Today we're talking with Jim Harris, author and illustrator of Dinosaurís Night Before Christmas.
FQ: I'm guessing you like dinosaurs since you've already done a couple of books about them (The Three Little Dinosaurs, Ten Little Dinosaurs). But still, what made you decide to use dinosaurs in this Christmas story
rather than another animal, living or extinct?
Ellen, I love dinosaurs, they must have been really cool! I've read a lot about them and in fact there are some people who think that dinosaurs may still exist in very isolated areas, such as Scotland's Loch Ness. There is also talk of a small sauropod living in the Congo River Basin in Africa. The local natives call the monster Mokele-Mbembe, which means "one who stops the flow of rivers". There is a professor from the University of Chicago, Dr. Roy Mackal, who is well known for his expeditions in search of these creatures. I've read his books and spoken to him on the phone and I'm considering writing a children's book about him. Maybe one of my readers will be inspired enough to one day (after they are grown) lead his or her own expedition and finally bring back proof that there are still a few dinosaurs hanging around. And that would be SUPER COOL!
FQ: I have to say that your poem really rang true to the original Clement Moore's classic. How long did it take you to write it and did you have to re-work sections over and over to come up with just the right words/phrases?
Hmmm...How long did it take to write? That is really a hard question. Some times I can sit down and the story comes in a rush all at once, but this particular story wasn't that way. I worked on it off and on for probably two years. As I was working on my illustrations for other books, ideas for a Dinosaur Christmas would pop into my head and I'd write it down. Eventually, I sat down and realized I had enough material to begin putting together a plot. I made an outline and then worked on the poem when I could find time. So it was rather piece meal.
FQ: Bubble gum? Who would have thought? Where did that idea come from?
I'd like to say that the idea of bubble gum was one of my most brilliant ideas! Unfortunately, I can't. My wife came up with this idea. When C. S. Lewis was working on a new book he would write a new chapter and then read it to a group of other writers to get their opinions. I don't have a literary club to go to for advice but I do get plenty of input from my wife and children. And believe me, they are not shy about giving advice. They come up with some terrific ideas and suggestions. One of these was the bubble gum escape.
FQ: The expressive eyes in your drawings really add a huge amount to the illustrations and they are your trademark design. Would you tell us a bit about how you create each character's eyes? Are they the first/last part of a drawing to be added and do you know before you begin what they will look like or do they "draw themselves"?
Thank you. I use a number of techniques to express emotions and feelings in my characters. Body language for instance. If the character is bent over and a little crooked then it gives the appearance of extreme age or poor health. If the character is walking but his knees are almost hitting his chin because he is high stepping then it gives the feeling like the character is excited. I use the hands to express character also. If the hands are covering the face, it may indicate embarrassment. Or if the hands are clinched it may indicate anger. But nothing tells more about the character than the facial expression and especially the eyes. So I usually draw the eyes with some detail during the sketching stage to make sure I have the right look. But I usually paint in the eyes last on final artwork because I want to make sure the right emotions are being expressed through the body posture, hands, mouth, etc. before I paint in the eyes. That way I know it will all work together.
FQ: I have to say I loved the household dog and cat (and mouse!). As a basset hound owner, the dog was my favorite. Are these characters based on your own pets or are they purely imaginary?
I had a basset when I was in college, he was quite a character. As a puppy he would step on his ears and tumble over in a floppy kind of somersault. I like to put a little humor in my work and few animals are funnier than a basset hound. By the way, I happen to be working right now on another basset who is playing golf. This is not for a book but will be sold as prints.
FQ: Are you currently working on a new book? If so, would you tell our readers a little bit about it?
Well, Ellen, as you know these things are classified top secret right along with the space shuttle technology, stealth aircraft, and the recipe for cherry coke. But I guess it won't hurt to mention a few things. I'm working on a twist of the Little Red Hen, which is going to be a lot of fun. And I was just offered a manuscript that I'm very excited about. It is with the same publisher that published Dinosaur's Night Before Christmas and itís a collection of poems about pirates. Itís hysterical and I'm really looking forward to getting started on the old sea dogs!