I belong to a middle grade book club and last winter, when it was my turn to select a book, my choice was Finding Langston, by Lesa Cline-Ransome (Holiday House). The book is a jewel, sparkling with carefully curated historical details and powered by love (same for the second book in the Finding Langston trilogy, Leaving Lymon). I was so taken with Langston’s story, I had to write a fan letter (well, email). Lesa not only kindly replied, she provided me with great inspiration: She would tell me about the ninety-seven manuscripts she was working on, and I would tell her about the closet I’d just cleaned, or the latest newly re-arranged drawer. She did not judge but her diligence sent me a huge message: get back to the computer. So I did. I am grateful for her encouragement and for her willingness to share here the story of how a picture book manuscript launched a novel trilogy. Want to hear Lesa talk about her books? Check out our Instagram Live Story (@kirbylarson), which will be available for at least another 24 hours.
Four years ago, I cracked open Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns and stepped into an overlooked period of America’s history called The Great Migration. Missing/absent from the classroom textbooks and history books of my youth, the Great Migration is at the center of Wilkerson’s vivid portrayal of the period between 1917 and 1970 when more than six million blacks left the rural south for the north for jobs, education, opportunity and lives free from the oppressive segregation. Its impact on the landscape of this country could not have been more profound. In Chicago alone this migration gave rise to countless
artists, musicians, poets and writers in what became known as The Chicago
Within this rich history I too found a renaissance of my own. Inspired by
Wilkerson’s book and my own family history, I began writing a too long picture book manuscript about a boy, his parents, and their new life in Chicago. It took the keen eye of my editor to see a middle grade novel in that first picture book draft and good deal of courage on my part to transform 32-pages into twenty chapters, but after countless sleepless nights, I found my way to novel writing and one young boy named Langston, who is weighed down by the loss of his mother, a move to a new city, relentless bullying by his classmates for his country ways, but whom eventually finds refuge in the Cleveland Hall Branch library and solace in the words of his namesake, poet Langston Hughes. Completing Finding Langston was one of the most satisfying moments of my writing career. There, I said to myself, I did it.
But I had no idea that writing the story of Langston was not the end. It was just the beginning.
The emails and letters began arriving soon after Finding Langston was published with questions for me and the characters: What happened to Erroll? Did Langston’s father ever marry the neighbor Miss Fulton? And most often, what ever happened to his bully Lymon? Questions I had no answer for. But my editor thought just maybe I could find them if I wrote a companion novel. And so I sat back at my desk and struggled to create a narrative around Lymon who was originally only a minor character. What did I know about the mean-spirited bully who struggled to read and saw Langston as his punching bag? But soon, I found Lymon’s story on the Midnight Special train to Parchman Farm penitentiary, and in the love of his grandparents, and the chords of blues musicians, and Mr. Eugene’s barbershop, until he too made his way to Chicago, and he and his years of neglect, anger and disappointment all met up with Langston in the
schoolyard of Haines Junior High School.
No sooner had I closed the book on Leaving Lymon and Chicago than the
questions restarted about the friend to both Langston and Lymon. What about Clem? readers asked. I thought this may be an instance where readers may need to use their own imagination to extend the story. But my editor had other ideas in the form of a third book.
There is a point in writing where characters become so much more than
characters. They become friends we wonder about, fuss and obsess over.
They become hard to let go. By now, I knew the story of Clemson Thurber Junior and the loss of his father in the Port Chicago Disaster. More research uncovered hidden gems of Chicago’s past in the Bud Billiken parade and the undefeated all- black DuSable High School swim team.
With post WWII Bronzeville as the backdrop for Langston, Lymon and Clem, readers see their young lives intersect on the page as they each try to navigate loss, the fractures within their families, budding friendships, emerging manhood and their own identity. And we see how all of our lives intersect through history, through the lives we lead and through the power of story. As for me, Langston, Lymon and Clem, the story at long last ends here.
Lesa Cline-Ransome’s first book was the biography Satchel Paige, an ALA Notable Book and a Bank Street College “Best Children’s Book of the Year. She later created Major Taylor: Champion Cyclist, Young Pele, Words Set Me Free, Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong and Germs:
Fact and Fiction, Friends and Foes, Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams, The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel Payne, Not Playing by the Rules: 21 Female Athletes Who Changed Sports and Overground Railroad. Her verse biography of Harriet
Tubman, Before She Was Harriet received five starred reviews, was nominated for an NAACP image award and received a Jane Addams Honor, Christopher Award and Coretta Scott King Honor for Illustration. Her debut middle grade novel, Finding Langston, was the 2019 winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and received the Coretta Scott King Award Author Honor. The companion novels Leaving Lymon and Being Clem complete the Finding Langston trilogy. Lesa’s books have received numerous honors and awards including NAACP Awards , Kirkus Best Book,
New York Public Library Best Book, SLJ Best Book, ALA Notable, CBC Choice Awards, two Top 10 Sports Books for Youth, and an Orbis Pictus Recommended Book. She is currently an SCBWI board member and host of KidLitTV’s Past Present: Giving Past Stories New Life.
She lives in the Hudson Valley region of New York with her husband and frequent collaborator, James Ransome and their family. Visit her at her website.