Phyllis Harris was born and raised in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri. As a child, she was often found wandering about in her own little world of imagination, dreaming up wonderful characters in magical places. Phyllis started her career in graphic design at a newspaper and as a freelance illustrator at Hallmark Cards. She shifted to illustrating full-time not long after and has created art for more than thirty children’s books. A few of her favorites include Maverick and Me by Katherine Schwarzenegger and a never-before-published Margaret Wise Brown book called On Christmas Day. Phyllis launched her online shop, found at PhyllisHarris.com, in 2011 and has thousands of customers and collectors all over the world. Her art prints are licensed and sold at many online retailers.
What inspired you to write The Gift Shop Bear?
The inspiration for The Gift Shop Bear came from my granddaughter, who discovered her mother’s teddy bear in an old toy box and was so sad to think of Bear being all alone for so many years. That day, she rescued Bear and that was the beginning of their story.
This is your debut as both author and illustrator! How did creating this book differ from other books you have illustrated?
When I wear my illustrator hat, I get to take someone else’s story and bring it to life which is great fun! As both author and illustrator, I get to create all of it, from the conception of the story, the setting, the characters, the costumes–everything! It almost feels like producing my own movie!
Can you give us a look inside your writing and illustrating process? Did the text come first and then illustrations? Or did you have imagery already in mind when writing the text?
Sometimes I will create a character that I really love and ask, “Who are you and what’s your story”? At other times, the story comes first. With The Gift Shop Bear, I could already envision Bear and Annie, since the story originated with my granddaughter and Bear in mind. The story and the characters came to life at the same time. My process is organic and changes with almost every project
The little girl in your story is Annie. Was she based on anyone in particular? How do you develop a character?
My characters usually come from my life experiences, interests and passions. With Annie, her name came from a nick-name that my grandpa gave me as a child. My middle name is Ann and he loved calling me “little Annie”. It always made me feel special and I wanted to honor that childhood memory.
Annie’s hair color and skin tone are based on my granddaughter, Eliana. She has long hair but I decided to give Annie a fun bob hairstyle. The “bob” is also a nod to E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of Christopher Robin in Winnie The Pooh. My granddaughter told her mama that she wants the same hair cut but wants to wait until she is a little bit older.
Through both words and imagery, your book appeals to all the senses—readers can practically smell the fresh-baked gingerbread and can almost see the Christmas lights twinkling. How do you add emotion and nostalgia to make the story come alive like this?
I am so happy to hear this because that was certainly my goal. Since picture book text is usually sparse, you have few words to help with the “feel-factor”. That’s why the art plays such an important role. I love creating distinctive moods in my illustrations with dramatic lighting and the use of specific colors; and through the characters expressions and body language. My ultimate goal is to entertain the reader and enhance their imagination.
As the story begins, we get to experience the anticipation Bear has, knowing Christmas is coming soon. What is something you anticipate about Christmas every year?
I adore Christmastime! I love to decorate the house for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, making fudge and watching favorite movies.
Did you have a favorite stuffed animal like Bear growing up? If so, why was he/she your favorite?
Yes, I did! A teddy bear that I named Sears because his tag read Sears, Roebuck and Co. I loved the way his arms and legs and head were jointed so I could pose him and he was the perfect size to sleep with. He sits in a prominent place in my studio and will always be very special to me.
When readers finish the last page of your book, what do you hope they will take away from it?
One of life’s greatest treasures is a true, and forever friend. Not only to have a friend but to be one.
Where can our readers find more from you?