story by Leslie Lang
photos by Dana Edmunds
Ten years ago, I took a tour of Honolulu’s Mission Houses Museum, where I saw a man working at a replica nineteenth-century printing press. He was dressed in the style of the day—pants, suspenders, shirt of the period, printer’s apron, handmade shoes. He inked the hand-set type and used a wooden peel to hang a freshly printed page on an overhead rack. His eyes sparkled as he showed us a small but extraordinarily thick Hawaiian language Bible and when he described how he used poi to bind books.
James Rumford at home
in Manoa valley.
His name was James Rumford, though I didn’t know it at the time. It was clear he had a passion for what he was doing; his interpretive role of a foreigner employed by the missionaries to operate the press was a highlight of the tour. I certainly didn’t anticipate, standing in that crowd of visitors, that one day he would be an award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator and a good friend who would even dedicate a book to me.
When I took a job at the museum, I learned Jim was much more than a talented role player. At home one day I discovered, handwritten in an old book, a family chant that had been lost for generations. Fascinated, Jim asked to see it, and I learned he read and spoke Hawaiian. He generously offered to publish the chant and an English translation, and I learned he was a papermaker and printer who makes elegant, handcrafted books through his company, Manoa Press, which he operates in a tiny studio off his garage.
And then his story got even more interesting. He met Harriett Oberhaus, a retired librarian and storyteller who encouraged him to write down and illustrate an original children’s tale he’d told her. Afterward, researching children’s book publishers, he noticed many of his favorite books were published by Houghton Mifflin. He sent the Boston company his manuscript, The Cloudmakers, with a
letter that essentially said, "I like your books. I hope you like mine." They did. Two months after he mailed the package, he had a contract for the first of what has become a long list of successful children’s books.
Like many of Jim’s books, The Cloudmakers is a fictional story crafted to illustrate a historical event, in this case the spread of Chinese papermaking to the Arab world. Ancient Arab historians noted that during a 751 AD battle, several Chinese papermakers were captured. The Cloudmakers tells a story of a Chinese grandfather and grandson taken prisoner during that battle. Trying to facilitate their release, the young boy blurts out that his grandfather can make clouds—sheets of Chinese paper, it turns out—and they are given seven days to prove it, using only their rope shoes, a walking stick and a worn carrying sack. Jim’s watercolor illustrations for the book were called "lyrical" by Kirkus Reviews, which said they "perfectly complement the spare, engaging text."
Jim, who grew up in Long Beach, California, is fifty-six, with short brown hair and a tidy, graying mustache and beard. He’s an intellectual yet easy to talk to; confident but down-to-earth. When something intrigues him, his whole face lights up—his eyebrows rise, his head tilts and his mouth opens in a delighted smile. He is gregarious and has a great sense of humor.