Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Matt Tavares

h1 February 25th, 2010 by jules

Author/illustrator Matt Tavares is joining me for breakfast this morning, and here’s why I’m happy about it:

My Picture Book Moods change. I love some good abstract children’s book illustrations some days; I love the postmodern on others. I love me some funky and even some cartoony, depending on my mood, and I like minimalism done well. Sometimes my mood is very Rashcka; other days, very Kadir. Some days, it’s gotta be detailed, ornate Barbara McClintock or nothing at all. You know me (and you get the point): While I have my favorite styles and illustrators, I also am an all-around Picture Book Nerd who likes to take it all in — as long as it’s done well. And when I want to see a master watercolorist working in realism, someone who paints—as The Washington Post once put it—with a real sense of solidity (and usually taking on quite “monumental subject matter”), one illustrator I go to is Matt. In writing about his illustrations for Doreen Rappaport’s Lady Liberty, James McMullan wrote in The New York Times, “Tavares creates images with a pageantlike grandeur. He achieves this by arranging the figures in classically simple compositions and through his use of light.” Spectacular is what the work in that book is…

Not to mention many of Matt’s other books. Spectacular, dramatic. Just handsome work. Or—if you’re Publishers Weekly, giving my favorite description of all—it’s “muscular.” In the big, grand scheme of things, he’s relatively new to the scene (as you’ll see below, his first book was published in 2000), and I’m quite glad he chose children’s book illustration as his vocational target.

Matt’s latest title, released in January by Candlewick, is Henry Aaron’s Dream, which School Library Journal praises as poignant, well-written, and “brilliantly composed.” I second that review on all accounts, particularly the “well-written” part. Matt tells Aaron’s tale with honesty and reverence. Pictured below is one of its many striking, light-filled spreads.

When I asked Matt about our cyber-breakfast, here’s what he said: “Let’s head over to my favorite breakfast place, Amore Breakfast, here in Ogunquit, Maine. I’ll get the usual — the Amore Bennedict, which is poached eggs, tomato slices, and sausage patties on an English muffin, topped with hollandaise sauce, with home fries. And a large iced Americano with one sugar and a little cream. And, since this is a guilt-free virtual breakfast, let’s also get an order of Bananas Foster for everyone to share.” Holy wow and jump back. Can we have breakfast with him every morning?


“Henry Aaron had a dream. He wanted to be a big-league baseball player. There were times when it seemed almost impossible and times when he almost gave up, but finally, one fine day in 1954, Henry Aaron’s dream came true.

Let’s get to the interview. I’m grabbing the 7-Imp-mobile so that we can head out to Matt’s favorite breakfast dive, and I’ll get the basics from him in the process. I thank him for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

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

Matt: Illustrator/Author. I still think of myself primarily as an illustrator, because that’s what I spend most of my time doing, even on books when I’m the author and the illustrator. But I love writing, too.

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

Matt: As author/illustrator: Zachary’s Ball (2000), Oliver’s Game (2004), Mudball (2005), and Henry Aaron’s Dream (2010). As illustrator: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (2002); Jack and the Beanstalk by E. Nesbit (2006); Iron Hans, retold by Stephen Mitchell (2007); Lady Liberty: A Biography by Doreen Rappaport; The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup (2009). {Ed. Note: Directly below are some spreads from and the cover of The Gingerbread Pirates.}



“Back beside the starlit tree, the pirates watched as Santa Claus reached into an enormous bag. ‘What have you got there?’ the captain began. ‘It’s a ship!’ Wavy shouted, and the next thing Captain Cookie knew, his men were swarming its decks and rigging. ‘There’s cannons! And cutlasses!’ cried Dots.”
(Click to enlarge)

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

Matt: This keeps changing, but my most recent books were done primarily in watercolor and gouache (which is opaque watercolor). My first couple books were monochromatic, done completely in pencil. This was for a couple reasons — monochromatic illustrations felt right for those books, and at the time I was most comfortable working in pencil. Since then, I’ve been working on becoming a better painter, and now I really prefer working in color.




Spreads from Iron Hans

Lately I’ve been working on learning how to paint digitally. I do all my preliminary sketches digitally now, using a Wacom tablet, which I love, because it makes it really easy for me to try different ideas and move elements of my picture around, while I’m figuring out how it’s going to work. But, once the sketch is done, I still prefer working the old-fashioned way — with paint, pencils, and paper. For my final illustrations, I almost always use Arches 300 lb hot press watercolor paper.

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?

Matt: All my books are picture books, but some are for younger readers (like, The Gingerbread Pirates) and some are for older readers (like, Henry Aaron’s Dream). I don’t think the age range affects my process much, but what does affect my process is whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. There is a different rhythm to illustrating a non-fiction book, since I need to keep checking and double-checking facts the whole time I’m illustrating. With a fiction book, I tend to get into the groove more easily, and there are longer chunks of time when I’m just painting. I actually prefer illustrating non-fiction books, though.


{Ed Note: About this illustration, James McMullan wrote in the New York Times: “Tavares’s talent for depicting physical operations is particularly evident in the pictures dealing with the sawing, nailing, pounding and shaping that went into making the 151-foot copper statue. There is one particularly beautiful picture showing the wooden armature for the hand holding the torch: Tavares has lovingly delineated each of the laths as they turn in space to form the shape, and he has painted the workers bending so benevolently to attend to this huge hand that they could be
monks at a religious ceremony.”}


Spread from Doreen Rappaport’s Lady Liberty
(Click to enlarge spread)

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Matt: I live in Ogunquit, Maine, about a five-minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean.



Spread from Jack in the Beanstalk

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

Matt: I wrote and illustrated a picture book called Sebastian’s Ball as my senior thesis at Bates College. After I graduated in 1997, I called a few publishers (including Candlewick Press), but they all kindly told me they were not accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Soon after that, my then-girlfriend was going to visit her cousin in Leonia, New Jersey. And it just so happened that my girlfriend’s cousin’s best friend’s mother was a children’s book agent! So as a favor to her daughter’s best friend’s cousin’s boyfriend, literary agent Rosemary Stimola agreed to look at my senior thesis.

Rosemary told me years later that she wasn’t too thrilled with having to take time out of her day to look at some 21-year-old kid’s college portfolio. I walked into her house, expecting to learn a little bit about what an agent is and, hopefully, learn more about how to get published. But, by the end of our meeting, she was my agent!

About nine months after I graduated from college, I got an amazing email from Rosemary, telling me that someone from Candlewick Press wanted to meet with me. On February 13, 1998, I walked into the Candlewick building for the first time and sat down with editorial director Liz Bicknell. She basically told me that they thought of Sebastian’s Ball as a great first draft, but if I wanted to publish my book with Candlewick, they would want to rebuild the book with me. I tried to stay calm and act like there was even a decision to be made, but inside I was saying, “Oh my God, they’re going to publish my book!!!” It was very surreal.

Long story short, Sebastian’s Ball became Zachary’s Ball, published by Candlewick in 2000. Twelve years after that first meeting with Liz Bicknell, I’m currently working on my 10th book with Candlewick.


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

Matt: www.matttavares.com.

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

Matt: I do about twenty-five school visits a year. They’re great — and exhausting. I do up to four presentations in a day. My presentations focus on my process of writing and illustrating, and I show behind-the-scenes stuff, like my rough drafts and sketches. By the time kids see a book, they just see the finished product, so I try to show them all the work that goes into making a book and let them see that authors and illustrators don’t always get it right the first time. I also do a drawing demonstration, using a kid from the audience as a model for an illustration. And, of course, there’s question time, which is always great. A couple of my favorites: “Do you know Mark Twain?” and “Do you know Hannah Montana? “ (My answers: No and No.) I also do illustration workshops, where kids take a section of text and design and illustrate a few pages of a book.



Sketches from Henry Aaron’s Dream

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

Matt: I taught representational illustration for a semester at Maine College of Art. I really enjoyed it, and I think it helped my work. There’s something great about being involved in a critique every week. It made me look at my work differently when I returned to my studio after class. The one down side was that between class time, prep time, and commuting, it took a lot of time out of my schedule, and I didn’t have time to teach and still finish my books on time. I think I’ll teach again someday. For now, I get to teach during school visits.

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

Matt: Henry Aaron’s Dream just came out in January. My next book is Jack’s Path of Courage: The Life of John F. Kennedy, written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by me (October 2010). That one is all done, and now I’m working on illustrating Over the River and Through the Woods by Lydia Maria Child. And after that, a picture book biography I’m writing and illustrating about Ted Williams.


Jacket for Jack’s Path of Courage


Manuscript for Over the River and Through the Woods

Mmm. Coffee.Our table’s set now for seven questions over breakfast, and we’ve got our Amore Bennedict on the way. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Matt again for stopping by.

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?

Matt: I start with the manuscript. Of course, if I’m the author, there’s the whole ”writing the book” part of the process. In any case, once the manuscript is ready, I read it through a bunch of times and try to picture the story in my head. I take notes on the manuscript and scribble all the possible scenes I could illustrate. Usually, certain moments jump out at me as important scenes that need to be illustrated. Next, I divide the text up into pages, depending on whether it’s going to be a 32-, 40-, or sometimes 48-page book. Then, small thumbnail sketches, followed by bigger rough sketches, followed by more finished sketches. Oftentimes, I’ll find reference photos before the finished sketches, which often means posing myself as my characters.




Poses for, sketch of, and final spread from Doreen Rappaport’s Lady Liberty

Once I finish all my sketches, I submit them to my art director. Then she gives feedback, usually asking me to make changes to some or re-do others. Once all the sketches are ready to go to final art, she sends me full-size layouts, and I trace my sketches from the full-size layout onto my watercolor paper. That way, if I have a good finished sketch, I’ve got a head start on my final illustration. My final pictures usually take three of four days for a 2-page spread, sometimes longer. The whole process takes about eight months or so.




Henry Aaron had a dream. He wanted to be a big-league baseball player…But his father knew he shouldn’t get his hopes up. ‘Ain’t no colored ballplayers,’ he told Henry. Still, Henry held on to his dream.”

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

Matt: I have two rooms in my house that I use as my studio. The main room is meant to be a “three-season room,” but I use it all four seasons. Two walls have big windows, and the other two walls are covered with built-in book cases. It’s a great room for drawing and painting — lots of light. The other room is mostly storage, flat files, boxes of books, etc. Between the rooms are double doors that used to be in the old Ogunquit post office. (The postmaster lived here long ago.)






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

Matt: Some of my favorites I remember from when I was a kid are Make Way for Ducklings and One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey; everything by Dr. Suess, especially Yertle the Turtle; anything by Maurice Sendak; Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber. When I was a bit older, I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books and anything about baseball.



Spread from Mudball



Spread from Oliver’s Game

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: One of the great things about my job is that I get to meet a lot of other illustrators and author/illustrators, so I’ve actually met many of my favorite illustrators. I love talking shop with illustrator friends; it always gives me a creative boost. Being a writer/illustrator is solitary so much of the time, so it’s so great to talk with other people who are doing the same thing and know that I’m part of a community. But three I haven’t met… I’d say Brian Selznick, David Wiesner, and Maurice Sendak. I’d also like to meet Adam Rex. I love his books and enjoy his blog. Seems like I would have met him by now, but I haven’t.





Matt’s poses and sketches for a spread from Henry Aaron’s Dream

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: Currently loading into the CD player is Lou Barlow’s new CD, Goodnight Unknown (which is very good, by the way). I almost always listen to something when I paint, either music or audiobooks or podcasts. Sometimes I’ll listen to an audiobook about something I’m researching, as a way of multitasking. I also listen to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report almost every day — except when I’m researching and writing. I can’t listen to anything when I’m writing.

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

Matt: I have never held my pencil the right way. Drove my 3rd-grade teacher crazy.




Spread from ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

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

Matt: I can’t think of any. After all the school visits I’ve done, I’m not sure there are any questions left that have not been asked. But there’s one question I’m asked a lot, particularly when I have a new book out that I wrote and illustrated, which I wish interviewers wouldn’t ask. It is: “Who does your illustrations?” I do! And if I didn’t, they wouldn’t be MY illustrations. And there would be someone else’s name on the cover of the book! A lot of people seem to think of the illustrator of a picture book not as co-creator, but as a hired hand who is paid by the author to paint whatever the author tells the illustrator to paint.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Matt: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Specifically, listening to my two-year-old daughter say it.

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Matt: “Regretfully.”

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

Matt: When I get in a groove and I’m completely wrapped up in what I’m working on and hours pass, and I forget to eat lunch.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Matt: Keeping track of business expenses, invoices, tax forms, etc.

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

Matt: “Gadzooks!”

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

Matt: My daughters’ laughter.

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

Matt: Opening and closing an ironing board.

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

Matt: Hand-drawn animation, like the old Disney movies.

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

Matt: Reality-t.v. star.

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

Matt: “Says here you’re an author. Anything I may have heard of?”

* * * * * * *

All artwork, sketches, and photos used with permission of Matt Tavares — with the exception of the spreads below:

HENRY AARON’S DREAM. Copyright © 2010 by Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

MUDBALL. Copyright © 2005 Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

OLIVER’S GAME. Copyright © 2004 by Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

ZACHARY’S BALL. Copyright © 2000 by Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Copyright © 2002 Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

LADY LIBERTY. Text copyright © 2008 Doreen Rappaport. Illustrations copyright © 2008 Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

IRON HANS. Text copyright © 2007 Stephen Mitchell. Illustrations copyright © 2007 Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK. Illustrations copyright © 2006 by Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

THE GINGERBREAD PIRATES. Text copyright © 2009 Kristin Kladstrup. Illustrations copyright © 2009 Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred. He was created by Matt Phelan, and he made his 7-Imp premiere in September 2009. Matt told Alfred to just pack his bags and live at 7-Imp forever and always introduce Pivot. All that’s to say that Alfred is © 2009, Matt Phelan.





6 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Matt Tavares”

  1. First! I met Matt for the first time last year at the ‘O’ Show at the Society of Illustrators. Great guy! I’ve seen that Kennedy piece in real life and I’ve decided I want it. I don’t know how, but it will be mine…Oh yes… It will be mine…..


  2. I gave Matt’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” book to my wife as a gift a few years ago. It’s one of our favorite Christmas traditions with our kids, reading the book most nights before bedtime leading up to the holiday. His smoky illustrations perfectly bring the story to life.


  3. This is such an in-depth interview, it’s great. I love how we can see his studio and the work in progress. This is why I will come back to this blog time and time again.
    Matt’s illustrations are great and it’s nice to see he uses different medium and styles. I like the look of Gingerbread Pirates, but that may be down to my gingerbread obsession.


  4. Very cool. Love the Night Before Christmas cover and the Mudball spreads especially. Amazing work and a fascinating interview. Thanks, Jules and Matt!


  5. Whoa, another tour de force interview. Awesome!


  6. First-class information it is without doubt. Weve been awaiting for this info.


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