Charise Harper wanted to go to art school but her parents told her there was no future in it. She compromised with a major in marketing, figuring the business angle would please her folks and the creative aspects would appeal to her. After graduating she looked for a job—“but not too hard,” she says. When a Chicago band approached her to design two album covers, she found the confidence to assemble a portfolio. Using her marketing background, she developed a list of magazines published in the Chicago area and visited the art directors. Soon she was drawing edgy, raw editorial illustrations with elements of collage for magazines on a freelance basis.
During this time, Harper began collecting picture books because of the stunning illustrations. “I thought I’d never be able to write a children’s book,” she says, “so I wrote a comic strip.” Once a week for six years, Harper’s comics appeared in alternative newspapers in various cities. “It was a great opportunity to experiment with words and pictures,” she says. An agent expressed interest in selling her comic strips as a book but Harper’s idea pre-dated today’s graphic novel and comics craze. The agent urged her to try children’s books. “The fact that he was an agent gave me the confidence to try,” she says. She submitted several proposals to him and six months later had two contracts for When I Grow Up (Chronicle, 2001) and Imaginative Inventions (Little Brown, 2001).
Harper’s mind moves at warp speed, bouncing from idea to idea, her words barely keeping pace with her train of thought. “I enjoy the process the most,” she says. “Of course I want to see my books in stores, but it’s almost like a letdown at the end. I’ve seen the illustrations. I’ve seen the writing. It was what I was expecting. The ta-da moment for me is putting the proposal together [because] it’s purely me and it’s exhilarating!” As a proposal becomes a book project, Harper enjoys watching her vision come to life as she works with the editor and art director, revising her original idea to become something marketable, but she says, “I never love it as much as that initial feeling.” Harper estimates that approximately 50% of her ideas make it to publication. “Not everything works,” she says. “The first thing I come up with is [usually] only great to me.”
Anecdotes and details from her life and the lives of her two children find their way into her books. For instance, in her Just Grace series of chapter books, Grace is a fantasy composite of Harper’s daughter, Harper herself, and the girl she wishes she had been. “Grace is not an easy child to bring up, but she’s a thinking child,” Harper says. “I like to celebrate the kid that thinks outside the box.” In another example, Harper’s son used to call ketchup, chip up. Harper allows Grace to borrow Chip Up as her pretend dog’s name inJust Grace Walks the Dog. “I don’t keep scrapbooks,” Harper quips, “so I figure at some point I’ll have to go through and highlight everything that’s true in my books!”
There Was A Bold Lady Who Wanted a Star (Little Brown, 2002), written soon after the birth of Harper’s first child, is a tribute to her mother. “I had a sudden appreciation for what it is like to be a mother. I didn’t realize I could love something so much. I would do anything for this tiny thing. I wanted to say thank you and this was the best way I could do it.”
Henry’s Heart, one of Harper’s upcoming books, followed a torturous path to publication. Initially, Harper wanted to mimic a Japanese format she admired that combined comics with photographs of a plush toy re-creation of the main character. As a nonfiction buff, Harper focused on germs and made her own stuffed replicas to photograph. Editors dismissed the idea as too “off-beat” or “weird” (“I get that a lot,” says Harper), so she retrenched and decided to zero in on the facts she learned about the heart during her germ research. Because she had to forego the combination of comics and photographs, she decided to work on this book with an elementary school in her hometown just north of New York City, bringing her manuscript and art studio to the children once a week so they could see how her idea became a published book (visit Henry’s Heart on her website for her weekly blog entries).
Harper’s art style is accessible, colorful and distinctive, yet she likes to experiment with every book she writes and illustrates. Early in her career she promised herself to illustrate every book differently to keep the fun alive. Sometimes she even toys with the idea of asking other artists to illustrate her books so she can focus on the idea process and the writing.
Harper, like all writers and illustrators, creates books that have meaning for her, never knowing with whom her books will resonate. For instance, In The Trouble with Normal she writes about a squirrel that makes the difficult choice to leave his best friend to pursue his passion to become a secret service agent. Recently, a note appeared in her inbox from a woman who had purchased several copies the book over the years for friends, family and co-workers. “It is so beautifully done and brings a smile to anyone’s face who reads it,” she writes. The fan? An intelligence research specialist at the foreign assessment and counter-terrorism branch of the secret service!