Summer Blog Blast Tour: Charise Mericle Harper

It’s Day Two of the Summer Blog Blast Tour and I’m pleased to welcome Charise Mericle Harper, author of many fun and funny books, including the Just Grace and Fashion Kitty series, to Shelf Elf. Thanks for joining the tour Charise! Let’s get the questions going.

Both Fashion Kitty and Just Grace are girls with a lot of imagination. In their adventures / daily lives they discover that sometimes, solving problems just takes a little imagination. While your books are way too much fun (and far to clever) to be messagey, I think that this is an awesome, empowering message for young readers. What else do you hope kids might learn or take away from these two series?

First off I would always hope that the books are fun to read –a flashlight under the covers kind of experience. Not because you’re embarrassed to be caught with them, but hopefully because you can’t put them down and Mom said to turn the lights out. There, now that we have that covered (bad pun on purpose here), I guess the thing that I think these two series have in common is a confident main character with a strong sense of compassion. Sort of a, “Life’s not easy, but some creative problem solving and an optimistic attitude just might get us through” kind of vibe. And then wrapping the whole empathetic can-do sandwich together a sense that being different is not such a bad thing, and that maybe, just maybe it’s even desirable.

One of the aspects of the Just Grace books that most impresses me is the way that you’ve captured so perfectly the interests, perspectives, challenges and voice of that age group. I feel like you must spend time spying on eight-year olds or hanging out in classrooms so that you can get everything to be so convincing. What are your secrets? How do you create such believable kids?

Well I happen to have a child spy living right in my house at this very minute. My daughter is eight and she has definitely been a big inspiration for the character of Grace. I started the books when she was five, but since then watching and listening to her has given me quite a few new story ideas. I don’t take direct dictation, but having her around definitely helps me get back into that eight-year old mindset. She’s like the diary I never kept. Of course we are both different and our experiences are not the same, but having her in my world helps me jump into that time capsule to visit my past. Things like remembering the monkey bars – the swinging and that great happy feeling of getting to the end without falling, and even though your hands were stinging like crazy you’d just shake them off and turn around and do it all over again.

Fashion Kitty and Grace are blessed with unusual super powers (extreme fashion sense and amazing empathy power). What is your secret super power (but not secret for very much longer)?

Hmm. I don’t know if I have a superpower. Doesn’t a superpower have to be instantly available the second you need it? I don’t think I have that kind of instant action ability, but if I could maybe have an hour or two to get it together, then I think my power might be creative optimism. Not always available in the thick of things, but when the fog clears hopefully my costume’s on and I’m moving forward. One hand pointing the way and the other holding a nice hot cup of coffee (that’s my spinach.)

On your website, you mention that you like to have lots of silly things around you when you’re working. What are your Top 5 Silly Things?

Top five favorite silly things:

1) Little person my daughter made for me out of a stick of gum. So far I haven’t eaten her (the gum not my daughter).

2) A cardboard Fashion Kitty that took me hours to make – unfortunately it’s starting to fade.

3) A metal alligator toy that has a ticket from a Paris museum in its mouth.

4) A tiny cardboard cube that is illustrated with facts about my mom.

5) A kind of creepy looking face that I carved and painted years ago. Since then I have a real appreciation for wood carvers. Carving is not easy!

One of your new picture books features a Cupcake-y hero. What do you love most about cupcakes in general and this cupcake in particular? Did you have to do a lot of “research” (read: recipe testing) in order to build the strongest character possible?

Cupcakes = mini celebrations. “You got an A on your spelling test, let’s get you a cupcake.” “You didn’t yell back at your boss, you deserve a cupcake.” “You fixed the toilet! I’m going to bake you some cupcakes.” Really any little time out moment qualifies. Plus there is the whole process/ritual of eating a cupcake. People don’t sit down to eat a donut, but a cupcake is different. You take a moment, you admire it, and then you eat it. There aren’t a lot of foods we do that with anymore.

I like cupcakes, but my kids are the big cupcake lovers in our family. Thankfully we did not eat dozens and dozens of cupcakes to research this book. I spend an awful lot of time sitting down either drawing or writing, and unfortunately creative brain usage does not seem to burn up too many calories. I’m glad I didn’t have to hold my finished manuscript wearing stretch pants.

(Charise says that this little guy was her muse for the squirrel in Cupcake)

Your website features a bunch of fun, crafty things for kids to make. Why does handmade fun rock way more than TV?

I love making things. I love the process of turning something ordinary into something unexpected and special. It’s the same excited feeling as opening a present. “What’s it going to be? What’s it going to look like in the end?” I have to say that for me it’s the journey more than the destination. Generally I don’t have a hard time parting with my end result. But the making – I love it! It’s good that I have a time consuming job or my house would be filled with stuff.

You make us laugh (not at you, at your funny books). So what makes you laugh?

There are certain things I find hysterically funny. I love the idea of inept superheroes. I love the phrase, “What the…” I love irreverent humor. I love thinking about everyday objects talking back to me. I love being surprised by humor, something clever and unexpected in a conversation, in a movie, in a book – only I try not to read funny books in public places. It’s really hard to keep laughter inside when it wants to come out.

Speaking of you making us laugh, I think you need to tell us about Hot Dog and Chicken Nugget.

Hot Dog and Chicken Nugget started out as gifts I made my children for Christmas. They are two stuffed toys that look like a hot dog and a chicken nugget would if they had arms, legs and faces. One day while I was looking at them I though, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they fell in love?” So I made it happen. I photographed them and started their love story posting episodes on a blog. It’s not an easy love story. There’s conflict, heartbreak, misunderstanding, and frustration, but in the end . . . I can’t give it away. It’s an ongoing story and while I don’t have time to post as much as I’d like to, it’s one of the little pleasures I reward myself with. “Paint for two hours and then you can do a new HDCN entry.” Yes, sometimes I have to bribe myself.

I’m very intrigued by your current project for your upcoming picture book, Henry’s Heart, where you’re taking your studio to your local elementary school every week and involving the students in the writing process. What led you to that idea and how is it going?

I set up another blog for this project. It started in January of 2010. Every Monday morning I went to the local elementary school and spoke with the kids about how I was going to illustrate my book Henry’s Heart. This was a perfect book for this school. The principal is very health conscious and this story touches on lifestyle choices and healthy eating. I had the kids help with some color choices and patterns, and was available for them to ask me anything about my process. We discussed my paper choices, the fonts the art director might pick, my frustrations, and mistakes I was making along the way. This was my favorite part. I think kids sometimes get the idea that grown-ups don’t make mistakes anymore – that somehow we have everything perfectly planned out. This is certainly not the case with me. I think great things can be discovered through mistakes. Often I find myself on a completely different path because of something that did not work out as expected. For me accidental discovery is an exciting part of creativity. I hope the kids got a sense of that. The project will end at the end of April. On May 10th I am delivering the finished illustrated book to the publisher. Henry Holt is publishing the book and it will be released in fall of 2011.

Here are some pictures of the work that the kid-collaborator-artists have been creating with Charise:

It’s pretty clear that you delight in the process of making art, whether it’s writing or illustrating or collage making with children or sewing Stuffy Cupcakes. What is so fantastic about making art?

I like to make things. If you asked me to stop I don’t think I could. It’s a compulsion. I can’t help it. Luckily it’s not illegal, expensive or dangerous. I think it’s a way to express myself that cannot be done with words. If I had a beautiful voice maybe I would sing, but I don’t so instead here I am writing stories about kid’s foods falling in love.

Tell us about what inspires you most. If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your art and your writing, what would you choose?

I am constantly feeling inspired by things around me, so I think the five things you are asking for are always changing. Here are the five for today.
1. A drawing my daughter did of Mr. Handsome – I wish I could draw like this, it’s so simple, naïve and perfect.

2. The issue of Wired Magazine edited by J.J. Abrams
3. The books of M.T. Anderson, David Sedaris, Paul Auster, and Kerri Smith.
4. Uppercase Magazine (a new find for me)
5. This last one is gong to sound crazy, but remember I have kids and kids watch TV -the cartoon Phineas and Ferb. While I don’t always watch it I do hear it while the kids are watching. There is some great writing and storytelling on this show. It’s surprisingly smart, funny and creative plus the music is a hoot too. Yes, I’m a fan.

Thanks Charise for visiting Shelf Elf to tell us more about your creative process.

Be sure to visit the other stops on the SBBT circuit today:

Mary Jane Beaufrand at The Ya, Ya, Yas
Rita Williams-Garcia at Fuse Number 8
Jennifer Hubbard at Writing & Ruminating
Holly Schindler at Little Willow


6 thoughts on “Summer Blog Blast Tour: Charise Mericle Harper

  1. tanita

    Okay, I just read Hot Dog & Chicken Nugget. I can see that as a daily calendar. LOVE IT. The creativity of this author just blows me away. Great interview; thank you so much for the introduction to a new (crazy) imaginative author.

  2. Z-Dad

    There’s lots of love for Just Grace and Fashion Kitty at our house! I enjoyed this peek into Charise Mericle Harper’s brain. Thanks!

  3. kelly Fineman

    I am so impressed by how creative and energetic Charise Mericle Harper is – to spend all that time in a school, create extra blogs, etc. WOW!

  4. Kristen H.

    Charise is so great! I can’t believe she does all that and creates such great books. I know her Fashion Kitty series has been a huge hit at my school. Thanks for stopping by Charise! I will be checking out your other books!

  5. aquafortis

    I definitely have to check out her books now! I completely understand the compulsion to make stuff/draw stuff…but I don’t think I have a tenth of her energy or follow-through. Great interview!

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