In Matthew Van Fleet’s novelty books, baby birds’ beaks open to receive worms, a dog scratches at a flea, and stinkbugs do indeed stink. One of his books, Monday the Bullfrog, is in itself a cloth puppet. Another common thread, besides their use of movement and texture—they sell. Van Fleet has published eight books, including his most recent, Alphabet (S&S/Wiseman, Apr.), since 1992. Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings (Dial, 1995) has sold more than a million copies, and last year’s Dog (also S&S/Wiseman) has sold just under 300,000 copies to date.
Van Fleet at work.
This month Van Fleet’s Alphabet arrives with a 350,000-copy first printing; he illustrated it in the vein of Tails (published by Harcourt in 2003 while his longtime editor, Paula Wiseman, was working there), which also shares the same squat dimensions (10 3/4” x 7 1/4”). Alphabet employs many of the novelty mechanisms familiar to Van Fleet’s books, as well as something completely new for him: a removable poster featuring 26 pop-ups hidden beneath flaps, one for each letter.
Since 1995, Van Fleet has lived with his wife, Mara (who works as an associate art director at Reader’s Digest), and their two children, Alex, 13, and Ryan, 7, in Chappaqua, N.Y., where Bookshelf visited him one recent rainy morning. The sandy-haired author follows the publishing industry avidly and is quick with a joke or anecdote—often self-deprecating, slightly profane or both. He spoke of needing to find mice for a photo shoot for Cat (a forthcoming follow-up Van Fleet’s Dog) and recalled dashing across the street to try to capture one that a neighbor had spotted. But in addition to trying to coax a usable pose from one, he had to deal with mice escaping and, in one case, dying before his collaborator on Cat and Dog, Brian Stanton, could photograph it.
Van Fleet’s studio is a back room in his home, and because both his children are of school age, he has the house to himself most days with the exception of his pugs, Boris and Natasha, and a frog that lives in an aquarium in his studio. Family and pets often make cameos in his books: Boris is one of the three dogs pictured on the cover of Dog, and cartoon versions of Van Fleet’s sons appear on the back cover of Alphabet.
Van Fleet’s workstation is dominated by a massive Apple computer with an equally enormous flat-screen monitor, where he does much of his layout work. For photographic books like Cat and Dog, he examines hundreds of photographs taken by Stanton, to determine which ones will work in the books’ layouts, sometimes even switching tails or other features in order to get the perfect pose. (He’s also been known to create “outtake” images that don’t make it to print, such as one of a mouse sipping from a miniature bottle of beer.) In his studio, Van Fleet has a closet full of novelty books, which he’s apt to dissect to examine their mechanicals or cut out a sample of a fabric or fur that catches his eye.
Van Fleet grew up in Clarks Green, Pa., and earned a B.S. in biology from Syracuse University. But an interest in cartooning brought him to New York City in 1987, where he took art classes at night. His entrée into publishing was a design job at Grosset & Dunlap, where he met his future wife. Van Fleet also met Wiseman while at Grosset (she was at Dial at the time), a connection that would result in some of his bestselling books. From Grosset & Dunlap, Van Fleet moved on to Holt and then to Western Publishing, where he was working when his first book, One Yellow Lion,was published by Dial in 1992.
Another auspicious connection for Van Fleet during his days at Grosset was meeting Skip Skwarek, former associate publisher at Dial, who continues to work with the author on all of his books. “Skip is great at backing away from the business aspect of a book and focusing on it editorially,” Van Fleet says. Wiseman sees finished comps of his books, and in addition to her editorial perspective and input, Van Fleet credits her for keeping his nose to the grindstone. “She’s good at pushing me to do books, which is why Cat is so far along.”
More than just giving children a reason to feel textures and make animals move, each of Van Fleet’s books explores a particular concept. In fact, he stresses that a book’s content and concept are always his starting point and are more important than the novelty aspects. “If there’s no reason for the novelty, then it shouldn’t be there,” he says. “You can’t just slap fur on something.” Dog is a study in contrasts (“Good dog,/ bad dog,/ Neat dog,/ Sloppy.”), while Alphabet’sarray of unusual animals and plants (104 in total) emphasizes each letter’s use as well as the animals’ characteristics (“Octopuses sticky,/ Shiny Parrotfishes,/ A Quahog clam is hard outside,/ but inside’s soft and squishes”).
For the author, stocking the book with some less-familiar animals is as rewarding for him as it is useful, he believes, for readers. “You get so sick of doing the same animals,” Van Fleet says. “If you keep talking to kids about ducks and geese, it’s all they’ll know. [With Alphabet] they’ll learn what an uacari is, or they’ll look it up.” He does, however, acknowledge occasional difficulties: “With X and N it gets pretty tough to find two animals and a plant [in addition to the animal mentioned in the text]. It took a lot of research.” (For X, the book features xenops, X-ray fish, xerces blue butterfly and ximenia fruit.)
Van Fleet doesn’t sign a contract for a book before he knows that its mechanicals will work, and he has clauses ensuring that the final books will match the specifications of his designs for the various mechanisms they employ. He says he’s been happy with S&S, noting that they are “really on the ball with production,” which he considers his foremost criterion when it comes to producing novelty books. “It doesn’t matter how many they print—if they don’t work you’re dead,” he says. “One little thing broken and it’ll be returned.”
These days the author is going through “gigs and gigs” of photos of cats on his hard drive and organizing the layouts for the spreads in Cat, currently scheduled for spring 2009, which will explore the concept of idioms. Only a fraction of the images will make it to the book (and the same goes for a overflowing box of props he and Stanton used during photo shoots). But to Van Fleet, the two-plus years of work that go into putting together a book like Cat are worth it—and he has the track record to prove it.
Alphabet by Matthew Van Fleet. S&S/Wiseman, $19.99 ages 2-up ISBN 978-1-4169-5565-8 (Apr.)