In her latest book, My Friend Maggie, author and illustrator Hannah E. Harrison tackles the tough topic of bullying with candor, kindness, and heart. With simple yet powerful words, and wonderfully expressive images, Harrison perfectly captures what it feels like to be part of the ‘in’ crowd, on the outs, and caught somewhere in between. We asked Hannah about bystanders, being true to yourself, and how My Friend Maggie has helped kids, like hers, navigate the complicated world of friendships.
My Friend Maggie is told from the point of view of Paula, who sees her friend Maggie being bullied but doesn’t stand up for her, even though she knows she should. Many kids witness bullying in one form or another but don’t have the courage to speak up or go against the crowd. Did you have them in mind when you wrote this book?
Absolutely. I also had myself in mind. I know there were times as a kid when I was guilty of keeping quiet when I knew I probably shouldn’t. I’d witness something, and get that sinking feeling in my heart, but still timidity would win out. I wish I had been braver. I wish I hadn’t cared so much about what other people — the wrong people — thought. Maybe Maggie will encourage other kids to stick up for their friends.
As the story progresses, we see how the attributes that make someone unique, in wonderful ways, can also make them a target for ridicule. Was that a difficult concept to bring to life on the page? Why did you think it was important to show that?
It really was a difficult concept to bring to life on the page because it’s a difficult concept to grasp in real life — how can the very same attribute be considered wonderful by one person, and objectionable to another? Which is the truth, and which is the lie? What I love about Maggie is that she is completely comfortable with who she is — she knows that she is a fearfully and wonderfully made elephant! Sure, her feelings get hurt, and sure she’s confused, but she never doubts herself. Paula, on the other hand, seems to buy into Veronica’s lie that her teeth stick out too far (even though she’s a beaver) and she suddenly finds herself feeling very self-conscious. But it’s in this moment of self-doubt that Maggie comes charging in to defend her and squashes both lies at the same time — now that’s a friend! We all are — and always will be — targets for ridicule. It’s impossible to please everyone. What’s important in life is figuring out whose opinion actually matters.
Were there any books, or life moments, that served as an inspiration for this book?
Gosh. I think we’ve all been a Maggie or a Paula at one point or another, and if we’re honest, we’ve probably even been a Veronica, too. So I can’t say that there were any particular books or life moments that served as an inspiration for this book, but rather just a mish-mash of a lifetime of experiences, observations, feelings, and stories.
In hindsight, I think I can pin-point some of my influences, though. For example, I was almost always the smallest kid in the group — front row for pictures, top row of the pyramid, too short for the roller-coaster, least impressive cannonball splash. I always thought that life would be so much cooler if I were bigger. The way Paula feels about Maggie at the beginning of the story is how I always felt about some of my friends — that they were totally awesome!
Have you been able to share My Friend Maggie with your kids?
I have! In fact, my older daughter was able to see Maggie in its early stages just before she started her first year of school. I used the story to help prepare her for the year ahead — we talked about trying to be nice to everyone, and how to tell who your real friends are. And as the year progressed, and the occasional bumpy patch was hit, I was able to refer back to the book as a way to encourage her to try and be strong, kind, understanding, and forgiving like Maggie. I’m so happy that this story came along when it did — it was perfect timing!
What other books have you been enjoying reading to them lately?
My six-year-old loves, LOVES, Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon! It makes her laugh her little face off. And I have fun reading it to her, too, because she’s right — it is hilarious! The way Hanlon captures kids is spot-on.
And (shameless plug here…) my 22-month-old loves the new board book of Extraordinary Jane by … ahem … yours truly. And I haven’t told her it’s my book yet, so I think it should count. I enjoy reading it to her because she actually kisses the “puppy” in the book, and it makes me smile!
Your characters are so expressive! Were there any characters in My Friend Maggie, or particular facial expressions, that were especially fun to create?
You know, expressions are not that easy for me! But I realize that they hold so much of the book’s emotional content that they have to be just right or the story won’t work. So I begin by sketching in front of a mirror. I put all of that Drama Club experience to good use and act out the expressions. I make a face, sketch, make a face, sketch. There is a whole lot of trial-and-error and laughing at myself that happens while I’m trying to figure the expressions out. It’s one of those things where I know that it’s right when I see it, and until then, I just keep working at it — sketching and re-sketching, painting and re-painting, tweaking — lots of tweaking … and embarrassing facial contortions. Sometimes I get my family in on the act, too, which always makes for a good laugh. It helps to live with a bunch of hams!
I ended up painting the last five illustrations of Maggie and Paula simultaneously because I wanted to make sure that those scenes were cohesive. I’d never juggled paintings like that before! My face was a virtual emotional rollercoaster! So there you have it — juggling and rollercoasters — it doesn’t get any more fun than that! Have I mentioned how much I love my job?
jhshahaHSH ←(thoughts from the baby)
Want to see where Hannah sits down to work on books like My Friend Maggie and what it takes for this busy mom of two to actually get some work done? Take a tour of Hannah’s studio
Hannah E. Harrison is an award-winning illustrator whose first book, Extraordinary Jane, received three starred reviews, was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, and received the Oklahoma Book Award for Illustration. She lives with her family in Oklahoma. Visit her online at www.hannaheharrison.com