The saying “hard work pays off” applies well to one Independence resident.
Author and illustrator Cheryl Harness is the recipient of the 2014 Missouri Humanities Award in Distinguished Literary Achievement. She received her award May 17 in St. Louis.
“Stunning. I was enormously pleased,” Harness said. “Particularly because the nomination included wonderful authors/friends saying very nice things about me.”
Another local author, Dorinda Nicholson of “Pearl Harbor Child,” said she nominated Harness for her “huge body of work and how so much of it tells the history of Missouri.”
“Not only can she write, but she also illustrates. A rare find in the (publishing) industry.”
Harness’s bibliography spans more than 40 books – most written for elementary-age readers – that extensively cover American history, particularly the Colonial Era and 19th century. Some works of Missouri history include “They’re Off! The Story of the Pony Express” and “Mark Twain and the Queens of the Mississippi.” Her passion for telling the many stories of America’s past began with her coming across Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” book series as a child, an eight-book collection that she says she read 10 times each.
“They’re classics,” she said about the books. “Laura and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, artfully made history come alive and not in some zombie way, either.”
Harness said what particularly made her connect with the series was the parallel between how her and Wilder’s family both frequently moved from place to place growing up. Initially born in California, her family moved to Independence, then briefly to the Ozarks and eventually back to Independence.
“When things are difficult and uncertain, it’s terribly comforting to return to a book you’ve loved. The characters remained the same.”
This period of transience also later served as the basis for Harness’s intermediate reader chapter book, “Just for You to Know.”
Harness’s writing and illustrating career didn’t begin early. She graduated from the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg with the intention to teach art to children. But once in the classroom teaching, she found out it just wasn’t for her.
“I was just horrible and young, which is the same thing,” she said. “I scared myself out of the profession really. I was a nervous wreck.”
Later she worked at a variety of art-related jobs, such as a greeting card artist and even sketching caricature portraits at Worlds of Fun. But the year when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and Hollywood actress Bette Davis died, she decided to quit her reliable “day job” at a greeting card company in Colorado Springs to pursue authoring and illustrating children’s books, what she has been doing ever since.
Her first published book was “The Windchild” in 1991.
“Nothing had certainly prepared me for going into children’s books,” she recalled. “I most certainly was not confident, but I was thrilled to tiny bits when it was finally published.”
Although her publishing debut was a retelling of a classic folktale, she would later write and illustrate a diverse range of historical profiles, from Teddy Roosevelt to Abe Lincoln, for young children.
“A book for a young reader can go a long way towards furnishing that child’s imagination,” she said on why she mainly writes for a young audience.
Harness said the work she is most proud of is “Three Young Pilgrims,” a picture book chronicling the lives of three children after getting off the Mayflower and settling in the New World. Her favorite period in history is the Colonial/Revolutionary War era because of the “boldness and courage of the Founding Fathers, plus empathy for the suffering and uncertainty” shared by the colonists and pioneers.
“A nation’s history is more about boundaries and banners. It is a combination of all the stories and people who lived on the land,” she said about why she writes historical children’s books, “and it’s not just about famous figures.”
And besides creating works of art and penning books, she also considers herself an entertainer, visiting schools across the country to explain the importance of history for younger generations.
She usually gets the attention of her student audience by wearing authentic garb from a certain time period, followed by blowing into her harmonica, an instrument which she learned from her father on the bluffs of the Missouri River during her youth.
Harness keeps her presentations lively to captivate a child’s interest, along with reinforcing what they have been learning in the classroom.
“Kids perhaps have the impression that learning about history is tedious, but it explains everything.”
She asks the students what children in the distant future will think of them. “What was it like being you? History also validates what they are doing now.”
Harness said she stresses a child’s individual history - those of their ancestors - who have been born in this century and part of this world. It is those ancestors, she says, who have plenty to do with a child’s personality, mood; likewise with any country as well.
“The character of a nation is bound up with the stories of its people throughout the years.”
She says her job is to “help the medicine go down with a spoonful of sugar;” the medicine being historical facts and the entertaining aspect of her assemblies being the sugar.
As for aspiring authors, Harness said a beginning writer must have two qualities: Perseverance and knowledge of the publishing world.
Harness also noted that she illustrated many books by different authors before writing “The Windchild.”
Learning the business of publishing is crucial in order to make it, she said, especially in these dynamic times.
“Publishing has encountered the perfect storm: The digital shift plus the Great Recession of 2008.”
She said the transition from paper to the digital format has changed the business quite a bit, specifically how an author can approach a publisher to get their work published.
“Instead of going to an editor or publishing house directly, you usually have to find a literary agent first.”
Besides more and more stories being converted to digital bits instead of being printed on a press, another consequence the digital age created is the consolidation of publishers, which makes the market more narrow in what they are seeking. “They’re looking for the next Harry Potter. Dystopian fantasy like ‘The Hunger Games’ or ‘Divergent’ series are big in the young adult genre.”
Nonetheless, Harness said one must adapt to the changes. Plus there are actually some benefits with the new digital direction in publishing. She said it allows your stories to be more accessible and exposed to a larger number of readers.
“It would be dumb to ignore the ever-changing world. I enthusiastically encourage everyone to look for my books’ Kindle editions!”
Her advice for writing children’s books, though, is, it has to be “effectively simple.”
“One has to be clear and concise. The picture book is a beautiful, self-contained art form, and to a young reader, it is theater. With the voice and inflection, stories, pictures and ideas, the book has to work each page by moving forward. It’s like opera.”
And for the subgenre of historical non-fiction, Harness said there is already an established audience wanting more, plus the Common Core school standards require students to read more non-fiction selections. With teachers having time constraints in their lessons, historical non-fiction authors could possibly supplement a teacher’s history lesson by expanding on a certain subject or topic.
Above all, learning about history is important, especially for younger generations.
“History is absolutely stiff with role models, for good or ill. It gives us meaning to our surroundings. The learning of history is essential for brain-training, cause/effect relationships and learning how to empathize with people of the past.”
But Harness is taking a bit of a break from the history genre, besides having a book on the history of nation flags set to be released in September. She is currently in the midst of writing her first murder-mystery for adults.
When asked if she does anything else besides author and illustrate, she replied that books are simply her life and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m a bibliophile from way back and my life is pretty dandy, all in all.”