Random Illustrator Feature:
Meghan McCarthy’s Seabiscuit

h1 January 14th, 2009 by jules

I’m stopping in briefly today to share some art work from Meghan McCarthy’s newest picture book title, Seabiscuit: The Wonder Horse (Simon & Schuster; October, 2008). I love Meghan’s ramped-up cartoon style, what with her bold acrylic illustrations and wide-eyed characters. I’m tellin’ ya, you can spot one of her highly stylized illustrations from precisely seven skerjillion miles away. Does she not put the very “signature” in signature style? Why, yes, I think she does. Am I talking to myself? Why, yes, I think I am.

Pictured above is Seabiscuit on the verge of racing War Admiral: “Everyone nervously watched the empty racetrack. In came War Admiral. In came Seabiscuit! A hush fell over the crowd. The horses twitched. The riders sat perfectly still.” The book tells the story of the famous Depression-era horse, the antithesis of the “sleek, elegant, muscular, well-bred, and fast,” as McCarthy puts it, race horses of that era. I mean, just look at the great cover: Seabiscuit was rather ….well, he was a doophus. Just flat-out was. “He loved to eat and sleep but hated to run,” McCarthy writes. “He had lost almost every race he had ever been in. His first trainer called him a ‘big dog.’ Who would want a racehorse like that?”

{Pictured here are the popular, super-cool kids — the non-doophuses, the sleek horses of the racetracks…}

McCarthy does a fine job of setting tone: On the book’s opening spread, we see a long line of people waiting outside. It’s the 1930s; it’s grey; we see no faces; the lines in the spread bring us down, in more ways than one, as they meet toward the lower center of the spread as a street corner: “People didn’t have much and needed an escape.” Of course, we come to learn, the racetrack was the “perfect escape.” And our underdog, Seabiscuit—who is angry, stubborn, lazy, and in serious need of motivation—was the horse who looked just like us, McCarthy writes: “Beat-up. Imperfect…A horse with courage!” This is precisely where McCarthy nails the book’s greatest strength: Making readers care about Seabiscuit — and holding up a mirror to not only the people of the Great Depression, but to those of us who are imperfect today, those of us in whom The Doophus is strong.

But the book’s other strength? Character. McCarthy introduces us to the folks who, indeed, provided Seabiscuit with the motivation needed to win the big race and which resulted in the country’s “Seabiscuit-itis,” as one sportswriter described it — Charles Howard, Seabiscuit’s owner; John “Red” Pollard, his poetry-reading jockey; “Silent Tom” Smith, Seabiscuit’s trainer, who was “much more interested in horses than people and understood the animals well”; and, eventually, George “The Iceman” Woolf, the jockey who replaced Red Pollard at the last minute after Red was injured in an accident just one day before the race. The characters shine; the text is accessible and makes for a great read-aloud; and McCarthy, through both illustrations and text, expertly conveys the excitement surrounding the horse and the 1940 race that won Seabiscuit the Santa Anita Handicap.

McCarthy’s sprawling spreads are “genuinely comic at times,” in the words of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, adding “{t}he goofily appealing horse and the underdog-victory story ensure appeal beyond the usual horse fan, and this could even make an interesting approach to examining the Depression itself.” Writes The Chicago Tribune, “McCarthy’s characters, people or horses, have big, round bug-eyes that are portals of energetic light in this dark world.”

Remember when Meghan stopped by in ’07 (back when our images were tragically small)? I’m glad she hasn’t opted for lounge-singing or McDonald’s over illustrating after all. How ’bout you?

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Illustrations from SEABISCUIT: THE WONDER HORSE. Text and illustration © 2008 Meghan McCarthy. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, NY.

11 comments to “Random Illustrator Feature:
Meghan McCarthy’s Seabiscuit

  1. Oh, man, you really can tell her work from a squidillion miles away. I do adore those eyes — on dogs and kids and horses and BIRDS — it just works so hilariously.

    And though she can sing and lounge as she draws, I’m going to have to agree with you about the MickeyD’s thing.

  2. It’s the Seabiscuit post!

    Like TadMack says, it’s in the eyes. Following the link to Meghan McCarthy’s Web site will deliver dozens of those crazy eyes to you; you may finally leave her site wondering why you ever bother to blink, these characters are so alive. It’s amazing the range of emotions she can call up just by moving the pupils to one side or the other. (Plus to TadMack’s roster of character types, you’ll be able to add aliens (probably obviously), the Mona Lisa, and maybe — I can’t be sure — a Space Shuttle.)

    And y’know, Jules, “those of us in whom The Doophus is strong” has the ring of genius. Sort of a blend between “The Force is strong with him” and Frank Costanza’s “a Festivus for the rest of us.”

  3. Who could look at that cover and NOT want to read the book and root for that horse? Love it!

  4. What super illustrations. Makes me want to get my paints out and do some copying. Almost makes me want to go out and get the book but if I went down the road of collecting picture books my wife would probably leave home. She’d have too to make room for all the books. (Only joking Jo.)

  5. I agree with you and Laura – who could look at that and NOT root for Seabiscuit?

    I am one of those in whom the Doophus is strong, and this book sounds right up my alley. I believe you should be marketing T-shirts using that line.

  6. I’m proud to be a doophus. And I WANT this book! Thanks for the peek.

  7. There are so many ways in which this book could have fallen flat, but Meghan nails it and makes it work so well. And, yeah, Laura, the cover just pulls you right in. So funny.

    Glad to be surrounded by such brilliant Doophuses. Yes, let’s consider a line of tees.

    John, see? I don’t break my promises! And, since you mentioned it, how ’bout Meghan’s website? I hadn’t seen it in a long while — probably not since we interviewed her back in ’07. I love how she’s redesigned it, especially those city photographs with her cartoon characters superimposed on them. Very fun.

  8. Doophuses rock! And I love the story of Seabiscuit. 🙂

  9. Now I’m interested in the story of Seabiscuit! I’ve heard of the horse, of course, but never actually read about his life.

  10. luv seabiscuit


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