Harry Bliss, illustrator of Sharon Creech's A Fine, Fine School (HarperCollins/Cotler) has a knack for pictorial storytelling that can be traced to a love of comics and a family fond of visual art. "I knew who Ben Shahn was by fifth grade," he says, not kidding. "We had to be able to tell the difference between a Picasso and a Braque. I might still have some trouble with that."
When he wasn't learning about cubism and American social-realist painting, the young Bliss spent time reading comics and copying inking techniques. "All the line work," he says. "I would redraw and redraw." He emulated the styles of Pogo artist Walt Kelly and especially Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. Even today he considers himself "a throwback to the old days," though he uses a brush, not a pen, for most of his line work.
Bliss discovered his calling when he was an adolescent, after attending a comic-book art exhibition. He had gone to the University of Rochester's Memorial Art Gallery with his father, and he brought home an exhibition catalogue. "It had all my heroes, from the '20s all the way up, and I found out that these guys had academic training," he remembers. "At that point I started looking at painters."
From seventh grade through high school, Bliss emulated Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani and Duchamp, then studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the University of the Arts (both in Philadelphia), and then at Syracuse University. But despite the fine-art focus, Bliss's love of comics didn't fade. "At home, there wasn't any high art, there wasn't any low art--we still don't think that way," he insists. "I'd rather have one of Charles Addams's New Yorker covers than a Vermeer."
Bliss's abiding interest in the print media led him into publishing, where he began his commercial art career by illustrating book jackets. He developed his sensitivity to character and plot by "reading manuscripts, and coming up with how to best convey the essence and atmosphere of the story." He still creates jacket art for Fiona Buckley's Elizabethan-themed mysteries, using a stained-glass window motif and the jewel-like palette of an illuminated manuscript.
After distilling many narratives into book covers, Bliss tried his hand at a less constricted kind of cover art, for the New Yorker. Soon he experimented with cartoons as well. "Doing cartoons really helped me," Bliss says. "I used a simpler line, an economy of line. And I had to be funny. I had to tell a little story." As his style evolved, he contributed a comic, "The Baker's Daughter," to the first Little Lit anthology, edited by New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly and her artist-husband, Art Spiegelman.
All of Bliss's experiences, from cover art to cartooning to comics, primed him for picture books, which he calls "a culmination of everything that has come before." He contacted children's book agent Holly McGhee of Pippin Properties, who represents such author-illustrators as William Steig and Jon Agee. Not only did McGhee arrange for Bliss to illustrate Steig's Which Would You Rather Be? and Alison McGhee's Countdown to Kindergarten, but she also showed him the manuscript for A Fine, Fine School. Creech's story, about an elementary school whose gung-ho Principal Keene prescribes classes seven days a week, struck a chord with Bliss. "As soon as I read it, my intuitive feeling was that kids were going to respond to it," he says.
Working with editor Joanna Cotler at HarperCollins, Bliss set about "communicating the despair of having school 365 days a year." The result is a comedy of horrors. Bliss pictures tired children (and teachers) weighed down with books, backpacks and a flurry of Post-It notes. While staying true to Creech's work, which foregrounds the principal and a stressed-out student named Tilly, Bliss adds recurrent characters who crowd the assembly hall and recoil at the principal's cheerful zeal. His deep admiration for Charles M. Schulz is apparent in the distinctive characterizations, with their dot-eyes, round heads and broad smiles. "The illustrations must transcend the text at some point," Bliss says. "If it's going to draw away from story, you have to watch out, but I want kids to look at the page and find little jokes."
Bliss, himself the parent of a third-grader, acknowledges that the overworked-kids theme is topical in this era of standardized testing and summer school. But he dismisses any specific critique and focuses on the greater scheme. "My brother's a schoolteacher. He says, 'Wow, some message!' "
"Some people take it a little more radically," Bliss continues. "But it's saying that kids need to get exercise, get out and play, climb trees and be kids."
Not many children get to relax these days, much less kick back with a great comic book. Bliss, who did both (and still does), appreciates A Fine, Fine School's philosophy of childhood leisure. "Every now and then you gotta let the kid play," he says.