It’s been a while, but it’s time for another Author Spotlight. Today I am chatting with the very talented Jeanne Walker Harvey about her latest picture book biography, Dressing Up the Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head.
Jeanne Walker Harvey has had many jobs, ranging from working as a roller coaster ride operator to an attorney for high-tech companies to a writer of magazine articles to a teacher of Language Arts and writing workshops at a public middle school. She has also been a longtime docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She is the author of several books for young readers, including the picture book biographies Dressing up the Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head, Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas, Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines and My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey. Jeanne studied literature and psychology at Stanford University. She lives in Northern California. Visit her online at JeanneHarvey.com and on Twitter @JeanneWHarvey.
Jeanne, Welcome to Mutually Inclusive! I’m so excited to have you here today! I’m a big fan of your picture book biographies. In fact, I recently used Ablaze With Color as a mentor text in my own writing. But before I start rambling on about how amazing picture book biographies are, would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?
I’m really excited to be here too! I’m a big fan of your blog and look forward to reading your reviews of inclusive children’s books which are so important to highlight. And thanks ever so much for your kind words! I’m flattered that you used our Ablaze with Color book as a mentor text in your own writing.
As you said, I’m an author primarily of picture book biographies of creative people. I’ve worn many job hats ranging from roller coaster operator to software licensing attorney to middle school language arts teacher. But my favorite job is the one I’ve always dreamed to be and get to do now – a children’s book author.
I’m always fascinated by the way different subjects speak to different authors, especially when it comes to picture book biographies. What was it about Edith Head that made you want to write Dressing Up The Stars?
When I was growing up in Southern California, my mom and I always watched the Academy Awards presentation on TV and vied to see who could spot Edith Head first. She was so distinctive with her blunt haircut, dark round glasses and always a gorgeous dress that she had designed for herself. I’ve always been drawn to the wonderful costumes in those fabulous Hollywood movies. And often Edith Head’s name would be on the credits. When I began researching her, I was even more amazed to learn that she won eight Academy Awards, more than any other woman including actresses. And she was nominated for Oscars thirty-five times! Not only was she talented and creative, but she was also quite the role model as she was the first woman to head a major Hollywood costume department at Paramount Studios.
Title: Dressing Up the Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head
Author: Jeanne Walker Harvey
Illustrator: Diana Toledano
Published: September 20, 2022
Publisher: Beach Lane (Simon & Schuster)
Format: Picture Book
I’d love to hear about the research process! How long did your research take? Did it take you to any fun or unexpected locations? Did you get to see any of Edith’s designs in person?
What great questions! I think I would compare my research process to diving into the deep end of a pool full of whatever I can find about the person. I tend to splash around a lot not knowing yet how the story will call to me. As you know, the goal of writing a picture book biography is not to be an encyclopedia recap of their life. Instead, I’m always looking for that throughline, that essence of the person and their challenges and inspirations. I tend to circle back to my drafts over the years. And I actually did work on this book for quite a long time which was a pleasure because it meant I had to watch more of the classic movies. I loved reading Edith Head’s first person account in her autobiography, the Dress Doctor, and learning about her early years growing up in the desert near mining camps where her stepfather worked. Without siblings or friends nearby, Edith used her imagination as a companion and even dressed up her pets, desert animals and cactus. I was excited to read about her childhood recollections because that conjured up such different images than the lifestyle of the famous woman entrenched in a busy Hollywood life.
And yes, I’ve been lucky to see some of Edith Head’s wonderful designs in person. I frequent as many fashion exhibits at museums as I can find. I sewed a bit in high school and so I admire the details of the costumes that one can only see up close. I just learned that the Oklahoma City Museum of Art is hosting a retrospective of Edith Head’s costume from June to September of 2024 with costumes spanning six decades of her career. I hope to visit! It’s really quite amazing that Edith Head has over 400 films to her credit! And last year, I attended the grand opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles and saw some of Edith Head’s original sketches which are amazing.
I know for me, when I’m “finished” researching a subject, I feel like I’m just swimming in facts about their life, and my first draft is always a bit encyclopedic. But, you always bring so much life and imagery to the page with your prose. How do you go from research to “paper”?
Thanks so very much for saying that I bring life and imagery to the page with my prose! That’s really lovely. Sometimes I feel I agonize about every word choice in a picture book. I feel that every word is so valuable and I want to be sure that whatever I write is not something that will be conveyed in the illustrations. As you know, the illustrations and text of a picture book are equally important and should together lift the story higher.
That’s so funny that you also used the term “swimming in facts.” You are spot on about the volume of research. And yes, my early drafts are much too wordy and too fact heavy. One technique that helps me to winnow down a draft is to move such fact centric wording to the right of the text, surround it with brackets, and preface it with “Illus:”. These illustrator’s notes often don’t stay in the manuscript, but somehow it helps me to not just delete these gems of research right off the bat.
You’re a docent for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, so you know a thing or two about art. So how much do you love the wonderful illustrations by Diana Toledano?
I absolutely love Diana’s illustrations for Dressing Up the Stars! As you said, they are truly wonderful – so much whimsy and creativity. It’s amazing how perfectly Diana captures Edith Head not only as a child in the desert, but also Edith head as a young struggling, yet persistent, costume designer who overcomes numerous challenges. I just want to step inside the book and join Edith in her adventures! I also enjoy looking at all the details in Diana’s illustrations. She’s incorporated such unique patterns and designs in everything which so aptly reflects Edith’s work with cloth fabrics and designs. And I think because I am such a huge fan of modern art, I so value the incredible work of the illustrators of my books, such as Diana.
I notice you have fantastic activity kits for not just Dressing Up The Stars, but all of your books, on your website. Does your past experience as a teacher influence your choice to provide these free resources to parents and teachers?
I appreciate your bringing up the activity kits connected to my books, and I’m so glad you like them. I want to credit the creative team at Blue Slip Media that designed these activity kits. Both when I taught Language Arts and volunteered as a school docent for the San Francisco Museum of Art, I loved activities and projects tied to books and artwork. Children are so incredibly creative, and I think that the topics of the books and art resonate more with them when they make their own personal connections.
You had two picture books published in 2022, so what’s next for you? Any exciting news for 2023?
It’s been very exciting to have Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas published at the beginning of the year, and now Dressing Up the Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head published also in 2022. I just feel incredibly fortunate! And to work with such an incredible team, beginning with my editor Andrea Welch, at Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, and everyone else on the team has been so wonderful. And yes, I’m working on another picture book biography of another female artist which I hope will be announced soon. Stay tuned!
Is there anything else you’d like Mutually Inclusive’s readers to know?
I’ve been thinking about how Edith Head sought to design costumes to help the actors transform themselves into their roles. I remember when I worked as a roller coaster operator and all of us, female and male, wore mechanics’ overalls. I loved those overalls – comfortable thick cotton, lots of pockets, roomy, and with a snazzy stripe down the side. And somehow when I slipped on those overalls, I felt confident in my role as a ride operator. I wasn’t an actor, but I still was playing a role for the amusement park public and my uniform helped me. As Edith Head said, “What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not.”
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all my questions, Jeanne! I loved Dressing Up The Stars and I’m so grateful to have you on the blog.
Oh, thanks so much! I truly loved answering your thoughtful questions and having the opportunity to be part of your Mutually Inclusive blog. Thank you and good luck with your writing endeavors! I look forward to hearing more about them.
Dressing Up the Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head by Jeanne Walker Harvey and Diana Toledano will be officially released tomorrow, but here are a few ways to celebrate with Jeanne and Diana today!
- Don’t miss my giveaway on Instagram for your chance to win a copy of Dressing Up The Stars.
- Be sure to keep an eye on kidlit.tv today for the debut of the book trailer!
- You can preorder your copy today wherever books are sold, including Bookshop and Amazon.
- You can request copies of Dressing Up The Stars at your local library to ensure your community has access to this wonderful story.