Hannah Harrison, Author/Illustrator- Interview

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I met Hannah Harrison a few years ago at one of our local SCBWI OK conferences. I was immediately struck by her open, friendly demeanor and her amazing artistic talent. Also by the fact that she had a head of hair even curlier than mine. Hannah won the Illustrator’s Best Portfolio award that year and the next. Still, she remained grounded and humble and just as sweet as ever. As some of you may remember, Hannah gave the keynote speech at this fall’s Agent Day Conference where she told us all about her journey to publication, culminating in a two-book deal with Dial Books. 

Hannah’s first book coming out is EXTRAORDINARY JANE, releasing this February. We’re all so very proud and excited for her.

Extraordinary Jane cover

For anyone with a beloved pet, this delightful and heartwarming story set at the circus shows that quiet qualities like friendship, kindness, and loyalty are important and worthy.

Jane is an ordinary dog in an extraordinary circus. She isn’t strong, graceful, or brave like her family. When she tries to be those things, Jane just doesn’t feel like herself, but she also doesn’t feel special. Is she really meant for this kind of life? Her Ringmaster thinks so, but not for the reasons Jane believes. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Hannah was gracious enough to stop by for an interview, going into even more detail about her work and her life.

Valerie Lawson: I loved reading in your bio how your kindergarten teacher recognized your obvious artistic talent and put you in “Special Art” with the fifth graders. How huge an impact did that teacher make on you and in helping to develop your craft?

Hannah Harrison: So huge! Marlene Witham just made me feel so, well…special! She made me feel like everything I created was really something to behold—whether it be paint, or clay, or dry macaroni. It was so kind of her to have such confidence in me—to single me out the way that she did. Here I was, just a frizzy-haired pip-squeak in hand-me-down clothes, and she noticed me, and believed in me, and made me feel like my talent was unique. So, yes, her impact on my life was huge.

VL: She was bound to single you out when you drew yourself in profile when asked to draw a self-portrait. What Kindergartner does that? Incredible!

Smoking Bunnies
Bunny Smoking Pipe (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall) by Hannah Harrison 1.25″ x 1.25″ acrylic on museum board. This won Best in Show 2013, awarded by the Cider Painters of America

Your miniature paintings just fascinate me – some as small as one inch by one inch! How did you get into this “small” world of miniature painting? 

HH: Well, I realized that it would probably be a good idea for an aspiring children’s book illustrator to know how to paint children. So I started doing little paintings from old photographs of me as a kid. Since they were just studies, I painted them small (I figured it’d be faster). I thought they turned out kind of snazzy, so I hung a few of them up in the artist co-op that I was a part of as an example for commissions. One of the other artists in the co-op, Irene Goddu, was a miniaturist, and when she saw my tiny portraits, she invited me to join The Cider Painters of America. Before this, I didn’t realize that miniature painting was something people did! There’s a niche for that? Turns out, there’s a pretty big niche with miniature painting societies all over the world. There’s even a World Federation of Miniaturists! Who knew?! So now I’m a Signature Member of The Cider Painters of America and The Hilliard Society, and I feel pretty fancy.

VL: They are really incredible – so much detail for such small works.

HH: Aw, thanks! What is it Bob Ross used to say? Three hairs and some air? It’s kind of like that.

VL: The number of paintings you have of animals far outweigh those of humans and yet the animal pictures tend to have human characteristics, wear clothing, etc. Are you more comfortable with animals or are they just more fun to draw?

HH: I love painting animals and people. But for illustration, I think I am more comfortable with animals—it’s easier for me to paint them from my imagination. People are hard to get just right (painting flesh tones is tricky business, and it’s hard to keep continuity of character), but with animals, as long as they’re good and fuzzy, and have soulful eyes, they’ll at least be endearing (I hope). A badly painted person? Not so cute. Sometimes creepy. Plus I love animals for picture books because 1) they can get into whatever kinds of shenanigans you want them to without too much regard for personal safety or rules or parents, 2) any kid, regardless of race, can relate to and identify with animals. I will also confess that as a kid, I often enjoyed dressing my pet cats up in doll clothes (I was an only child, leave me alone). The cats were not amused. I, however, thought it was stinkin’ hilarious. I still think animals in clothes are funny.

Kitty Victoria by Hannah Harrison, image from artist's website.
Kitty Victoria by Hannah Harrison

VL: Ah, those are excellent points. It’s really important for kids to be able to identify and connect with the characters. (I also can’t imagine someone wrestling a tempermental cat into a costume. That would take special talent, or little concern for danger.)

HH: Ha! It helps to use the element of surprise!

VL: Your paintings are so detailed and yet you are also such a prolific painter, your website has pages and pages of exquisite paintings posted in the gallery, how long does it take you to complete each piece?

HH: Thanks, Valerie! It’s hard to say how long it takes to complete a piece—they all vary so much. But I will say that the plethora of paintings on my website are a result of 10+ years of portfolio building in an attempt to break into the business combined with artwork created for various exhibitions. Show deadlines have a way of bringing the prolific-ness out of you! And being a “starving artist” doesn’t hurt, either.

VL: Ah ha ha! Yes, I agree. Hunger can be quite a motivator.

As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into? And what was your punishment?

HH: On the whole, I think I was a pretty good kid. My mouth, on the other hand, liked to get me into trouble. And when it did, into the corner I’d go! We spent a lot of quality time together, me, my mouth, and The Corner.

But I do remember this one thing….

Royal Pig Hannah Harrison
Royal Pig by Hannah Harrison

It was winter in New Hampshire, and me and the little boy that lived across the street (let’s call him Ishmael), were in my back yard playing and shoveling snow. We were probably about seven or eight. Anyway, I had this kid-size shovel—probably about three feet long—and the blade was made out of blue metal. Anyway, I got it in my head that Ishmael would be impressed if I got a big shovel full of snow and hurled it over my shoulder—you know, show off my big Popeye muscles. So I got a big shovel full of snow, hurled it over my shoulder, and… THUNK, nailed poor Ish (who was standing right behind me) square in the eyebrow with the metal blade. Oops. Well, if Ishmael was impressed by my super-human strength, he didn’t take the time to say so. He was too busy crying and running back to his house across the street. I knew I was in for it. I had been showing off, and I might have even killed Ishmael. Forget the The Corner—that was kid stuff. Surely the dreaded spoon was more befitting. But I didn’t get the corner or the spoon. No. My punishment was much, much worse. My mother marched me through the snow over to Ishmael’s house and made me…APOLOGIZE! Apologize? The horror! By this point, I was crying pretty good myself. But I did manage to stutter out a snot-filled apology. And, despite his scar and my wounded pride, Ishmael and I were able to stay friends.

VL: Is it wrong that I find that story hilarious? I can relate to poor Ishmael, though. My brother once thought it would be a great idea to throw a shovel up in the air. I caught it with my forehead.

HH: Oh nooo! I’m glad you lived to tell the tale.

VL: What did you want to be when you were in grade school? What influenced this choice?

HH: Oh, man. I have always wanted to be a children’s book writer and illustrator! I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to draw. As a kid, I would spend hours on the living room floor sketching out the stories from my Little Thinker Tapes (do you remember those?). And then, when I was in second and third grade, I won the Young Author Book Awards, and got to represent my elementary school at a statewide conference. I was able to hear real-life authors speak about making books, and I was hooked. I knew that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I couldn’t think of anything better!

VL: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/or to pursue the career you chose? When did you start pursuing that seriously?

Black Cat in Ridiculous Green Hat by Hannah Harrison, image from author's website.
Black Cat in Ridiculous Green Hat by Hannah Harrison

HH: Like I said, I’ve always known I wanted to do this, and so I’ve been taking baby steps towards the dream for pretty much my whole life. I always took art classes in school. And whenever there wasn’t an art class that fit my schedule, my teachers let me make art classes that fit my schedule. I took private art lessons, too. I majored in art, and minored in creative writing at Colby College. I created an independent study in children’s book writing, and did an internship with Kevin Hawkes. As a Senior Scholar, I explored the connection between writing and painting. After graduation, I worked for a sign company and in an art gallery, I painted theatre sets, and worked in an elementary school—all jobs that, to me, related back to the ultimate dream of doing books. But I guess you could say that I really got serious in 2002, when I joined SCBWI. That’s when I realized just how much work I still had cut out for me if I ever wanted to get published. Who knew there was so much to learn about the craft and the industry!? Who knew it was going to be so competitive?! Who knew it was going to be so…hard? I pursued children’s books seriously(ish) for 10 years before I got my first offer on a book.

VL: It’s amazing that people think writing books for children is easy, isn’t it?

Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?

HH: Yes, yes, and YES! That’s why I always remained under the covers up to my nose, and never, ever, let an appendage drift too close to the edge of the bed. Ever. And if I had absolutely no choice but use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I leapt like a gazelle from said bed in order to completely clear the grabbing zone. And then I scampered. I scampered like my little life depended on it. Because it did.

VL: Ha ha! I would do the same thing. One of the drawbacks to having a very active imagination is that you can visualize monsters right into being.

Did you ever have a clubhouse or secret place of your own? What did you do there?

HH: Yes! My dad built me the most amazing treehouse in our back yard. It had stairs, a wrap-around porch, a skylight, a dutch door, windows with shutters, gingerbread trim, and carpeting…it sounds a lot nicer than the house I live in now, actually. Did I mention my dad’s the best? My friends and I had a lot of macaroni and cheese lunches up there. And I do remember my cousin and I camping out up there one night…until our imaginations got the best of us (see above), and my dad pretended to be a bear. It was also my favorite place to practice my flute. I’m guessing it was my parent’s favorite place for me to practice my flute, too (not so sure about the neighbors).

Top Hat Terrier
Top Hat Terrier by Hannah Harrison

What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?

HH: I was once attacked by a bear in my tree house.

VL: Yikes! I hope the bear was your dad.

What was the worst job you ever had while going to school?

HH: The summer I spent in a factory packaging up heat-sinks was pretty awesome.

VL: Did your friends ever come by while you were working and embarrass you?

HH: Nope. Strangely enough, no one wanted to spend their summer afternoons hanging out in the dark, windowless, unconditioned, heat-sink factory. But fortunately, the three older ladies I worked with took care of the embarrassment factor by giving me the nickname “Sasquatch”. Apparently, the work boots at the end of my skinny little legs were quite becoming.

VL: Oh, what an unfortunate nickname!

HH: Tell me about it.

VL: What are you currently working on?

HH: I’m currently working on raising our four year old daughter. I am also working on the illustrations for my second book with Dial, Bernice gets Carried Away.

VL: How exciting! I can’t wait to see it.

What would be your dream assignment/what would you most like to write about?

HH: Hmmm. I’m not really sure! Maybe something with a koala bear in it? Oooh! Or a duck-billed platypus? They’re kind of adorable. See, it’s dilemmas like these that remind me just how much I LOVE MY JOB!

VL: We’re so very glad that you do! I sense there will be plenty more books from you coming our way. Thank you for being here, Hannah. I look forward to seeing your work in print very soon!

HH: It’s been my pleasure! Thanks so much for having me, Valerie!

Learn more about Hannah Harrison and see more of her artwork on her website here.

EXTRAORDINARY JANE is now available for preorders. Click on any of the retailer logos below to order your copy, today.

Extraordianry Jane art

Pub date – Feb 6, 2014 by Dial

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What I Learned from Agents’ Day – Part One

Our local SCBWI chapter really outdid itself with this year’s fall conference, otherwise known as AGENTS’ DAY.  We heard from three dynamic agents who are actively acquiring and who, during the query letter panel, offered their collective knowledge and helpful suggestions that gave all in attendance unique insight into the publishing industry. That alone was more than worth the price of admission, and yet there was more. Two fine local literary stars shared their personal publishing journeys. Both were inspiring, reminding us all to keep pursuing our dreams.

Keynote speaker Hannah Harrison

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What I learned from Hannah’s talk:

Hannah started out the day with the story of her incredible journey to publication. She’s so amazingly talented you wouldn’t think the road would’ve been arduous at all, but she revealed many surprises in her talk entitled The Least Efficient Way to Get Published. One recurring theme that resonated with me was how often she got in her own way. Not following up on leads – when houses asked her to keep her work on file, she only updated every few years instead of every few months. Not having a strong web presence – she digressed from her talk to emphasize that all artists should have a website. Not submitting, not submitting, not submitting! (She only submitted her manuscript two times in five years.) She turned down an offer of representation because she didn’t think she needed an agent. Her reasoning? Illustrator Kevin Hawkes said her work spoke for itself. Hannah had apprenticed under Hawkes and had helped with some illustration work for the book Handel, Who Knew What He Liked. In the end, she realized she did need an agent. We’ll go more in-depth into Hannah’s story when she stops by for an interview in a few weeks.

Takeaways:

  • “If it doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s not going to mean something to anyone else.”
  • You have to be your work’s strongest advocate and submit it when it’s ready. And keep submitting. As good as it may be, it won’t get published on its own.
Special Guest Speaker Gwendolyn Hooks

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What I learned from Gwen’s talk:

Gwen was inspired to become a writer after she saw a play that a relative had written. Then Gwen set off to do what she does best; educate herself. She joined several writing groups and attended conferences to learn how to be a writer. One early critique comment said her story “didn’t have any spark.” Gwen set off on a new quest – to find spark. She studied and wrote and improved, still she had moments of self-doubt. A friend called her one night with a fantastic idea and told her she had to write the story. Gwen told her she’d think about it. After doing her own research, she agreed the story needed to be told, but she thought, “I can’t write it; I’m not good enough.” Her friend was relentless in her insistence that Gwen had to be the one to write it. Gwen gave it a try, but still didn’t think it was right. She kept writing and rewriting until the spark appeared. The result of all this effort is the inspirational story of Vivien Thomas, the Man Who Saved the Blue Babies which will be published by Lee and Low in 2015.

Takeaways:

  • “If something is near and dear to your heart, it doesn’t belong in the drawer. Keep working on it.”
  • When a critique points out weaknesses in your writing, use these moments as learning opportunities and educate yourself to make your writing better.

The three agents :

Natalie Lakosil from the Bradford Literary Agency

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What I learned from Natalie’s talk:

Unlike most agents who arrive at their careers through alternate routes, Natalie knew she wanted to be an agent when she was thirteen years-old. She’s an editorial agent with a wide range of interests and a wide range of clients. She represents picture books to young adult to adult fiction, with an emphasis in children’s literature as her client list is 75% children’s publishing. She’s interested in historical, multicultural, sci-fi, fantasy, gritty, darker contemporary, horror, Victorian literature, magical realism, middle grade with heart, short quirky picture books (around 600 words), and adult romance.

What she’s looking for:

  • Voice. She described voice as being almost autobiographical. She said it has place, a taste of where you came from, what’s shaped you, the author in life. The best voices reveal a piece of the writer and are immediately connectable.
  • A desire to keep reading.

Takeaways:

  • Query hook: What is your book about? The hook should answer this question in a way that intrigues the reader in EXACTLY THREE SECONDS! That’s it.
  • Natalie’s Top Three Reasons to Say No: Poor pacing, unoriginal plot, and not connecting to voice.

To learn more about Natalie Lakosil, visit her agency website above.

Follow her blog Adventures in Agentland.

Follow Natalie on Twitter @Natalie_Lakosil.

Emily Mitchell from the Wernick & Pratt Agency

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What I learned from Emily’s talk:

Agents no longer need to live in New York City to be in the heart of the publishing world. Emily works from home, like all the agents at her agency. They Skype frequently and physically meet at the office several times a year. This way, she gets to live in Massachusetts, send her kids off to school, and then attend to her agenting work. This mostly entails sitting in front of one type of computer screen or another and reading; reading and thinking. She began her agenting career at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency where Mo Willems was one of the agency’s first clients. They tried for over two years to sell Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus. It was something new and didn’t have much of a story arc; no one knew what to do with it, yet they never gave up on it. That’s persistence.

Emily firmly believes in the rules of grammar and feels writers should, too. She wants to trust you know what you’re doing. “Don’t give me a reason as a reader not to trust you.” This is where grammar and usage come into play.

What she’s looking for:

  • Voice
  • Authority
  • Pragmatism
  • Flexibility

Somebody who loves the work, who gets the process, who loves creating.

She read from a few books she doesn’t represent, but wished she did including Prisoner 88 by Leah Pileggi, Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan, and Clementine by Sara Pennypacker.

Takeaways:

  • Not everyone can be a best-selling writer. Be okay with being a mid-list writer.
  • Nobody is too good for an editor.

To learn more about Emily Mitchell, visit her agency’s website above.

Follow her blog emilyreads.

Follow Emily on Twitter @emilyreads

Danielle Smith from the Foreward Literary Agency

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What I learned from Danielle’s talk:

Danielle is also part of an agency where everyone works from home. Foreword Literary is a new agency that just opened in March of 2013 servicing children’s through adult books. It’s a hybrid agency that marries traditional publishing with digital publishing possibilities. Danielle started her agent journey as a popular children’s book review blogger at There’s a Book. Her award-winning site is still held in high regard, and continues on even as she pursues her agenting career. Danielle represents picture books, early readers and chapter books, middle grade, and the rare young adult. She has a soft spot for middle grade. She has her two kids who help her review books on her blog read manuscripts with her when they come in.

What she’s looking for:

Takeaways:

  • Make sure you’re always reading. It can help you in your craft.
  • Have kids read your work as a litmus test.

To learn more about Danielle Smith, visit her agency’s website above.

Follow her blog There’s a Book.

Follow Danielle on Twitter @thefirstdaughter.

Thanks so much to all of our speakers for being so generous with their time and knowledge. It was a delightful
weekend.

In Part Two, I’ll be sharing some of the nuggets of wisdom the agents shared during the afternoon panels.

Stay tuned!

DISCLAIMER: If you are interested in submitting to any of these fine agents, please be sure to visit their respective agency websites and follow their submission guidelines. They mean business, and if you’re serious about writing, you should, too.

Exciting News

This past week has been quite exciting here. This is just a quick post to update you on a few of the highlights.

One of the most exciting things that made my week spectacular was when I received this tweet after I posted my review of See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles:

Jo Knowles Tweet

WOW!!!

I never thought in a million years an author I read would read my review of her book, love it, AND then pass it on for others to read! Such a fabulous thing to do. Could I love her even more? I think not.

If that wasn’t enough to make a girl’s week, I escaped to the Oklahoma countryside for the weekend and stayed at a beautiful bed & breakfast with my favorite writing people for the Agent Day conference. I had the pleasure of meeting KT Hanna for the first time, face to face – what a wonderful hugger! (I also got to see more pics of her new baby, the little cutie with those adorably squishy cheeks.) I also met Heather Cashman and Sarah Crespo who’d traveled with KT all the way from Wichita, Kansas, to attend out Agent Day event. It was so great to meet these online friends in person.

I will be happy to share the plethora of information I learned about agents and the world of agenting with you all very soon. The lovely Hannah Harrison, who gave the keynote speech, will also be stopping by for an interview in the near future to expand on her fantastic and inspiring presentation.

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Front view of the Statehood Inn in Chandler, OK
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There was a beautiful wrap-around front porch, complete with rocking chairs and one very curious cat with big green eyes.
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Inside the kitchen at the Statehood Inn. Love all of that light!

The only drawback to the rural location of the conference was poor WiFi service, but frankly, it was nice to be out of touch for a few days. Upon my return home, I discovered some exciting news waiting for me in my inbox.  As some of you may know, I gave an interview myself recently for Jenny Perinovic at The Great Noveling Adventure. Well, I had so much fun doing the interview that I applied for one of the openings they had on their blog. And guess what? They invited me to become part of their team! Of course I said yes. So exciting! I’ll be posting once or twice a month on whatever topic I’d like. Artistic freedom? Yes, please.

I’m still recovering from an amazing weekend and all of this great news, but I wanted to make sure I shared it with you. Big things are coming, I can just feel it. Stay tuned to enjoy the ride.

Agents’ Day is Coming!

First, I just wanted say, WOW! I’ve gained 50 new followers since the beginning of the year and that’s pretty damn good for me.

“HELLO, NEW FOLLOWERS! YOU ARE AWESOME!”

For those of you who’ve been following for awhile, you’re just flat out amazing, but you already know that.

Enough with the flagrant flattery, I have some pretty great news to share…

As some of you may recall, I mentioned back in May that our local SCBWI chapter has a fantastic event coming up this fall. We are hosting an Agents’ Day on October 5th that will knock your socks off. Registration is now open to non-members as of July 1st – that means now!

Not only will you hear from three wonderful agents who are actively acquiring at this event and have one of the three critique the first 250 words of your manuscript, but you’ll also hear from some of the finest literary ladies with amazing talents who work right here in Oklahoma.

Here’s the Unbelievable lineup:

Keynote speaker Hannah Harrison

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Hannah will share her journey that brought her a two-book deal to write and illustrate picture books for a major publisher.

Special Guest Speaker Gwendolyn Hooks

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Gwen is the author of  seventeen easy readers. She will discuss her latest picture book sale success about the inspirational story of Vivien Thomas, the Man Who Saved the Blue Babies.

The three agents joining us for the day are:

Natalie Fischer Lakosil from the Bradford Agency

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Natatlie is interested in representing picture books through YA.

Danielle Smith from the Foreward Agency

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Danielle is interested in representing picture books, chapter books, and early/middle readers.

Ann Behar from the Scovil Galen Gosh Agency had a last minute scheduling conflict and has been replaced by:

Emily Mitchell from the Wernick & Pratt Agency

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Emily is interested in representing picture books through YA.

If that weren’t enough, the agents will also critique submitted query letters by attendees in a panel discussion. This is another spectacular presentation put on by our SCBWI Oklahoma chapter and you don’t want t miss it. Registration is limited to 90 people and over 50 spots have already been filled, so act soon! Visit the SCBWI OK website for details and online registration.