Interview: Photo Illustrator Alisa Mokler Harper



Photographer Alisa Mokler Harper


Alisa Mokler Harper is a photojournalist who works on the television production crew for ESPN’s X Games. She’s also a two-time X Games competitor, former U.S. Snowboard Team member and has recently co-created The G.G. Series, new chapter books, in which she contributes photo illustrations. I caught up with her at home in Colorado after the launch of the first book in the series, G.G. Snowboards.


In G.G. Snowboards, a lot of the dramatic tension revolves around the eight-year-old G.G. getting the nerve to try a halfpipe ride. Do you remember your first pipe? Hmmm… I don’t remember the first time I rode the halfpipe, but I do remember the first time they introduced the superpipe—which took it from about 12- to 14-foot walls to 18-foot walls; it was a BIG difference. We were all, well, scared. Everybody—all the pros—everybody was so scared. It was at the first contest of the season at my home pipe in Mammoth, but it was like nothing we’d ever seen before. I guess we finally got up the nerve to drop in and the more we rode it the more we got used to it. Now the pros ride a 22-foot superpipe… I feel like G.G. when I think about that!

AirtoFakieAlisa Mokler Harper throwing an air to fakie in the superpipe.

As both an athlete and an artist, do you see correlations between how an artist and an athlete prepare for or tackle their work? A lot of visualization as an athlete, and a lot of visualization with this book as well… as to where to place what photos, and what was going to be needed to be suggested with each chapter. (Laughs) But, I wasn’t lifting any weights.

Chapter books traditionally use line art as illustrations. How do you think kids will react to the use of black & white photos in G.G. Snowboards? I hope well. I know it’s really different, and black & white photography is not generally geared towards children—it’s more geared toward fine art. But I think a lot of people underestimate kids and what we have done with these photos really respects kids’ intelligence. At first I wanted to make the pictures more like line drawings, but as I got into it I realized that just wasn’t going to work. We had to go with the photos as what they were. The photos had to evolve as the first book came together and though it was sort of a complicated process, I’m happy with what we got.

You create artwork for gallery installations for the adult market. Did your creative process change for your work as part of children’s fiction? Yeah, it changed a lot. I really had to think about not presenting things so literally, but presenting a notion or a feeling toward an idea. I wanted to show what a moment might feel like, but still let kids make up their own story in their heads. Not put it there for them.

You have two young girls. What do you think you might do differently if you had boys? I don’t think that I would do anything differently because, you know, I get my girls involved with sports and we do physical things that are traditionally considered boy things—like snowboarding, for instance. I’d have less pink around the house—that would be nice.

You work for ESPN’s television production crew for the X Games. People think of jobs in TV as sexy, and sports as cool. What are your days like when you’re working an X Games? Grueling. It’s so grueling. It’s long and competitive and lots and lots of computer time and office time and, you know, I can’t count the number of times people have told me, “You have the best job in the world!” Yeah, it’s definitely not as glamorous as most people think. It’s challenging, and I get to work with amazing minds that create an amazing end product, and so I really appreciate that. What do you mean by competitive? It’s a very competitive industry. There’s a lot of people who want to work in sports, and a lot of people who want to work in sports journalism. And if you’re not at the forefront of what’s going on, and if you’re not a thinker and a doer, there are 100 people right behind you who will take your spot.

Catch Alisa’s work this week when the Winter X Games Aspen 2014 begin Thursday, January 23 and continue through Sunday, January 26, 2014 on ESPN. You probably won’t see or hear about her, but know that when you’re watching at home, she’s in Aspen pulling long days with the rest of the TV crew. Enjoy your couch….

AlisaHarper catching a great day on the slope.


Wishing Star

Next week I’ll return to chapter book reviews with a story about wishes that come true. This holiday week, I have a few wishes of my own:

  1. I wish that children everywhere have access to and receive nourishment: food and water, every day. *
  2. I wish the gift of reading on every person, young or old, in languages from Aari to Zuni. **
  3. I wish for every child to feel the comfort of books: in a cozy corner, in the lap of a loved one, in a classroom or under an open sky. The world of reading transforms, enriches, transports and accompanies us, and my wish is that children have this experience as they grow. ***

Happy holidays to all parents, teachers, writers and the children in our lives.


* Find out more about helping children have access to water in south Sudan, as illustrated through Linda Sue Park’s middle grade novel, A Long Walk to Water.

** One of the many respected organizations attacking illiteracy in the far corners of the world is the Kibera School for Girls, a Shining Hope project. Another of their excellent programs remembers someone special in my heart, the Johanna Justin-Jinich Community Clinic.

***  Another notable non profit that advocates literacy is Reach Out and Read, in which doctors “prescribe” books by sending one book home with a child at each visit from age six months through five years, encouraging families to read together.

The Great Chapter Book, Middle Grade Confusion

When the differences between chapter books and middle grade novels are blurred, kids and chapter books lose.


Confused about what to call a chapter book or middle grade? You’re not alone.

Lately, it seems the distinction between chapter books and middle grade is blurred–or even invisible. Google “best” or “greatest” chapter books, and you see lists from organizations as far flung as Goodreads to the esteemed School Library Journal. Commonly found near the top? A Wrinkle in Time, Holes, The Giver and other middle grade classics.

Now picture your average second grader. What seems more appropriate: Captain Underpants or A Wrinkle in Time? Which will encourage his tender, fledgling reading skill? Fan the flames of his reading desire? Give him reading gusto?

I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the dude in the tighty whiteys.

The two excellent books speak to two very different audiences. So why are they lumped together?

“Chapter books and middle grade books are technically two different categories from a publisher’s point of view,” says Emma D. Dryden, founder of drydenbks, a children’s book editorial and publishing consultancy firm. “Even though many books for middle grade readership have chapters, they’re not normally referred to as “chapter books” by publishers; they are, however, often referred to as “chapter books” by booksellers and librarians, and others, which is why I believe there’s confusion about this.”

Dryden, whose career in the publishing industry has included time as vice president, publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, explains that from a publisher’s standpoint “…chapter books are those books geared towards readers between the ages of 7—10, and they will be formatted to lots of black-and-white illustrations, the chapters will be short, the type will be large, and there will be a nice amount of white space on the pages; the protagonists in chapter books are customarily about eight- or nine-years-old.”

Thus, chapter books invite the young reader in. They make a point not to intimidate.

Conversely, Dryden says middle grade books “…are geared towards readers between the ages of 8—12, and they may or may not have illustrations, the chapters will be longer, the type will be of a more standard size, there will be less white space on the pages, and the protagonists in middle grade novels are customarily eleven- or twelve-years-old.”

Which makes middle grade books slightly more mature, from format to content.

Literary agent Sara Megibow of kt literary says subject matter speaks to the difference between chapter books and middle grade, but “The key is narrative voice.” For example, a talking animal almost always points to a chapter book, she says.

Lindsay Eland, author of two middle grade novels, agrees that content affects where a book belongs. “I think that too much emphasis is placed on the age of the child reading rather than on their level of comprehension, understanding and maturity.”

Eland explains that her novel Scones and Sensibility (Egmont USA, 2010), “…is seen as middle grade/tween. If someone labeled it as a chapter book, I would be a bit worried. Not for content sake, because there is nothing in the story that could be a red flag for any age, but more for the way it is written, the more complex sentences, plot and length, and I would worry that the reader wouldn’t like it as much—if at all—because they wouldn’t comprehend it.”

That’s the crux of the matter. Each type of book serves a direct purpose—and they’re not the same purpose. And in the end, kids and chapter books lose out when the two types of books are lumped together.

To illustrate, let’s play it forward through the upcoming holiday season.

Consider a well-meaning aunt in Idaho who is told her nephew in New York is reading chapter books. She discovers from lists of “best chapter books” that Holes is a great book. Well of course it is. It’s a gorgeous, exceptional middle grade book. Not knowing there is a difference between that and the chapter books her nephew is capable of reading, the aunt buys Holes as his holiday gift.

We know what happens next. The nephew, comfortable at the My Weird School stage of literacy, feels only disappointment. To him, the gift signals drudgery and pressure to read beyond his ability. He tosses Holes aside as boring and too hard. And maybe, our young friend even tells himself, I don’t like reading.

And that’s just sad, no matter how it’s categorized.