Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Harry Bliss

h1 April 2nd, 2009 by jules

Harry Bliss hardly needs an introduction to parents and the teachers and librarians of elementary-aged children. His first illustrated title, A Fine, Fine School, written by Sharon Creech and published by HarperCollins in 2001, became a New York Times bestseller, and he has gone on to illustrate many other best-selling titles, including the popular Diary of a Worm (2003), Diary of a Spider (2005), and Diary of a Fly (2007), all written by Doreen Cronin. His most recent illustrated title was last year’s Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken, written by Kate DiCamillo, the tale of an intrepid chicken, longing for adventure, who leaves her comfortable nest and goes to sea. Harry’s forthcoming title—as in, on shelves this month—is Luke on the Loose, a TOON Book from Raw Junior, which Harry both wrote and illustrated.

But many people will also recognize Harry’s cartoon work: He is a cartoonist and cover artist for The New Yorker. In fact, his collection of New Yorker covers can be viewed at his web site, as well as many cartoons and peeks into his illustrated children’s titles. Harry also signed on with Tribune Media Services to create a self-titled strip, featuring his single-panel gag cartoons, Bliss. (The Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune are a few of the newspapers which run it.) The Bliss collection can also be seen at Harry’s site.



Let’s get the basics from Harry while we set the table for our breakfast chat. Harry prefers OJ, coffee, and a sesame bagel with lox and cream cheese, so I’ll bring along my mug, too. We’ll also get a sneak peek into his latest title, Luke on the Loose, below.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Harry: Luke on the Loose (April 2009, my first author/illustrator comic book); Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken; Diary of a Fly; Diary of a Spider; Diary of a Worm; Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth; Countdown to Kindergarten; Don’t Forget to Come Back!; Which Would You Rather Be?; A Very Brave Witch.


Spread from Luke on the Loose (TOON Books, 2009);
Click on the image itself to see it in more detail.

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Harry: My medium is black ink and watercolor.

7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Harry (pictured here with Penny): My books are for children ages 4-8, but adults dig them as well.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Harry: I live in Burlington, Vermont -– the smartest little city in America. I play a lot of hockey and make soup.

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Harry: I began illustrating book covers, moved into working for The New Yorker, and shortly thereafter, William Steig ‘turned me on’ to Holly McGhee -– the best children’s book agent in the world.

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?

Harry:


— From Doreen Cronin’s Diary of a Fly, Joanna Cotler Books, 2007

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Harry: I visit schools all over the place and it’s a total blast –- the kids love it, and it’s totally inspiring.

Okay, the table’s set for our breakfast chat, and now we’re ready to talk more specifics.

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Harry: I begin each book by breaking up the manuscript –- placing the text where I feel it belongs. I work closely with the editor throughout this stage. Once the text in set, I begin very rough sketches to embellish the text and, essentially, tell the story in pictures. If I need reference, I get it. If I need inspiration, I find it. If I need to drink, I go to the bar.

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is an illustration from Alison McGhee’s Countdown to Kindergarten, Harcourt, 2002.}

Harry: My studio is a mess. No joke, it’s nasty. It’s filled with old toys, a gazillion books, a TV, a computer, a practice drum set, photos of loved ones, stacks and stacks of art, and the walls are filled with original cartoon art from my heroes. Oh yeah, there are dust balls all over the place.

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Harry: I grew up with a great appreciation for comics and ‘high’ art. I loved Charles Schulz, Walt Kelly, Charles Addams, Frank Frazetta, N.C. Wyeth, Modigliani, Picasso, Manet, Lautrec, Will Elder, Rothko, Rockwell…should I go on? Both my parents are artists, so in our home there was no differentiating between art forms -– we looked at everything. I watched a lot of TV, too, and don’t edit this out -– TV back then was terrific and smart.


— From Doreen Cronin’s Diary of a Worm, Joanna Cotler Books, 2003

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Harry: David Foster Wallace, N.C. Wyeth, and J.D. Salinger.

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Harry: I listen to all sorts of music when I work, mostly good classic rock and some contemporary bands with integrity. (Yes, they’re a few out there.)

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Harry: I worship ice hockey (and play). It’s the most intelligent sport out there. (I can explain, but it would take a while.)


— Opening of Alison McGhee’s Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth, Harcourt, 2004

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Harry: Q: In your opinion, what is wrong with the world?

A: The world suffers because of our collective Ego. Our ego has obliterated empathy -– it’s that simple.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Harry: “Pennubers” (my dog’s nick name).

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Harry: “Hate.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Harry: Nature, Winslow Homer, and my girlfriend’s brain.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Harry: Ignorance.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Harry: “Assclown.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Harry: Laughing babies.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Harry: Leaf blowers.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Harry: Musician or philosopher.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Harry: Drug dealer.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Harry: “There’s a room full of laughing babies waiting for you…”

* * * * * * *

Spread from LUKE ON THE LOOSE, photos of Harry, and the NEW YORKER cover courtesy of TOON Books, published by
RAW Junior, LLC.

LUKE ON THE LOOSE: © 2009 by Harry Bliss. Published by TOON Books (The Little Lit Library/RAW Junior, LLC, New York, NY.) Posted with permission of publisher.

All other illustrations and cartoons courtesy of Harry Bliss, taken from his site with permission. All rights reserved. Visit harrybliss.com to see more art and cartoon work.





9 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Harry Bliss”

  1. YAY! Harry Bliss!

    I love it when my semi-adult world intersects with the world of children’s lit. Why should someone so brilliant and cute and fun be strictly reserved for people over ten?

    Diary of a Worm is another one of those books which I tried reading to my sister, but which she had to read to me, because I couldn’t read for giggling. I now just want to curl up with all of his books and just grin. Fun breakfast!


  2. Hooray for Harry Bliss! I think he’s correct about the collective ego issue, btw. I enjoyed his answers quite a bit!


  3. I’ve collected NYer covers since the ’70s. (The Missus doesn’t understand this, as I don’t do anything with them — just tear them off and put them in a folder. Not sure I understand it myself.) Harry Bliss’s have always been standouts, although he seems not to be doing covers anymore (last one was a few years ago). The one he did in mid-March 2003, in which Picasso’s Guernica was shown being covered in red drapery, was outstanding — instant classic. I’m so happy to see him profiled here (although I didn’t know anything about his kids’ books!).

    Sometimes 7-Imp feels to me like the Kevin Bacon of kid-lit. It’s like if you read here long enough, you’ll eventually come within 6 degrees of separation from at least one personal hero. It’s happened a handful of times with me and I bet I’m not alone.


  4. Waiting for the kick*** ice hockey book now . . . At least, I hope that’s what he means by “I can explain, but it would take a while.”

    The paranoid Grim Reapers are genius. As is the iconic use of Charlie Brown. I clearly need to get on the Harry Bliss train.


  5. Twas a lot of fun getting to know Harry! The Schultz cartoon is too much. Plus, this Vermonter makes SOUP!! I’m very intrigued by Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth . . .


  6. Melissa Sweet, DB Johnson, Julie Fortenberry, and now Harry Bliss?!?!? You ladies ROCK! Thanks for all the great interviews and features! Keep ‘em coming!

    Oh. And I am SO getting a Bliss cartoon in my inbox everyday starting right now!


  7. haha, assclown! I love Harry Bliss. He never fails to make me laugh. One of my top 10 favorite illustrators of all time. Thanks for the interview!


  8. JES – Harry is alive and well on the New Yorker covers – notable recents are 4/13/09 (Easter) and 12/1/08 (post-Thanksgiving). Check out the Covers archive on their web site for more.


  9. [...] Harry Bliss {Ed. Note: Harry’s 7-Imp interview is here.} [...]


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