Author-illustrator Matt Phelan is perhaps best known for his graphic novels, including A Storm in the Barn, Bluffton, and Snow White, and has also illustrated projects by Linda Sue Park, Jeanne Birdsall, and Susan Patron. In Knights vs. Dinosaurs, Phelan’s first foray into chapter books, Arthurian knights are taught a lesson by Merlin, and travel back in time to battle the ultimate line-up of dinosaurs. Phelan spoke with PW about the artists and media that influenced his depiction of knights and dinosaurs, bringing graphic novel sensibilities to chapter books, and the role of fear in the creative process.
Knights and dinosaurs are an unexpected pairing. What sparked the idea for this story and combination?
The spark was playing with my son, who was about four at the time. He had these really nice plastic knights and horses with lances and a jousting set. I was lining them up in his room to play a joust. I was taking my time to make sure everything was perfectly lined up, but he got bored with that, grabbed his T. rex, and started attacking the knights. It made me laugh and then I thought, that’s a pretty good idea. It kind of went from there.
My love of dinosaurs came from the original King Kong, Ray Harryhausen movies, and things like that. I love dinosaurs that are more on the “attacky” side. I did a lot of research on dinosaurs for this book, as I’m wont to do with historical fiction books. I started reading up on all the newer information about feathers and colors, but I came to the conclusion that I wanted to go with the older depiction of dinosaurs, green and terrible. No one can really prove that they weren’t like that, so I figured it was okay.
I grew up in the ’70s, when there were a lot of reprints of old comics. One of my dad’s favorites was Prince Valiant, which started my love of King Arthur and all things knights. Then, in my late 20s, I read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. People had been recommending it for years, but I finally got around to reading it and just adored it. I was struck by how funny it is. Of course, it’s beautifully written, too, and when you get to the end you realize it’s about knights, but it’s more about humanity and being a good person. It’s my favorite version. As a kid, I had N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle’s King Arthur books, too. I grew up—and still live—in the Philadelphia area, not far from the Brandywine area, so they were illustrators I knew as a kid. So, Howard Pyle’s knight illustrations are very much burned into my brain. And when I think of that area, I see the Pennsylvania trees Wyeth would paint into his King Arthur work. It was definitely King Arthur in the Brandywine Valley.
What type of research did you conduct in writing Knights vs. Dinosaurs? How did you decide where to adhere to fact and where to yield to artistic interpretation for the sake of entertainment?
I looked up dinosaurs and picked the ones I wanted—ones that I loved as a kid, like T. rex and triceratops. I didn’t throw in any of the dinosaurs they’ve more recently discovered, which are fascinating and wild, because I really wanted to keep to [what I considered] core dinosaurs. I was more concerned with the images having a lot of energy. I do this with most of my work; I’d rather have energy in the line than a stiff representation.
Instead of referring to creatures from one specific period, you incorporated a variety of well-known dinosaurs from across time periods. Why go this route?
There’s an explainer in the back of the book, but I basically wanted the greatest dinosaurs. If you stick to one era, you can’t do that; you can’t have a T. rex next to a triceratops. My idea was, since Merlin has created this whole thing to teach these knights a lesson, he has leeway to populate the world with whichever dinosaurs he chooses.
Did you decide on the format of this book, an illustrated chapter book, early in the process? Or was there something about this story that you feel makes it ideal for that format and audience?
I had just finished my fourth graphic novel, Snow White, and was really interested in trying something different... and I hadn’t written a chapter book before. My first graphic novel, A Storm in the Barn, started out as a chapter book and it didn’t work—I realized it was better told through pictures as a graphic novel. I wanted to explore what you can do with a chapter book, especially with dialogue, because my graphic novels lean more towards telling the story with pictures.
I knew it would be heavily illustrated and wanted to play with that, too. There’s an eight-page comic right in the middle of the book depicting one of the big fights; I wanted to blend both formats. Throughout, there might be a spot illustration, then a picture on a third of a spread, and then there are pages that are almost like a picture book. I also wanted to keep the book relatively short; to have all those things and still bring it in under 150 pages. My graphic novels are all over 200 pages because it takes longer to tell a story visually. I wanted to bring what I learned from making four graphic novels into making a chapter book, things like economy and precision. That’s the key to a graphic novel: nothing unnecessary is there. I wanted to bring that into a chapter book.
What came first here: the images or the words?
The words. I wrote the manuscript first. I’ve done that with all my graphic novels, too, which people are always surprised by because there are large stretches in my graphic novels that are told visually. I always write a full manuscript before I start to draw anything. Not everyone who writes and draws graphic novels works that way, but I’ve always separated the two. I do a lot of work as an illustrator for other authors, which I enjoy as much as doing my own books, but I do it in the same way. Only after a manuscript I’ve written is edited and ready do I hand it off to my illustrator self.
Do you have go-to materials, techniques, or routines that are integral to your illustration process?
I wish I did. [Laughs] I really wish I did. For whatever reason, I’ve never settled on one way to do things or a routine. I have an impulse to change it up from book to book. I almost think: what does this book need to be? What does it need to look like? I look at people who do pen and ink and then a watercolor wash and that’s their thing. They do it for every book and it’s brilliant. I kind of wish I had that. But I’m constantly experimenting with different paper and thinking, “Oh, maybe I should do this in pencil.” I spend a lot of time experimenting, which is stressful until you get it right.
How does your process change depending on whether you’re illustrating your own manuscript or another author’s text?
It’s a very subtle difference. The most obvious difference is, if it’s my own book, I know that I can cut something [from the text] if I can just draw it. When I’m illustrating another author’s book, my main goal is to try to understand that author’s intention for the story. Not just on the surface of the story, but the emotional truth of the story. That sometimes takes some extra time because I’m coming in cold. The ones that resonate are easier to bring myself into. Books like The Higher Power of Lucky. I loved those characters so much and the emotions represented, so it was easier to understand what Susan Patron was trying to do and then add something to the story. So, with collaborations, I’m starting in a different place. With books I’ve written, I know the characters and the point of the story, it’s deep in my bones already. With someone else’s manuscript, I have to figure that out. That’s why I like doing both; it’s different approaches with the same result. It is a challenge to dive deep enough into someone else’s story that you feel you can draw it honestly.
When pitched a project in which you’re illustrating another’s text, how do you decide if you’ll accept? Is there something you’re looking for when considering a pitch?
Yes, I have to connect immediately to something in the story. It could be a character or situation, but hopefully it’s one of those two things plus emotion. It certainly helps if I start getting ideas right away and find myself grabbing for a sketchbook to get ideas down, but that isn’t always the case. There have definitely been manuscripts I’ve accepted because I wanted to be able to illustrate it, which is different than I want to illustrate it. I see it as a challenge. Being unsure is not a terrible way to approach a project. It can be scary and stressful when you’re trying to figure it out. Staying “in my wheelhouse” isn’t interesting to me: I want to rise to the level of the material. So for me, when I agree to do a book, there’s often just a tinge of fear.
Your work has been published with multiple publishing houses. Are you working on more than one project at a time? How do you adjust to working with different editors and art directors from project to project?
I do work on different projects at the same time, but never at the same place in the process. In other words, I’ll be doing final illustrations on one project, working on loose character sketches for another, and working on the next thing in the back of my head. I wouldn’t want to do final illustrations for two projects at one time. There’s always, thankfully, something coming next. As a creative person, I feel it’s good to be able to take a break from one project and focus on the next thing for a bit.
Working with other publishers? Well, it’s kind of the nature of it when you do collaborations. Each house is a little bit different, but everyone wants to make the book as good as possible.
Is there a thread that you feel connects all your work and the stories you’ve chosen to tell?
It wasn’t a conscious decision at the beginning of my career, but when I look back at my books, particularly those I’ve written, I think there’s a tendency toward emotion.
When I was trying to be an illustrator, I would draw things, then I’d hang them up in my apartment and have friends come give feedback. I noticed that there was one image, a simple charcoal sketch of a little girl in overalls, that people really seemed to connect to. When I thought about it, I realized I knew that girl. I had thought about her and her story. Snow White was very much about taking what is, on the surface, a fairy tale everyone knows, and finding my Snow White. For me, it’s a story about that girl and seven street kids, not a stepmother and an apple. It’s the emotion and relationship between those seven kids and Snow White.
I attended an acting school, not art school, and I’ve always approached illustration like an actor, getting to the emotional heart and then drawing that. There are many illustrators who are more technically advanced [than me], so I try to bring that emotional quality. When you look at my work, hopefully you feel something a little bit deeper.
What was it about children’s book illustration that pulled you away from acting?
It was always coming along underneath. From being a kid loving Howard Pyle to a teenager loving Chris Van Allsburg. I worked in a lot of bookstores after college. At the first, in the early ’90s, I worked in a children’s book department. The Stinky Cheese Man and William Joyce’s books knocked me out. And not just the picture books! Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May… that book has an amazing first paragraph. And The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and David Small... to this day it just kills me. I can’t even get through a synopsis without my voice catching. I read books like those and thought: I want to do that.
How did you eventually break into the industry and land your first collaboration?
I had a 12-page portfolio, but I kept throwing things out because I was so critical. I realized I was never going to get anywhere doing that, so I signed up for an SCBWI regional event in Pennsylvania. I thought, “Well, I’ll bring my portfolio. I don’t like it, but I’ll do it because I’m signed up for a portfolio review.” I was paired with an art director, Polly Kanevsky from Atheneum Books at Simon & Schuster. She looked at it and said she thought I might be a good fit for a book she was working on. She showed my portfolio to Richard Jackson [of Richard Jackson Books]. That led to my first book, The New Girl and Me by Jacqui Robbins. People hear that the first time I showed my portfolio and I got a book deal out it—it looks like I’m an overnight success. But I spent five years working on my portfolio. If I hadn’t, Polly wouldn’t have responded to it. Now, I still look at that portfolio and cringe, but Polly and Dick saw potential. I’m eternally grateful to Dick Jackson and Polly Kanevsky for the start of my career. They were willing to work with me, which was an amazing gift.
If you were a time-traveling Merlin and could impart wisdom to your past self, just starting in the industry, what would you say?
Try to have more fun. When I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator but was still doing other things, in my mind, it would be a glorious way to spend life. There would be tea and bunnies and walks in the park. It just seemed wonderful. Then, when I started, I saw it was a tremendous amount of work. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had... and the best job. When I was trying to find my way, there was stress and times when I was down on myself and thought I was a fraud. As I met more illustrators, even illustrators who were successful and famous, that kept coming up. Everyone feels like a fraud. It’s a balance. Like I said earlier, not being sure if you can pull it off is a good thing, but you also need to have fun and enjoy what you’re doing. It took me a while to learn to keep the fun part alive, especially when working on graphic novels. You have to keep the excitement and passion throughout.
My past self would now say, “But the stress part goes away, right?” And I would say, “No, it totally doesn’t go away, sorry pal.” I still haven’t gotten to the walks in the park part yet, either.
What can you share about your next project?
There will be two more books with the knights, the next being Knights vs. Monsters! And, in the spring, I’ll be working on another self-authored picture book for Greenwillow. Pignic was an absolute joy to do. The next is along the same lines as far as the audience and in terms of simplicity.
I really enjoy mixing things up. Usually, when I finish a graphic novel, I follow it with a picture book written by someone else. Now, I have chapter books and my picture books, too. The variety in children’s literature is one of the greatest things about it. I don’t think of myself as just a graphic novelist or just a picture book illustrator. I’m interested in all these forms and don’t want to be pigeonholed.
Knights vs. Dinosaurs by Matt Phelan. Greenwillow, $16.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-06-268623-7