The unmistakable sound of a harmonica filled the room as Cheryl Harness set the tone for her presentation to a group of school children. She casually requested that no one make her laugh, "you can burp while playing the harmonica, but you cannot laugh." Of course, we all did. Her matter of fact way of stating: "I write books about dead people. I'm from Independence, MO and my father taught me to play the harmonica. Are you ready to listen? I have a lot to tell you and I talk fast." easily captivated the listeners.
She began to cover the gamut of her research, writing, drawing, painting, and editing of her books; punctuating her information with factoids of history and teasers about various people about whom she has done biographies, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. She amazed and amused the audience by reciting all of the US Presidents with an aside about most of them as she reeled off the names in her rapid fire style. We were all gasping in awe long before she was finished, but she was undaunted and proceeded to continue her revelations about how a book is actually created.
Cheryl was very open to questions and managed to direct the students back to her own agenda while convincing them that they were having fun while learning a lot. She told the gathering that she spent time as a child "avoiding her little brothers" and that she was a "crabby big sister." Reading was a wonderful escape for her and she loved The Little House series. She was very interested in "the olden days" and loved to imagine long ago times but she did not think about becoming a writer at that point. However, her interest in reading and imagining things were the perfect building blocks for her future occupation. Cheryl stressed that if one wants to become a writer one must be a reader. Because she was also interested in drawing, she spent lots of time drawing on every piece of paper she could find-practicing by tracing pictures of faces (which were harder for her to master)-- she told the students that this is a good way to learn how to draw people. This interest in art lead her to believe that she would grow up to be an art teacher, but her practice teaching experience helped her to understand that she was not cut out to be a teacher.
The next step was working as an artist in the greeting card industry, and she told some funny stories about that experience (cleaned up for the audience, I'm sure). During all this time she never lost her love of books and her interest in days long past. She also decided that she would like to create something lasting because greeting cards "just go into the trash." Books provide permanence. She wanted to write something that "would still be around long after I am gone." And so, she began her career of writing and illustrating books.
During her school visit, she gave the students a good grounding in the basics of writing a book: Good idea, Plan, Research and Study, Write, Draw-"there you have it." Armed with lots of props, including an uncut signature, she kept her presentation flowing and effective. Cheryl considers "research ...(to be) the result of an offer or an invitation to become and expert on a subject." She loves to start with an encyclopedia and explore from there as she strives "to be accurate to honor the person and their time in history." Her details about the whole process would have been suitable for a week long seminar for writers. Her thoughts were so well organized that I could (almost) teach a class on her methods. Before she wrapped up the program she reemphasized that writing is "hard work" requiring lots of revisions and a true desire to "communicate well". "Revise, edit, work on it some more...it's a question of self respect to make it the best possible." Her new books from National Geographic will reflect this dedication to history, including books about: Washington Irving, Dolly Madison, George Washington Carver, Miles Standish, Narcissa Whitman, P. T. Barnum, and Theodore Roosevelt.
A veteran of many school visits Cheryl could easily perform at any stand-up comedy club. Keeping the attention of a bunch of wiggly fourth graders is not an easy task. To do it with humor and grace is a real talent-Cheryl Harness exhibited an abundance of both easily captivating the students and adults, alike.
Browse through the following books for a taste of her work-seek out an opportunity to enjoy her insights into US history-you will not be disappointed. Then take the time to visit her spectacular website: www.cherylharness.com
Contributor: Sheilah Egan
Franklin & Eleanor
Harness turns her attention away from the Founding Fathers to focus on a more contemporary couple--the Roosevelts. Beginning with a family tree that clearly illustrates their close familial ties she proceeds to chronicle the lives of Eleanor and Franklin as two very complicated, compassionate people bound together in a profound symbiotic relationship. Alternating between the two personalities she writes honestly and directly of Eleanor's alcoholic father and her cold and distant mother as well as Franklin's overbearing mother, Sarah. While she steers clear of mentioning any trouble within the marriage, adult readers should glean that from subtleties within the narrative. What is obvious is Harness's admiration for this couple whose strength of character and devotion to one another and the public they were so committed to serve lead them to rise above personal tragedy and unite in a common cause. For young readers the Roosevelts serve as role models for overcoming disabilities--Franklin his polio and Eleanor her absolute fear of public speaking. Soft water color illustrations alternating between full color and a ghostly blue wash convey both the pain and joy of their lives both separate and together. The pages with their warm marble borders outlined in red and the pinstripe endpapers are as dignified and classy as their subjects. As an introduction to an extraordinary couple this is one of the best. 2004, Dutton, $17.99. Ages 9 to 12. Reviewer: Beverley Fahey (Children's Literature).
Chronicling the life of George Washington, author Cheryl Harness probes into the human being behind the historical mask. She does an admirable job constructing history with a sympathetic eye, and her illustrations are wonderful--full of expression and interest. George is shown having doubts about his ability to lead his country, but his bravery and determination win the day. The storyline is nicely presented in different ways, framed, written on parchment, or hung on banners as part of the picture. Good likenesses of important historical figures are represented working out the constitution and creating the government of the United States. There are many maps showing all kinds of information. This would be a fabulous resource book on this period for the early elementary grades. It is the author's fourth presidential biography for National Geographic. 2000, National Geographic Society, $17.95. Ages 5 to 10. Reviewer: Nancy Partridge (Children's Literature).
Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001; H.W. Wilson; United States
George Washington, Spymaster: How America Outspied the British and Won The Revolutionary War
Thomas B. Allen
Featuring illustrations by Cheryl Harness
This fascinating account of espionage during the Revolutionary War should be gobbled up by young history buffs as well as anyone delighted by codes and ciphers and the elaborate ruses of devious and daring spies. "One if by land, two if by sea" is only the most famous of the Revolutionary War's exploits of espionage and counter-espionage. Readers will learn about messages coded on laundry lines (where black petticoats and white handkerchiefs carried secret meanings), different kinds of invisible ink, masked messages hidden within ordinary-seeming missives, "accidentally" dropped balls of yarn, and a message swallowed in a silver ball. George Washington was an accomplished spymaster, as was Benjamin Franklin, from his post in Paris; Benedict Arnold's treacherous espionage has made his name synonymous with "traitor." The book is produced to look like an eighteenth-century printed leaflet, complete with the use of an (updated) period typeface. The fun continues with a glossary of spy terms, appendix on how to decipher one important Revolutionary War code, lively and engaging footnotes often directing readers to relevant websites, and guide to the various secret codes hidden throughout the book itself. This one is a winner--or should I say, borrowing Major Talmadge's letter-substitution cipher, a "ycppil"! 2004, National Geographic, $16.95. Ages 8 up. Reviewer: Claudia Mills, Ph.D. (Children's Literature).
Best Books for Young Adults, 2005; American Library Association YALSA; United States
Booklist Book Review Stars, Apr. 15, 2004; United States
Capitol Choices, 2005; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States
Choices, 2005; Cooperative Children's Book Center; United States
Nonfiction Honor List, 2004; VOYA; United States
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition, 2005; H.W. Wilson; United States
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, May 2004; Cahners; United States
Awards, Honors, Prizes:
James Madison Book Award Honor Book 2005 United States
Ghosts of the Civil War
Lindsey was bored. Her parents had taken her to a Civil War reenactment and it simply did not interest her. Then she meets a boy named Willie who seems strange. It turns out that Willie is really a ghost who takes Lindsey back in time for a tour of America during the Civil War. Lindsey and Willie see the nation torn apart over issues such as slavery. Two presidents are elected--one in the North and one in the South. The two children see battles fought, homes burned and lives lost. At the end of the war Lindsey and Willie observe Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Then, just as the bloodshed of the war seems to be over, Willie brings Lindsey to Ford's Theater where President Lincoln is assassinated before their eyes. Willie, who is Abraham Lincoln's late son who died of illness while the his family lived in the White House, returns Lindsey to the present where she now has a fuller understanding of the many things that made the Civil War such a monumental event. Through Lindsey, the colorful illustrations, the accompanying textual outline and the dialog, readers will receive a reasonable introduction to the events of the Civil War. Written as a time travel picture book, Ghosts of the Civil War is a novel approach to a familiar topic. 2002, Simon & Schuster, $17.00. Ages 7 to 10. Reviewer: Greg M. Romaneck (Children's Literature).
Ghosts of the Nile
The dramatic cover illustration with huge eyes, hieroglyphics and a serpent curling around the stone block letters of the word "ghost" is an appealing invitation to meet Zachary and his unusual aunt, who wants more than anything to see Egypt in the days of pharaohs and pyramids. With the help of her magic scarab, that's exactly what she and Zachary do. Harness' illustrations are full of color and life, but the pages are very crowded with pictures, with information in an artistic but difficult font, and with confusing bubbles of dialogue. There is a timeline on each page, numerous maps and diagrams, and short columns on such topics as making mud bricks, fast facts about the pyramids, and a quick list of Egyptian gods and goddesses. At the end there is a good page of Egyptology, including accomplishments of the ancient Egyptians as well as the story of the Rosetta stone and the "mummy's curse." The ancient world time map is far too crowded to be readily understood. For students studying ancient Egypt, this book will be good for browsing and picking up bits of information. Children may find it easier to sort through the mass of detail in word and picture if a teacher or other adult provides questions to answer or objects to find on each page, in Waldo fashion. 2004, Simon & Schuster, $16.95. Ages 7 to 10. Reviewer: Karen Leggett (Children's Literature).
Ghosts of the White House
We're not talking ghosts here in the usual sense. Instead, writer/illustrator Harness takes a school group on a Magic Bus-like tour of the White House. When George Washington invites young Sara into his portrait, she gets to see lots of backstage (and upstairs) stuff. As Sara meets the shades of presidents past she also learns about American history. 1998, Simon & Schuster, $16.00. Ages 7 to 10. Reviewer: Kathleen Karr (Children's Literature).
Awards, Honors, Prizes:
Colorado Children's Book Award Winner 2002 Junior Novel/Middle Grade Colorado Society of School Librarians International Book Awards Honor 1998 Social Studies: K-6 United States
M Is for Mount Rushmore: a South Dakota Alphabet
Illustrated by Cheryl Harness
I love this picture book as well as the concept for the entire series. The series takes one notable item from each state in the U.S. and uses it as the title of the alphabet book that represents the state; hence, titles like H is for Hawkeye: An Iowa Alphabet, G is for Grand Canyon: An Arizona Alphabet. Within the text itself, the reader finds either a place or a concept connecting the letter of the alphabet to the state. For example, the Badlands make for an easy connection to B, while the Corn Palace not only stands for C but also allows the author to talk about corn and other grains raised by South Dakota's farmers. I also give Anderson high marks for the creativity of the poetic stanzas he uses to introduce the letter of the alphabet. I also appreciated where he and illustrator Harness looked for their inspiration. For example, De Smet, South Dakota is chosen to illustrate D so that Anderson and Harness can focus on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. L is for legends, and in this section, we meet people like Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and the 50 cats of Phatty Thompson who was looking for a creative way to rid Deadwood of its mouse problem. This book, this series, is a must for all school and home libraries. 2005, Sleeping Bear Press, $17.95. Ages 5 to 12. Reviewer: Jean Boreen, Ph.D. (Children's Literature).
Our Colonial Calendar
From the author and illustrator of numerous books about American history for young readers comes a delightful and educational picture book. Storyteller and historian Harness takes an unusual approach to explaining everyday colonial life by showing readers everyday chores done by colonial children. Today's youth, accustomed to household conveniences such as microwave ovens, will find chores such as spinning wool for yarn or tapping maple trees for syrup, fascinating. And yet, they will also find the familiar: September meant the return to school books for colonial children, too. The book is organized in thirteen spreads, each featuring one of the original thirteen colonies of British North America. On the left is the month's free-verse text, and on the right is a full-color painting reminiscent of folk art paintings from the period. What is the thirteenth month of this colonial year? It is a bonus spread for New Year's Eve, when one year turns to the next--a perfect metaphor for the upheaval soon to come, which will turn thirteen independent colonies into the United States of America. 2005, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $16.95. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Dianne Ochiltree (Children's Literature).
The Revolutionary John Adams
Kids curious about former presidents can turn to The Revolutionary John Adams for better acquaintance with one of the Founding Fathers. Through her carefully researched watercolors and text, Cheryl Harness brings to life the patriotic, intelligent, stubborn New Englander who was our second president. The book takes young readers from Adams's birth in 1735 through his death on July 4, 1826 and covers his school-skipping youth, Harvard College years, marriage to his "dearest friend" Abigail and harrowing days of the Revolutionary War. Harness does an especially fine job of detailing Adams's importance as a diplomat for the struggling new nation. With his young son, John Quincy Adams, he crossed the tumultuous Atlantic to forge alliances with France and Holland and also became the first U.S. ambassador to England. To round out this informative tribute, Harness includes marginal quotes from Adams's letters to his wife, son and friends. It is a treat, indeed, to read his affectionate words to family and his thought-provoking messages to old buddies like Thomas Jefferson. 2003, National Geographic, $17.95. Ages 7 to 12. Reviewer:Mary Quattlebaum (Children's Literature).
Author and illustrator Harness has created a sweeping and striking biography of one of our nation's most influential, yet little known, founding father. The book is especially geared for young readers. Through richly detailed water-color paintings, painstakingly researched text, and a sprinkling of quotes from John Adams' own letters and diaries, Harness brings to life this "stout, stubborn New Englander" who was a steadfast patriot, a consummate diplomat, and wife Abigail's "dearest friend." The biography takes readers to young John's carefree life on the farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he often skipped school to fly kites on Penn's Hill. The biography moves on through the turbulent times of the Revolutionary War to Adams' post-war political life as leader and diplomat, when he strove to provide a strong foundation for our fledging country. Beautifully illustrated in (what else?) a red, white, and blue theme, this picture book is endorsed by David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of John Adams. Don't be surprised if you find grown-up history buffs pouring over the pages of this picture book biography, too! 2003, National Geographic, $17.95. Ages 8 to 12. Reviewer: Dianne Ochiltree (Children's Literature).
Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, Supplement, 2004; H.W. Wilson School Library Journal Book Review Stars, February 2003; Cahners; United States
Top 10 Biographies for Youth, 2003; American Library Association-Booklist; United States
Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women
Imagine a room filled with women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Cady Stanton--all watching Abigail Adams use a computer. This carefully painted image in Cheryl Harness' book suggests just how far ahead of their times most women in the book really were, including Abigail Adams when she urged her husband John to "remember the ladies and be more generous to them than your ancestors." Harness includes a few sentences about each of the hundred women she has chosen, from Virginia Dare and Pocahontas all the way to Madeleine Albright, Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey. The book introduces young readers to many women they know and more they don't; if you question the selection or omission of particular women--and you will--at least Harness gets a good discussion going. She even invites readers at the end to come up with their own list--"When you get to 100, you'll have a pretty good idea about your America--and yourself." The watercolor illustrations are meticulous and colorful, with excellent detail, even in the crowd scenes. The layout, however, is crowded and confusing. The picture book-size volume includes a glossary and bibliography as well as a few historic sites and key organizations. 2001, HarperCollins, $16.95. Ages 8 up. Reviewer: Karen Leggett (Children's Literature).
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2002; National Council for the Social Studies NCSS; United States
State and Provincial Reading Lists:
Rhode Island Children's Book Award, 2003; Nominee; Rhode Island Standards of Learning Information
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2002; Time, Continuity and Change-II; National Council for the Social Studies NCSS
In this excellent biography, Harness displays two remarkable gifts--she recounts the excitement and drama of historical events in prose that reads like a good novel; and she illustrates those events with lively paintings that somehow capture both the energy of action and effort and the subtle nuances of facial expression. The design and layout of this book are equally vibrant. The pages are lightly colored beneath the text and illustrations, suggesting the look of old parchment. The illustrations are varied in size, placement and format, with some showing a montage of scenes moving across a full, two-page spread and some containing framed insets of related material. Finally, Harness does an admirable job of addressing the contradictions in Jefferson's life without downplaying or negating his great achievements. One would be hard-pressed to find a book for young readers that so vividly and successfully captures the remarkable life of this remarkable man. This book is the sixth in a series of biographies that Harness has written for National Geographic. 2004, National Geographic Society, $17.95. Ages 5 to 10. Reviewer: Barbara Carroll Roberts (Children's Literature).
Three Young Pilgrims
The Allerton family sailed on the Mayflower and arrived safely in the New World. The first winter was very difficult, and the three children lost their mother and the newest member of the family. Young as they were, Mary, Bartholomew and Remember worked very hard and after several years the colony prospered. Mary and her sister married and stayed in the New World. Bartholomew returned to England. When Mary Allerton died in 1699, she was the last of the original Mayflower passengers. A moving story with plenty of factual information in the illustrations and captions. 1995 (orig. 1992), Aladdin, $16.00 and $5.95. Ages 5 to 10. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children's Literature).
In this book, the author uses both fact and fiction to tell the story of the Allerton family who arrive on the Mayflower. She provides detailed paintings of Plymouth Plantation as well as telling how the people lived during that first, difficult winter. Her cutaways showing the interior of the Mayflower, the illustrated maps of the Indians who lived in the surrounding areas as well as showing the flora and fauna that helped the colony survive add to the wealth of information in this unique book. 1995 (orig. 1992), Bradbury/Aladdin, $16.00 and $5.95. Ages 6 to 9. Reviewer: Jan Lieberman (Children's Literature).
The Mayflower passenger list included names of Bartholomew, Remember, and Mary Allerton, Three Young Pilgrims who spring to life in a superlative blend of fact and fiction. Author/artist Cheryl Harness begins and ends her presentation with what is known: the cross section of a ship resembling the fully-laden Mayflower, for example, and maps of the areas from, across, and to which the Pilgrims traveled, including one that highlights the Native American tribes they encountered. Set between the "facts" is Ms. Harness' story of the settlers' first year in America, from the three youngsters' vantage point. Brightly colored, richly detailed, exuberantly animated art creates an aura about and dimension to the Pilgrim story that is irresistible. Ms. Harness hopes her "illustrated primer...will, perhaps, lead the reader to further study." Will it ever! 1995 (orig. 1992), Simon & Schuster, $15.95. Ages 8 up. Reviewer: Dr. Beverly Kobrin (Children's Literature).
Young Abe Lincoln: the Frontier Days, 1809-1837
Cheryl Harness determined to bring the real Abraham Lincoln to life in paintings and text for young readers by researching his life and times in Young Abe Lincoln. Each painting recreates Abe's young life in its harshness, its sadness, its drudgery and adventure. He read avidly and enjoyed listening to the rivermen and farmers talking politics--foreshadowing of the future. The crowd scenes bustle with activity and depict people who belong in the time period. The maps are pictorial and colorful. This is a rich biography. 1996, National Geographic Society, $15.95. Ages 7 to 11. Reviewer: Jan Lieberman (Children's Literature).
Young Teddy Roosevelt
The date was October 27, 1858 and the place was New York on East 20th Street. Residents passing that address on a cold, October night could not have known that history was taking place in the little brownstone building where the Roosevelts lived. When the baby boy was born, his parents named him Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. His sister Anna would nickname him Teddie. All of the Roosevelt family had nicknames. The senior Roosevelt had been nicknamed "Greatheart" for his willingness to help charities like hospitals, museums and shelters for homeless children. In 1861, the three-year-old Teddie lived in a household that was divided by the Civil War. Although his father did not serve in the military, he had strong feelings for the north, and his wife had sympathies for the south. An excellent introduction to biographies for the younger reader, this will also be an instrument for teaching upper elementary grades about the Civil War. The text is beautifully illustrated by the author and will be a delight to children. 1998, National Geographic Society, $17.95. Ages 7 to 12. Reviewer: Joyce Rice (Children's Literature).
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