March 2009

Charise Mericle Harper

Saving the planet is all in a day’s work for this third grader
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Charise Mericle Harper’s new book, Just Grace Goes Green, is printed on 100-percent recycled paper—perfect for a story about a girl whose teacher announces that her third-grade class will be going green.

The cover of Just Grace Goes Green is just right, too, for a story about eco-conscious kids: the book jacket is Kraft-paper brown, decorated with little hand-drawn bottles and recycle icons. Peeking through a die-cut is Grace, who holds the smiling Earth above her head.

“I love the discovery of new things, and that translates into the cover,” Harper says in an interview from her home in a suburb of Manhattan, where she lives with her husband and two children. “And I love the book’s format . . . you can do so much with the combination of words and pictures.”

Harper’s skill at telling an engaging story—and augmenting it with appealing illustrations, lists, photos and diagrams—is drawn from her lifetime love of reading (“I always got the maximum 10 books from the library,” she says) and other creative pursuits. The author/illustrator grew up in Vancouver, and moved to Chicago in her early 20s. There, she drew illustrations for magazines and newspapers, and had a weekly comic strip, too.

In 2000, Harper asked an agent to help her publish a comics compilation, and he asked if she’d ever try a children’s book. “The fact that he was an agent and saying that to me made me think, if he thinks I can do it, maybe I can!”

And she could: six months later, she sold one book to Little, Brown and another to Chronicle. Since then, Harper has published more than 20 books, including the Just Grace series (Just Grace Goes Green is volume four; volume five is in the works) and the Fashion Kitty graphic novel series.

While the prospect of juggling so many projects might seem daunting, Harper says she’s found her rhythm. “I’m really good about self-imposed deadlines,” she says. Part of Harper’s job as an author is to plan the projects her characters enthusiastically create. In Just Grace Goes Green, Grace and her friends host a rummage sale, offer helpful ideas to family members and create a diorama in which clay eco-superheroes save the red panda. Harper made and photographed the diorama (see page 99 for the end result).

The character who stars in her series—nicknamed “Just Grace” by a teacher who has several Graces in her class—is a funny, curious kid who mixes over-enthusiasm with empathy for her friends, and the Earth. Having a daughter who is Grace’s age gives Harper insight on the kid’s-eye view of things, but she thinks she’s retained that kid-like worldview herself. “Sometimes, I still can’t believe I’m a parent!” she says. “I feel that, with Grace, I can be the mom and the girl at the same time.”
That helps make Just Grace Goes Green a fun read for kids and adults. For example, Grace becomes determined to save electricity by turning off lights in her house. She wishes that her parents would forget about lights so she can turn them off, and, in her zeal, accidentally leaves her mom in the dark in the basement.

Harper’s daughter is similarly vigilant. “She’s aware you shouldn’t run the tap while you’re brushing your teeth,” she says, adding, “Kids today are being brought up so they won’t have to think about [recycling and the like].”

The author acknowledges that it’s not easy to change long-held habits, but offers a tip: “If I were to pick one thing to start with, [this] would be it—to try not to buy bottled water. If you do buy it and there’s no place to recycle it nearby, you have to decide to carry it home with you.”

Although carrying a reusable bottle or remembering to turn off lights can be tough at first, it’s worth it, Harper says—just look at the happy Earth on the cover of Just Grace Goes Green, or the trees holding hands on the back.

“I love the whimsy of the Earth smiling and talking, the trees saying ‘Thank you for saving me!’ ” But taking a light-hearted look at going green is more than whimsical. After all, as Harper says, “It’s a way of making a bleak topic a lot more approachable and not so scary.” The Earth and the trees would be proud.

Linda M. Castellitto recycles and totes a stainless steel water bottle in North Carolina.

Get the Book

Just Grace Goes Green

Just Grace Goes Green

By Charise Mericle Harper
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 9780618959570

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