Matt Phelan likes to mix things up. He’s written and illustrated his own picture books, he’s illustrated others’ picture book texts, and he’s written a handful of graphic novels, including last year’s Bluffton, which has been nominated for three Eisner Awards, as well as The Storm in the Barn (2009), winner of the Scott O'Dell Award. He’s also illustrated children’s free verse novels (Eileen Spinelli’s Where I Live) and nonfiction (Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook, written by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter). You never know what he’ll be up to next. Unless you interrupt his busy schedule to ask him, which is precisely what I did, given that he’s one of my favorite illustrators, not to mention I’ve seen his two new 2014 titles and really enjoy them.
Well, one is already out on shelves, that is, and the other is coming this fall: Matt did the cover and interior illustrations for Burleigh Mutén’s Miss Emily, released back in March, and his latest picture book, coming in September, is the utterly charming Druthers.
What sets Mutén’s free verse novel Miss Emily apart from other books about the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson is the sense of playful mischief Mutén's captures in Emily. The story is told from the point of view of Mac, a young boy who lives across the street from Dickinson, who sets off on a nighttime adventure with Miss Emily and some other children. The story is based on actual events and includes real correspondence from the poet to the children.
Matt’s illustrations for the book have been described in such terms as wispy, old-fashioned, soft, muted. Indeed, they match the gentle, old-fashioned tone of the writing itself. “I'm never consciously thinking ‘wispy’ when I draw,” Matt tells me when I ask what kind of choices he made when illustrating to match the quaint, softer nature of this light-hearted story, “but my line (and especially my pen line) does have an intentional sketchy quality. I like the term ‘lost and found line’ as a description. As an illustrator, you always want to match both the spirit and the tone of the book. Ink drawings (with charcoal used as tone) seemed to suit this wonderful little story. It's a novel written in verse, so I also wanted to have an almost formal rhythm to the illustrations, which are mostly full-pagers. Captions were included with the drawings to add to the older, classic feel of the book.”
Druthers is the sweet tale of one very young girl’s frustration with a rainy day. But when Penelope tells her father she’s bored, he promptly nips her ennui in the bud with this question: “If you had your druthers, what would you do?” After she figures out what “druthers” means, she and her father engage in an afternoon of imaginative play. It’s an endearing tale, filled with Phelan’s soft, warm watercolors, and a little dose of reality as well: At the end of their imaginative romp, Daddy is exhausted, and it seems nearly all the toys the girl owns have been pulled from their resting places, now strewn across the floor. Did a lot of this story's inspiration come from real life? I had to ask Matt, knowing he has young children of his own.
“I had the idea for Druthers,” he tells me, “years before I became a father, but I do think it took actual experience to really understand the book (and, therefore, be able to draw it). Druthers is about the anything-goes mash-up that is a young kid's imagination. It is, for the most part, limitless, so really committing to play can be exhausting, but always exhilarating. That's something I've learned (or rather, re-learned) from having kids of my own.”
As for what’s on the horizon for Matt, fans of his graphic novels may be especially happy to hear that he’s getting ready to start creating the art for a new one, “a retelling of ‘Snow White’ set in 1933 Manhattan,” he explains. “It's a shadowy, creepy story that I'm hoping will feel like a black and white film noir. That should publish in 2016.” He’s also finishing the final art for Marilyn's Monster, a picture book by Michelle Knudsen (Library Lion, Big Mean Mike), which will be published next year.
In the meantime, we have Miss Emily and Penelope to entertain us. If I had my druthers, children would see their stories, gentle and playful offerings both.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.