Seven Questions Over Breakfast with David McPhail

h1 May 27th, 2009 by jules

I love that author/illustrator David McPhail describes himself as a misanthrope. Not only because statements like that from people who create books for children help eradicate this notion that all of them—or anyone else working near or around children, for that matter—live in little pink bubbles, surrounded by severely cute and insanely fluffy bunnies. (Seriously, the average 7-Imp reader knows they don’t, but I think that notion still prevails with the general public.) But also because of the element of surprise that resides in that statement: McPhail’s work is often infused with a sweet affection, sensitivity, and warmth and often revolves around the themes of friendship, cooperation, and familial relationships — often, but not always, animal characters, for which he is probably best-known. Not that misanthropes can’t appreciate cooperation, mind you. I guess I’m just saying: I flippin’ love it when someone surprises you.

McPhail’s illustrations are often marked by soft shading; bucolic spreads; a dreamy, gentle light (it seemed fitting to read in his interview responses that he’s a Rembrandt fan); and a certain delicacy. (Not that he doesn’t sometimes flirt with Slightly Edgy and Dark.) Whether he’s using pen-and-ink, cross-hatching, watercolors, or another medium, McPhail—who has been illustrating children’s books since 1972—charms. And he’s not one to overwhelm with his palette. He charms with a subtleness—a muted, often pastel-y one (I just made up that adjective)—that lingers in the reader’s mind.

So, yes, I’m a fan, so David’s here—misanthropism be damned—for seven questions over breakfast. He’s going to have his usual: “Oatmeal (with fruit, maple syrup, butter, and cream), followed by English Breakfast tea and home-made bread, toasted.” As always, I’ve got the coffee. Strong, strong coffee.

Let’s get the basics from David while we set our table for our breakfast chat…

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

David: Yes.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?


7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

David: Pen-and-ink is my favorite.

Before you came, I owned the throne. They trembled at my slightest moan. I was the star, the prize, the king. . . . But you have ruined everything.”
— From Linda Ashman’s When I Was King (HarperCollins, 2008)

7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

David: For me, pictures tell a parallel story, especially in picture books…I draw for me. I do it for my own entertainment. If it pleases someone else (especially someone willing to PAY for it), lovely.

“This train was mine. This hat was mine. This boat was mine. This bat was mine. This drum. This book. This bear was mine. This ball. This brush. This chair was mine. This chalk. This truck. This blanket, too. The whole wide world was minetill you.
— Also from Ashman’s When I Was King

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

David: I live along New Hampshire’s seacoast.

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

David: Went to art school. My work was “discovered” by a textbook editor, {and I} sold her some drawings. Much time went by. Sold more drawings. Not-quite-so-much-time went by. Sold MORE drawings. Time passed. Later on, {I was discovered} by a trade-book editor.

“Budgie climbed down the ladder once more and returned
with a hammer and some nails…”

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

David: In my (relative) “youth,” I often visited schools. It was always a “trip,” I believe is the word…Loved the kids. Loved the teachers. Stopped. Would rather just draw now.

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell us how that influences your work as an illustrator.

David: No, I don’t teach. I feel (not immodestly) that everything I know could be shared in a half-hour — or less.

“‘Now I can fix the leak in the roof,’ Boo said.
‘I will stick to gardening,’ Budgie said.
And they laughed.”

— From Budgie & Boo (Abrams Books, April 2009)

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

David: Always working on something new. Can’t wait to start work on a book about a dear friend’s dog. Was hoping to get it done and read it to the dog, but dammit, he died! Truffle was his name. I called him “The Truffle Man.”

Mmm. Coffee.Our table’s set. Time for our breakfast chat. I thank David for stopping by, and let’s keep at it…

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

David: I go to my favorite coffee shop, get some coffee, sit at my favorite table, {and} wait for an idea to come along. Sometimes I sit there for a loooooooong time. When I finally DO get a flash of inspiration, I start writing it down, as fast as it reveals itself. Then I make some scribbly sketches, as I try to make the characters “reveal” themselves. (If I could clearly see them in my mind, I’d have no reason to draw them.) Then I write the story over, trying to clean it up a bit. After that, I break the text into pages. Next, I do “thumbnail” sketches — then larger and more elaborate ones. Finally, the finished art. It’s all fairly straightforward and simple.

Many, if not MOST, of my stories are written in an hour or two. Of course, MUCH revision usually follows — with active participation by an editor.

Note: The bottom four spreads are from Budgie & Boo,
published by Abrams in April of this year. (“The evocative two-page spreads that introduce each section are lovely enough to be worth the price of admission alone,” wrote
Kirkus Reviews.) Click each spread to enlarge.

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

David: My “studio,” or “office,” is a room in my house, though I don’t really need an entire room (except for all of the junk I accumulate).

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

David: Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings was the earliest influence (the first book I ever “read.” I was two). Later, it was Maurice Sendak’s work. During my art school years, Rembrandt was my favorite.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

David: Hmmm…Is Garth Williams still alive? Mercer Mayer would probably be included. Tomi Ungerer.

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

David: On WHAT? I have a 33-and-a-third turntable and an extensive record collection. Most of which is lost. (I’ve moved a lot.) Rufus Wainwright is playing now. Brahms’ First Symphony gets played a lot, but it always brings tears, so I have to take a break after listening to it.

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

David: That I’m a misanthrope perhaps?

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

David: Kids are the best interviewers—fourth graders, especially—and there is not much they haven’t asked me over the years…

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

David: Let’s see…”Persevere” is up there, as is (thanks to Beatrix Potter) “implored.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

David: “Can’t.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

David: You mean, BESIDES Brahms First?

7-Imp: What turns you off?

David: TV “reality” shows. (No, wait! It’s ME that turns THEM off!)

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

David: “Hot Damn!” (Sorry. Two words…)

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

David: Birds in the morning, as I eat my oatmeal.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

David: Just about anything (except Brahms First).

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

David: I always wanted to be a musician.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

David: Anything where a “boss” is involved.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

David: “Not YOU! The OTHER David McPhail!”

* * * * * * *

WHEN I WAS KING © 2008 Linda Ashman, illustrations © 2008 David McPhail. Published by HarperCollins, New York. Images used with permission of publisher. All rights reserved.

BUDGIE & BOO © 2009 David McPhail. Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, New York. Images used with permission of publisher. All rights reserved.

16 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with David McPhail”

  1. I have always adored David’s work and have considered him “the one who got away” since editors and I have often discussed having him illustrate something of mine and it’s never happened.

    Thanks for the good interview. In his curmudgeonly way he makes the book-making process sound a lot easier and quicker than I know it is for him. Don’t be fooled! He’s a master of disguise.

  2. I’ve been a David McPhail fan for a long time. He draws the best bears! I don’t know about this misanthrope thing, though. Perhaps I should send him some soup.

  3. I may have to put David on my list of three living or dead illustrators I’d like to meet. Sounds wonderfully grumpy, I love it!

    …and Rufus Wainwright on vinyl, nice.

  4. Jules,

    I love this interview with one of my FAVORITE picture book authors/illustrators. It’s great being the events chair for our local reading council. I get to invite the children’s authors and illustrators who will be the featured speakers at our three annual meetings.

    David was our speaker in November of 2006. He made a wonderful presentation! He’s a delightful–and very tall–gentleman. Grace Lin, Anna Alter, and I all had a picture taken with him. The three of us looked liked Munchkins next to him. Don’t believe me? Check out this post at Blue Rose Girls:

    David used to exhibit and sell his original picture book art at the Child at Heart Gallery in Newburyport. Before the shop went out of business, I bought myself an original McPhail painting from his book BIG BROWN BEAR”S BIRTHDAY SURPRISE. I also own a pencil sketch of a dragon that he sent me.

    P.S. You described the common characteristics of his picture books perfectly. They certainly are infused with warmth and sensitivity. David McPhail a misanthrope? You don’t suppose he was pulling your leg, do you?

  5. Love his Pivot answers. And he’s right about 4th graders, btw.

  6. Thanks, you all. Elaine, MY GOD, he’s tall. You’re right. And I bought that he was a misanthrope, but I’ve been known to be slightly gullible before (that’s a rare occurrence of understatement there). Jane says he’s a “master of disguise” anyway, so there ya go. Heaven only knows.

    Jama, I’m sure he’ll love the soup, either way!

  7. Cool interview, cool art!

    On the misanthrope thing… As I was reading this — and in keeping with 7-Imp’s ongoing theme — I couldn’t help thinking of the poem in Alice: “…How cheerfully he seems to grin,/How neatly spreads his claws,/And welcomes little fishes in/With gently smiling jaws!”


  8. I get it. I’m a misanthrope too. I just make a lot of exceptions.

    Thanks for doing this interview! It was interesting to get a peek into the world of McPhail.

  9. I love David McPhail-The Teddy Bear is one of my all-time favorites!

  10. Thanks for another terrific interview, Jules. For a misanthropic curmudgeon, he certainly conveys tenderness amazingly well, doesn’t he?

    David has so many wonderful books, but MOLE MUSIC is one of my all-time favorites–a true classic. I feel so fortunate that he illustrated one of mine!

  11. […] best buds, usually anthropomorphized animals, that will stick and perhaps become a series. Take David McPhail. In 2007, he brought us Sylvie & True (a giant water snake and a rabbit) and, just last year, […]

  12. I’ve chosen David MdPhail for an author presentation I’m doing for an Elemlentary Education degree. This is the best piece of information I’ve come across! Love getting to ‘know’ the author on a more personal level. Thanks!

  13. Thanks, Sandy. Good luck!

  14. How in the world can I get in touch
    With David? Even an e address
    Would be a treasure. Sincerely

  15. My son and I met David through Jack Powers of Stone Soup Poetry in Boston in the 70s. At that timewe bought In the Summer, I go Fishing. Why is there no info on this book or picture, anywhere? I’m going to purchase it again just to see the pictures again.

  16. […] one more! Since we’re on the topic of Beatrix Potter, I’ve got a spread below from David McPhail’s Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box, which was released last October (Henry […]

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