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Cool Job: Children's book illustrator draws on movies, life for inspiration

Matt Phelan children's book author

by Robert DiGiacomo | January 4, 2012



Matt Phelan spends most days in the land of make believe and gets paid for doing it. His companions might be a very hairy bear, a little girl who's not sure how much she likes her little brother, or a kid whose life is about to be changed by the Dust Bowl.

These are all creations of the Philadelphia resident, who has realized his "dream job" of becoming an illustrator of children's books and author of graphic novels for which he supplies the stories and drawings.

Making pictures for a living

Over the past seven years, Phelan has published nearly 20 titles, including the aforementioned "Very Hairy Bear," "Flora's Very Windy Day" and "The Storm in the Barn."

For the latter, he won the 2010 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction and has attracted the attention of Hollywood: "Storm" has been optioned for the big screen by Grady Twins Productions, the company behind TV's "Mad Men" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The book also is being turned into a play by the Oregon Children's Theatre, with the world premiere set for April, 2012.

Phelan is thrilled by his success, but says drawing pictures for a living is harder than it may seem.

"Like most people, I had a romanticized view of what a children's book illustrator and writer's life would be like. I thought it involved a lot of walks in the park and fun time. I have worked harder and longer hours than any other job I've had. The sheer bulk of the work has been a surprise. It was a good surprise, but I thought there would be a lot more free time. I think someday I'll get to the point where I have all that leisure time."

Overnight success?

After graduating from Temple University with a degree in film and theater, Phelan began working towards his goal of becoming a professional illustrator. He earned his living at a bookstore and doing communications for a university, while toiling away on his portfolio.

"I always drew -- it was something I liked to do," he says. "But I didn't think I could draw at the level I needed to be a professional. It took about five years to get my skills in shape. I'm still learning, of course."

In 2004, he secured an appointment to have his portfolio reviewed at a conference organized by the Society of Children's Book Authors and Illustrators. As luck and timing would have it, Phelan met with an art director for Simon & Schuster, who was looking for someone to illustrate a book called "The New Girl…And Me," by Jacqui Robbins.

The next week, Phelan landed his first contract. Shortly thereafter, he was offered on short deadline a second book, "The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs," leading to a major career juncture.

"In order for me to pull it off, I made the decision to quit my job," he says.

Deadlines, deadlines

Although a picture book can take four months to complete and a graphic novel up to 18 months, Phelan rarely has any down time -- he always has something going on his drawing table.

"There are very few days when I don't know what I should do," he says.

He prefers to work in his home-studio, but otherwise isn't particular about his environment. "I lean toward clutter -- I'm constantly fighting a battle towards becoming more clutter-free and organized," he says.

He might play music or listen to National Public Radio, and has at the ready a baker's dozen of ukuleles in different sizes to strum for additional creative inspiration.

"The ukuleles are there to keep me sane, so I stay in the space, but I can have little breaks," he says.

Big, little inspirations

Fittingly, for a former film major, classic movies such as the original "King Kong" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" with Errol Flynn figure mightily in Phelan's imagination.

"I find that a lot of the things I think about are things I've just been interested in for a long time from childhood," he says.

His graphic novel, "The Storm in the Barn," began as a memory of a book belonging to his dad that had historical photographs of the Dust Bowl. From that jumping off point, Phelan started his research anew by reading up on the subject and screening a documentary.

"I thought it would be a good setting for an American fairy tale," he says.

As the father of two children, a three-year-old daughter and an infant son, Phelan is finding out firsthand what works best to keep young audiences' attention.

"Because I have younger kids, I'm interested in picture books for them," he says. "If it grabs [my daughter], she'll want to read it every day."

Beyond the page

Although he draws by hand, Phelan embraces technology to stay in touch with colleagues, promote his work and conduct research.

"There's a huge online world for children's lit -- it's inspiring to see what everyone's doing," he says. "Now that I'm also writing the books, I have to get better at being out there -- I have Facebook, a blog and Twitter."

For research, there's nothing like Google images to source all kinds of material to make sure you get the details right.

"You can find out what a garlic press looks like or a 19th century lamp," he says.

Phelan also travels to mine fresh material, including a trip to Muskegon, Mich., where silent film star Buster Keaton spent his childhood summers, for his third graphic novel, and recent visits to Miami and Nashville to attend book festivals.

Mostly, though, he's happy to stick close to home, despite writing a book called "Around the World."

"A real perk is that I get to work at home, especially with young kids -- I get to see them growing up," he says.

More about Matt Phelan

1. What did you eat for breakfast? Oatmeal, clementines and strong coffee

2. Which day of the week is your favorite? Thursday

3. Which day of the week is your least favorite? Tuesday

4. What was the first job you ever had? Delivery boy/candy counter cashier at a small pharmacy, like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life

5. What makes you angry? Injustice. Inconsiderate people

6. What makes you joyful? My kids

7. If you could have any job, other than your own, what would it be? Museum exhibition designer

8. If you had the time and the money to study anything at all, what would you choose? Art

9. What did you want to be when you grew up? An illustrator

10. Can money bring you happiness? No, but it's good for a few chuckles

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About the Author

Robert DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post, CNN, USA Today and Monster. He is also the co-founder of The City Traveler.