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  • Ratha Tep

Interview with Shawn Harris, HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A FLOWER?

Have you ever seen a flower? I mean really . . . seen a flower? I mean way down in the clover with your face down in a flower? Have you ever seen a flower using nothing but your nose? Breathe deep . . . what do you see?


By Shawn Harris

Published by Chronicle Books (May 4, 2021)

Can you tell me the origin story behind Have You Ever Seen a Flower? SH: "There’s a Hermann Hesse short story called Iris where the narrator ventures into a flower and finds some existential truth there. I think that’s what got me thinking about a flower as an entry point to the natural world. I was also reading one of Knausgaard’s season books, where any crumb or bit of tchotchke he focuses on leads to a revelation. So I thought I’d try my hand at choosing some specific thing with the idea of eventually talking about bigger ideas. Flowers seemed worthy muses. They’re good at attracting attention. By design, the attention of bees, but it works on humans too— that’d be useful in designing a cover later and getting people to notice the book. Anyway, I just kept looking deeper, and asking questions, and the lines I was writing started giving me ideas for exciting page turns and reveals, and that’s when I had a hunch it might make for a good picture book."

From A Polar Bear in the Snow to such a riot of colors! Can you explain how you chose your color palette? "Every book has a different soul, and so do different mediums. That’s the first match I try to make when I start experimenting on a project. I get a lot of ideas from drawing with kids, and I like to use materials that a lot of kids have access to. My niece was into colored pencils, and she had a rainbow-tipped one that we got really into. I combined that with a neon pink, and a few others (I only used 6 or 7 colors in the book), mixing my own colors on the page rather than using too many secondary colors. Though I tend to press overly hard, so I went through a lot of my select colors. When it came time to print the book, we substituted normal magenta ink for a neon pantone, which was tricky to color correct, but it gives the book that extra dialed-up-to-11 pow."

Who are some other illustrators you admire for their use of color? "I have a special love for preseparated colors, especially hand-separated (mostly pre-digital) art like Marc Simont’s 3-color art in the early Nate the Great books, and Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers and Zeralda’s Ogre. Christian Robinson is probably my favorite contemporary palette maker. Look at that Nina cover!" Are there other picture books you love about the wonder and connection to the natural world? "Brendan Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat is always an inspiration. Carson Ellis’s Du Iz Tak? is a wondrous invitation to live amongst the bugs. A new favorite that came out last year is On the Day the Horse Got Out by Audrey Helen Weber. Sneakily naturalist."

What contemporary picture books do you hope will become the classics of the future? "All of those I just mentioned, and Cátia Chien’s new one with Derick Wilder, The Longest Letsgoboy, and everything Klassen and Barnett do, especially together, like the shapes books (Circle is my favorite). Also School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex & Christian Robinson, The Old Truck by the Pumphrey Brothers, Wild by Emily Hughes, and Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora."

What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "I keep rolling my previous answer into the next question, so many of those books I just mentioned, plus already-crowned classics like The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, as well as Sendak’s version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker, Fortunately by Remy Charlip, back to Sendak—his books with Ruth Krauss like Open House for Butterflies, and A Very Special HouseThe Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown and Leonard Weisgard, George and Martha by James Marshall, The Amazing Bone by William Steig, and The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer, to name a small bundle."

What picture books coming out in 2022 are you most looking forward to getting your hands on? "The new Barnett/Klassen joint, a retelling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Also Jon is doing a retelling of a lesser known folktale called The Skull. That might come out the following year though, I’m not sure. Beatrice Alemagna has a very good Gianni Rodari story coming out this year, Telling Stories Wrong. Also, Isabelle Arsenault illustrating The Mouse Who Carried A House on His Back by Jonathan Stutzman, and Carson Ellis illustrating This Story is Not About a Kitten by Randall de Sève."


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