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Cover Illustrator Keeps the Secret

By Erica C. Cline
Morris News Service
June 2003

They are arguably the most recognizable book covers in America.

Rich colors swirl across the page, centering on the focal point - a young boy with messy hair, green eyes, glasses and a highly identifiable scar.

J.K. Rowling's words have brought the world of Harry Potter to life for millions of readers, but artist Mary GrandPré's colorful pastel covers are many readers' first view of the teen wizard.

The Minnesota artist, who has illustrated for magazines, posters, movies and children's literature, said being a part of the Harry Potter phenomenon has been a mixed blessing.

"It's really high-pressure," she said. "I have to drop everything in my life - personal and work - when it comes. Nothing else takes priority."

Ms. GrandPré said Scholastic, the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter series, gives little warning before sending an early copy of the book.

In a matter of two months she reads the book, does rough sketches for the cover and chapter headings and completes her vision, which will be seen on bookshelves nationwide.

Although nearly every country that distributes the book has its own cover art, Ms. GrandPré was the only illustrator allowed to read the highly secretive and closely guarded Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

"It surprises me, 'cause I don't know how someone could illustrate something they didn't know anything about," she said. "It's such a secrecy issue, but I'm glad that they let me read it, because I've always thought it was important to know what you're illustrating."

For fans of Ms. GrandPré's work, the Harry Potter covers are a treasure trove of foreshadowing and give readers a tantalizing glimpse of what's in store.

"You have to know how to give hints of things ... You don't want to say too much," she said. "The same is true for the chapter headings. You just want to invite the reader into that chapter with something interesting and accurate, but not too telling."

But all that changes with the fifth cover.

"I can't give away the book, but I think the cover represents the book quite well," she said. "As Harry grows up and becomes older, his attitudes change.

"All I can say is ... it's a dark book, a darker tone."

Unlike her previous colorful covers, The Order of the Phoenix is markedly somber in tone, with darker colors and, for the first time, an unsmiling Harry, who looks guardedly over his shoulder at the reader.

"I think the last cover, Book 5, is a little simpler in that it doesn't have as many clues, but it's more about the mood," Ms. GrandPré said. "There's a different kind of foreshadowing. It's not so much with the amount of objects, it's more with the atmosphere."

The swell of interest in the Harry Potter books caught many people by surprise, including Ms. GrandPré, who didn't know the series would eventually number seven books when she started illustrating for Scholastic.

"When I did Book 1, and even Book 2, they still weren't as popular as they have become," she said. "We didn't know that they'd become such landmarks in children's literature."

A perfectionist, Ms. GrandPré said she would have made the artwork as flawless as possible had she had known how popular the books would become.

"I'd like to say I look at each job with all my energy and always give 100 percent, and I try to do that," she said. "But I guess when something you've done becomes huge, you want to just take it back and go, 'Oh, I think I'll redo that part or that part or that part."'

The only response Ms. GrandPré has received from Ms. Rowling came a couple of years ago in Chicago when the author was touring. Ms. GrandPre said the publisher usually keeps the illustrator and author separate to keep their visions clear.

"The publisher is also very protective of her and there really was no reason for me to talk to her, except that I really would enjoy it," she said. "I think we had finished Book 3 by that time and she said that my drawings of Harry looked a lot like her little doodles way back when, when she was starting to write the stories.

"She felt that my covers were the best for her books, so I was really flattered and happy to hear her say that."

Reach Erica C. Cline at 828-2946 or ecline@augustachronicle.com

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