Loop Lit: Is trying to get your kids to understand the benefits of eating healthy and exercising so frustrating that you end up at the freezer with a gallon of ice cream in your hands? If so, you are in for a real (healthy) treat.
The latest book by acclaimed children’s author and Mamaroneck resident, Charise Mericle Harper, is all about the heart— what is really looks like, how it works, why it’s important to feed it good things, and even why it skips a beat when you fall in love. In a style that is accessible, whimsical, and unique, this creatively imagined and beautifully illustrated book will surely get your child interested in the lovable organ. Not only is it a fantastic book, the illustration process has a story of its own.
Ms. Harper spent three months working with Daniel Warren Elementary School in Rye Neck as she illustrated the book. The children met with Ms. Harper weekly while she explained what she was working on that week and gave them projects that helped her make choices regarding illustrations and, to a lesser extent, content.
As Ms. Harper explained to me when we sat down for coffee in Mamaroneck, the project was as rewarding for her as it was for the children.
Melina Maresca: What made you want to write a book about the heart?
Charise Mericle Harper: At first I wanted to write a book about germs but my publisher wasn’t interested in the format. As I was rethinking the book, my son, who was four years old at the time, was incredibly interested in the human body and anatomy. He wanted to know how things work, what this part of the body was doing, and that part. I kept making an effort to explain it all to him on a very simple level so he could understand. In addition, the school my son was about to attend (and my daughter attended), The Daniel Warren Elementary School in Rye Neck, has always been interested in heart healthy eating.
So I think all those things got into a place in my brain at the same time- my son’s interest in anatomy, the school’s interest in heart health, and my interest in writing. I thought, what if I tried to explain what the heart did in a book where the heart is an actual character, because kids care about characters. Just saying to a child “Your heart is an important part of your body and you have to stay healthy” is beyond them, especially since the heart is an organ that they can’t see. I thought the heart was a fantastic focus not only because it is essential to the body and has to do with healthy eating and exercising, but it also epitomizes love. There is great emotional attachment to the heart. So it covered a lot of things I am interested in. I thought it would be great to give factually information about the heart while at the same time being whimsical in talking about love.
MM: The main character, Henry, is a boy obviously. Did you purposefully use a boy rather than a girl in a book about, among other things, love?
CMH: Yes, it was purposeful. Very often in children’s books, love is seen as a “girl” thing and I didn’t want the book to be dismissed as a girls’ book. Boys have the same capacity for expressing and feeling love. Also I think that girls are often more open to reading books about boys than vice versa. I just loved the juxtaposition of the book being a boy and being about love.
MM: Tell me how the Daniel Warren Elementary School came into the picture.
CMH: As my daughter went through Daniel Warren, I would be invited every year to talk to the students about what it’s like to be an author. It was great because they would see me, just as someone’s mom, and they’d think— if she can do it, anybody could. I liked that message because being an author shouldn’t be glamorized. When I started Henry’s Heart, I was getting tired of going into the school with the same old spiel. I had just sold the book to the publisher and had a loosely sketched storyline but I still had to do all the illustrations. So I went to principle, Joan Babcock, and the school librarian, Linda Costelloe, and proposed that we come up with a way that I could work on the illustrations with the children. I wanted them to see how long it really takes to illustrate a book. Kids imagine that a grown up could write a book over a weekend, and of course there would be no problems and everything would be perfect because you’re an adult. But obviously this is not the case and I thought it would be good for them to see this first hand.
The principal and librarian got excited right away. We came up with a plan where I would go into the school every Monday and each class would be pulled out of their classroom for 20-minute increments to meet me in the art room. The teachers were incredibly helpful in doing this because it’s hard to disrupt a class, bring them to another location for 20 minutes, and then have them go back and resume the lesson. I would bring in what I was working on at the time and I would set up an activity for them that related to what I was doing. Sometimes I was painting right there, sometimes I was illustrating. I would bring things from home and say, “Right now I’m working on this page where a character has to go in front of something. Let’s see how hard it is to put a character in front of something.” And we would work on that as a project. When I got frustrated, I shared it with them. I would say, “This part isn’t working out and I can be mad about it for a couple of days or I can try to work it out now.” They saw firsthand how you can overcome frustrations and that things don’t work out perfectly well all the time.
MM: Can you give me an example of how they help you with an illustration?
CMH: Yes, a good example was when I was working on the t-shirt designs for the main characters. I had the kids design their own t-shirts on white paper. We had a contest and I picked two designs and those designs are the ones that main characters are wearing in the book. Another example was when I was building a collage house for one of the illustrations, I had the students make their own collage houses. I was so inspired by them. Also, there is a healthy eating chart in the book. The kids helped me work on that because each week I asked them to write down healthy and unhealthy snacks. We would go over their lists and discuss whether the snacks were healthy or not. Some of the snacks ended up in the chart. Another example is that there is a doctor at the end of the book. One boy said to me, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you show the doctor in the city?” I thought it was a great idea, so I put the doctor in the pizza store in a scene depicting a city street that appears earlier in the book. And in general the kids influenced my choices on a daily basis with comments like “Why don’t we make this thing this color or that color.”
MM: Tell me about the book fair the school had on Thursday November 30th.
CMH: The book was just released last week. One thing that was great was how patient the kids had to be because they had to wait two years to finally see the book. The school had a big fair. For most of the kids it was the first time they saw the book- some got copies the day before. The book has all the students’ names in it, so I think they really loved seeing that. It was a great turnout— some kids had already graduated from the school by that point but came back for the event.
MM: Was your first passion art or writing?
CMH: My first passion was art- actually the display of information in whatever form. How a story is told, especially in an offbeat way- that’s my passion. I started out as an illustrator for magazines and newspapers. Then for about ten years I had a weekly comic strip that was syndicated in alternative papers, like The Village Voice. The comic strip helped my writing a lot because in a very short space— about 5 inches long— I had to create a story with a beginning, middle and end. After ten years, I had amassed such a huge volume of the comics that I tried to get them published in a compilation but it was before the comic thing took off and it didn’t get published. But my publisher at the time told me that I should try writing children’s books, so that’s how it happened.