London Ladd grew up loving comic books in Syracuse, New York. He started drawing in his teens and his first big break came when he was asked to illustrate the book March On! The Day my Brother Martin Changed the World (Scholastic) written by Christine King Farris, sister of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We’re thrilled he was able to stop by ReaderKidZ and share a few thoughts about his latest work in Under the Freedom Tree. Welcome, London.
ReaderKidZ: You travelled to Virginia to walk in Frank, James, and Shepard’s footsteps, why was this important for your creative process?
London: It was very important in so many ways and I can’t state that enough. To see firsthand and walk the steps they walked brought a deeper understanding and appreciation of the feat they accomplished. The escape from the Confederate camp at night, taking a skiff and paddle across the rough waters of the Chesapeake Bay to Fort Monroe not knowing what to expect took great courage. Seeing this deep, murky water helped me appreciate the true sense of danger that those three men faced. When I saw the Emancipation Oak in person for me the tree represents stability, comfort and protection under its strong, wide limbs. When I painted the illustrations those memories came back to me.
ReaderKidZ: How long from start to finish did it take you to illustrate this book? Did you ever get in your own way? Any challenges?
London: Actually the only challenge was fighting for this project. I wasn’t the first choice, but my agent forwarded me an early draft she received from Charlesbridge with some notes. The art director liked my work but not for this project. I fell in love with the story, and I was determined to change her mind. So I quickly sketched a mock up of the first page with the three men running away and sent it to them, and explained how moved I was by the story. After nervously waiting a few weeks, I was selected November, 2011. February, 2012 I received the finished manuscript, and I sent the completed artwork March, 2013. It’s been a labor of love, and I’ve enjoyed every step of the way.
ReaderKidZ: We love the illustration of the teacher reading to the children under the old oak tree. The light peeking through the canopy branches. The children gathered at the teacher’s feet. Attentive. Still. Hopeful. What was your favorite scene to illustrate? And why?
London: Thank you very much, that page is very special to me. I think you summed it up so well.
It’s really difficult to pick a favorite because there is something about each one of them that makes them meaningful. When I read the first page it became vivid in my mind. I could hear the crickets chirping, the pounding of James, Shepherd and Frank’s footsteps into the grass, the hurried breathing, and I could see the moonlight reflecting off of the marshy water. Right from the beginning, the action starts. It was important for me to capture the tension and the sense of urgency causing the reader to want to turn the page to see what happens next.
ReaderKidZ: What do you hope young people take-away from your illustrations in Under the Freedom Tree?
London: There are two things I hope young people take away. First, this fascinating piece of American history. When children see the illustrations I would like for them to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of this historical event, and how it played a significant role in the freeing of African American slaves.
Secondly, I would like for children to know how committed to telling this story I was: from the hours of online research, to interviewing people on the phone, to driving eight-plus hours to Hampton, Virginia so I could connect to the story on a deeper level by seeing the actual landmarks, to using myself as a model to take pictures so I could make sure stances, movements, and actions were right, and the isolated hours in the studio painting the illustrations. It was a great experience.