Winky Merrill writer
For author and illustrator Jamie Harper, an idea for a children’s picture book can come from an unlikely place – even from a cap on a Snapple bottle. Written inside of each Snapple cap is a factoid, or snippet of interesting information. One cap stating that "a pig’s skin is susceptible to sunburn" inspired her new book, Miss Mingo and the First Day of School, which will be published by Candlewick Press this summer. Illustrated in pen and ink with watercolor, the book captures the joy of sharing and the marvel of being unique.
Miss Mingo, who is a flamingo, is the fabulous, welcoming teacher we wish our children could have when they begin kindergarten. Pink and charming, Miss Mingo wears a large ring on her feathered finger and a long beaded necklace that holds her blue glasses. On the first day of school, she announces to her nervous class of animals, “Let’s take turns sharing something special about ourselves.” Of course, she goes first to break the ice, demonstrating how she eats upside down and sharing her passion for shrimp “shakes.” Accompanying the text is a short paragraph explaining that flamingos can eat upside down because their beaks are hinged at the top so they can scoop their food with their heads upside down. And their feathers are pink because of the carotenoids, a pigment found in the shrimp they love to eat. As the story proceeds, each animal in the classroom, including a narwhal, a cockroach and a panda, takes a turn showing off an unusual characteristic.
The illustrations are full of exuberance, color and expression. A centipede with over one hundred feet, each wearing a different type of shoe - including a soccer cleat, roller skate, swim fin, and snowshoe - is a fabulously engaging page for a child. When a pelican shows off his pouch full of water, some of the animals go for a swim. By the final page, all signs of shyness have disappeared, and the animals in the classroom are laughing and playing with one another.
If Jamie Harper were a student in Miss Mingo’s class, what might she share that is special about herself? “I was not born with a pencil in my hand,” she states. Indeed, Ms. Harper’s life has not taken a bee-line path toward a career in writing and illustrating children’s books. She views her life as a journey and feels she is in pursuit of getting her stories and illustrations “just right.”
Harper grew up in Belmont, Massachusetts, the youngest of three sisters. She and her sisters enjoyed all kinds of crafts like making felt clothes for trolls and creating linoleum cut-outs. She attended The Winsor School in Boston and then Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in economics. After working in economic consulting in San Francisco, she re-discovered her love for art while working as a pastry chef. Then, with the goal of opening her own restaurant, she attended business school in Boston. Instead, after graduating, she worked in educational publishing – producing training manuals for software. After marrying and beginning her life as a mother, she again had a chance to re-focus on artistic projects.
While her first daughter, Grace, was a toddler, Harper took classes in graphic design at the Massachusetts College of Art. Six years ago, she came up with an idea for a picture book called It's too Quiet based on the reaction parents have when their children are too quiet – they must be up to something. She sent the concept around to editors and received numerous rejections until an editor at Little, Brown suggested she write the book from the perspective of a child. Don't Grown-Ups Ever Have Fun? was the result – Harper’s first published book about the boring life of grown-ups from a child's point of view. The hilarious illustrations capture the energy of childhood in contrast to the delirium of parents trying to cope.
Now Harper has three young daughters (Grace, Lucy, and Georgia) who provide continual inspiration for her work. When her daughter, Lucy, had “clothing attacks” every morning before pre-school because of the “crumbs” in the toes of her socks and the itchy seams and tags in her clothes, “Ellie Magill” was born. Ellie sits on Harper’s easel waiting to come to life in a story called Crumbs and Crinkles in My Clothes. Other projects on Harper’s drawing board include several board books written as recipes (Splish Splash Baby Bundt: A Recipe for Bathtime, and Night Night Baby Bundt: A Recipe for Bedtime). The text in these books will provide simple directions using recipe terms, but the real fun will be in the amusing illustrations of a big sister and her baby brother as they attempt to follow them!
In creating a book, Harper says, “I’ve learned that I have to start with the story – it has to be able to stand on its own.” Holding her hands beside her eyes like horse blinders she says, “I have to concentrate hard to avoid thinking in pictures – if they start coming I force myself to focus only on the text. I’ve tried creating the illustrations first and then fitting the story to the pictures, and it just doesn’t work.” Also, the words need to leave space for the art. While the text creates the structure, it is the illustrations that add the kick; they are what make you smile, and create an attitude for the story.
Harper works in a sunny porch off of her living room. In it are a drawing board, a computer, an easel and bulletin boards filled with sketches. She feels truly lucky that she has a supportive husband and that she is able to do something she loves. Despite her successes, Harper does not feel settled in her style. “The kind of art I like isn’t the kind I’m doing,” she says. She wants to be looser with her drawings and feels her work is too tight and fussy. She points to Laura Cornell who applies color first then adds the line and to Hiroe Nakata, another illustrator she admires. Harper hopes to continue to refine her pen and ink line and her rendering style. “I’m hoping that when I’m fifty, I will have hit my stride!”