Creator Corner: Author Jennifer Harris and Illustrator Dorothy Leung

Welcome to Creator Corner, a blog series where we interview the creators of our recent books. For this post, we interviewed The Keeper of Stars author Jennifer Harris and illustrator Dorothy Leung, whose book is publishing April 15, 2024!

Owlkids Books: Jennifer, how did you become a children’s book author?

Jennifer Harris: I always knew I wanted to write fiction, and over the years plotted and started and abandoned manuscripts. The problem was I was trying to write adult novels. But they didn’t quite light up as I was writing, and I didn’t light up when I was writing them. Then I read about this woman who made a quilt of the solar system, and knew I wanted to write about her. Without even thinking about it, the first line of a picture book popped into my head. I grabbed a pen and wrote it out in one sitting. And that’s when I realized—I’m a children’s writer! That became my first picture book, She Stitched the Stars. In retrospect, it took a comically long time to realize I should be writing for a younger audience—I’ve always been invested in children’s literature, as our bookshelves attest.

OKB: Dorothy, how did you become a children’s book illustrator?

Dorothy Leung: Upon graduating from my college illustration program, an editor from Kids Can Press attended my class’ grad show, where she got my contact information; I was eventually offered my first picture book project. From there I connected with my literary agent, and continued to work on picture books with various publishers to this day.

OKB: Jennifer, what are your favorite things to write about?

JH: I don’t know that I have favorite subjects or themes. I do like to write things that are a bit playful. Playful might mean the situation; it might be the approach to the language or the subject. It’s fascinating to see an illustrator like Dorothy take those playful moments and have fun with them visually, expanding them in ways beyond my imagining. Recently I’ve been challenging myself to write in different genres of picture books—can I write a book about colour? What about one about numbers? Or a science book? Experimenting with form has been a lot of fun.

OKB: Dorothy, which spread did you most enjoy illustrating and why?

DL: I most enjoyed illustrating pages 6-7, where Milo is flying out of his house on the comet. It was one of the more complicated spreads to draw, and I love a good challenge! I like exploring ways to illustrate movement and dynamic-ism, and as a former architecture student I enjoy drawing houses too.

OKB: Jennifer, what inspired you to write this book?

JH: The first line came to me, and it stuck. Every night, a boy helps clean the stars! What would be involved? What amusing things might happen? The idea of tapping his dad’s picture was there from the beginning as part of Milo’s bedtime ritual. I didn’t spend time agonizing about why the dad wasn’t there. Maybe he’s a lobster fisherman. Or a pilot. Or maybe Milo’s parents aren’t together. Why Milo’s dad was absent wasn’t as important as the impact of his absence, which influences Milo’s dynamic with his mom and his sense of responsibility. While I know this absence will be what resonates emotionally for some readers, it’s worth noting I didn’t set out thinking “I’m going to write a book where the protagonist creatively copes with missing someone.” It was always meant to be about Milo’s starry adventures; the other aspect enriches the story in meaningful ways, but it’s not the plot. And I suspect many readers won’t even notice it—they’ll be too busy laughing at the funny little stars!

OKB: Dorothy, which spread was the most challenging to illustrate and why?

DL: The most challenging spread to illustrate was pages 6-7, for the reasons I mentioned above. It’s always an interesting challenge to draw the world from a dynamic angle and/or perspective. I don’t always have photographic references, so I sometimes have to imagine what it might look like and draw from that imagination.

OKB: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

JH: I hope readers enjoy the silliness of Milo’s adventures, and Dorothy’s fantastically charming imaginings of them. Her rendering of the Keeper is perfect; I want to hug that starry bear! If everyone smiled at least once reading the book, that would be delightful. Who doesn’t want to make readers smile? Beyond that, I hope children who are missing someone and need reassurance find it, while also seeing that a bit of sadness doesn’t preclude joy.

DL: I hope readers will receive the idea that our imaginations can be a source of a lot of joy and comfort, and that even while we exist in such a huge universe with a lot of unknowns, we are still very much loved and cared for.

OKB: What’s a fun fact people may not know about you?

JH: Most of the time I’m a professor of American literature pre-1900. My Very Serious (!) academic research has been covered by CBC, BBC, PBS,Washington Post and elsewhere. Some of the people I work with would be surprised to know I also write picture books, and have a whimsical Instagram account (@mypbjam) where I create dioramas with dolls to talk about writing for children. Some days I’ll be walking across campus thinking about how to build a miniature kitchen for dolls, not about academic work! Then again, I’m now getting to teach children’s literature at my university. And it looks like I’ll be teaching a course in writing picture books as well—I’m excited to see what students produce!

DL: A fun fact about me is that I don’t like peanut butter and jam sandwiches. I do like peanut butter sandwiches and jam sandwiches separately, though.


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