Sunday, March 4, 2012

Conversation with Matt Phelan

Blue chicken by Matt Phelan.
One of the reasons I was inspired to start Chicken Lit is that it creates a platform from which I can invite children’s book authors and illustrators to talk with me about what they do. It also gives me a formal medium for sharing news about these artists’ great work in the field of children’s literature.

From the start, I knew Matt Phelan would be the first author/illustrator I would invite to be interviewed for Chicken Lit. Matt is a patron of the branch where I am the children’s librarian, so I’ve had the good fortune to get to know him and his beautiful family over the last two-and-a-half years. He generously agreed to create the blog’s logo, and to be the subject of its inaugural author interview, so I am doubly (triply – wait until you see the illustrations he sent for inclusion!) grateful to him.

If you come to my library branch you will pretty much always see Matt Phelan’s historical fiction graphic novels on display: The Storm in the Barn (Candlewick Press, 2009) and Around the World (Candlewick Press, 2011). Matt has illustrated many books for children, including The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron (which won the Newbery in 2007) and, most recently, I’ll Be There, by Ann Stott (Candlewick Press, 2011).

Chicken Lit: What role does the public library play in your life as an illustrator, as a parent, as a human?

Matt Phelan: We live a block away from our branch (the Charles Santore branch, which is named after the father of the great illustrator Charles Santore) and I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t stop in at least once. I’m either with my daughter in the wonderful children’s room where I get to check out the latest picture books as well as the classics that I missed or need to revisit or I’m getting research material or just plain old good reading from the other sections. It’s friendly, cheerful and always bustling which is what a great community space should be. Also, the children’s librarian is one of the best in the business. [Thanks for saying so. Does my heart good to hear it.]

CL: Do you use the library specifically for researching your own work – looking at other illustrators’ work and researching the stories you write about?

MP: Absolutely. All the above. It is a vast resource, particularly for picture books both new and old.

CL: Your first graphic novel, The Storm in the Barn, came out in 2010 (and won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, among other honors). How has creating graphic novels changed your work as an illustrator?

MP: I’m not sure if it has changed my approach to illustrating, but it definitely has become something I’m known for and is now part of my identity as a book creator. It’s the medium I’m most comfortable using for longer stories, but it hasn’t replaced my interest in the picture book format or spot illustration work for novels. It’s simply another medium for telling a story. A long, complicated medium, but still a medium.

CL: What’s the latest update on the development of The Storm in the Barn as a live action feature film?! There are some amazing movie/TV folks attached to this project. How has the experience of advising on the project been for you? Has it been hard to let go of the book you created and let other people mess about with it?

MP: My involvement so far has just been a few encouraging conversations. The movie is in the very early stages of getting  a studio to sign on to the project. After that, the script gets written, etc, etc. It was not at all difficult for me to let go of the story. My version of The Storm in the Barn is the book. I did that book to the best of my ability at the time and it is the book I set out to write. Whatever happens, the book will always be the book. Also, I admire and trust the creative people behind the movie, so I know they will make the best movie they can make.

CL: Have you booked your trip to Portland, OR yet to catch opening night of the Oregon Children’s Theatre stage production of The Storm in the Barn? Can you tell us more about that amazing project?

MP: I could not be more excited about the play version. And for that, I’ve really not been involved at all except to give them my blessing. Chris Funk, the composer, sent me the demos and then the studio recordings of the score and it is just gorgeous. It is truly incredible to have artists from different fields create something new inspired by my work. I have indeed booked my trip to Portland for the opening. My entire family is coming along, too. It will be great. If you are in Portland, check it out.

CL: You’re doing a panel at PLA in March, Using Graphic Novels for Programming with Teens. Short of collaborating with the guitarist from The Decembrists to develop and stage a theatrical production with original music, what are some ways that your graphic novels have been used by educators to engage young people in learning?

MP: I’ve been very happy to learn from many teachers and librarians that Storm has been used quite a bit in classrooms as a way to talk about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. It is such a fascinating time period and I think it’s wonderful that my book might be a way to introduce it to readers.

Study of Buster Keaton for the new book.
CL: What’s the next graphic novel about, and when does it come out?

MP: The next book is about summer, vaudeville, friendship, and the young Buster Keaton. This one is the closest to my heart of the three I’ve written. I’m painting the final art now and it’s planned for a fall 2013 release from the good folks at Candlewick Press.

CL: One of your books, Very Hairy Bear, written by Alice Schertle, was recently released as a boardbook, which was your first one, right? Did you end up happy with the way the book translated from picture book to board book format? Did the new format significantly change the feel of the book?

MP: I think the designers at Harcourt did a fantastic job with the boardbook version of Hairy Bear. It looks great. Of course, you lose the beautiful soft paper stock of the original, but on the plus side, you can chew on this one. I’m thrilled with it.

CL: You mentioned that you are currently illustrating a book featuring panda bears and that you and your daughter have been drawing panda bears together. Can we see some of your collaborations?

MP: Yes. I’m working on a picture book called Xander's Panda Party by the great Linda Sue Park. My daughter has been helping. This one was drawn by me, painted by Nora.
Panda collaboration.
CL: Thank you a million times over for creating the logo for Chicken Lit. I noticed a very lovely, very blue chicken hanging out on your May 3, 2010 blog post [see image at the top of this post]. Are chickens a thing you enjoy drawing? Do you have a favorite chicken in children’s literature?
The chickens of Rosa Farm.

MP: I don’t think I can choose a favorite chicken. Chickens are inherently funny. I did get to draw chickens for a novel by Liz Wu called Rosa Farm. It was a blast. I hope there are more chicken books in my future.

CL: Me, too.


  1. Ooh, can't wait to see the Buster Keaton book. Thanks to both of you for the interview!

  2. Such a great interview, Elizabeth! I posted about your blog on my blog, and I'm now a follower! :-)

  3. Great interview:)I'm now follower:)