Music has always been important to Jessica Harper. She’s written songs most of her adult life, including A Soda and a Souvenir and One More Round recorded by Bette Midler, andNobody’s Chasin’ Nobody recorded by Chris Burke. Having children of her own, however, forced Harper to face up to the fact that a lot of children’s music is, well, awful. With a little prodding from her mother, she began writing children’s music—not traditional nursery rhymes and lullabies set to music, but original foot-tapping, be-bopping tunes featuring jazz, rap, calypso and rock beats. “My father played Harry Belafonte records when I was a child. Anybody who’s heard my music will understand the connection that had to my aesthetic sensibility.”
Several CDs later, Harper realized that many of her songs had stories which could possibly become picture books. “I began by submitting printed lyric sheets to publishers for the songs I thought had potential as books.” Nora’s Room (HarperCollins, 2001), I’m Not Going to Chase the Cat Today (HarperCollins, 2000), and I Like Where I Am (Putnam, 2002) follow the lyrics of Harper’s songs, almost exactly. Conversely, I Forgot My Shoes(Putnam, 1999) and Four Boys Named Jordan (Putnam, TBA) required several revisions before they became books. To date, Lizzie’s Do’s and Don’ts (HarperCollins, 2002) is the only book in Jessica Harper’s library that started as a book before becoming a song. Harper thoroughly enjoys the short picture book format. “I love making small precise rhymes. It’s very satisfying for me.” She describes writing songs and writing books as “equally challenging, but you can take liberties when you’re singing a song that don’t necessarily work on the printed page.”
For example, in Harper’s song “Barefoot Blues” (Nora’s Room, Alacazam!, 1996) everyone forgets something:
The fireman forgot to bring the ladder
But the fire forgot to get hot.
Noah forgot where he put the hammer
Now, how’s he going to build that ark? Not!
The forgetfulness theme focuses on a child who forgets her shoes, and is emphasized in the chorus between verses:
You forgot your shoes,
Yeah, yeah, say you forgot your shoes.
You’re singin’ those barefoot blues
You forgot your shoes.
In order for the song to become a book, Harper needed to create a central character with whom children could identify. Even the title changed to I Forgot My Shoes to reflect the new character’s point of view.
Ideas for many of Harper’s songs and books come to her from her family. Four Boys Named Jordan developed because one of her daughters had multiple Jordans in her class.Nora’s Room is the story of a girl making noise in her room and her mother imagining what might be going on in there. Harper’s lively daughter Nora, who’s full of life, served as the inspiration. Elizabeth, Harper’s eldest, inspired Lizzie’s Do’s and Don’ts. According to Harper, “it’s my favorite because it’s a true statement about what goes on between mothers and daughters.” Even her little brown dog is part of the act. In the near future, Harper hopes to transform her song “A Little Brown Dog Named Joe” (Inside Out, Rounder Kids, 2001) into a picture book.
Harper has been exercising her creative muscles for several years. In additional to her award-winning songs and vibrant picture books, she is an accomplished stage, screen, and television actress. The upcoming film, Minority Report directed by Steven Spielberg, is her latest acting adventure. But Jessica Harper is not the only artist in her family. Her sister, Lindsay Harper duPont, illustrates children’s books and collaborated with Harper on I’m Not Going to Chase the Cat Today, Nora’s Room, and Lizzie’s Do’s and Don’ts. According to Harper, these collaborative efforts were great fun. “Lindsay and I have similar artistic sensibilities. . .She has a subtle humor and a remarkable sense of color.”
Harper encourages parents and children to explore and share their creative instincts as much as they possibly can. “Write, have your children write, uncover you own creativity and encourage it. . .make something new in the world that never existed before. . .this is what makes life interesting.”