango fruit to help the reader feel the intense heat of that country. Since the rain in Rain School is more violent than it is in Mango Rain, I turned to the masters of depicting rain: the Japanese ukiyo-e artists Utamaro and Hiroshige.
I also used works by Chinese and Japanese and Native American artists for inspiration when I illustrated Sequoyah. I wanted the look of a wood cut. I wanted to know how to solve the problems of composing a ‘tall’ picture. So, I went to the library and studied the artists I mentioned. If you look at my books, the art is varied. When I write a book, I want the illustrations to reflect the story not me. Thus, I have no particular style.
Rain School’s narrative is framed, as it were, by the same woman walking by at the beginning and end of the book, with a pot on her head that is decorated with a Calabash cat. Is this a deliberate reference to your Calabash cat? On your website you say that your book Calabash Cat: and his amazing journey is about “seeking knowledge and finding wisdom”. Is that also your goal with Rain School, or indeed all your books?
As the author and the illustrator, I think it is fun to put references to my other books in the pictures and sometimes in the text as well. Referring to Calabash Cat in Rain School was, for me an opportunity not to be missed. Mango Rain also has the same references. There are other references as well. The more you look at my books the more you will find, and the more you know the more you will see. Traveling Man is filled with visual and textual references that, as the reader grows and matures, will become more and more comprehensible. I suppose that is what “seeking knowledge and finding wisdom” is all about. I can’t imagine, nor do I think any author imagines, that one’s book is a one-time thing: open, read, close, let book collect dust on the shelf. A book is a link to other things, a stepping stone to wisdom.
You became a children’s book writer only relatively recently, thanks to the insistent persuasion and support of a colleague at the Mission Houses Museum in Honolulu, Harriett Oberhaus, a retired librarian and storyteller. Do you think you would be a writer now, if she hadn’t been there to encourage you? Has your experience affected your approach to other budding writers?
I don’t know what would have happened without Harriett Oberhaus. Maybe I would have written and illustrated books anyway, but I doubt it. I like to tell the story of how Harriett influenced me. I like to end the story, by encouraging those in the audience who would also like to write and illustrate a children’s book to go home and do it. A few times now, a man or a woman has come up to me and given me a copy of their book....one, they say, I inspired them to write.
Journeys figure strongly in your work – and your multi-layered presentation makes the journey of reading your books exciting for young (and older, or even old!) readers. In Calabash Cat there are colored lines across the pages to follow the different sections of the journey; and ribbons of text bring fourteenth-century Ibn Battuta’s incredible 75,000 mile journey to life in Travelling Man. In Chee-Lin, Tweega the fifteenth-century giraffe’s story is contextualised through a shifting background of textile and cloisonné designs, from his capture near Malindi (now Kenya) to his final home in Peking some nine years later. Before you start writing a book, do you have an idea of how you want it to progress, in terms both of narrative and visual impact, and what research do you do?
Life is a journey. Books are a journey. My day today will be a journey. I guess I am hard-wired to see the world that way. As for writing a book, I do do a lot of research. I want my books to be as accurate and authentic as I can make them. I also try to find a way to present difficult material to a young audience. In retelling the story of Beowulf, I had to understand that poem inside and out in order to distill the story to its essentials. I read commentaries on the poem. I read scholarly papers. I even learned enough Anglo-Saxon to read the difficult passages for myself so that I could draw my own conclusions. There is no excuse, in my view, for a book for children to be in any way less accurate than a book for adults.
Your powerful story Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad mingles the history of a thirteenth-century Arabic calligrapher Yakut al-Musta’simi, with the story of a young boy Ali caught up in the was in Iraq in 2003. The comfort Ali draws from writing, writing, writing also becomes an allegory for war and peace: the word harb (war) is so much easier to write than salām (peace). You have written about how you tried to push the story away from you. Why was that, and what were your feelings when it came to be published?
I think that it is a rare publisher who will put out a children’s book that might seem controversial. In 2003 talk of peace was controversial if not downright unpatriotic. Had I had the tools available to me now such as the internet, Kindle, print-on-demand services, I would have published that book in 2003. Instead, I had to go from one publisher to another, piling up rejection slips on my desk. So, when Neal Porter at Roaring Brook Press agreed to publish the book, I was, of course, ecstatic. My book was going to see the light of day! And I have been delighted with the response from my readers.
In your interview with Jama Rattigan at Alphabet Soup a couple of years ago, you explained your process of writing all the words for a story and then creating the illustrations. Have you ever found yourself with images that then require words to be put to them? What does this division of labor mean when it comes to reaching a final draft?
I do have illustrations for which there is no story, and recently, to my surprise, I wrote a wordless book. Why surprise? Because I find it hard to separate words and pictures. They work together to form a story, as they do in a movie, for example. For me, I find it easier to marshal my thoughts by first writing down words. If the words sound right to me, then I figure that the illustrations will come out all right, too. As for the final draft, it is difficult to control both the story and the illustrations. Sometimes—no—often, I find myself changing the words to fit the pictures....especially since it is easier to change a sentence than an entire illustration. Another difficult moment is when the first proofs come back from the publisher. At that point things are pretty much set. Even so, I have to don both the hat of the writer and the illustrator, to make sure that I have everything as I want it.
Most of your books reflect your own experiences of other cultures, either through living alongside them or absorbing them through their languages and the way those languages are written. What do you hope young readers will take away with them after reading your books?
I was a kid who loved different cultures. I loved finding out about other peoples and lands. I just hope that I can share that love with my audience so that they will expand their horizons and make their world as big as it can be. I learned quite early in my writing career that it is pointless to think that I am writing a book that everyone will cherish. Rather I came to understand this: I am not writing for everyone. I am writing for one person—the person who will be somehow affected by my book. If I am lucky, I will get to meet that person. And a few times, that has happened, be they kids or adults. Someone will come up to me and say how that book affected them. Once, there were two boys who learned why they shouldn’t have been disrespectful of their great grandmother’s quilt. Another time, it was two children who decided that they wanted to become Egyptologists.
You are also an artisan creator of books, through your Mānoa Press, which celebrates 25 years this year. How does your skill as a craftsperson making hand-made books interact with your experience as a children’s book writer and illustrator?
I think that making handmade books started me on a journey of finding out what makes a well-designed book. I had to learn about the composition of a page and the interaction of its various elements: the text block versus the white space; the placement of the illustrations throughout the book, if there were any; the rhythm of the pages as they flowed through the book; the balance of type and binding, color and black and white. All of these things helped me with my first book, which I sent to my publisher completely illustrated. (Of course, one is not supposed to do this, especially with one’s first book, but I did it anyway. Perhaps one of the reasons it was picked up from the slush pile.)
Now, as the publishing scene is being transformed and more and more authors and illustrators are publishing online and through print-on-demand services, my knowledge of book design is making it easy for me to make the transition. I don’t really see me published through big publishers anymore. Why? It is more fun, less hassle, to do it myself.
Your next book, due out next year, is From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World. It must be a story close to your heart. Have you ever considered creating a children’s book out of the journey of discovery you made about your own printing press?
No, I haven’t, but that is a good idea. Printing presses, setting type, and the other skills involved in printing books just twenty years ago are no longer part of how books are made. Already, printing a book with type is like making candles or soap or tanning leather. Ancient techniques. I truly wonder what children will make of From the Good Mountain. They may not understand it from the first page!
You already use the computer in your illustrations, and you must also be aware of the potential of computers to generate a seemingly endless flow of different fonts and typefaces; at the same time you create books that are works of art through your own printing press - so you must have an eye to the future and where e-books will take us. What do you think is going to happen to children’s picture book publishing?
I think that children’s picture book publishing will be totally transformed within a few years. Already publishers are canceling contracts and their operations are contracting. Authors and illustrators see that they can make more money if they publish themselves. There are already huge fights over who owns electronic rights and how much royalty should be paid on an e-book. I also see books becoming so interactive with plug-ins and connections to the internet that paper and ink books will become rarer and rarer. Just the other day at the computer store I saw a two-year-old holding a toy block as though it were an ipad and pretending to make it work! Books of ink and paper were cozy for us, but interactive books with a recording of our own mother reading the book will become cherished items for the children of the future.
As a linguist who has created children’s books in languages as diverse as Hawaiian, Brazilian Portuguese and Cherokee, how important do you think it is for children in our world today to have an awareness of language beyond their mother-tongue?
This is extremely important. A language defines us as who we are. If you know just one language, that says a lot about how you view the world. If you know another language that, too, lets people know what you think. Learning a language is not difficult. We are all programmed to do so. What is difficult is having the personality to step out of one’s comfort zone and into a wider world. It is an excuse to say that English is the dominant language; therefore, I don’t have to learn another. That’s like saying I don’t have to get to know my neighbor because I have everything I need.
Can you tell us what are you working on at the moment?
I am working on two biographical children’s picture books. One is about an African king named Njoya, who invented his own writing system much as Sequoyah did. Another is about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote The Little Prince.
If you could send Rain School anywhere in the world, where would you send it?
I’d send it to all the schools in the inner city with the words, “If those kids can get an education so can you.” To schools in middle class neighborhoods, with the words, “Value your school and value your teacher.” To all of the private schools with the words “appreciate what you have.” To all the boards of education in the United States with the words “See how important a teacher is; pay them more!”
* Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Editor
Posted September 2011
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By James Rumford (selected bibliography):
From the Good Mountain, How Gutenberg Changed the World
(Roaring Brook Press, forthcoming)
A Escola de Chuva,Portuguese
(BrinqueBooks, Brazil, forthcoming)
(Houghton Mifflin, 2010)
Tiger and Turtle
(Roaring Brook Press, 2009)
Chee-Lin, A Giraffe’s Journey
(Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
Silent Music, A Story of Baghdad
(Roaring Brook Press, 2008)
Beowulf, A Retelling
(Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
Don’t Touch My Hat!
A Chuva da Manga (Portuguese)
(BrinqueBook, Brazil, 2005)
Sequoyah, the Cherokee Man Who Gave his People Writing, translated into Cherokee by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby
(Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
(Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
Calabash Cat, and His Amazing Journey
(Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
Nine Animals and the Well
(Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
There’s a Monster in the Alphabet
(Houghton Mifflin, 2002)
Traveling Man, the journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354
(Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
Seeker of Knowledge, the man who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs
(Houghton Mifflin, 2000)
(Houghton Mifflin, 1998)
When Silver Needles Swam, the story of tutu’s quilt / Ka Ihe o Tūtū, English and Hawaiian
(Mānoa Press, Hawaii, 1998)
(Houghton Mifflin, 1996)
More on PaperTigers:
Visit our Gallery Feature of James' work.
Find out more about the Spirit of PaperTigers project and the 2011 Book Set.
More on the web:
Visit James' website and blogs: Writing and Illustrating Books for Children and Horace et Al (Horace's poems 'with a bit of Hafiz thrown in').
Visit James' hand-made books from his Mānoa Press.
Read James' interviews with Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup, Saffron Tree and Writer and Dreamer at Work.
Read James' description of how he came to write his first book, thanks to Harriett Oberhaus.
On the PaperTigers blog you will find our current and past themes unpacked and expanded, as well as news and views on multicultural and international books, world literacy, bedtime stories, children's literature events, and more... Come along and join our ongoing conversation!