Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Matt Phelan

h1 September 15th, 2009 by jules

Last year, I started this seven-questions-over-breakfast author/illustrator interview series, all because there were a handful of new illustrators, in particular, with whom I really wanted to chat, whose careers I was following with interest, and whose art I was hankerin’ to showcase. Matt Phelan was one of those folks. And it’s taken me this long to feature him here, but I finally have. I welcome him for a cyber-breakfast; Matt says he’ll take your classic eggs (style depending on whim), bacon, toast (with home-made jam), and home fries. And strong coffee, please. Of course, I don’t have this every day… except for the coffee. That is non-negotiable.” Why, here’s a coffee-drinker after my own heart. Strong and MUST-HAVE: The two ways I like coffee best. And the rest of his breakfast is nothing to sneeze at either. He might have to come over more often.

Though I’ve wanted to invite him over for a while, there’s no better time than now. Matt has illustrated a handful of picture books, since embarking on full-time children’s book illustrating in 2004 (which is “as much fun as it sounds,” he writes at his site)—as well as the Newbery-Award-winning novel, The Higher Power of Lucky, in 2006—but his newest venture is a graphic novel he wrote and illustrated himself, The Storm in the Barn, released by Candlewick this month. School Library Journal calls it a “complex but accessible and fascinating book,” and Kirkus says it’s “not to be missed,” adding “{a}uthor/illustrator Phelan’s first graphic tale is part historical mystery, part fantasy thriller. The pencil-and-watercolor panels are cinematically framed and often wordless, advancing the plot and delineating character with careful strokes.” It tells the story of eleven-year-old Jack Clark, living on his family’s farm in Kansas in 1937. There’s a terrible drought; Jack’s sister, Dorothy, is terribly ill; and Jack is consistently harrassed by bullies. Feeling generally useless to his family, he sees a terrifying apparition with a face like rain in a nearby abandoned barn, only to be told he is suffering from Dust Dementia. Jack must find the strength to defeat this phantom, and…well, that’s all I’ll say. I don’t want to give too much away.

But I will say that the book is gripping and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen this year. Phelan brings us a tale that is part thriller, part historical fiction, and part homage to the wonderful Jack tales and L. Frank Baum’s Oz tales. It’s spare and beautiful, and the art is emotionally-compelling. Matt mentions below the “strain of melancholia” in his work, one of the things that draws me to it, and it’s never more apparent than in this title. Yet, it is also a triumph of hope and, ultimately, familial affection. “With delicacy and style, Phelan draws readers into another time and place and brings to life a story that is like no other you can find anywhere else,” wrote Betsy Bird in August. “{H}e can bring into sharp focus an image with an almost cinematic sense.”

A preliminary drawing of Jack

I also realize, having formatted this interview, that there are many picture book titles he illustrated previously that I haven’t even seen yet. On that note, I need to be off to get copies and fix this problem, because it’s kind of a travesty, folks. But, first, let’s sit down and have a chat with him. I thank him, in particular, for sharing all the art work — especially the sneak-peek at the new Jeanne-Birdsall picture book. Woo and hoo!

Note: Absolutely do not miss Kelly Fineman’s recent sit-down interview in Philadelphia with Matt. It’s here. They discussed his newest title in depth, as well as Matt’s very good reason for loving the ukulele as much as he does.

* * * * * * *

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

Matt: Newly minted author/illustrator, but I still answer to “illustrator” if you see me on the street.

Spot illustration from The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
(Atheneum, 2006)

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


Illustration from The New Girl… and Me by Jacqui Robbins
(Atheneum, 2006)

I also contributed short graphic stories to the anthologies Our White House (“Hoover’s One Term”) and Sideshow (“Jargo!”), both from Candlewick.

A preliminary sketch for Matt’s short story, Jargo!
(from the anthology,
Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists
and Other Matters Odd and Magical
, Candlewick, 2009).

7-Imp {pictured here is one of Matt’s blog sketches}: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Matt: I usually use some combination of pencil, ink, and watercolor, although I occasionally use gouache, acrylic, and pastel. I try to approach each book as something unique and decide on the medium and look of the book as I begin working on it.

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 from another?

Matt: I don’t really think of it in terms of age group. Whether it’s a picture book or a novel, I’m trying to match the tone of the story, so I suppose the age appropriateness takes care of itself. The real difference is that for picture books, you are concerned with creating the whole “world” of the book. The reader will be completely immersed in your visual presentation, and you have to pay close attention to details like the page turn and the rhythm of the images. For novels, you are trying to accent the prose with small glimpses into the scene. The graphic novel seems to be a sort of hybrid of the two, with some particular challenges of its own, such as manipulating the size of the panels in order to influence the reading experience.

All that sounds pretty technical. Really, no matter what the book, I’m always trying to serve the story and, whenever possible, add to the story with my pictures.

Illustration from Always by Ann Stott (Candlewick, 2008)

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Matt: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The early sketch and final illustration
Very Hairy Bear by Alice Schertle (Harcourt, 2007).
(“I switched from my usual pen and watercolor to Conte crayon and pastel on a very soft — almost fuzzy — toned paper,” Matt told me back in July ’07, when he visited and shared these images.)

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

Matt: Once I finally realized that illustrating children’s books was what I wanted to do when I grew up (i.e. my early thirties), I spent about three years or so developing a decent portfolio. The problem was that I kept rejecting pieces and starting over. In order to stop that self-defeating cycle, I signed up for a portfolio review at a regional SCBWI event. By the luck of the draw, I was assigned to Polly Kanevsky, an art director from Simon and Schuster. She liked my work and showed my portfolio to Richard Jackson, and he hired me to illustrate The New Girl… and Me. As I was working on the sketches for that book, Polly was having difficulty finding an illustrator for The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs. She happened to page through my portfolio again and noticed some black and white drawings I had included, showing a boy and his little sister in the Dust Bowl (early sketches for the story that became The Storm in the Barn). She saw that I could draw depression-era kids in overalls, so I got the job. Because it was scheduled for an earlier list than The New Girl, Seven Wonders became my first published book.

{Ed. Note: Pictured above left is an illustration from Seven Wonders.}

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?

Matt: My newly revamped website is My sketch blog Planet Ham is in its fourth year now.

(Click to enlarge.)

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

Matt: My presentation is always about process. I try to demystify the creative process and also show kids that illustration is a real profession and something they can work towards doing, if they are so inclined. I generally don’t read my books out loud. I always answer questions as I go along, because the questions are often incredibly interesting. One second grader asked me how I knew just when to stop working on a drawing, when it isn’t too little or too much. I told her that she just asked probably THE question that has vexed artists for as long as there has been art. Amazing. I also told her that I’ll be struggling with that question for the rest of my career.

Spot illustration from Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron
(Ginee Seo Books, March 2009)

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

Matt: I don’t teach illustration, mostly because I feel like I’m still making it up as I go along. I was a guest at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) a couple of years ago, and I spent the day talking to students and casually reviewing their work. It was very interesting but also very draining. I’m not sure I have the stamina to do that on a regular basis.

From Where I Live by Eileen Spinelli
(Dial Books, 2007)

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

Matt: I’ve recently finished spot illustrations for a fantastic non-fiction book called Spilling Ink: A Handbook for Young Writers by Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer (Roaring Brook, 2010). I was extremely excited to be the illustrator for Jeanne Birdsall’s first picture book, Flora’s Very Windy Day, which is about a little girl and her brother who are blown into the sky. Flora spends the time entertaining various offers to take her pesky brother off her hands. It comes out in 2010 from Clarion. I’ve just started work on Ann Stott’s second picture book (For You) for Candlewick, and this fall I’ll be working on Susan Patron’s third Lucky novel. After that, I begin drawing my next graphic novel for Candlewick, Around the World, which is based on the true stories of three people who made solo journeys around the world at the end of the nineteenth century.

Cover of Flora’s Very Windy Day

Two character sketches: Flora and Crispin

A finished illustration from the book.
(Click to enlarge.)

Mmm. Coffee.Our table’s set—eggs, mmm—and breakfast is ready. Time for the Big Seven. 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?

Illustration from The Storm in the Barn

Matt: After reading the manuscript a couple of times, I’ll start sketching some characters and rough ideas. Then I’ll do a series of thumbnail drawings (very small sketches) to work out composition, gesture, and the overall idea for each illustration. Then I’ll usually make another series of sketches (still very loose) to show to my editor and art director. After some back and forth, I’ll begin on the final illustrations that will be based on the sketches (but not exact copies).

For The Storm in the Barn, I wanted to first write a detailed script, much like a screenplay. I described what each panel showed and included dialogue when needed. After my editor approved the script, I then began to make thumbnail sketches. Since the book was so large and there were going to be so many drawings, I wanted to make sure everything was set in the script before starting to draw. Hitchcock used this same method for making his movies. Everything was thought out first in the script, which is easier to revise than to redraw fifty pages or whatever.

Below is a series of images showing how Matt created a page from Storm
from script to finish. (Click each image to enlarge.)

{Ed. Note: The above two images are from one huge spread; I separated them to make them easier to see. Click on each image to see the whole spread in its entirety.}

After drawing the entire book in tiny (about one-and-a-half inch) thumbnails, I made another sketch version of the book in a slightly larger (three-inch high) format and added the dialogue. I showed this version to my editor and art director at Candlewick, changes were addressed, and then I was given the green light to proceed to the finals.

In addition to being able to see how the book worked before I started the final drawings, this sketch version allowed me the freedom to “shoot out of sequence,” as they say in movie-making. In other words, I could spend a week or two illustrating all of the scenes between Jack and his sister Dorothy, for instance, knowing how they would fit into the sequence of pages that had been mapped out ahead of time.

I worked on each two-page spread at the same time, so I could see how the pages would look together. I taped the paper to portable drawing boards that I could place on my table and then switch out with another spread while the ink or paint dried. The number of pages necessitated having this sort of assembly-line system. The pencil, ink, and paint stages took up most of 2008.

(Click to enlarge.)

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

Matt: I work on the third floor of our Philadelphia rowhouse. It’s a nice space with my antique drafting table, tons of books that inspire me (some from my childhood), assorted oddities, and quite a few ukuleles and other musical instruments.

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

Matt: The first book I remember buying with my allowance was A Great Big Ugly Man Tied His Horse to Me: A Book of Nonsense Verse by Wallace Tripp. I still have it, and I can definitely see how some of those drawings influenced my work. I’ve always loved The World of Pooh, especially the wonderful illustrations by Ernest Shepard. They are simply the best. I devoured all of the Peanuts on Parade collections I could get my hands on. I would definitely say that Charles Schulz is one of my main influences, both for his drawing and his sense of humor. Now that I think about it, Peanuts and the Pooh books (particularly the ending) probably also have a lot to do with the strain of melancholia that has been detected in my work. I also loved Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, as well as the reprints of Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, and the silver age Marvel comics (particularly Spider-Man) that were published in the seventies. I liked Encyclopedia Brown and Superfudge, read as many biographies as I could (like Meet Ben Franklin or Meet John F. Kennedy) and loved Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain novels. Lloyd Alexander lived in the same Philadelphia suburb that I lived in, but I never had the nerve to knock on his door.

This is an illustration of the characters Flash Gordon and Dale Arden the day Emperor Ming was defeated, by artist Alex Raymond. As an illustration of a key event in the Flash Gordon mythology, it is fair use in the article. The copyright holder is King Features Syndicate. Image from

Flash Gordon and Dale Arden, as illustrated by Alex Raymond
(See image’s alt tag for copyright info.)

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?

Matt: I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of great authors and illustrators in the States, but I haven’t run into any from Great Britain. A pub session with Quentin Blake, Emily Gravett, and Viviane Schwarz sounds like fun.

Illustration from A Box Full of Kittens by Sonia Manzano
(Atheneum Books, 2007)
(Click to enlarge.)

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?

Matt: I’ll hit the shuffle on my iPod and see what comes up: Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang (early 1930s jazz guitar duets), Portastatic, Buddy Holly (the new rarities CD), The Replacements, and Teenage Fanclub.

I will listen to music if it isn’t too distracting to what I’m doing at the time. It varies by mood, but could be anything from rock to early jazz to classical. Sometimes I’ll find a piece of music that suits what I’m working on, and I’ll just listen to it over and over (I listened to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé while drawing the climactic scenes for Storm in the Barn). I listen to a lot of NPR. While working on Big George, I listened to the audio book of 1776 by David McCullough and that helped a great deal.

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

Matt: I have no middle name.

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

Matt: Q: Beatles or Stones?

A: Beatles.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

{Ed. Note: I think I’m going to ask Matt if I can have this little guy here, whose name I think is Alfred, to introduce the Pivot Questionnaire for every interview. Because, you see, I love the gravity with which he ushers in this weird, little questionnaire.}

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Matt: “Shindig.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Matt: “Maladroit.”

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

Matt: Any form of creativity and enthusiasm in general.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Matt: Negativity.

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

Matt: “Avec!” (Thank you, Pepe Le Pew.)

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

Matt: My daughter’s giggle.

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

Matt: Those white noise machines that are supposed to relax you.

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

Matt: Story artist at Pixar and/or Lighthouse Keeper.

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

Matt: Roofer. I dislike the smell of tar. I also dislike plummeting.

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

Matt: “Turns out you were both completely wrong AND completely right. Come on in.”

* * * * * * *

Images of Matt, his studio, and all artwork and sketches are courtesy of Matt Phelan. All rights reserved.

THE STORM IN THE BARN. Copyright © 2009 by Matt Phelan. Published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA. Images reproduced with permission of author.

31 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Matt Phelan”

  1. Not that he is at all derivative, but there’s something about this artist’s work that sometimes reminds me of Ezra Jack Keats, just a little. I love the swishy movement of the lines; he easily embodies whimsy and movement and a kind of wistfulness with his pencils.

  2. Alfred! Alfred! Alfred! (I’m starting the fan club.) Oh, I hope Matt will loan him to you. He’s perfectly perfect for the Pivot Questionnaire.

    Also, I adore Matt Phelan’s artwork, every bit of all of it here, and I would say something interesting about it, but I can’t think straight now that he’s mentioned the Prydain chronicles, the childhood books I love more than any other. Matt, if you ever get to work at Pixar, would you please do a movie WORTHY of these books? Thank you.

    I will now resume admiring the artwork and smiling.

  3. Sara, yes! I got permission to use Alfred for all the Pivots! I love Alfred.

    Tanita, I also wanted to type in this interview but a) wasn’t sure how to word it and b) then promptly forgot that I think there is also something about his work that echoes David Small. That’s a compliment in my world; I agree with you that what Matt does is not derivative.

  4. Man, this is art that immediately makes me wish I could draw. Like makes me ache with a deep longing…and to have a studio too. Great feature, as always!

  5. I am so in love with Alfred that I want to put his image on everything in my house. Matt is astoundingly talented, and I wish I knew more about art to make an insightful comment, but I’ll just leave it at that. And unfortunately, I resemble Flora from the character sketch a bit too often for my own good. Thanks for another fascinating interview, Jules!

  6. Cool interview. Love Alfred, and the berryfull bear and Flora, and especially the big fat ugly man who tied his horse to me. Had never seen that one before. What a hoot!

    There’s a sweet, gentle, wistfulness in Matt’s art. Thanks for featuring him!

  7. Don’t you LOVE him? He’s so, so great. Glad to see you featuring him and his new book!

  8. I am SO impressed by your interviews. They are undoubtedly the best in the kidlitosphere.

    Thank you for always shedding light on the cool folks writing and drawing and creating books for kids.

    I could spend a whole day browsing through your 7 Question Interviews.

    Keep it up!

  9. Oooooo. Lusting after this beautiful work and plotting about what I could possibly write that he could possibly illustrate — in about 1,000 years when he’s not committed to other fabulous projects! Avec!

  10. Love Matt’s work! Excellent interview. Thanks!

  11. Matt I am a kinder teacher and I usually buy books because of the art work first and the story second. Now that won’t be the case with your work. It’s all good. I can’t wait to get my hands on your new Windy day book. We have a whole unit of wind coming up. Thank you for doing what you were meant to do!

  12. […] illustrations have a soft, airy movement to them that I have come to associate with Phelan’s work (HERE is a great interview with him, full of his sketches and other works).  The creams, beiges, and browns make you yearn for tall glasses of water and the soft relief of […]

  13. […] goober.) Specifically, I address the new Candlewick title from Ann Stott and illustrated by Matt Phelan. Go have a look, if you’re so inclined. I’d love any and all interested folks to weigh […]

  14. I adore Matt’s work, and this was such a great interlude with him… Thank you. Matt is a great inspiration and I am feeling very energized…

  15. omg i didn’t read this cuz it was too long

  16. jk i love matt phelan!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  17. […] Festival of Books, and I will be hosting the session this afternoon for author/illustrators Matt Phelan and Bob Shea (and, as mentioned, get to meet up with them before-hand for a cup ‘o’ […]

  18. […] Festival of Books, and I will be hosting the session this afternoon for author/illustrators Matt Phelan and Bob Shea (and, as mentioned, get to meet up with them before-hand for a cup ‘o’ […]

  19. […] me earlier than usual for today’s post. Alfred, who sprung from the mind and paintbrush of Matt Phelan, now lives at 7-Imp and always introduces Bernard Pivot’s famous Pivot Questionnaire, which […]

  20. […] During my final semester, I had the pleasure of being taught by Greg Pizzoli, Zach Ohora, and Matt Phelan in a class called Personal Viewpoints, where they offered individual perspectives regarding […]

  21. […] I had the privilege to co-teach a class at UArts in Philly this spring with Greg Pizzoli and Matt Phelan. It was inspiring to see the students’ work, and it helped me verbalize ideas that I have […]

  22. […] week, I read Matt Phelan’s newest graphic novel, Bluffton (Candlewick, July 2013), and then turned right around and re-read it […]

  23. […] Matt Phelan has already visited 7-Imp this year. He shared some early art from Bluffton back in […]

  24. […] above is Matt Phelan’s rendition of author/illustrator Greg Pizzoli, who’s visiting me for breakfast today (and […]

  25. […] at Kirkus today, I talk to author-illustrator Matt Phelan, pictured here, about his 2014 projects, Burleigh Mutén’s Miss Emily, released back in March, […]

  26. […] week, I chatted (here) with author-illustrator Matt Phelan about his 2014 projects, Burleigh Mutén’s Miss Emily (Candlewick), released back in March, and […]

  27. […] each image—dummy and final art—to enlarge)   Good morning, all. Matt Phelan is visiting 7-Imp today to share some sketches and art from Michelle Knudsen’s […]

  28. […] Sources: Author/Illustrator website Author/Illustrator interview: Writing and Ruminating Author/llustrator interview: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast […]

  29. […] to enlarge image)   Today over at Kirkus, I’ve got new books from Shaun Tan and Matt Phelan on the mind. That is […]

  30. […] week I wrote here about Matt Phelan’s Snow White: A Graphic Novel (Candlewick, September 2016), as well as Shaun Tan’s The Singing […]

  31. […] Dear Imps, did you read this year Matt Phelan’s exceptionally good graphic novel, Snow White? I wrote about it here at Kirkus in September. […]

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact Thanks.