Today I’m delighted to have Marie Harris as my guest. Marie has had an impressive creative career. She was Poet Laureate of New Hampshire from 1999-2004 and continues to write poetry. As a poet, she performs at universities around the country and visits elementary and secondary schools as a poet-in-residence. She is also the author of three picture books. Her latest picture book, THE GIRL WHO HEARD COLORS (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), is the beautiful multi-sensory story of a girl named Jillian who engages the world using her five sense plus a “special extra sense” called synesthesia which allows her to perceive sounds as colors. How did Marie make the journey from poet to picture book writer? Quite by accident, as we shall see. Take it away, Marie!
Some years ago, I wrote a long-ish rhymed poem about not seeing a whale, which I was hoping to sell as a children’s picture book. So far, this has not happened, and I only mention it to demonstrate that, as you’ll note in the following unlikely story of how I became a children’s book writer, at least I am not a liar.
It all began with a phone call from then-governor, Jeanne Shaheen. She asked if I might accept the honor of becoming New Hampshire’s next Poet Laureate. Needless to say, I was thrilled. It wasn’t until a month or so later, when the initial fuss had died down, that I asked myself: What, exactly, does a poet laureate do? And it turned out that the position of NH PL came with no job description, so I set about creating one for myself.
Among other things, I decided that I wanted to write something for children. So I let that idea percolate in my head as I took walks in the woods and rode around in my car. Then one afternoon, I heard an announcer say that the radio program I was listening to on NPR was sponsored by Sleeping Bear Press, “publishers of A is for America: An Alphabet book.” And when I went to their web site, I discovered that the press was also publishing an alphabet book for every state! I picked up the phone, asked the editor if they’d done New Hampshire yet, and she said “no.” And I said “Well then, pick me!” And she asked why she should do that and I told her I was the NH PL. And then came the crucial question. “Have you,” she asked, “ever written anything for children?” And I said (see above) “Yes.”
The next year turned my brain to alphabet soup as I tried to capture the history and culture of New Hampshire in 26 little poems, supplemented by prose sidebars. It was really difficult. It was exhilarating. It was mind-opening. And great fun. G is for GRANITE (Sleeping Bear Press, 2003) was followed by the NH number book, PRIMARY NUMBERS (Sleeping Bear Press, 2005). Both have enjoyed modest success.
In the process of researching the people and places and events that went with each letter and number, I came across all sorts of interesting people and resolved to explore some of them further. One was Amy Beach (part of a sidebar on important New Hampshire women). As I began to research her life, I became more and more intrigued and ended up starting a novel in which she was one of the main characters.
That’s when I met my very first literary agent (via a poet friend) who agreed to take me on. He sent my manuscript all over creation and it ended up in the hands of Nancy Paulsen at Penguin who, though not interested in the novel, was fascinated by Amy Beach’s synesthesia and wanted me to write a picture book about that. I hesitated, not wanting to boil down all my years of research into this very complex woman into a single trait. In the end, I crafted a story about a contemporary little girl with synesthesia and Nancy liked it enough to offer to publish it.
On the heels of signing a contract, my agent retired. And here I am, a freelance, three-time, accidental children’s book writer, wondering where to go next. And feeling lucky to be here!
To learn more about Marie Harris and her fascinating new picture book, visit her website. Find Marie’s books at bookstores everywhere. She’s also chatting today with Susanna Leonard Hill and Tina Cho!
Now for the GIVEAWAY! To enter for a chance to win a signed copy of Marie Harris’s THE GIRL WHO HEARD COLORS, simply leave a comment. (Note: You must be at least 13 to enter and you may only enter once.) The contest ends Thursday, 2/25/2014 at 11:59 pm EST. The winner, whose name will be pulled from a hat, will be announced Friday.
NOTE: The Giveaway is now over. Thank you to all who entered. The winner is announced here.