Dr. Jennifer Harris is no stranger to the publishing industry as an agented author with three published picture books and a fourth on the way. Her third book, The Keeper of Stars (OwlKids), was just released and tells the story of Milo, a young boy who climbs out his window every night to help the Keeper of Stars clean up the sky.

Named a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection and a TD Summer Reading Club selection, the book also boasts a second University of Waterloo connection – its illustrator, Dorothy Leung (BAS ’13). “Most people don’t realize the author doesn’t get to pick the illustrator, and they aren’t allowed to communicate during the process,” Harris notes. It was pure coincidence that the illustrator chosen to work on the book is an architecture alum. “This book is deeply enriched by Dorothy’s sense of whimsy and fun,” says Harris. “When I saw the illustrations for the first time it became clear how it was no longer my book: it was our book, and I loved it. How could you not fall in love with that bear?”

Expanding opportunities

Jennifer HarrisHarris’ book is the latest in a growing list of publications by faculty in the English department. Her area of expertise expands the offerings of the new Creative and Professional Writing major. Harris will teach ENGL 432 in the fall, a special topics creative writing course on picture books. “I’m hoping students come to appreciate how dynamic the field is, how it has evolved, and how much care and craft goes into contemporary picture books,” she says.

Harris has also published the collection Poems for Reluctant Housewives and is especially drawn to the economy of form in poetry and picture books. “There’s a lot of overlap between how you teach a creative writing course on poetry and a creative writing course on picture books,” she notes. “They are both very tight forms that rely on a keen attentiveness to language. And in the case of picture books, an even more keen attentiveness to audience.”

Challenging assumptions

While many people may think that writing and selling a picture book is an easy feat, Harris emphasizes the length of the process (it typically takes around three years from the time a book is sold to when it appears on shelves), the competitiveness of the children’s publishing industry in Canada and the difficulty of the craft itself. “It really is an art form,” she says. “You have to understand what it is to read something aloud. You have to understand centring the child. You have to think about what language is age appropriate, but also how to slide in unfamiliar or interesting words that will expand a child's world.”

With so much opportunity to play with language, content and form, picture books are anything but simple and must also cater to a variety of tastes and preferences. “Children are some of the hardest critics to write for,” Harris says with a laugh, adding, “It's important not to talk down to children and not to assume less of them. And by the same token, it's important not to think less of the genre, because what does that say about what we think about children?”

Choosing a book

Harris wants to encourage people to support contemporary creators. “There are so many gorgeous picture books out there that do really interesting and innovative work.” Her best advice for parents is to research books as much as they would a stroller or brand of food. “Spending a bit of time to discover interesting books always pays off!”

At the end of the day, it’s about finding what resonates with the child. “I think children need what they’ve always needed,” Harris adds. “Books that stretch their imaginations, encourage playfulness, open up possibilities and convey hope.”

The Keeper of Stars is available in bookstores now. There will be a local launch at the Waterloo Public Library’s Eastside Branch on Saturday, May 4 at 10:30am and a Toronto launch at Mabel’s Fables on Wednesday, April 17 at 6:30pm.