Prolific children’s book author Charise Mericle Harper has teamed with First Second Books for a new graphic novel series aimed at younger readers. The Amazing Crafty Cat is a three-book series, the first available now, chronicling the childhood struggles of a young girl named Birdie, using her creativity to solve her problems. In the first book, it’s Birdie’s birthday -- and nothing’s going according to plan.
With more than 50 children’s books to her credit, including the long-running Just Grace series and the Fashion Kitty graphic novels, Harper captures youthful voices and thinking with apparent ease, and the book’s sketchy, loose-lined artwork matches the crafty do-it-yourself focus.
CBR reached Harper at her home in Portland to discuss working with a comics publisher, the love of making stuff, and being childish.
CBR: Charise, you’ve authored dozens of illustrated children’s books. Did you find any big differences when switching to comics this time out? Or was it pretty much business as usual?
Charise Mericle Harper: Actually, my background is in comics. I started on the comic book side -- I used to have a weekly comic strip in nine or ten alternative papers in different cities. It was called I Spy, and was a sort of autobiographical, quirky, whimsical comic strip. Not particularly kid-friendly! At the same time, I was doing freelance illustration work for magazines and newspapers. The strip was a great training ground for storytelling, because every week I had to write with something with a beginning, middle and end. It was a good way for me to learn how to communicate in a very short space.
Then, in 2000, somebody approached me and ask if I was interested in doing a book for children. At that point, I had no children of my own, but I did have a large collection of children’s books. Artists get to be a lot more creative in that medium, and I loved looking at them.
I find writing comics easier than writing books. Crafty Cat has lots of silly asides and I love including things like that. It’s closer to how I think - lots of characters offering their opinions, all at the same time: Oh, the pencil’s going to say something, and now the cat just walked by -- what’s he saying? That’s a little more me. With a traditional children’s book, you have to simplify and pare down your story. I like adding the extras.
Yes. In your hands, the comic format seems a lot denser than the children’s book format, allowing for more visual gags and literary irony.
Yeah. It’s a little more frenetic and crazy.
I’m particularly comparing this to the one children’s book of yours that I read with my own kids, although that’s for a much younger audience. Your other books are more to this elementary school age group.
Crafty Cat is a little older, so I felt I could be a little more free with the asides. Kids, especially this generation, are used to gathering information from all around them. Crafty Cat is a little more like that -- there’s a lot of information coming.at the reader, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic. It’s how I see the world, and it makes the story more layered and interesting. I hope other people like it.
The big theme of Crafty Cat is Birdie finding self-confidence through her alter ego. That was interesting because she seems to simultaneously develop that confidence by focusing on her crafts (or really any external goal) and by diving into another persona.
Kids have to deal with a lot – especially at school. There’s teachers, who have their agenda of what you have to learn and what you’re supposed to be doing; there’s other kids and how they’re going to react to you; and there’s the absence of your parents, so there’ no one to protect you. One of my favorite characters in the series is Anya. She’s sort of the “evil nemesis,” but mostly she’s just young, inappropriate and without a filter. She adds the tension to the story – how will Birdie deal with her?
I have a friend whose mother told her, “Before you go to a dinner party, think of three things nonpolitical and nonreligious that you can talk about, and have those in your back pocket. If you need them you’ll be prepared.” I love that. And that’s what I did for Birdie. I gave her a back-up plan for when things get rough. When things get tough, she turns into Crafty Cat, her imaginary alter-ego.
I happen to really like crafting; and I loved it as a kid too - making stuff always made me feel good. There’s actually research that supports the use of a creative outlet to help yourself feel better. Birdie uses crafts to move her way through whatever is in front of her, holding her back. Crafty Cat is confident and creative – nothing gets in her way.
Your ability to capture young kids’ voices -- how they think and speak - is amazing. Is there anything to that besides just being around young kids?
I think so. I suppose I’m kind of childish too! I like the wonder of childhood, how everything is so new and fresh. Watching my own kids, as an adult, I can say, “Just because you didn’t get your favorite orange juice in the morning, the day isn’t going to go horrible.” But for them it’s a disaster. They can’t see the big picture.
Everything carries the same weight - it’s all good or all bad. There’s no grey area, really. When you think about traveling through life like that, it’s kind of crazy! That’s something I’m mindful of. They’re on this emotional roller coaster. No wonder they’re so tired at the end of the day. It must be exhausting.
The artwork here is very simplified, which fits the DIY theme of the crafting. Was that a deliberate creative decision?
I wanted it to be super-cute, and that’s my go-to style - just really clean and strong outlines. I feel like I draw as if everybody has this weird joint in their arm and they can just move it up and down and that’s it! I have a bad eye and I can’t see in perspective, so that’s my excuse.
I also was mindful of finding a style that was fairly quick. I’m finishing up the third Crafty Cat book, so that’s three graphic novels in one year. It’s kind of crazy. Plus, I had other book projects too. [The art style evolved from] the time constraints, because it’s comfortable and fast for me to work that way. I guess I’d have to say that I’m more interested in dialogue than the images. The images are just there to show who’s talking, and it’s the dialogue that I love the best - the jokes, the back-and-forth. That’s what I love. So it’s simple on purpose.
Do you have an area of crafting that is your focus?
I just like to make stuff. I made a solar light-up sign for the outside of my studio, which is actually a food truck. It’s a new space that I had converted this year. The sign says YAY and it makes me so happy to see it every night when the sun goes down. I like to embroider. I like to do woodwork and make little characters. I don’t have time to sew, but I’d like to do more of that.
When kids ask me “What’s your favorite book.” I always say, “The one I’m working on, because that’s the fun part – the making.” That’s why I do it.
Did all the crafts in the back of the book come from you?
Yes, and each book will have five or six different crafts.
In a different life, I might’ve liked to be a mechanical engineer or a scientist. Index cards are my new thing - I figure out all the crafts using index cards.
If Birdie makes a craft in the story, my next job is to figure out how to make it out of paper. I write the story first and figure out the crafts as I go along.
Translating those crafts to instructions -- was that challenging or was that also part of the fun?
No! Not so fun.
That was my least favorite part of the book, the technical writing. It’s somewhat tedious, but I’m glad it’s in there. I want the reader to be able to make what Birdie makes. That was always part of the concept of the book – right from day one, because I would’ve loved this kind of book as a kid.
How did you get hooked up with First Second?
My previous graphic novel was Fashion Kitty - with Hyperion, but when it was time to sell this new series I wanted to try something different. Since my background is comics, I got it into my head that I really wanted to work with a comic book publisher.
I’d actually done a few things with First Second already – I was included in the compilations “Fable Comics” and “Fairy Tale Comics.” I knew (Executive Editor) Calista (Brill) through those projects, so I had my agent send her my proposal.
Is the dynamic different with a comic publisher as compared to a book publisher that works with comics?
The editorial process is similar. I don’t think there’s any difference there. The difference is going to be in their ability to promote the book to comic book fans. They’ll reach an audience that is specifically interested in comics and give more attention to those venues in addition to promoting in the traditional children’s book arena.
I really honored to be with First Second. They have an impressive list and even though I’m not really hanging out with the other authors, it’s nice to see my name printed next to other authors and illustrators I really admire.
I have a few books coming out this spring, so I’m hoping that they’ll all help each other get noticed.
Speaking of, what else are you working on?
Mo Willems started an imprint called Elephant and Piggie Like Reading, so far it’s a three book series. The first book was written and illustrated by Dan Santat, who won the Caldecott last year. The second book was written by Laurie Keller, and she just won a Geisel. And mine is number three. It’s called The Good for Nothing Button. Working with Mo was like getting a private lesson from a master. It’s hitting the shelves just after Crafty Cat.
I have a chapter book coming out in July called The Next Best Junior Chef. It’s a three book series about a fictional kids cooking show, and Mae June and The Wonder Wheel just came out in February.
The Amazing Crafty Cat is available now from First Second Books.