Interview with Fred Bowen and James Ransome about their new book, Gridiron: Stories From 100 Years of the National Football League.

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Today, I am super excited to welcome to our site, veteran sportswriter, Fred Bowen and award-winning illustrator, James Ransome, to discuss their recent middle grade release, GRIDIRON: Stories from 100 Years of the National Football League, which was released on July 28th from Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Welcome to both of you and welcome to Mixed-Up Files!

JR: To start with, I really enjoyed this book. Fascinating and the illustrations were gorgeous. I’m a huge football fan and still learned things, and even things I knew, it was fun to revisit. How did the idea for this book come about, and how did the collaboration between the two of you develop?

James: I was watching a football game about six years ago when one of the announcers stated that the 100th anniversary of the NFL was coming up. The anniversary seemed like a perfect idea for a book for young readers. I began researching the history with the idea that I would write and illustrate the book.  After juggling deadlines for other book projects, traveling and teaching, I realized years had passed and I still hadn’t found the time to write one sentence, let alone a book. That’s when I realized I’d needed a writer. Fast forward to one year later when Fred and I met at a conference in Maryland. Right away I knew, that as a sportswriter, he’d be the perfect person to write the manuscript. I discussed my idea with him and we agreed to collaborate.

Fred: Thanks for the kind words about Gridiron. I am very proud of the book. As James said, the book was his idea. He approached me at a conference about 5-6 years ago after we appeared on a panel of children’s writers and illustrators who were talking about their work. I described my Fred Bowen Sports Story books for kids 7-12 that combine sports fiction, sports history and always have a chapter of sports history in the back. I also talked about my weekly kids sports column for the Washington Post.

After the panel, James told me about his idea of a history of the NFL in time for the league’s 100th anniversary (2020) and said he thought I was the person who could write it. I was very interested. I thought it was a great idea and I was thrilled to work with James. I have known about and admired his work for years.

JR: I think the collaboration definitely paid off. How much did you work with each other on aspects of the book?

Fred: Quite a bit. For example, we discussed the various players and events that should be included in the book. James reviewed several of the early chapters and gave me some great advice. He said, “Tell more stories.” Later in the process, when I was getting a little lost in my concerns of what my editor might like to be in the book, James said, “Fred, write the book you want to write.” That advice was very clarifying for me.

James: Well, my wife is a writer, so I have learned that it’s best to give them the space they need to create. I shared only my overall vision for the project with Fred. He later sent me a first draft of a sample chapter. I did emphasize that I wanted to be sure the text reflected the pace and dramatic moments of the game. Aside from this initial discussion, Fred then organized the chapters and came up with all the wonderful stories. So, it was a thrill to read the manuscript, enjoy his narrative that weaves the history into the present.

Have to ask, which team do you each root for and what one moment from those teams is your favorite?

James: I am a Miami Dolphins fan, from 1972 the year that the team went undefeated through the entire season and went on to win the Super bowl. And I should mention that they are still the only football team in the NFL to hold this distinction. A highlight for me was probably the Monday night Football game when the Dolphins played the Chicago Bears in week 13. The Bears came into the game undefeated and Miami with quarterback, Dan Marino, was the only thing standing in the way of the Bears from going undefeated. As the experts predicted, the Bears did go to the Super bowl and won, but the Dolphins defeated them on that Monday night 38 to 24. It was the only loss of the season for the Bears team.

JR: That game pains me in more ways than one. Hated the Dolphins, and hated it even more because of how angry I was that the Jets didn’t draft Marino. 

Fred: When I was growing up in Massachusetts, the members of my very large family (7 kids) were all New York Giant fans. I remember watching the weekly Giants game at one o’clock on Sunday with my father and older brothers and then going out to our yard to play touch football. I spent much of my early years dreaming of being a wide receiver such as Del Shofner or a defensive back such as Jimmy Patton.

Later in the 1970s, I rooted for the New England Patriots with quarterback Jim Plunkett and running back Sam “the Bam” Cunningham. Now, I follow the Washington Football Team for my Washington Post column, but I don’t really root for them. I am proud, however, that I wrote a column that the team should change their name “Redskins” way back in 2005.

JR: Which is the one lost opportunity football moment from your teams that you wish they could get back?

Fred: One of my earliest sports memories is watching the 1958 NFL championship game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. I remember my older brother Rich was heartbroken that the Giants lost the game and so was I. I suppose I would like to change the outcome of that famous game, but telling the story of Johnny Unitas and the Colts’ stirring comeback and 23-17 overtime win made a great chapter 7 in Gridiron. So maybe it turned out all right in the end.

James: Well, that’s an easy one. It has to be Super Bowl XVII when Washington beat the Dolphins 27 Miami 17. And Dan Marino did not get his Super Bowl win.

 

JR: Weird, I was okay with that one. 🙂 I loved the format of the book and the breaking the sport into four quarters. As I mentioned, I’m a huge football fan, and still was surprised to learn some facts from the book. What were the most surprising things that each of you learned while working on it?

James: For me it was learning more about coach Paul Brown. As I was working on that chapter, I continued to discover information that was beyond amazing on how he transformed the game into what it is today. It was so astonishing to me that I asked Fred to incorporate additional information to the text, which he did. I just wanted readers to know as much as we could squeeze in on about the contributions Paul Brown made to football and why he is the only person a team (The Cleveland Browns) is named in honor of.

Fred: Separating the book into quarters was James’s idea and it really helped with the organization of the book.

Two things surprised me the most during my researching and writing Gridiron. First, how small-time and disorganized the NFL was during its early years. No one kept statistics. Reports of the games rarely appeared in the newspapers. Teams made their own schedules and often played a different number of games. I describe some of this in the chapters of Gridiron. The first NFL championship game in 1932 (Chapter 3) was played in a Chicago ice rink. Only 31 of the 81 players selected in the first NFL draft in 1936 (Chapter 18) ever played in the league. The first pick – Jay Berwanger – chose to become a sportswriter and later a businessman.

The other thing that surprised me was how difficult it was to decide what to include in the fourth quarter of the book. It is much easier to see what events and characters of eighty or sixty or even forty years ago were important and “historical.” It is much more difficult with recent events.

 

JR: That’s incredible that the first pick chose not to play football. Fred, you started your career as a lawyer. How difficult was it to make the transition from that to writing for children, and is there anything from your previous career that you’ve found useful in your new field?

Fred: Surprisingly, being a lawyer is very helpful for becoming a writer. First, lawyers have to read and write a lot. Second, and probably most important for a project such as Gridiron, is that lawyers are used to taking a lot of complex materials and making them shorter and more understandable. So for Gridiron I read more than forty books and numerous articles and turned all that material into twenty chapters that are each about 650 words long that kids and the adults in their lives will enjoy.

JR: James, I read that you studied filmmaking before changing paths. What components of the former have helped with your illustrations?

James: Filmmaking has helped me with storytelling and pagination. When I read a manuscript, I think of it as a film. I zoom in and out, I see pages as scenes, I think of the angles and or viewpoint that best express the feel of the text.

JR: Can you both describe your process in your projects?

Fred: Specifically, for Gridiron I first had to decide what topics to write about in the four quarters and twenty chapters of the book. That is what I call the arc of the story.

Then I had to research each chapter and decide what story to tell within each chapter. For example, in Chapter 10 about the first Super Bowl I decided I wanted to tell the story of Max McGee, probably the most unlikely Super Bowl hero ever, and not just the play-by-play of the game.

Next, I outlined each chapter and decided what stories and details to include and what to leave out.  Then came the writing and deciding exactly how to tell the stories.  After that, I read what I had written out loud.  If the chapter was not easy to read I would change it until it was easy to read.  It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun.

James: I start off with reading the story a few times while making small doodle sketches. Then I make a dummy book and tape down all the text down on the pages. Then I create sketches that are drawn in next to the text. Once I feel I have a good version of the story, I send the dummy to the publisher. After 2 to 3 rounds of making sketch changes, I move on to drawing out the images on tracing paper working the same size of the final layout. These are then transferred to the paper that I am going to paint the images on. The painting process takes approximately three months to complete.

JR: What advice can you each give to someone looking to break into your respective fields?

James: I think there are two important skills you need; one is picture making. What I mean by that is how well you put figures in a room or space. But how you compose the picture with figures is just as important. And in children’s books, both facial expressions and body language are equally important.

Fred: Read widely. One of the fun things about being a writer is that you meet lots of other writers.  Every writer I have ever met is also a big reader.

It is also important to put yourself in a position where you have to write. So if there is a newspaper or a literary magazine at your school, join it. Don’t wait to be “inspired” to write. In addition, use every time you write anything, from a paper for school to an email or even a text, as an opportunity to practice your writing.

Finally, don’t try to figure out what might be popular. Write what appeals to you and what interests you.  Your enthusiasm for the subject will show through in your writing.

JR: Great advice from both of you. Now, if you could each tell me, what’s your favorite book from childhood?

Fred: Growing up my favorite books were the Chip Hilton sports books by Clair Bee, a Hall of Fame college basketball coach. The 23 fiction books followed Chip through his junior year at Valley Falls High School through his senior year at State (his college). Chip was the star quarterback in football, high-scoring forward in basketball and the top pitcher and hitter in baseball.

I loved those books so much my fourth grade teacher, Sister William (I attended Catholic school), let me read them under my desk during class. I think Sister William also knew that reading the books would keep me quiet!

The books sometimes mentioned the history of the games. In one book, Bee mentioned how in the early days of basketball there would be a jump ball after every basket. This fascinated me and probably led to my interest in sports history and history in general.

By the way, I own all 23 Chip Hilton books. They are in a bookcase behind my desk in my home office.

James: A Fly Went By by Mike McClintock, illustrated by Fritz Siebel

 

JR: Best football movie?

James: Brian’s Song 

JR: Good movie. 

Fred: I was a movie reviewer for local newspapers for 2-3 years early in my writing career. It was great fun and taught me to write for a general audience. I don’t remember any really good football films. But I enjoyed All the Right Moves, Heaven Can Wait, Remember the Titans and Friday Night Lights, although the book version of Friday Night Lights was much better.

JR: No love for The Longest Yard? Something people would be surprised to learn about each of you?

Fred: Although I write about sports I have a lot of interests other than sports. For example, I am a huge jazz fan. I have hundreds of CDs as well as Spotify playlists of such jazz favorites as Miles Davis, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Charlap, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Ray Brown and Scott Hamilton to name a few. I often write my books and columns with jazz playing in the background. And I will sneak the name of a favorite bass player or saxophonist into a lineup or roster in my books.

James: I think people would be surprised to learn how large a role music plays in my art making. Jazz is on 80% of the time while I’m working. But I also enjoy rap, blues and soul/ R&B. My all-time favorite band is Parliament /Funkadelic and my favorite rap group is Public Enemy. Favorite solo rapper goes to the one and only Biggie Smalls. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers is my top jazz band and Muddy Waters is my favorite blues singer. Nat King Cole, my favorite jazz singer. I’d love to illustrate a book about any of those subjects.

 

JR: What are you each working on next?

James: I am illustrating a book about jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Before that I just completed the companion to Gridiron, Hardcourt: A 75 years History of the NBA. It has the same formatting, and page count and another book that was so much fun to make pictures for. Now I’m hoping that Fred will write a book about the hockey league.

Fred: My next book is scheduled to come out in the fall of 2021. It is a soccer mystery and will be the 24th book in the Fred Bowen Sports Story series for Peachtree Publishers. We are still working on the title of the book.

James and I will be teaming up again for another sports history book. Hardcourt: Stories From 75 Years of the National Basketball Association is scheduled to be published in 2022. I’m very excited about that book.

JR: Looking forward to that, though I want to see a baseball one! How can people follow you on social media?

Fred: My Twitter handle is @FredBowenBooks. Anyone who is interested in my books and Washington Post columns can visit my website: www.fredbowen.com. I always enjoy hearing from people who like my books and columns.

James: My Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/james.e.ransome

And Instagram@ jransomillustr

Website: www.jamesransome.com

JR: Okay, let’s end with a couple of football questions. This is a weird year in sports. Based on what you’ve already seen, who’s your early pick to win the Super Bowl, and please don’t say the Patriots.

James: Well, you don’t have to worry that I am going to say the Patriots, being that I am a Dolphins fan. I think the Chiefs will return and they will be playing the Seahawks. It does not matter as long as Brady does not get in with the Buccaneers.

JR: Amen to that.

Fred: This year is going to be unpredictable because of the coronavirus. But I think you have to look at the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks as Super Bowl contenders so long as their quarterbacks stay healthy. One other team that might make a run is the Los Angeles Rams. Aaron Donald is a major force in the middle of their defensive line.

JR: Lastly, a serious question. as a frustrated fan for around forty years. Will the Jets EVER get better?

Fred: Absolutely! As I write this answer the Jets have a record of 0-6. They have to get better. There is no place to go but up for the Jets.

JR: I wish that were true. 

James: This is not a good question for a Dolphin’s fan. For all your readers who don’t understand, the Dolphins, Patriots, Bills and the Jets are all in the same division. Only one team can win the division and the other teams can only hope for a wild card to enter the playoffs. But only the team with the top record will advance to the playoffs and if they are lucky, the Super bowl. But your record has to be the top of all the remaining teams in all the divisions in your conference. The Jets and Dolphins have a long rivalry history, so I don’t root for them.

JR: Well, I AM rooting for the Dolphins this week, so the Jets can continue their tanking.

I thank you both again for joining us, and everyone please make sure to go out and get a copy of GRIDIRON!

 

In the meantime, on behalf of everyone here at Mixed-Up Files, I want to wish all of our readers a very Happy Thanksgiving! We are grateful for all of you.

 

Jonathan

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Jonathan Rosen is a transplanted New Yorker, who now lives with his family in sunny, South Florida. He spends his “free” time chauffeuring around his three kids. Some of Jonathan’s fondest childhood memories are of discovering a really good book to dive into, in particular the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Jonathan is proud to be of Mexican-American descent, although neither country has been really willing to accept responsibility. He is the author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, which is out now, and its sequel, From Sunset Till Sunrise. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, FromtheMixedUpFiles.Com, SpookyMiddleGrade.com, and his own website, WWW.HouseofRosen.com