7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #341: Featuring Matt Phelan

h1 July 28th, 2013 by jules


Last week, I read Matt Phelan’s newest graphic novel, Bluffton (Candlewick, July 2013), and then turned right around and re-read it multiple times. ‘Cause it’s really good and worthy of the second (and third … and fourth …) looks.

I can promise you that you haven’t seen a book like this in a long while, nor will you see one like it any time soon. And I’m talking about the story. The format is nothing new: It’s Matt working in graphic novel format, once again, which he’s done before in very award-winning ways (2009’s The Storm in the Barn and 2011’s Around the World).

This is the story of a young boy named Henry Harrison. It’s the turn of the 20th century in the quiet, little town of Muskegon, Michigan, and it’s the launch of a summer that will change his life forever. Arriving by train in their sleepy town, where Henry helps his father at his family-owned hardware store, is a troupe of vaudeville actors, including young slapstick star Buster Keaton (legend-in-progress) and his family.

The actors are actually staying in Bluffton, the small neighborhood on the western side of Muskegon Lake, and Henry heads out there one day to check things out. There he sees Cobwebs & Rafters, the “official clubhouse of the Actors’ Colony.” He first sees Buster flying out of the window of the building there when he and his siblings are tossed out of the house by their father. Buster lands, looks up at Henry with a slight smile, and says, “Sand breaks the fall. It’s like landing on a pillow.”


Summer, 1908; the vaudevillians arrive via train …
(Click to enlarge)



(Click either image to see master layout in its entirety)

Eventually, Ed Gary, “Noted Monologuist,” invites Henry to see a show, after he finds out that he’s never seen vaudeville in action. Henry is impressed, and he falls for the theatre.

I really am loathe to give away the entire story here, because I don’t want to ruin anything for those of you who go on to read this. It’s a remarkably well-crafted tale. Suffice it to say that Henry spends his summer with Buster and learns a lot about … well, himself. And true friendship. And enviousness. And compassion. It’s remarkable how much emotion Phelan conveys in one, small panel; in particular, his drawings of the young Buster are rife with emotion, much of it welling up, hiding behind the complex boy’s eyes. (The pencil sketch that opens this post? I love it.)


Matt’s cover sketch


Final cover

Every relationship in this story rings very true — the one between Henry and his father, the friendship Henry has with Buster, and Buster’s complicated relationship with his family. Buster also ends up briefly spending some time with Henry’s neighbor, a girl named Sally (I’d say they’re teens at this point), and it’s when Henry sees this that he realizes the depth of his emotions for her, making him act out in hurtful ways toward Buster. It’s a moving story — poignant without being saccharine. Phelan’s drawings are subtle and communicate a great deal with few lines, and the story is framed with a spot-on rhythm and pacing, guided in part by the passing of time (Henry looking back at multiple summers with Buster and the frustration he felt the rest of the year without his friend). As Kirkus has written about him before, Phelan has a flair for visual drama, and it’s never more evident than here.

Just this week, over here at Nerdy Book Club, Matt discussed his research for this book and tells some neat stories you won’t want to miss.

I thank Matt for sharing some sketches, early paintings, and such today. Here are some more:




“The next day, I went back to Bluffton with some kids from my neighborhood.”
(Click each image to enlarge)



Sketches from beach scene
(Click each to enlarge)


Layout for a Sally and Henry moment
(Click to enlarge)


Layout sketch
(Click to enlarge)

BLUFFTON. Copyright © 2013 by Matt Phelan. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA. Sketches used with permission of Matt Phelan.

* * * * * * *

Note for any new readers: 7-Imp’s 7 Kicks is a weekly meeting ground for taking some time to reflect on Seven(ish) Exceptionally Fabulous, Beautiful, Interesting, Hilarious, or Otherwise Positive Noteworthy Things from the past week, whether book-related or not, that happened to you. New kickers are always welcome.

* * * Jules’ Kicks * * *

My kicks ONE to SEVEN this week are that I finished building my last lecture for the grad course I’m teaching this summer, so I have a more normal schedule once again (“normal” for me, that is). I even read a grown-up novel this week and started several other books. It’s lovely.

And it’s big enough to cover all my kicks.

Also, throw in Bluffton. It’s a tremendous book.

What are YOUR kicks this week?

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21 comments to “7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #341: Featuring Matt Phelan”

  1. Good morning Jules, Matt and 7 IMPers! I fell in love with this book when I was fortunate enough to get a copy of the ARC at ALA. I, too, have read it multiple times. When it was released last week and I was able to get a full-color copy, I read it in complete wonder. It’s stunning in every way, a brilliant piece of work. I’m so happy it’s featured here today. I always enjoy seeing the creative process, the sketches and paintings.

    Jules: Hooray for the completion of the final lecture! Your grown-up novel is at the top of my adult pile. I am so intrigued by the things he has said about it.

    My Kicks:
    1. Rain
    2. Cooler temperatures
    3. Pale yellow stargazers are finally blooming
    4. Multiple rides on our small historic ferry across Lake Charlevoix
    5. Farmers markets
    6. Shopping at my favorite indie bookstore
    7. Strolls with Xena

    Have a wonderful week everyone!


  2. Margie, did you get any new books on your bookstore visit? I’ll have to look up what stargazers look like. … We’ve got cooler temps here, too. It’s wild, but I like it.


  3. Love the work of Mstt Phelan.
    Jules, hooray for getting the last of school done. What’s the grown up novel you’ll read, mentioned by Margie?
    Margie, don’t you love the strolls with Xena? And to take ferry rides.
    My kicks:
    1. Grandgirl for 2 nights. Baking and walking Buster withe her.
    2. Finished Maisie Dobbs book 4.
    3. Workink on a grant.
    4. Time on patio
    5. Outdoor dinners.
    6. Preparing to be gone.August 1-15.
    7. The weather.


  4. Jone, hope you’re going somewhere fun. Good luck with the grant. Those are never fun to work on, but they usually result in good things, if you’re lucky. …. The book I read is linked up there, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.


  5. Jules:
    I got nine new titles for me and four to give away. I think I have a book addiction. I will post pics of stargazers on FB.

    Jone: Good luck with your grant and the change in the weather is a blessing.


  6. I am going somewhere fun: Leavenworth, Wa with college friends and SoCal to see family w/ husband, daughter and grandgirl..


  7. Good morning, Imps! Happy Sunday to you!

    Hi, Matt! Thanks for sharing your works with us today. I look forward to reading Bluffton. I enjoyed The Storm in the Barn.

    Congratulations, Jules! 🙂

    Margie: Your environment always sounds lovely.

    Jone: Enjoy your upcoming vacation!

    My kicks for the past week:
    1) Opening night
    2) Offer
    3) Recording
    4) Performances
    5) Leverage (shared the pilot with friends who became instant fans!)
    6) Salt
    7) Pepper


  8. Hi, Jules! I’ve been away from the kidlitosphere for a while. I haven’t even posted on Wild Rose Reader for nearly three months. I thought I’d stop by today to let you know I’m still alive.

    MY KICKS
    We finally moved to our new place in mid June. Although I thought I’d miss the home where I had lived for thirty-seven years–a place that holds many happy memories for me–I love living in my new in-law apartment. It’s just the right size for two empty nesters. The best part is that I get to see my granddaughter, daughter, and son-in-law every day. It’s fun spending so much time with my little Julia and watching her change and grow. It’s also a joy to share my large collection of children’s picture books with her. Her current favorites include NO, DAVID!, DON”T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS, TRASHY TOWN, GO AWAY BIG GREEN MONSTER!, GLAD MONSTER SAD MONSTER, and I STINK.

    My husband calls our new place “The Farm.” We have more than three-and-a-half acres here. We’ve planted tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, blueberry bushes, and four fruit trees so far.

    I hope your girls are enjoying their summer vacation.


  9. Hello, Kickers!

    Today will be another quick flythrough… new computer arrived yesterday, mysterious hardware issue already preventing me from running for more than a couple minutes. (And I thought all I’d have to do was get the software right. Bwaaa-ha-ha! Such an innocent.)

    I remember that fabulous 2009 interview you did with Matt, Jules. (It was one of those posts which must make other blogging interviewers despair to call themselves such.) He seems to have an affinity for stories set in this general era; the new book sounds lovely!

    Congrats on wrapping up the course. And I have Ocean at the End of the Lane in my TBR stack. (Or Kindle queueueue, anyhow.) Jealous that you’ve gotten to read it this week!

    This week, oy. It was (continues to be)… complex. Still, some kicks:

    1. Finally saw Shaun of the Dead. Laughed myself crazy over it, although it left The Missus scratching her head at a few moments. (She was just watching intermittently.)

    2. Put a new story in a beta reader’s hands. Gulping, but hopefully.

    3. I think it was Farida last week who asked about the hearing aids I’ll be getting. I didn’t know at the time, but now know that this is the model, the so-called “Q90” version specifically (with all the bells and whistles, as they say). (Farida mentioned “a beautiful hearing aid in the shape and pattern of a striped spiral shell” which she’d recently seen. I’m afraid cosmetics are lost on me, though. :))

    4. A sweet friend gave me access to some new music (which she knew I craved) this week. Aforementioned complexities made me unable to access it until this morning, but I am at last awash, even as we speak. All buttons pushed!)

    5. I don’t think anyone here has mentioned the Warehouse 13 series before. One of my favorites — just finished binge-watching the past season’s episodes. (Especially love the Claudia character, played by Allison Scagliotta (sp.?).) Sad to see they’re planning to make the 2014 season the last, though.

    6. We actually had sunshine on two successive days this week. Very suspicious (what are we being softened up for?!?), but welcome.

    7. I guess I’ll put the new PC on the kicks list. Maybe will know for sure in a few hours.

    Have a great week, all!


  10. Elaine: Welcome back! Glad that you enjoy your new home.

    JES: Good luck with the new aids, the new story, and the new computer. Claudia is my favorite character on Warehouse 13, too.


  11. I loved this review and now am so eager to get my hands on Bluffton. I read The Storm in the Barn recently for the graphic novel portion of #bookbootcamp and had already loved Around the World. This look inside Bluffton certainly is intriguing.

    My 7 Kicks
    1. Getting home after 5 days away from my family
    2. Participating in the American Indian Studies Summer Institute
    3. Sitting on rocks in the middle of a river with new friends
    4. Enjoying the beautiful forests of the Menominee and Mohican Nations.
    5. Laughing with comic Richie Plass
    6. Reading with my daughter
    7. Hearing the stories of many people


  12. I know, if I were a kid, that image of the boy standing thoughtfully atop an elephant would totally pull me in. Seeing the sketches here is an education. THX. Looking forward to reading Bluffton.

    Jules, yes, I love that opening pencil sketch. Also the Sally’s smile sketch; it captures a personality. Congrats on wrapping up your grad course. Yep, adding Gaiman’s novel to my stack too.

    First though, I have to finish 3 “homework” novels for a writer’s intensive I’m taking at the SCBWI National Conference next weekend. Looking forward to that gathering of writers and illustrators. Any 7-Imps coming to LA?

    Margie – I took a ferry ride too this week (to Catalina Island and back.) Something grand about small crossings.

    jone – Good luck w/grant. Enjoy your grand gal and vacation.

    LW – Another opening? Break-a-leg. Salt and Pepper were feeling taken for granted and appreciate the shout out, I’m sure. : – )

    Elaine – That’s some in-law spread! Blueberry bushes. (sigh)

    JES – your Bwaa-ha-ha! cracked me up. I’ve had my new computer in a box under my desk for several months now, as I fear how much time it’s going to cost me setting it up and “Just adding the software.” Bwaa-ha-ha, indeed!

    Crystal – I can just imagine kick #3. Nice.

    So my kicks are about my week vacation to the isle of Catalina. We used to go every year when my boys and their cousins were little. This time: a nostalgic reunion– with a baby from the upcoming generation along for the ferry ride. (Babies make everything sweeter somehow.)

    1. glass bottom boat + bright orange Garabaldi fish http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garibaldi_%28fish%29

    2. walking the “Dragon Stairs” from the beach to Middle Terrace (Whew! who needs an elliptical?)

    3. Avalon, where golf carts are king!

    4. the turquoise pleasure pier. Its clock, vendors renting scuba gear, paddleboats and selling bait.

    5. Family on the view deck, talking and laughing; watching the harbor traffic at all hours.

    6. the several day, group-project, 1500 piece, swear-level difficulty, gigsaw puzzle (a tradition.)

    7. group cooking/creative ‘saves’ when something got burnt or we forgot to buy an ingredient.
    (the secret seems to be add garlic or barbecue sauce and don’t confess anything to the eaters.)

    Have a good week kickers! Enjoy your summer. : – )


  13. Hi kickers!

    Jules, what a relief to finish off your lecture prep.

    Margie, I had to go look up stargazers – lovely name – beautiful flower!

    Enjoy your holiday, Jone!

    John, Shaun of the Dead is such a fun movie, glad you enjoyed it!

    My big kick is of course the safe arrival of our healthy baby boy! Rowan is a week old today but it feels like longer as we have learnt a lot in that time! He is super cuddly, feeds fantastically and generally falls asleep very happily. Thanks for the good wishes from fellow kickers on Facebook.


  14. Margie, I know what you mean about books. People always say, “you can’t have too many books,” but I’ve experienced firsthand how you CAN. Or maybe not too many books, but not enough space for them.

    Jone, both trips sound great. Have fun!

    Little Willow, “offer”! Congrats! … Hmm, I gotta try Leverage already. We’re watching two shows now (via Netflix or renting from Amazon, since we have about three channels) that I just don’t even think I want to finish, ’cause they’re not doing it for me.

    ELAINE!! It’s so great to hear from you. I have been wondering how you’re doing. How old is Julia now? Your life sounds really, really good, and I’m so glad you’re happy with the new arrangement. It sounds wonderful! Thank you so much for stopping by and checking in.

    John, hope it’s going well with the new computer, and glad you enjoy the music. Love Shaun of the Dead, and thanks for the TV-show tip. I have never, ever heard of it. … The new hearing-aid technology is crazy impressive. Hope they work out more than well for you.

    Hello, Crystal! Where is the American Indian Studies Summer Institute? It sounds good, and hearing stories all week is perhaps the best way to pass the week.

    Denise, I love the sketches of Sally, too! … Your trip sounds so lovely. Thanks for sharing some details with us. I want to experience a glass-bottom boat one day (as long as I see fish that grand) … Good luck with your homework novels, and I wish I were going to L.A.

    EMMACO! I cannot believe you checked in today. Thank you! I tried to tag all the regular kickers on Facebook (of a photo of you and Rowan), and I have no idea if it worked. We wish you the best, and I hope you get as much sleep as possible. I love his name! CONGRATULATIONS!


  15. Woo Hoo! Congratulations Emmaco and family! So glad to hear the good news.


  16. Welcome to the world, Rowan! Congratulations to Emmaco and family! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Jules: Thank you. Let me know what you think if/when you watch.

    Denise: Gracias.


  17. EMMACO! Congratulations!!!

    (I feel almost like a godparent, since I’m an alumnus of Rowan University in NJ. Ha.)

    Thanks for everyone’s good wishes about the computer. Fixed that issue shortly after posting yesterday’s kicks, so I guess that’s Kick #7.5.

    Denise: I can’t imagine a lifestyle which would let me use the phrase “week vacation to Catalina Island.” Still, the vicarious-pleasure-producing enzymes (or whatever they’re called) in my brain seem to be functioning just fine. Those Garibaldi fish look almost freakish.

    LW, I’d liked Claudia before. But the episode a couple/three years ago when she got to play Hendrix’s guitar just about undid me.


  18. EMMACO — Congrats on your precious arrival! ‘Rowan’ sounds like a brave, old soul.

    JES — Believe me, Avalon is a funky little town and Catalina is a thrifty getaway; it feels a world a way, but costs only a ferry ride (hence our destination of choice when the kids were little and budgets were tight.) The now-grown kids were laughing that our beach house rental still had the same worn carpeting, wallpaper and sagging mattresses it did 20 years ago. Still, I’m fond of dumpy beach houses and corny “pleasure piers”. : – )


  19. I tried tagging you all last week in a Facebook photo of Emma and Rowan — I tagged all the regular kickers, ’cause I thought of you all immediately when I saw the pic and heard the news. I guess it just didn’t work.


  20. I’m planning to read this on my vacation next week.


  21. […] Matt: “I signed on to illustrate Marilyn’s Monster in 2012 but still had to complete Bluffton, Miss Emily, and Druthers before officially working on the book. The lead time was spent filling […]


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