New Voice: Matt Phelan on Druthers

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Matt Phelan is the first-time author of Druthers (Candlewick, 2014). From the promotional copy:

With warmth and humor, award-winning author-illustrator Matt Phelan follows a child as she leads her daddy on some rainy-day flights of fancy.


It’s raining and raining and raining, and Penelope is bored. “What would you do if you had your druthers?” asks her daddy. 

Well, if Penelope had her druthers, she’d go to the zoo. Or be a cowgirl. Or a pirate captain who sails to the island of dinosaurs, or flies away on a rocket to the moon. 

If Penelope had her druthers, she’d go off on amazing adventures — but then again, being stuck inside may not be so bad if your daddy is along for the ride!

Note: Druthers is Matt’s first picture book as the author and illustrator.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

The best thing you can do to learn the craft is to read as many picture books as you can. Try to identify what works and what doesn’t.

Read them Out Loud. If you have a kid on your lap all the better, but it isn’t necessary.

But do read them out loud anyway. It will help you understand the rhythm and page turn.

Having illustrated ten picture books before writing my own, I had a unique opportunity to study the craft of writing a picture book. I learned so much from the great writers I’ve collaborated with over the years.

My greatest strength I suppose is that, as an illustrator, I know intuitively when I can let the pictures tell the story. The great challenge is to also work in the words so they do what they need to do to make the book a success. It’s a delicate balance and I’m honestly not sure if it is easier doing both parts or not.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children’s books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for other interested in succeeding on this front?

I think my inner artist and inner writer get along swimmingly. I tend to see my stories first as images, but I write before I really start drawing.

In the case of my graphic novels, that medium allows me to tell much of my story through the images. But before I drew those images, I had written a detailed manuscript describing everything you see. I always write first for my graphic novels. I write in images and then the illustrator side makes those images.

Although I drew my whole life, I worked professionally as a copywriter and screenwriter before my first illustration job. I then concentrated on being an illustrator for five or six years.

During that time I was also playing around with the stories that would become The Storm in the Barn (Candlewick, 2009) and Druthers, so I think I always knew I would eventually write books as well as illustrate them.

As far as advice for author/illustrators, I would say that you must always remember that a picture book (or graphic novel for that matter) is a combination of words and images. You might have a wordless book, but there will still be a Story that you can tell with words. Find the balance, pay attention to the rhythm, and throw yourself into it.

Also (and this goes for anyone), don’t chase trends. If the book you want to write is a “quiet” book, don’t be discouraged because people say the market only wants “edgy” books.

Nobody in publishing knows what they want until they see it, really. You have to write or draw the book that you feel deep in your heart, gut, and soul. It’s the only chance for it to be good.

Outside Matt’s Studio
Inside Matt’s Studio

Author-Illustrator Interview: Lita Judge on Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

From the promotional copy of Born To Be Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge (Roaring Brook, 2014):

What do grizzly bear cubs eat? Where do baby raccoons sleep? And how does a baby otter learn to swim? 

Every baby mammal, from a tiny harvest mouse “pinky” to a fierce lion cub, needs food, shelter, love, and a family.

Filled with illustrations of some of the most adorable babies in the kingdom, this awww-inspiring book looks at the traits that all baby mammals share and proves that, even though they’re born in the wild, they’re not so very different from us, after all!

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I wanted to show the amazing ways in which animals protect and raise their young and how remarkably similar a baby animals needs are to our own.

When I was a little girl, I watched my grandparents raise Golden Eagles and Great Horned Owl chicks. We played foster parent to Green Herons, Red Tailed hawks, raccoons, otters and any other animal that was orphaned or injured.

My grandparents were biologists, and they taught me to respect animals and to study how they live and interact in the wild. My work reflects my upbringing, and the fact that I’ve always felt compelled to bring a better understanding of animals to young readers.

Lita with a Great Horned Owlet

Lita’s grandmother, Fran Hamerstrom, with a Golden Eagle

Lita’s grandmother, Fran Hamerstrom, with a Golden Eagle

What was the timeline between spark and publication?

This book went fairly quickly as far as my picture books go.

When I say quickly, I mean three years. That’s how long it takes me to build up the text and sketches after I have an initial concept in mind.

The initial sketching is always the most time consuming for me. When I illustrate wild animals, I want to reflect not only how they look, but how they move and relate to each other.

That means I actually do hundreds of sketches of animals from life, videos, and pictures before choosing a gesture that I feel says what I’m trying to convey.

Final art is a mere three months or so after the months and months of drawing and playing around with text. And then there is that year-plus time at the end where you are done but have to wait for release.

What were the greatest triumphs and challenges along the way?

For this book, I wanted to show the topic of baby animals in a universal way, depicting not only the needs that all baby animals have, but also showing the connection between our own needs when we are young to theirs.

This meant I had to do a very broad approach and choose the animals to illustrate each point carefully. For every animal that you see in the final book, there are dozens more on the cutting room floor. Taking out a detail, whether it be text or drawing, that you love is always the hardest part for me, but in the end, you find the best way to depict the topic.

What was your connection to the topic?

I have spent most of my life observing and drawing animals. Whether in zoos, or in the wilderness, I carry a sketchbook, binoculars, and camera with me always, recording what I see.

I’ve always been fascinated particularly with baby animals, their playfulness and open expressions.

How did you go about your research process?

Research for a nonfiction book is always an intense and joyful part of my creative process.

For a book on animals, I rely on a lifetime of watching, drawing, and photographing animals. I chose many of the animals in this book particularly because I had spent time observing them in nature.

If it’s an animal I can’t observe easily in nature, I can often go to zoos to draw them, observing not only their appearance, but how they move. Wildlife videos are also a great help for this.

My parents are wildlife photographers and have built up an amazing reference library of photographs over the years.

There is always a lot of reading about animals that goes into a project like this, but the most important thing for me to be able to capture the expressions and likeness of an animal is to spend a lot of time observing and drawing them.

Lita with her grandfather

How did you approach the art?

For me, drawing animals really comes down to capturing its gesture or body movement and expression. I don’t want my readers to just know what a chimpanzee of meerkat looks like; I want them to feel a connection to them. I want them to look into the faces of my animals and feel like there is an animal looking back at them.

I also want them to get an understanding of the intimate world of animals within their own world; how does a mother panda hold her baby, or a baby orangutan curl up and feel safe with its parent.

To capture all this I first do hundreds of very loose sketches, focusing on body language long before I worry about details.

Once I feel like I’ve captured that intimate portrait between the animals, I start focusing on the details, which describe their faces and bodies.

Slowly my drawings become more refined until at last, they are ready for a light watercolor wash at the end.

Looking back on your career, how have you grown and changed as a writer and artist?

I started writing only nonfiction but have grown to love creating both fiction and nonfiction stories.

I think my background as a geologist, and having grown up helping my grandparents with their research projects in the field, made me very comfortable with the research involved with creating nonfiction.

But the more I drew and wrote, the more I began to want to push myself into creating fictional characters that emoted expressions full of exuberance and whimsy.

I think my background with wildlife made my fictional drawings of animals better because they were rooted in an understanding for anatomy and how animals move.

And I think my work with fictional characters made my nonfiction better because it really helped me focus on building connections between my readers and my subject through studying the subtlety of expressions.

Good Morning to Me!, to be released spring 2015

What advice do you have for budding author-illustrators?

Focus on our craft. Put your emphasis there more than worrying about how, when, and where to get published. I see so many people that are very eager to get published; they really put a lot of energy into trying to make connections or getting published before they’ve had a chance to let their work blossom into a unique voice. There will be time for all that, but until then, draw, write, draw, write, draw, write…. until you have stories dancing out of your mind!

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just that I’m really thankful to get to do the work I love. And thankful to the muses that keep me inspired by all their delightful expressions and loving companionship!

Cynsational Notes
Born in the Wild has received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

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