Twelve years ago, I wrote my first ever author fan letter to James Rumford, whose first picture book, The Cloudmakers (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), totally blew me away.
There was just something magical about this story of a Chinese grandfather and grandson, who taught their Arab captors how to make paper (“clouds”). The watercolors were luminous — skyscapes of billowy wonder. Since Jim just happened to live in Hawai’i, I also asked in my letter for some research assistance pertaining to a biography I was working on.
He wrote back right away with helpful suggestions that set me on my way. That same year, I went to Hawai’i for a couple of booksignings for my third book, The Woman in the Moon. I’ll never forget the moment a stranger walked into the bookstore, a haole man with a beard and ponytail. Someone other than friends and family had come to see me? Wow, this was big!
When Jim introduced himself, I was flattered and awestruck. He was friendly, warm, and genuinely interested in what I was doing. The following week, I attended his first booksigning, and to this day, I cherish my signed copy of The Cloudmakers, and have never stopped admiring the author/illustrator who has since created a dozen more picture books that have earned many prestigious awards and international acclaim.
Hawai’i seems to be the perfect place for Jim, a creative soul who embraces cultural diversity and is passionate about opening children’s minds to faraway places and long ago times. A linguist who is fascinated by ancient languages, alphabets and numbers, Jim has walked the walk as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Chad and Afghanistan. He was also a Fulbright scholar and Head of the English Department at the National University of Rwanda.
He has been called a Renaissance Man, and I wholly agree. Who else makes his own paper and handmade books, teaches himself Egyptian hieroglyphics, and beautifully enhances his illustrations with Arabic and Chinese calligraphy? His breathtaking watercolors, masterful pen-and-ink drawings, and innovative mixed media collages reveal his versatility as an artist who truly feels that the words (and how they are drawn) are just as important as the pictures.
When you open a James Rumford book, you know right away that it has been meticulously researched, inspired by a genuine passion for the subject matter, and designed to give the reader an authentic visual experience. His words are those of a seasoned world traveler, a keen observer both learned and compassionate. Jim’s books ask young readers to stretch their thinking and broaden their horizons. “Come with me,” he seems to say, “the world is a big and marvelous place.”
When Sequoya: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing, won a Sibert Honor Award for Nonfiction in 2005, I wrote Jim again. I felt he had created the perfect picture book – a lyrical, spare text describing how Sequoya invented a writing system for the Cherokee. To create the appearance of weathered woodblock prints, Jim attached drawing paper to a piece of rough wood, so that passes of chalk and colored pencil would bring out the texture.
Sequoya, himself, had first scratched word symbols onto wooden shingles in an attempt to preserve the sounds of his people. This is but one example of the artistic integrity and organic approach Jim employs when creating his pictures. And of course, for inspiration, Jim continually returns to the writing and painting masters of the ancient world. Sequoya, by the way, also earned a Sugarman Award for American Biography, and a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Honor Citation.
You can see why I am thrilled to bits to have Jim visit alphabet soup this month. I will review his two most recent books, Silent Music (Roaring Brook Press, 2008), and Chee-Lin: A Giraffe’s Journey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008) in separate posts. But today I would like to briefly mention the two Hawai’i-related books he did for Houghton Mifflin, The Island-below-the-Star (1998), and Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves (2004).
Both are works of historical fiction depicting what it might have been like for those early Polynesian explorers who braved the uncharted waters of the vast Pacific Ocean and discovered the Hawaiian Islands. As you probably know, these fearless adventurers journeyed thousands of miles in their outrigger canoes without any modern navigational instruments, depending solely on the sun, moon, stars, ocean currents, wind and weather patterns, and birds.
The Island-below-the-Star is about the ocean voyage itself, and Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves is about what the voyagers found at journey’s end. Both books feature the same five brothers, each with a special passion and skill: Hōkū loved the stars; Nā’ale, the sea; ‘Ōpua, the clouds; Makani, the wind; and little Manu, birds.
In The Island-below-the-Star, the brothers set off from their small island in the South Pacific to find another island beneath a distant star. They are thrown off-course by a storm at sea, and it is little Manu, the stowaway with an innate knowledge of birds, who helps steer them to safety.
It’s amazing that human beings could travel so far, in such small vessels, with minimum provisions. More amazing still is their courage and desire to venture into the unknown. When the brothers pack coconuts, bananas, taro, and breadfruit, we are reminded that most of the foodstuffs we commonly associate with Hawai’i were brought in by outsiders. Kirkus calls this book, “a dramatic tale of high hopes, wayfinding, and lives tuned to the music of the spheres.”
In Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves, the brothers discover what they first think is a dog, but is actually an injured monk seal, on the beach. Manu nurses the seal back to health and the two form a special bond. As the brothers explore the island and prepare for their journey home, they encounter many unique life forms – plants, fish, and birds that exist nowhere else on earth. When they are overcome by an earthquake, Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves protects them and helps rescue Manu.
A lovely paean to the natural world, Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves includes an illustrated glossary of endemic and endangered life forms. Jim has called it one of his favorites because, “I get to show by my pictures just how beautiful I think Hawai’i is.” Both books contain endnotes by the author and vibrant watercolor illos that effectively convey the spirit of these early voyagers and the sometimes capricious sea. Dog also includes a Hawaiian translation of the text.
If you’re only familiar with a few of Jim’s books, I hope you’ll check the rest of them out. Each is different and striking in its own way. Whether you travel to 14th century Morroco with Ibn Mattuta, or fight heroic battles with Beowulf in Anglo Saxon England, you could not ask for a better storyteller to take you there. Older picture book fans, especially, will find much to excite and inspire them.
Books written and illustrated by James Rumford:
The Cloudmakers (Houghton Mifflin, 1996)
The Island-Below-the-Star (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)
When Silver Needles Swam (Manoa Press, 1998)
Seeker of Knowledge (Houghton Mifflin, 2000)
Ka-hala-o-puna, ka u’i o Manoa: The Beauty of Manoa (Manoa Press, 2001)
Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354 (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
There’s a Monster in the Alphabet (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)
Nine Animals and the Well (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
Calabash Cat and His Amazing Journey (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
Sequoyah (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)
Don’t Touch My Hat (Knopf, 2007)
Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
Silent Music (Roaring Brook Press, 2008)
Chee-Lin: A Giraffe’s Journey (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)