Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
A Nice Piece of Luck
by Lesa Cline-Ransome
My family listened to music in the morning as we prepared for the day, and at night as we cleaned the dinner dishes. I grew up on a steady diet of the R&B and soul music of the Jackson 5, Bobby Womack, and James Brown. Of Soul Train Saturday mornings and church service choir stands on Sundays. I sampled disco and devoured rap. But my roots were jazz and blues and the musical greatness of Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson, Bobby “Blue” Bland and John Lee Hooker. Music is the heart and soul of me.
When I discovered Louis Armstrong, I was captivated by a sound that was Soul Train and spirituals, rap, blues, and soul in one dynamic, scratchy-throated presence. In my most recent book, Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong (Holiday House, 2016), the story begins, “In New Orleans, Louisiana, in a part of town outside of Storyville, tucked in a corner called Back o’ Town, in a section nicknamed The Battlefield, Little Louis Armstrong was born, black and poor and lucky.”
Being black and poor in 1901 did not often equate to lucky, and Armstrong had his share of stumbles, but his worldview made each setback a triumph and each obstacle a gift. His luck came in many forms—a loving mother, a strict grandmother, a job with a Jewish peddler whose loan bought a cornet, a bandleader’s lessons during a stint in a boy’s home, a mentor named Joe Oliver, and a neighborhood alive with music. Where others saw limitations, Armstrong found opportunities for growth and maximizing his raw talent.
One of the many challenges I face when sharing the results of my biographical research is demonstrating how the events of a subject’s youth impacted his or her success as an adult. My hope is to present history in a way that is accessible to an young audience and to bridge the distance between past and present, while highlighting the timeless passions and dreams that bind us.
The beauty of nonfiction is in how it reminds us of how much has changed, and how much hasn’t. It reveals truths and presents opportunities for discussion. It humanizes historical figures and allows us to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
For me, discovering Louis Armstrong’s story was uncovering the heart and soul of a man who realized long before I did that to live in a world surrounded by music is a nice piece of luck.
Listen to Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome share how they came to create Just a Lucky So and So.
Text and images are courtesy of Lesa Cline-Ransome and may not be used without her express written consent.