Mail Harry To The Moon!

“Full-throttle energy!”

– Publishers Weekly, 2008 STARRED REVIEW.

Mail Harry to the Moon was a long project. The simplest looking books are often deceiving when it comes to the work hours behind them. I’d guess this book took a few years altogether. And this was after it was already written… This book was a challenge primarily because I thought I could see issues early on with depicting the story, as written, in a visual way, that the author, Robie Harris, and the editor did not.

Now, this does not mean I was right, but in every creative project involving more than one person, there is always room for a difference of opinion.  I don’t always stand my ground stubbornly, but this time, for better or worse, I did. And thus began the long back and forth as we all tried to understand each other, and make this book work…

It did sound simple when written on paper, and/or read aloud. But a picture book is a very different thing to a read-a-loud story. It must make sense visually, as a film would, and the art must not change radically the intent of the author.The story, involves a familiar tale of a disgruntled child, pissed off at the arrival of a new little brother. He imagines all the (bad) things he would like to have happen to the little brother, Harry, (mostly about getting rid of him…), and states this out loud, or seemingly so… Since it’s first person, it’s not clear if he’s saying it, or just thinking it.

That’s the funny thing about picture book texts – they must work as a visual story not just in word form. Mixing fantasy and reality in one book can be tricky. For one thing, I had a mandate to depict fantasies, such as,  “Flush Harry down the Toilet!”, but the art could not look like someone was actually, realistically doing it… In other words, it had to look like someone being flushed down a toilet, without actually looking like someone was being actually flushed down a toilet…. Um, quantum physics would come in handy here…

I think this is my favorite spread from the book. This drawing of the boy was one of the first sketches I did for the book.

There was also a problem, for me, with the ending, which involved the main character more or less coming to terms with the new family structure. The text describes him, suddenly unable to locate Harry (or is he pretending?), becoming guilt stricken, imagining he has actually been instrumental in having baby brother Harry shot to the moon (or does he?) and imagining (or does he really?) fly to the moon, finding Harry there, and bringing him back safe and sound.

It was very tough to design a book where you say, “throw Harry in the trash…but not actually have Harry stuffed in the trash…yet actually show him – imagined – stuffed into the trash… This was my solution. Not as easy as it looks boys and girls. It got a nice review in the New York Times though

Robie’s text also involved a great premise of “before and after” – Describing life before the arrival of baby Harry, and after. This involves comical things, like “Before Harry, nobody shared my banana”,  as well as pretty serious heartfelt loss. – Such as losing most favored status in grandma’s lap. Because these realities of life, and the fantasies imagined, were both funny and serious, and sometimes dangerous, it was a real balancing act to show them all in a few pages and look like they belonged together.

Ambiguity works smoothly here in words, but is troublesome in pictures. The ambiguity is a necessary part of the telling, so I had to depict the events, without making it possible to believe it really happened. Again, quantum physics.

In the end, we chose large graphic type to depict the angry outbursts, as well as images of the fantasies on the same page as the boy. All but the final outburst of the title. Then the final trip is shown in a laundry basket instead of rocket. Words are quite usefully elastic in describing the slippery reality that is the daydreaming child. leaving much to the readers imagination. Images are more concrete. Some things are just not meant to be seen.

It all takes far longer to explain than to read the book. but it shows how much ends up going into seemingly simple little humorous books. if you’ve read this far I’m impressed. I get a headache just thinking about it…

Anybody got an aspirin?

The book has won some awards I’m delighted to say. Robie won the 2009 Bank Street College Irma S. Black Children’s Picture Book Award for the book. It also won a Nappa Award, a Nickelodeon Parents Connect Gift Pick.

Mail Harry to the Moon! was A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year for 2008

Editorial Reviews:

“Harris and Emberley are old hands at striking the right balance between comic Sturm und Drang and genuine poignancy and their considerable talents make this otheriwse familiar tale feel fresh and funny andpsychologically true. Emberley’s cartooning brims with terrific shitck–he gives the hero some slow burns and outbursts worthy of Ralph Kramden.Kids will particularly appreciate Emberely’s gift for staging: the final sequence… blows out any vestige of sentimentality with its full-throttle energy.“

– Publishers Weekly, 2008 STARRED REVIEW.

“ Emberley’s strong visual punch lines bring the (story’s) humor to life, and the older boy’s expressions clearly get his feelings across.

-School Library Journal, Starred review

Author Harris nails big brother’s emotional tirades, but Michael Emberley nearly steals the show with his funny illustrations. His cartoon-like drawings in bright colors capture every nuance in big brother’s angry eyes, slumped shoulders and gritted teeth, telegraphing his mondo irritation over baby vomit on his face, baby in Grandma’s lap and baby screaming.

-Judy Green, The Sacramento Bee

This is a good-quality book – an important consideration in children’s reading material. Good fonts, good color and illustrations. Michael Emberley‘s engaging cartoony style puts the mood and emotions right there on the page with a sense of wry amusement.”

-Maryan Pelland,

“the (Emberley’s) illustrations, are simple yet wacky and whimsical, and go well with the story. This is a book that will especially appeal to little boys”

Mayra Calvani, Armchair Interviews

“This is one of the most fun children’s books I’ve ever (seen)! …perfectly complemented by Michael Emberley’s drawings.” 
-A Book Blogger’s Diary 2009

“enlivened by Michael Emberley’s emotive illustrations,  The ending is perfect.”

-Hilary Williamson, Book Loons

This illustration was initially deemed too angry….for a book about an angry child… but I like to think of it as…”emotive”, “wacky”, “wry”,”engaging”, “funny”, or “Full throttle energy”.