Lois V. Harris is the author of three children's books about artists, Mary Cassatt, Charles M. Russell, and Maxfield Parrish. She has a new book coming out later this year, Lotta Crabtree: Gold Rush Fairy Star. She is a writing instructor at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Washington, and she lives in Anacortes, Washington.
Q: You've written books for kids about three very different artists. Why did you pick these artists, and do you see any common themes running through their work?
A: The art of each artist has inspired me. In 1999, I was amazed when I saw my first original Mary Cassatt painting at an Impressionism exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.
The picture stayed in my mind so in 2002 when I bought a book of stamps with images of Cassatt's lovely paintings, I decided to research her life. I discovered she was a gutsy lady for her time and an excellent subject for a picture book.
While researching Cassatt, I stumbled onto the Charles M. Russell Museum's website and remembered visiting a museum and admiring his superb sculpture of a cowboy on a bucking horse.
I learned he was a working cowboy who painted, illustrated, wrote, and told wonderful stories about life in the Old West--here was my subject for my second book!
While researching Charlie's life, I read he was impressed with Maxfield Parrish's use of color. Charlie was a great painter, and if he thought highly of Parrish, I had to check out his art.
In the University of Washington Library's Special Collections section, I viewed L. Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose, published in 1897, illustrated by Parrish. The pages were yellow, but the colors in the illustrations, bright and bold. Book number three began to percolate in my mind.
Q: What type of research do you do for your books?
A: I start with general information (encyclopedias, textbooks, Internet) and move to librarians. (What would we do without them?) I love primary sources, but the best research is onsite research. There is nothing like gathering information from where the subject lived or from an object she or he used. Research is fun!
Q: What age group do you think would especially enjoy your books?
A: My picture books, illustrated with images of each subject's colorful art, are for ages 5 to 8 and up. Adult admirers of the subject's art often buy these good-looking books for themselves or as gifts to other adults. Children ages 9 to 12 will enjoy Lotta Crabtree: Gold Rush Fairy Star, illustrated with historical photos.
Q: What can you tell us about that book?
A: During the California Gold Rush, 8-year-old Lotta Crabtree entertained the miners in the mountains to support her family. The men threw golden nuggets at her feet after she danced, sang, played the banjo, and performed comedy. She was the first female to play the banjo onstage and to perform comedy as both were considered unladylike behavior.
Even though she battled stage fright before every performance, spunky Lotta went on to become a San Francisco hit and then a national star as she toured America inspiring girls and women to perform.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm in the research stage for another biography about another independent-thinking subject. I don't reveal the name until much later in the process because sometimes it doesn't work out.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I write to inspire children to follow their dreams like the subjects of my books. If you long to do something, go for it!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb