Atheneum, 2019. Hardcover Picture book, 40 pages
the plantation master rings the bell.
Daddy gathers wood.
Brother Ben and the other slaves go out to the fields.
Until one day, the bell rings, and Ben is gone.
As James E. Ransome moves us through a week, we find a rhythm of a life interrupted. The bell rings before the sun is up. Daddy gathers wood. Mama cooks. They eat together. There is an affectionate parting of the ways as they head off in the direction of their days.
Variations in the rhythm occur, but the first significant shift is when our narrator’s older brother gifts her a doll. The older brother Ben, whose face we never see, runs away that day…on the third day. It is an otherwise beautiful day for our narrator as she plays with her doll, the last glimpse of a childhood that appears more liberated than it is. It’s the kind of day children readers/listeners will related to.
The Bell Rang opens every day scenes with an intimacy that could allow the reader to forget the context; but for that bell ringing at the master’s hand. It’s when the brother runs that context looms larger in the illustrations. The Overseer enters their home (an intimate familial space) at the center of the composition. The door askew; at everyone’s backs. The next page he’s on his horse with a gun, herding, watching in closer proximity than on that Monday before, that first day. The presence of slavery moves from the periphery in the text as well. “Overseer hits Mama, then Daddy. I hide” (Thursday). Friday quiets and then Saturday…
Loss takes root in the rhythm of the days, a grieving and a slow return to a life before and without Ben. And a new interruption on Saturday, when the search party returns. And what violence happens (again) is off screen; its reality another brief, yet stark line. “Out comes the whip.”
Saturday is a short work day and like the earlier interruption that occurs before the bell rings on Thursday; the break is happening outside of “work hours.” That the invading presence happens during “personal time” emphasizes that the presence of the master, overseer, and others are unwelcome outsiders, unnatural to the scene; too, that the story is impacts the narrator and her family intimately, personally. The disruptions are happening in their spaces. Saturday marches horses and barking dogs right beside Mama and the narrator’s own garden.
On Sunday there is no bell. The rhythm of a family unit meets the rhythm of the community. Ben and his friends’ dream is caught up in the dream of the community, “Free like the birds. Free like Moses. No more Bells.”
The last page of the book is one to experience. The heart ache and tension catch their breath in that last full image. It’s “Monday…” and, holding the doll her brother gave her, she looks at that bell in its stillness. The bell that dictates the order of their days. She’s not playing with the children, she’s caught up in another thought.
Ransome is easily one of the most talented living children’s book illustrators. The expressions, movements, layering, depths in color and tone… The compositions tell the story in the text. The text, quietly recording the events of a day; a history that doesn’t capture everything that we need to know. And we need to know what happened when the bell rang…and when it didn’t.
I want to share some of the “Author’s Note.”
A number of books for children have dealt with the tremendous strength it must have taken to physically run for your life to escape slavery. Many slave owners encouraged the enslaved to have family ties, as a way of keeping them from running. With The Bell Rang, I wanted to address the difficult choice enslaved persons faced when making the decision to leave their loved ones behind. But, for those family members left behind, the impact was equally heart wrenching.”
James E. Ransome’s highly acclaimed illustrations for Before She Was Harriett received the 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. His other award-winning titles include Coretta Scott King Honor Book Uncle Jed’s Barbershop; Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt; and Let My People Go, winner of the NAACP Image Award. He frequently collaborates with his wife, author Lesa Cline-Ransome. Mr. Ransome teaches illustration at Pratt Institute and lives in upstate New York with his family.