“I think of it as a kind of
sketch comedy show,
in comic form,
devoted to the topic of
— Charise Harper
Sound the timbrels! Roll out the tasty morsels! It’s a great day here in the musty, dusty offices of James Preller Dot Com. We’ve got a special guest, one of the great creative spirits in all of children’s books, the original Crafty Cat, and a personal favorite of mine, Charise Mericle Harper. And here she is now.
Wait a sec, hold on . . . don’t be shy, Charise. Ah, here we go.
Welcome, Charise. You know, I’m embarrassed to say this –- but I’m fuzzy on how we first met. Wasn’t it at the old Sunnyside Book Festival (which later morphed into the Chappaqua Book Festival)? I think you were new to the rough and tumble, bunny-eat-bunny business of children’s publishing.
That sounds about right. I loved that festival, all the bunnies were very friendly.
I read somewhere that the biggest fear for a middle-grade student is public embarrassment. Do you think that’s true?
Well, I’m not sure if it’s the biggest one – but I bet it’s up there. This is an age where everyone is trying to balance the “who am I at home” vs “who am I at school” and also decipher the unwritten social norms of behavior so they can fit in. That’s a lot. There is a lot of trial and error, and it’s all in front of a crowd. And, it’s a crowd who can’t wait to share their opinions. Yikes! That sounds like a nightmare
Do you have a favorite embarrassment story that happened to you or someone else?
I’m not good at favorites. It’s hard to choose just one –- I get embarrassed a lot.
Your book is breezy, charmingly illustrated, full of insight and compassion, there’s something funny on every page -– and yet! It reads almost like a survival handbook. So Embarrassing is something of a hybrid.
It’s a “Hey, this happens to everyone” book –- you might feel better about stuff after reading it –- but no promises. It’s story and fact mixed together. That’s probably going to bug some people –- especially people who like their food to be in separate areas on a plate.
I loved those plates and always wanted one. It was probably the best thing about TV dinners. Build that wall (!) between the peas and mashed potatoes!
I have to admit I wanted those plates too!
I loved the orderliness of it. Every food group in its place. “Hey, String Beans, huddle up! Creamed Corn, I’m looking at you!”
I guess I made more of a stew. But, aren’t we living in a stew-type environment? Don’t we have to slog through the muck to find the facts –- each and every day. I think kids can do this. They can enjoy the story and maybe learn at the same time, and sometimes the story itself is the thing that’s important. I’m hoping it’s a book that generates some after-thought. Maybe a reader will re-imagine one of the scenarios, when they’re bored, because their phone is dead.
I like that idea, the after-thought. I’ve thought of a couple of my books as good “talking books.” That is, the book serves as springboard for lively conversations, to the point where the discussion is likely more valuable than the book itself.
Absolutely. We don’t get to see that happen with our books, but wouldn’t it be great. Maybe something like, after looking through this book Grandma told everyone an embarrassment story that we had never heard before and we all laughed and laughed.
A fear of embarrassment can really limit us from experiencing new things, it can close us off at a time we should be open.
That’s deep, but true!
It’s why I’ve never gone off the high dive at the town pool, and why, I suspect, I never tried out for school plays. The fear of the Worst Possible Scenario — which always involves public humiliation — keeps many of us from putting ourselves out there.
Good thinking on the high dive.
Terrifying. What if everyone laughed at me?
No one wants to make mistakes. I know it’s not easy, but I wish we embraced mistakes a little more. Mistakes means you are trying something new, taking a chance, pushing yourself. No one expects the first draft of a book to be perfect, you have to work at it, edit it. That pretty much goes for everything in life, yet we are not always allowed editing time. Very often, we are judged on our first draft.
As a writer, I sometimes think of books as these giant, perfect eggs. How do you get inside? How do you tell the story? Where to start? You might have an idea -– embarrassment -– but you can’t write it until you slip in through a secret door. Then there’s a moment when you’re inside and you know how to proceed. How did this book come about for you?
I started with a vast personal knowledge of embarrassment, then I did some research and finally, I worked with my editor to develop a list of topics to discuss. Having chapters devoted to each topic was helpful. It provided the framework to keep me in check. I can ramble and easily get sidetracked. There isn’t one big linear story in this book. We have consistent narrators, but the characters jump in and out of different stories. I think of it as a kind of sketch comedy show, in comic form, devoted to the topic of embarrassment.
I think of you as one of the purest creative spirits I’ve ever met. It’s one of the reasons why I admire you so much, Charise. You are constantly making things: doodling, cutting paper designs, embroidering clothes, creating videos or imaginary creatures, writing stories, whatever zany thing you come up with next. Every day, you bring a sense of playfulness to your world. Is this something you consciously try to do?
First off – WOW! And thank you. I really think it’s something I have to do. I don’t know why, but the process of making things keeps me calm and grounded. I’m jumpy and nervous, and my brain is always zipping around with me trying to catch up. In my old age, I’ll be the elderly woman on the side of the road trying to sell her hand-painted sticks.
Okay, I love that image of you. Could you please do that now, please??!!
Who knows where things are going in this crazy world. It’s good that I have a solid back-up plan, isn’t it? I should probably start collecting sticks before someone else takes my brilliant idea.
Professional question: Some people in our business are extremely aware of the marketplace, the news from Publishers Weekly, what’s hot and what’s not. Are you someone who pays attention to all of that?
I know it’s there, but I don’t even have my pinky finger on the pulse of what’s new and cool.
Ah, that explains the clogs.
I wish I were a little more market savvy, but it doesn’t seem to hold my interest. I post pictures on Instagram, but other than that, I’m not very social on any media.
Hey, before we go, I’m very excited to read your upcoming book, a graphic novel/memoir about you being a horrible sister. It sounds like a special project. Could you tell us about it?
YES! I’m super excited about it. I haven’t written a true story about myself before, so it was a little strange to have to type my own name in the manuscript and then talk about myself, in the third person, to my editor.
And in this case, you didn’t do the illustrations. How did that feel? Was it hard to give up control?
It felt FANTASTIC! Rory Lucey did a great job and I’ll never be able to thank him enough.
Anything else you can tell us about it?
The book is called Bad Sister. I put my brother through a lot during his formative years. The most obvious damage was knocking out his front tooth. It wasn’t on purpose, but still it could have, and should have, not happened. It was my fault!
Because: Bad, bad, bad Sister.
That was a turning point for me, but just because you suddenly want to be good, doesn’t make it so. You have to change your behavior and the opinions of those around you, this is an interesting part of the story as well. Knowing about my own past behavior, I was very watchful of my own daughter, and I can say, she was not like me. She was and continues to be a marvelous big sister to her little brother. So I’ll take that as progress!
Thanks so much for stopping by, Charise. Good luck with the books! It’s always a pleasure to connect with you.
Charise Harper can be found on the interwebs. Or, failing that, on a highway near you . . . hawking hand-painted sticks. And as for me, I’m the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. All Welcome Here is my most recent picture book, illustrated by Mary GrandPre. And coming in Spring of 2021, my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!
I thoroughly enjoyed this spunky interview and learning more about the brilliant Charise Harper. Indeed we’re living in a stew-like environment, and we need more helpings of her work. Thanks, Jimmy for this terrific interview.
Rose Kent! So nice to hear from you. Thanks so much for stopping by. I hope you and your family are well.