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Meet Mary GrandPré, the Illustrator for Harry Potter

Mary GrandPré
Mary GrandPré

Mary GrandPré has been drawing since she was 5 years old. As a child, she sketched Disney characters, then moved on to drawing the world around her.

"That's what I tell kids to do," GrandPré said. "I tell them to draw what's around them, and keep little notebooks and sketches. Draw whatever you see. It doesn't have to be anything big or beautiful."

Now, GrandPré uses her artistic talents to transform the images of Harry Potter from words to pictures. She lives in Minnesota with her husband, Tom Casmer, and dog, Chopper. The dog is part Saint Bernard, shepherd, and Lab.

"He's kind of like Hagrid, in that he's a mix of all the giant breeds," she said.

Her career as an illustrator for children's books began with Chin Yu Min and the Ginger Cat, published by Random House. When Scholastic's David Saylor saw that book, he knew she was the one for Harry Potter. Now her career is focused on children's books.

"David Saylor and I were looking for the right illustrator, and we went through lots of samples and books," said Arthur Levine, U.S. publisher and editor of the Potter series. "We were pulling everything down off the shelves looking for the right magical quality. I remember pulling out Mary's sample and David and I looked at each other and knew she was exactly the right person. And we were right—what a great call!"

GrandPré has also worked on movies. For Antz she illustrated the above ground scenes from a bug's point of view. She and her husband are currently working on a children's book of their own.

To find out more about GrandPré and her work on the Harry Potter books, check out our interview below.

Where did you get the ideas for the Harry Potter visuals? Did you get any direction from J.K. Rowling?
Mary GrandPré:
I don't talk with J.K. Rowling. I deal with the art director at Scholastic, David Saylor, when I work on the books, which is common: to keep the illustrator and author separate.

Why is that?
Mary GrandPré:
Because it allows each person to do their job cleanly and clearly, I think, because they don't want too many creative visions blending and getting muddy. J.K. has her own ideas of what things look like as she writes. Then I think, as an illustrator, I kind of have to have my own idea as I read the book. The ideas come from her writing. I read each story before I began to illustrate it, because I wouldn't know how else to do it. So I really pay attention to her descriptions and the atmosphere and the setting that she creates in her writing. She's so rich in her description that it gives the illustrator so much to work with. It's really quite easy to come up with the visuals. It's just reading the story and then putting a pen in your hand.

What about Harry's looks? I read somewhere that some of his physical characteristics are ones that you share.
Mary GrandPré:
When it came time to do the first portrait of Harry, I really had to decide quite quickly what Harry looked like close-up. I didn't have any models that I was using or that were available within the two-day time span that I needed to do the portrait, so I used myself and adapted some of my features to maybe what a boy of that age would look like. It was basically just a starting point for me to create the look of Harry.

How have you aged Harry for each book?
Mary GrandPré:
Well, it is tricky and I think it is kind of a guessing game. What did Mother Nature do in a year or two? It's really just guessing. It's sharpening a little jawline here or softening something there. I mean, the slightest little difference in a face has a large impact on how a person's looks change.

How long does it take you to create the illustrations for a book like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which is more than 800 pages long?
Mary GrandPré:
It takes me a while to read the larger books because I'm not a great reader but...once the story is read it takes about a week to come up with some cover sketches, and then another two weeks to come up with [sketches for the] 30-some chapter headings. Then I do the actual final artwork. [That takes] probably 10 days for the final cover and three weeks for 30-some chapter headings. It's a couple of months total.

How do you compare Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with the other books?
Mary GrandPré:
I would say that it suits his age. I think Harry comes to a personal turning point at 15 and I think that the books reflect that well. I think the cover art speaks to that as well. And how would I rate it? I would just say that it's really good and it follows the previous four books... [It] really is its own book in a lot of ways, but it's also a continuation of the fourth one. It's just another amazing part of Harry's life.

What's the best part about working on Harry Potter?
Mary GrandPré:
I'd say the best part about working on Harry Potter is being invited to be connected to this really wonderful ongoing story about this amazing character and all the other characters, too. I think that J.K. Rowling is an absolutely gifted writer who makes illustrating her books a fun thing. She's just a joy to illustrate for because her writing is so rich. I'd say that's the best part of working on Harry Potter—that you have so much wonderful stuff to work with.

Is there any one character in any of the books besides Harry that's your favorite?
Mary GrandPré:
Besides Harry, I'd say Hagrid is my favorite. He reminds me a lot of my dad—he's this protective loyal guy. Also Hagrid is a lot like my big wonderful dog who's part Saint Bernard and protects his mommy like nobody else.

Can you describe to me when you're working on a project what your daily work schedule would be like?
Mary GrandPré:
When I'm feeling good...I start work probably about 9 or 10 in the morning and work on and off throughout the day. My studio's in the back of the house so there are constant real-life interruptions. I work into the night as long as I can, maybe 8 or 9 p.m. I work weekends and holidays as I can. It's a crazy schedule. It's really just go to the back of the house and work as much as you can.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in being artists?
Mary GrandPré:
I would say first and foremost that they need to allow themselves to draw the way they draw. Enjoying the act of drawing is really what's important, and drawing what you know allows that to happen more. When you draw what you know, you're usually enjoying it more instead of trying to draw what other people want you to draw or drawing things you really don't feel anything for. And to just try and be free. At this point in my life, I try to go back to what I felt like as a kid when I drew. After working with art directors for so long and being under public scrutiny, you kind of forget. The fun is still there, but not like it used to be, so I guess I would really tell kids to just hang on to the enjoyment of it and the freedom of it as much as they can.

—Interview by Marie Morreale

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