Piers Harper (1966–) Biography
Personal, Career, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
Born 1966, in Romford, Essex, England; Education: Sheffield University, B.A. (ancient history and classical civilization; dual honours), 1988. Politics: Labour. Religion: Church of England (Anglican). Hobbies and other interests: "Ancient and classical history, listening to music, mountain climbing, eating vast amounts of chocolate."
Author and illustrator of children's books, 1991–. Editor and advisor, Walker Books, Ltd., London, England.
(Reteller) How the World Was Saved, ABC, 1994.
Turtle Quest, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1997.
Snakes and Ladders (and Hundreds of Mice): A Weird and Wonderful Tower Maze, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1997.
If You Love a Bear, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1998.
Checkmate at Chess City, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1999.
Check and Checkmate, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.
B as in Bible, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2002.
Snow Bear, Scholastic, 2003.
Patricia Borlenghi, From Albatross to Zoo: An Alphabet Book in Five Languages, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1992.
Tim Chadwick, Cabbage Moon, Orchard (New York, NY), 1994.
Nigel Nelson, Looking into Space, J. Morris (Westport, CT), 1998.
Wendy Body, Anna's Amazing Multi-colored Glasses, Longman (London, England), 1998.
Mary Manz Simon, The Young Learner's Bible Storybook: Fifty-two Stories, over 100 Activities, Standard Pub. (Cincinnati, OH), 2002.
Author's works have been translated into German and Danish.
Work in Progress
A series of comparative history books for children ages seven to eleven, a puzzle book based on perspective and/or Sinbad.
Although he majored in ancient civilizations at college, Piers Harper has gone on to establish a solid career as a children's book author and illustrator. "Although I had always loved children's books (I love to see words and pictures on the same page), it never occurred to me to try and illustrate them," he once told Something about the Author (SATA): "After leaving university, I had no idea what to do for a job until someone asked me what my ideal job would be. I answered—a children's book illustrator. I started from there."
Harper won praise for his creative collaboration with writer Patricia Borlenghi in his first illustration project, From Albatross to Zoo: An Alphabet Book in Five Languages. The 1992 work features an animal per page along the "E is for Elephant" formula, but stands out for featuring twenty-five terms whose words begin with the same letter in an astounding five different languages—English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. The multilingual aspect was deemed an excellent learning tool for children who were already studying a second language, and Harper won especial praise for his illustrations, which possess a "frantic charm," according to Ann Welton in School Library Journal. Harper and Borlenghi also managed to insert into From Albatross to Zoo a simple narrative about a bird who is attempting to fly from one end of the book to the other. A Publishers Weekly reviewer appreciated the book's attractive design, noting that it "skillfully blends illustrations and type to create many gamesome touches, such as a dolphin diving through the letter D and the letter R getting stuck in a reindeer's antlers."
Harper has cited one of his major influences to be author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. "I love his way of making things eerie and charming at the same time and making improbable things seem right." Some of Sendak's influence may be seen in Harper's illustrations for Tim Chadwick's 1994 tale Cabbage Moon, which won glowing, near-unanimous praise. Aimed at the three-to-six-year-old reader, the book features Albert, a curious bunny with numerous questions about the world around him and outside his window. He also despises that staple of the rabbit diet, cabbage. One night, he looks up at the moon and wonders how it can shift shape from week to week so dramatically if, as his parents have informed him, it is made up of rocks and sand? Suddenly a beam transports him there, where he meets an army of bunnies busily chomping away, as they do nightly, on the moon itself—which is actually a giant cabbage. Here Albert learns to love his roughage, knowing now that his enjoyment will help make the magic of the moon visible to earth-dwellers. Reviewers praised the bunny world that Albert returns to, where everything from slippers to buildings are made from carrots, and even Albert's cozy quilt is decorated with the vegetable.
"Harper's art features endearing, yet not overly cute, bunnies, and many winsome details," wrote School Library Journal reviewer Lisa S. Murphy, while Booklist contributor Deborah Abbott noted that the details "enhance the humor of the lighthearted story."
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In Harper's 1994 book How the World Was Saved: And Other Native American Tales, he served as both illustrator and reteller. The work presents eight creation myths from several Native American cultures, including Kwakiutl, Algonquin, and Navajo. In a change of pace, his 1997 works included illustrations for two puzzle books: Turtle Quest and Snakes and Ladders (And Hundreds of Mice): A Weird and Wonderful Tower Maze. Both received praise for the intricacy of the challenges presented. As Harper noted, "Apart from my first book, the books I have worked on have been triggered by something I am interested in. Turtle Quest was written because I had fallen in love with the Maya of Central America. Snakes and Ladders came about after a conversation with my editor. I said that all puzzle books were basically like mazes where the reader is led along a set path. As an example I used the game Snakes and Ladders and my editor said, 'Good idea! Do a book based on it.'"
If You Love a Bear was also singled out for special praise due to its story featuring a boy and his friendship with a bear. In Harper's tale, young listeners are shown that friends and family can have different likes and dislikes, and yet all can still get along. "If you love a bear, you will know that bears like to be woken up gently," Harper begins. The text and drawings present "the spectrum of toddler emotions," noted Tana Elias in School Library Journal, and overall invites readers into "an intimate atmosphere." A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the author/illustrator for creating a work that "manages to both flatter a child's sense of competence and teach the rewards of thinking about others."
Snow Bear, one of Harper's more recent titles, was praised by critics for its full-spread illustrations. In the story, a young polar bear leaves his snug den on the first warm day of spring, excited to explore the world outside for the first time. When his curiosity causes him to ignore his mother's warning to stay close, the bear becomes lost, but with the help of an Eskimo girl he eventually finds his way home. Harper utilizes an array of icy tones, as well as flocked pages, to accurately portray the sparse glacial background of his story, and Snow Bear was praised for capturing the detail of the native Arctic wildlife in his drawings. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that the author's "visual and verbal storytelling unfolds with enough fluidity and assurance to attract a preschool audience."
Harper once discussed his daily routine with SATA: "I work at my desk and rarely elsewhere. It's next to a window so I can use natural light as much as possible—I can also see mountains at the same time, which is bliss. I tend to swing from one extreme to another—either working too much or not at all. Someday I hope to strike a happy medium."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, October 1, 1992, p. 334; June 1 & 15, 1994, Deobrah Abbott, review of Cabbage Moon, pp. 1835-36.
Childhood Education, spring, 1993, Joan M. Hildebrand, review of From Albatross to Zoo: An Alphabet Book in Five Languages, p. 172.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1997, p. 1707.
Northern Echo, June 7, 1997.
Publishers Weekly, September 28, 1992, review of From Albatross to Zoo; December 6, 1993, p. 72; May 8, 1995, review of How the World Was Saved: And Other Native American Tales, p. 276; June 15, 1998, review of If You Love a Bear, p. 58; May 1, 2000, review of Check and Checkmate, p. 73; September 9, 2002, review of 'B' as in Bible, p. 65; November 24, 2003, review of Snow Bear, p. 62; May 3, 2004, review of Checkmates, p. 195.
School Library Journal, September, 1992, Ann Welton, review of From Albatross to Zoo, pp. 214-215; April, 1994, Lisa S. Murphy, review of Cabbage Moon, p. 101; June 1995, Judy Constantinides, review of How the World Was Saved: And Other Native American Tales, p. 102; September 1998, Tana Elias, review of If You Love a Bear, p. 173.
Walker Books Web site, http://www.walkerbooks.co.uk/ (May 3, 2005), "Piers Harper."
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