An Interview with Shawn Harris
May 6, 2021 § Leave a comment
Earlier this week, I talked about how much I adore the new picture book, Have You Ever Seen a Flower? Today, I’m back with an interview I did with its creator, Shawn Harris, in which we talk about his inspiration for the book, his musical past, what neon pink says to him, why he loves school visits, and the super exciting new projects he’s working on. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Me: Welcome, Shawn! Thank you so much for dropping in today. I am delighted to have the chance to chat with you about your authorial debut picture book, Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, one of my very favorites of the year. I’ve been a fan of your art for years—both Her Right Foot (written by Dave Eggers) and A Polar Bear in the Snow (written by your good pal, Mac Barnett) have been the subject of previous blog posts—so I was excited to see you trying your hand at writing, too. What made you decide to take the plunge? And where did the idea for this special picture book come from?
Shawn: In my former life, I was a touring songwriter, so I’ve been writing since I was a kid penning lyrics. This was the first time my authorial tone conjured images since I’ve been working in the picture book world, so I set out to illustrate the words. It’s almost a song in book form, really. There’s a theme and an arc to the narration, but I hop around my subject really loosely, and dip in and out of different meters, which is the way I like to approach writing music.
Me: We need to talk about the color palette. THAT NEON PINK! Corinna Luyken (who was recently interviewed here) has affectionately called yours a “sister book” to her latest, The Tree in Me, and it is funny how you both landed on neon pink—a decidedly unnatural color—for your respective stories about our connection to the natural world. Did you know immediately that you wanted to invoke a neon vibe for the book?
Shawn: Yeah, we did some tests substituting the neon pink in for normal magenta, and the results got activated by natural light in this incredible way that made me walk toward windows and open doors with the book. Good design elevates the meaning of the work—this ink says, “find the Sun.”
Me: “Find the Sun.” I love that. You’ve shared some terrific videos on Instagram demonstrating the mediums you used for Have You Ever Seen a Flower?—including cut-paper stencils and 7-in-1 colored pencils. One of the things that strikes me is how different this art feels from your previous books. More frenetic, perhaps. Larger, freer expanses of color. That said, even though Her Right Foot and A Polar Bear in the Snow both utilize cut-paper collage, they are quite different from each other, too. I guess what I’m saying is, you’re quite the chameleon! Is it your intent to experiment with different art forms in each book? What’s your process for landing on what you want to do, and what are some of the things that never change?
Shawn: I like to let a manuscript determine the mediums I use. Often, I like using art supplies that the kids reading my books might already have access to. It’s fun to do school visits and share my techniques with kids. I probably learn as much from watching them make art as they do from me. I know that stylistically, I’m drawn to big shapes and bold colors, but beyond that, my style shifts to meet the author’s tone, and experimenting with different mediums is one way that I keep pushing myself to build new and different worlds in each book. Ed Emberley is a favorite of mine—his range, from the simple how-to-draw stuff, to the woodcuts in Drummer Hoff (and everything in between), comes to mind when I think about an artist who created a range of work in a variety of mediums. I wouldn’t mind shadowing his career in the least.
Me: Another thing I love about this picture book is the way it straddles real and make-believe. It kind of goes off the rails…in the best possible way. (The best picture books are always a little trippy, don’t you think?) How did you find the right tone for this?
Shawn: Being alive is a little trippy, I think; the way our sensory inputs lead to thoughts, which separate our sense of self from a whole. I just wanted to gently illuminate that path between us and the natural world, so that we may travel it readily. So literally, the book is a trip.
Me: Yours seems to be part of a rising wave of picture books that speak to our curiosity and wonder about the natural world. Do you think this trend is born out of the pandemic—the way we’ve been forced to slow down and look to nature for entertainment?
Shawn: I tend to forget how recharged I get by sitting in a meadow, where my busy brain slows and recalibrates. I wanted to make a book to remind myself (and my readers) of that connection, which does get obfuscated by elements of modern life. I’m certainly not alone in thinking that something fundamental must shift to reestablish a healthier relationship with the earth.
Me: With the array of amazing reading possibilities, it’s such an exciting time to be a young reader. What advice do you have for parents looking to inspire a love of reading in their children?
Shawn: Just read. Read to your kids, but also, read to yourself. More than what we’re trying to teach them, kids learn by our examples!
Me: Any particular favorites you wish you could will into the lap of every child?
Shawn: Wow, well, every reader is different, but A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Sendak, is one of my all-time favs that probably wouldn’t end up in the lap of most kids right now, but I can’t imagine any kid (or adult) not loving it.
Me: That’s so interesting, because I actually mentioned Krauss in connection with your book in my review on Tuesday! What’s next for you? Do you have books in the works that you’d like to tell us about?
Shawn: For families getting ready to potty train, I’ve got a book coming out in the fall called Doing Business, and for kids getting into graphic novels, me and my oldest friend Mac Barnett have a series coming out a year from now called The First Cat in Space, which we started writing and streaming in front of a weekly audience at the start of the pandemic. You can watch it in “live-cartoon” form here, while you’re waiting for it to be published!
Me: Both of those sound fabulous—I can hardly wait. Thank you so much for all your time today, Shawn!
Shawn: Great questions, thank you Melissa!
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Have You Ever Seen a Flower? is published by Chronicle Books. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.
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