Iconic activist Ruby Bridges has a lot to say about civil rights. A six-year-old second grader in 1960, she was the first and only Black student at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. In fact, she was the only student, period. The day she arrived, surrounded by federal marshals, parents withdrew their 500 children in protest and in fear. In her innocence, she thought the ugly crowd was celebrating Mardi Gras.
Her latest book, “Dear Ruby, Hear Our Hearts” showcases letters she’s received from children, asking about issues ranging from climate change to the homeless. It’s illustrated by Illustration professor and BFA and MFA alum John Jay Cabuay and is already receiving favorable reviews and much notice in national media. We asked him what it was like to work on this project.
In late January, Bridges was interviewed on NBC’s Today Show and CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where she discussed the book, her life, and her overwhelming faith in young children to ask the right questions.
“When I heard Ruby would be on national TV,” said Cabuay, “I had a feeling that it was going to be a good day. I was surprised, excited and nervous at the same time.”
Prof. Cabuay describes his style as being about the “joy of draftsmanship with a blend of silkscreen mentality and a colorful palette.”
He says illustrating the book was a “passion project. From the moment I started the initial brainstorming of ideas, to the last final color; it was a special journey.”
One of several personal highlights was the opportunity to collaborate with his daughter. She helped me with a lot of the children’s poses for the book. I placed her in the book as well — a cameo.”
Prof. Cabuay said he learned about Ruby’s story in high school history class. As an FIT undergrad, in an introduction to Norman Rockwell, he saw Rockwell’s 1963 painting “The Problem We All Live With.” Ruby Bridges herself did not know the painting existed until she was 17.
At the project’s start, Prof. Cabuay “met Bridges on a video call. “She gave me her thoughts on how the book’s message must be presented overall visually.” She said that “Children from different backgrounds must be showcased.
“After that, I worked with the creative team at Scholastic [the publisher]. They would send me Ruby’s feedback on my illustrations” as the project moved forward.”
It’s important for him he says “to be active in the business of illustration,” to be an effective instructor. “This project is an example of how my journey is educational for me, and for sharing with my students.”
For instance, he says: ”’Dear Ruby’ holds serious messages that I hope young people – and grown-ups – can learn from. Speaking as a parent, we can learn a lot from our children.”
He has also been painting and says he is always “re-enhancing my skills” that are not digitally based.
Prof. Cabuay’s advice to students: “Keep practicing and Draw! Draw! Draw! Draw from life!
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