Working in a Dream World: An Interview With Mary GrandPré and Jennifer Dewing

The Harry Potter illustrator and a children's book author talk about their personalized bedtime book, Goodnight Little Me.
Mary GrandPre (L) and Jennifer Dewing (R)

Photo by Sherry Huang

You might recognize the name Mary GrandPré as the original illustrator of the Harry Potter book covers in the United States. Her colorful and whimsical illustrations were everywhere, giving hints to each book's themes and storylines. GrandPré has a new book out, with author Jennifer Dewing, and they both stopped by the Parents offices recently to talk about Goodnight Little Me, a super-dreamy and lovely picture book published by I See Me, a line of personalized children's books that integrates names and photos in covers and pages. Read on, as both women reveal how the book came together, their thoughts on the future of children's books, and the ways they continue to stay creative. Plus, GrandPré shares her favorite Harry Potter book and characters!

What was your inspiration behind writing and drawing Goodnight Little Me? How did you both become involved and what was the writing and drawing process like?

Jennifer: Allan and Maia Haag had started the company [I See Me] back in 1998 with the book called My Very Own Name. The company's mission is all about building self-esteem in children, celebrating children, making them feel special, making them feel loved. [The company has] been expanding with all sorts of different titles for different occasions, but they didn't have a classic goodnight book, [until] I wrote it several years ago. It kind of sat around for a little while until Allan could find the right illustrator, which he found in Mary. A lot of times the authors and the illustrators don't even connect with one another at all; they're kept pretty separate in the process.

Mary: When Allen called me, I didn't know [the story] had been sitting around for a while. I loved the story because it had a sense of magic about it, and I love that kind of wonder, that kind of writing where the child is floating on this cloud and experiencing all of these things as the night falls and the moon leads the child around on this little journey in the sky. It's a beautiful way to say goodnight; it was very dreamy and light-filled and glowing, and it spoke to me as an artist and as a mother, too.

In recent years, there has been a steady decline in the publication of children's picture books, but classics and YA novels still seem to be doing well. What do you think is the future of children's books?

Mary: I think there will always be stories and pictures, whether they're digital or they're on a page. So I'm not too worried about it. You know the creative thinker will always have a place in that world.

Jennifer: What we've learned with the [I See Me] books is that [because] they are always personalized with the child's name, our customers give them as cherished gifts. [The names are] seamlessly woven through all of the illustrations and the manuscripts; the personalization is truly integrated in to the design of the books. The parents or the child will hold on to them forever because they're more of a keepsake, different from anything that you could get on an app.

What books inspired you growing up? And what books do your own kids love?

Mary: The book that I always go back to would be Peter Pan. The pictures had this glittery and magical feel, and I felt like I was falling into the story and out of the window whenever I opened a spread. That sense of flying and wonderment and mystery always stayed with me, so I kind of put that into my pictures.

Jennifer: I always loved The Cat in the Hat growing up because it was what my Grandpa Jack would read to me all the time, but my kids are into all different storybooks because they have all different personalities. My oldest one is into nonfiction, anything with a real picture of a vehicle and real cars and factual information. Now my youngest is 5 and he's into adventure, pirates, dressing up, transporting out of reality. My daughter is curious about anything.

Jennifer, since you have three kids, what have you discovered about your children's personalities from their birth order?

The youngest is definitely the most easygoing by far. He entered the world softly and quietly; [he has] a very optimistic personality. He's kind of the class clown and the comic relief of the family. My oldest one is a real thinker and analyzes everything. They're like Bert and Ernie, the two of them together. The middle one, she gets along with both of them really well and she has her own special place.

Mary, your drawing style is often described as "soft geometry." What artists influenced you growing up?

Edward Hopper was a painter that I always looked at because of his sense of light, and that sense [you get] of almost being a voyeur in a window or on a street or [in a] café, kind of people watching. Again, that mystery, that light and shadow, has always been important to my work. I grew up in a strict Catholic family, so we had to go to Mass every day, and the stained glass windows were a huge inspiration in my work because of the glowing light; they were always there for me every day. I loved looking at the windows, the glow.

Mary GrandPré Reveals Her Favorite Harry Potter Characters

Goodnight Little Me

Photo by I See Me

Mary, you're also known for your original artwork on the Harry Potter series. What was your favorite book to read and to illustrate?

That's a tough one, because each book was such a world in its own and it was such a huge section of his life. I would have to say the first one, because [Harry is] the most vulnerable there, and we meet him when we're walking into this world for the first time. The first impression is always the strongest, and that's how I felt about meeting Harry. I think I enjoyed his humanity in the first book, before he was powerful. He was just a boy. Book five was particularly tough [to illustrate] because it was as if he was coming into puberty, and there was so much angst. I felt like I was kind of going through that. It was hard to know how to bring that emotion into the work without making it depressing.

Would you say he's your favorite character?

Yeah, I would say so. And after that it would be Hagrid.

Jennifer, in looking through Goodnight Little Me, I see that's it's in rhyme and meter. Is predominant in the books that you write?

A lot of the books for I See Me are written in rhyme, but I've played around with writing non-rhyme as well. Maia [of I See Me] really loves whimsical rhymes and a lot of our customers have become connected to the writing.

What charges your batteries creatively every day?

Mary: For me, it's experimenting in the studio and doing things the opposite way that I would normally do them. I just took a painting workshop where ... it was all about painting more intuitively and turning the canvas and not having any predetermined picture or any sketch to go by, and I came back really refreshed from that.

Jennifer: I never write during the day ... my brain works creatively at night. I'm a night owl, and I prefer ... a time where everything is quiet and settled. As long as sometime during the day I've gotten a good walk in or see a concert or go to the theater or someplace and do something fun with the kids or volunteer in the classroom -- those little experiences can jolt [me] out of [my] every day and give inspiration.

For kids who want to become writers and artists or illustrators, what advice would you give?

Jennifer: Keep reading, reading, reading. [My family] started a book club so that every night during the week we're all together in the same place and reading and discussing the book. It creates a connection between everybody. We're reading Barnaby Brocket right now. And we've read Harry Potter, we've read Wonder. I think exposing [kids] to as many different types of books and possible is the way to start.

Mary: Just be encouraging as parents and set them up in a space where they can spread paper out, get crazy with paint and pencils. Get them away from the video games and the screens and encourage them to draw what's around them and know that drawing isn't right or wrong. It's about being an individual. I'm inspired by my daughter's drawing. I've really come to appreciate children's drawings because they are so pure and so beautiful in their form. We forget how to let that natural thing come out and we try to perfect everything. It's about being more childlike in our drawing ... and experimenting and having fun.

What upcoming projects are there for both of you?

Mary: I want to continue where my workshop has been taking me, and painting and trying new things. And I'm illustrating a book that I had written for Scholastic. But I'm going into the fine arts too; I've been doing some gallery work and I have an online gallery and I'm expanding my horizons a little bit with that.

Jennifer: I have a few titles coming out next year with I See Me. One I'm really excited about is called I Can Change the World, and it's all about little actions every day and [how] the way that you interact with other people can really make a difference.

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