PW talks with Peter McCarty about his new picture book, Moon Plane (Holt).
You’ve gone from dinosaurs in T Is for Terrible to the moon and machinery in Moon Plane. Did you set out to create a picture book on perennial childhood favorites?
This book’s development has been very organic, kind of flowing along. I’ve always loved the airplane shape, especially the shape of the DC-3. I had drawn that airplane before when I was in art school, casting a shadow on the grass, and it made a really nice visual. So the key drawing for the whole thing was a boy on the ground looking up at an airplane flying above.
Another motivation was something I heard on NPR about educators communicating to a kindergartener with his helicopter; that sparked the idea of communicating to a child through an object. I thought of the airplane as being a character.
Originally I imagined a story where the boy flies over a car, a plane, a boat, then goes across the ocean and lands in Ireland—that was the plot at first. But I decided to throw out the idea of the ocean crossing. I thought, I need to spice this thing up, and I knew I could draw the moon really well. So it became this perfect journey where the plane goes around the moon and comes back. In that sense it’s a lot like Little Bunny on the Move. It’s a simple movement story that goes where it’s gotta go, and lands.
The written narrative of Moon Plane does not specify a time period, but the visuals suggest the 1930s or 1940s. Do these decades serve as nostalgic reference points for you?
I love the pure visual shape of things from that era. I didn’t throw a blimp in there, but I could have. For Night Driving, a book I did with John Coy, the characters are in a ’49 Plymouth, and I use the same car for a lot of my books. The one in Moon Plane is a convertible, because I wanted the boy in the plane to be able to look down and see the guy driving. And I used the Santa Fe train because when I grew up, that was just the classic. I remember opening up a Childcraft Encyclopedia, and one page had a really old train with a smokestack, and below that was a more modern train, like the Santa Fe.
Your images allude to early or mid-century artists like Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth too. Who or what are your touchstone art influences?
That whole era has an influence on me. I’m 39 years old, and I remember my older relatives’ houses. I sensed the ’40s just by being around them—the things they collected, the way things were decorated in the ’40s, which were not that long ago. I think people decorate their houses in the style of the era when they were happiest. That was their day. I wasn’t there yet it seems like a distant memory.
I also remember that my grandmother was a sensational artist. Her name was Grace Boyd. She died before I was born, but I grew up with her drawings and paintings all over my mom’s house. It’s amazing when I think about her influence on me and my work. She grew up in the Philadelphia area and went to art school there, and she could do everything—oil painting and all that. I seem to have inherited some of her talent, but her life was so interesting. I was more a suburban kid, always a good artist but mostly sitting at a desk in my bedroom drawing with pencils and pens, rather than painting.
You maintain a signature visual style across all your work. What attracts you to this dense, layered pencil and watercolor technique?
I just love to draw elaborate drawings and work watercolor into them—it’s my favorite thing to do. I paint other things on the side, out of my head, but I use pen and pencil drawing for the things I really care about.
Most of the detail is captured in pencil, to try to bring life into the drawing. It takes a long time to build up that black — you can’t just take a big black crayon and go over it once. There are so many variations of gray—my hand gets exhausted from filling it up. And one thing with black-and-white is it tends to be cool, even if you make it a warm gray. So when you take a drawing and want to make it more colorful, you reach for the reds—they accent and complement the grays that are going on.
If I have any regrets, it’s that Moon Plane is not more colorful—I think in reproduction we lost a bit of the color because the weight of the drawing is really dark and overwhelming. But I really wanted this one to be dark, and it’s all atmosphere, not heavy heavy black, because I wanted to create a welcoming place.
The result is tranquil and welcoming, as you say. But this could be a spooky book, since the child gets aboard a magical aircraft. As you worked, how else did you maintain the aura of a safety net?
I did want to have the mother in it, or else everyone would be asking, “Why is this boy being left alone out on the lawn like that?” I liked the idea of the mother outside the house and doing laundry. This also comes from my early, early memories of being two or three years old.
I like drawing from that really early memory that’s almost like another life. I try to stay in that two- or three-year-old kind of world. As a boy, you hear the engine, look up and see the plane. Kids are still amazed by a plane—we should all be amazed, really!
Also, I have a three-year-old son now. I started this book before he was born, but I see now it’s all about his world, the way I talk to him and the way we interact. When I was drawing the picture of the boy inside the plane, my son looked at the picture and said, “Hi!” to the boy in the window. I loved that he responded to it, because you just don’t know how kids will respond.
How did you write and design the book to maintain both a relaxed mood and the airplane’s momentum as it flies into outer space?
You design a picture book with movement from left to right, and here I had the curvature of the earth, and the plane going farther and farther away, around the moon, then coming back and back. I wanted to keep it super simple, and when I’m drawing I write a lot around the edges in the margins, so the words came along with it.
I also like that the book has different stages. T Is for Terrible went in a straight line, and Hondo and Fabian alternates dog/cat, dog/cat until the end, but here I’m designing it with a deliberate flow. The first stage is the boy in the field looking up at the airplane. Then it kicks into another gear and becomes an outer space book. And it’s another kind of book at the end, with the boy running up to his house with his mother outside hanging laundry.
When I was working, I’d listen to Paul McCartney and Wings singing “Band on the Run,” which starts off as one song and shifts into different gears. This book is like a song in that sense. The writing in a children’s book usually sounds like a song, works like a song. I play a little guitar, and when I write I might pick it out on the guitar a little bit. If it sounds good on the guitar, if it sounds like a song, it should be OK.