With Matt Phelan

Anne’s work covers an amazing scope of topics. Today we’ll look at one of her historical biographies, BIG GEORGE: HOW A SHY BOY BECAME PRESIDENT WASHINGTON, illustrated by Matt Phelan.


4. What inspired you to write about George Washington? To cull an amazing life into a picture book for young readers — with so much material available — it must’ve been a daunting task. And did you supply any picture references with the manuscript for the illustrator as you wrapped up research for this book?

spot art from BIG GEORGE, illustration by Matt Phelan

spot art from BIG GEORGE

Anne Rockwell: Actually, I’d worked with Tamson Weston for a couple of years on this title. She did a marvelous editing job. There seemed to be problems in getting an illustrator through the acquisitions committee but finally she was able to sign Matt on. After she left Harcourt, Samantha McFerrin picked it up and followed through.

When it comes to the biographical books, such as BIG GEORGE (illustrated  by Matt Phelan); and OPEN THE DOOR TO LIBERTY and ONLY PASSING THROUGH (both illustrated by Greg Christie), the illustrations were aimed at just where the story is aimed at — children older than those I feel most comfortable illustrating for. They brought a lot to my work, and I am so grateful for that.

Storyboard for BIG GEORGE

Storyboard for BIG GEORGE;

Matt Phelan: When editor Tamson Weston called me about illustrating Big George, she said “No cherry tree, no wooden teeth.”

And when I read Anne’s manuscript I saw that this was indeed far deeper and richer than most picture books about Washington.

Her work inspired me so much that I went on to read other biographies like His Excellency by Ellis, and 1776 by David McCullough, so I’d be able to do justice to Big George.

A character sketch

A character sketch

It was very different from my previous picture books and that was very exciting and challenging. I used gouache and polychromos pencils for the illustrations, which was a change from my usual pen and watercolors.

More studies

Preliminary studies

I wanted to give the book a rough and energetic feel because it seemed to me that many books about the Revolutionary War are somewhat crisp, clean and orderly, and this war was a far cry from that.

Cover sketches for BIG GEORGE

Cover sketches

The yellow background in the cover is a nod to N.C. Wyeth’s endpaper paintings for Treasure Island which feature grey figures against a yellow sky. In my mind, Wyeth and Howard Pyle are the kings of illustrating this period, so that just felt right.

final cover for BIG GEORGEW

Final jacket art

34 responses to “With Matt Phelan

  1. Pingback: Cover preview! | got story countdown

  2. Thanks so much for your comments, Arthur and Norma Jean.

    I agree that in most instances the process of keeping the author and illustrator apart, with each contributing a special vision by way of the editor or art director works very well.

    But I’ve worked with a couple of editors who struck me as having little interest in or love for picture books as a genre, and their choices of illustrators were unfortunate.

    Probably as the two of you were writing those comments I received an e-mail from an illustrator whose name I didn’t recognize telling (not asking) me, she had decided I should illustrate her latest manuscript, not yet sold. Not only was I to agree to illustrate it, sight unseen, but she then commenced to tell me just how I should illustrate it.

    • Hi Anne!
      Both Arthur and Norma Jean described the best case scenario for the picture book ensemble.

      There are editors who know how to bring out the best in everyone. Not just their author and illustrator, but from the in-house team: the art director, designer and various production associates. There is the sense that everyone is a mid-wife, helping the process along, like a well-oiled machine.

      There are also a few who are extremists. Every business has its share of control freaks. Some guard their ward (in this case the author/illustrator) so fiercely, that every little missive — even the technical stuff — must be delivered only by them. Even the art director cannot speak to them unless the editor is in the same room. You wonder if they have the artist’s interest at heart, or simply their own.

      The best editors I’ve worked with encourage feedback from everyone, and there is mutual respect all around. And it shows, in every single detail of the final bound book.

      Hmm. Perhaps it’s almost like picking out a doctor. Encountering the editor who’s just right for you.

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  4. Thank you, Matt Phelan, for taking the time between tight deadlines to post and mingle with us! Can hardly wait to meet Joshua, Nellie, and Thomas through your eyes!

    Oh… you could always take work breaks by visiting here, too!

  5. The more I learn about Ben Franklin, the more amazed I am at the man’s accomplishments and interests! It’s downright criminal that most kids don’t know anything beyond that dangerous kite-and-key experiment!

    I think his role as diplomat for America in Paris is well worth exploring. It could give kids added perspective about our country and today’s global arena.

  6. Joy–your mention of Ben Franklin makes me want to add that I had written a story of Benjamin Franklin that , like George Washington’s teeth or the mythical cherry tree, didn’t focus on kite flying in electrical storms. It had been bought by Harcourt before Matt started on BIG GEORGE. I was hoping he would do it, and looking forward to the results, for I had struggled to bring something fresh to his story, and believed I’d succeeded.

    Then Houghton took over Harcourt, and POOR RICHARD, THE STORY OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN went down the drain. Harcourt returned it to me even though it was under contract. Sad story….

    Wasn’t it Thomas Paine who said of the times he and Washington and Franklin lived in, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

  7. Hi Matt. Your work on BIG GEORGE is so wonderful. Everyone in my house just loves that book. You captured the rough energy of the battles, and the tenderness in young George’s face. I can’t wait to read the upcoming graphic novel. Sounds fantastic!

  8. Thanks for your comment, Andrea.

    It expresses my feeling exactly. Right now I’m working on a picture book I’m illustrating myself, and as I do the dummy I find text that isn’t needed — so snip! Snip! I can make that decision myself. I have also revised text after artwork came in and the illustrator made an error, and rather than ask the illustrator to re-do something I rewrite. And while I find that most editors take pride in their work, and have integrity, I don’t know whether it’s the reduced staff for too many books, I’ve come across more than one who simply says “Oh, I don’t think that really matters. It makes a nice splash of color.” I would never allow myself such sloppy standards! As far as art directors go, those inside a house are usually wonderful, but again, lately it seems as though there is no art director–just a freelance designer who may not have even read the text.

    So I agree that a little more collaboration and input from both sides could make for better books. I love working with Paul Meisel, for while I do the writing, he’s such an intelligent and thoughtful researcher that he often comes up with things that weren’t in the text, and wonders if they add something. And you know what — they almost always do.

    On the other hand, a book by me about a child taking a first plane trip on his own had a glaring error, which jumped out at me, and a friend looking at the first copy. I had never seen sketches, mechanicals, nothing. During the safety talk, someone was standing up and taking luggage out of the overhead compartment. As all of us who’ve flown know, the flight attendant would insist that person sit down immediately.

    When I complained loudly about this reaching this point without her, such a big mistake being caught in sketches or wherever, the editor laughed and said, “Oh I think it’s only because she’s never been on a plane. She’s afraid of flying!” Tell that to the child who wants to get his duffel down from the overhead compartment RIGHT NOW, and defends his tantrum by saying “But they did that in my book!”

    Fortunately, I think this book is out of print, and while that’s usually accompanied by sadness and loss, in this case, I’m relieved.

  9. Back on the topic of a writer and an illustrator working on the same book… I have found it interesting that sometimes when I have written a manuscript, then I myself start to lay out picture ideas to go with it, there are some things in the story that need tweeking to make it all work better. I wonder how often illustrators find things in the story which are awkward to them, but which they work around because they don’t want to look like they are trying to rewrite or be difficult to work with. Sometimes a little more collaboration and input from both sides might benefit the end product.


      I received the following responses via email, in response to Andrea’s above comment. — JC


      Arthur Levine: The editor or the art director traditionally act as the go-between, passing questions and suggestions back and forth between artist and author in a way that allows collaboration, but protects the creative freedom of both partners.


      Norma Jean Sawicki: A terrific picture book is a marriage between the story and the illustrations.

      Many new writers of picture books do not see the artist as a creative person in his/her own right but rather a technician. . . as in, “I do not know how to draw but you do and this is what I would like you to draw.”

      For that reason, the writer and illustrator rarely meet. All communication goes through the editor and /or art director.

      The artist is asked to “extend and interpret” the story, the reason the illustrations in the best picture books are far more than literal interpretations of the words.

      When the author sees the artist’s rough sketches, sometimes the text is fine tuned/cut because an illustration conveys what is in the text. An artist may have a suggestion or two for the writer which again is passed along but through the editor and or art director.

      It is a collaboration with everything going through the editor/art director so that the vision of both writer and artist are respected.  When an artist is invited to illustrate a certain story, he/she is told to decline it if it is not loved, and too, an artist is chosen not only for his/her style but the artist’s imagination.

      It is a fascinating process and given the fabulous picture books that have been published, one that works brilliantly.


      Special thanks to editors Arthur Levine and Norma Jean Sawicki for their kind participation. It’s much appreciated! 🙂 — JC


      • In my experience, most editors welcome the exchange of ideas between the writer and artist, and are happy to serve as the conduit for a constructive exchange. Such editors work in tandem with the art director on illustration matters.

        If either writer or illustrator feels their creativity is being cramped, it’s a good idea to discuss this openly and professionally.

  10. I once caught a movie biopic about the British explorer, writer, ethnologist, diplomat, and linguist (among other things) Sir Richard Burton. He lived during the Victorian era. Famous for translating the Kama Sutra into English, which was probably great publicity! Anyway, his home had 25 desks. One project per desk. He said it was the only way to get all the things he needed to do accomplished! That uncanny concept has stayed in my mind for years!

  11. That sounds fascinating Matt! I wanted to be a world explorer when I was little–still do I guess. And I think the idea of multi-desking is brilliant!

  12. Oh, sorry. Joshua Slocum, mariner. Nellie Bly, girl reporter. Thomas Stevens, wheelman (that would be the high-wheel variety of bicycle).

  13. Thanks, Joy. It’s been a long haul, but an overall fun book to do. Should be out next fall.

    I read once that James Cameron years ago used the multi-desk method. He had one room with a few desks and typewriters. One desk had the first Terminator script, the other one had Pirahna 2 or something, and the third had a rewrite job he had. All three going at the same time, but the separation helped. Makes sense.

  14. Hmmm. Three lost explorers circling planet earth. And we can see their moves, though they can’t see us! Sounds like a winner to me!

    Which three explorers?

  15. I posted that comment right after putting on a wash of watercolor that needs to dry without me fussing with it before I continue. I’m finishing my next graphic novel. It’s a tad past due, but I see the end in sight. It’s called Around the World and deals with 3 true stories of people who circled the globe at the end of the 19th century. So… lots of research with this one, too.

    • That project sounds awesome, Matt! So many possibilites.

      Sometimes I wish I could have a different desk and computer for each project for ultimate efficiency. But I need to throw stuff away first. Ha!

      Seems to me there’s a lot a checking and cross-referencing. Better to be minimal, I reckon. You seem to be master of the suggestive, methinks!

  16. I also considered Washington less interesting than his contemporaries until I read this manuscript. The story sparked the interest which led to reading more about him and going on research trips. I think if that hadn’t been the case from the beginning, I probably would have declined the book. To illustrate someone else’s book, you need to find something that resonates with you. For Big George, it was the idea of humanizing the icon. I’m still interested in him… I’m looking forward to reading the new bio that’s out now.

    • Yes. Anne’s telling made Washington’s story compelling. And talk about being steadfast despite the odds, at Valley Forge, coupled with those shoes from the French, thanks to Ben Franklin. A leader that truly walks the walk (no pun intended).

  17. I wonder what Matt’s drawing right now. . . .

  18. Good to meet you Jane. I hope you’ll keep coming for more.

    I know what you’re saying Joy, about leaving an illustrator to his or her own creativity. When I started out, I illustrated books by other authors, so know what it feels like to have someone butt in excessively–or at all for that matter. And good editors and art directors have an integrity about their work, and keep a careful eye on the whole project. I have had, on the whole, excellent luck. Yet some illustrators just aren’t interested in historical or scientific research and that’s certainly their privilege. But I think they should decline stories which require that sort of accuracy, because we should never forget how much children are learning from those pictures, that their visual understanding may still exceed the verbal.

    But overall I’ve been lucky, and sometimes much more than lucky with illustrations, such as BIG GEORGE, that exceeded my highest hopes!

  19. Thank you, Jane! So happy to see you. And it’s always a kick seeing you at the picture book party meetings.

  20. Matt may be interested in knowing Newt Gingrich just launched Valley Forge also to give George the recognition he deserves as a human being, not just as a statue.

    Anne, I’m going to the library to catch up on your wealth of talent. Our personal lives reflect one another, maybe your PB success will spill over, too — just a little.

    Joy…thank you for this wonderful site. I intend to become a committed visitor.

    Jane Patton
    SCBWI-San Diego

  21. There are several reasons for this traditional approach.

    Publishers believe they achieve optimal results when illustrators are allowed to work on someone else’s story entirely on their own. Most of them work in a solitary space — as writers do — and need to get “into the zone,” exactly as writers do.

    The best crafted picture book texts stimulate the illustrator to visualize, and “beats” become apparent to them, mixed in with their own imagery. Thus, all the illustrative input needed should already be there — within the text itself.

    It’s interesting to note that none of Shakespeare’s plays have theatrical directions, aside from “enter” and “exit.” The writing speaks for itself. But the possibilities for staging are endless. Inspiring.

    That’s not to say the author couldn’t provide a separate note with suggestions for the illustrator. But that’s all they should be — suggestions. No one likes to be told what to do.

    On the other hand, if there are references (ie. factual or historical) that would be helpful, by all means supply them with the manuscript, and label everything as needed. But separately, not interwoven with the text.

    In my experience, questions can be exchanged between author and artist freely, as long as it’s via their mutual editor. And artists can consult with their designer/art director for technical support.

    I often have to remind my students that publishing is first and foremost a business, not the place that issues a gold star for your efforts.

    Every publisher wants your book to sell. They also want to meet their own costs and overhead.

    They make it their business to know what specific titles they are competing with, sales figures, current trends in diverse parts of the country (who and what’s selling), and what’s appropriate for particular audiences.

    This is why publishers are the ones who select the illustrator for a manuscript, not the author.

    Then there are the situations where a promising writer is an unknown. The strategy is to pair them with a seasoned illustrator (or a new illustrator with a best-selling writer) with name recognition. Branding can be everything.

    It’s a special event when publishers orchestrate a charmed pairing of writer and artist, as was done for BIG GEORGE. . . .

    • I should add that in my entire career with kid’s books (more than 25 years), that I know of two instances where a pairing just didn’t work out. It’s rare, but does happen. The wrong fit, and a new player was substituted.

  22. Anne, perhaps we can address a comment you posted a while back at the Facebook Got Story page.

    You’ve been blessed with excellent dance partners. We are meeting several of them here at the Countdown. I know of at least three writers who told me they think Matt would be their perfect co-conspirator. 🙂

    But sometimes authors are not as lucky. You wrote:

    “. . . . something that has always puzzled me is the rationale behind the idea that the author who conceived, paced and wrote the picture book should have no input whatsoever into who illustrates it or how. As an author/illustrator, and former illustrator of the work of other authors, and now sometime author only of picture books, I’d love to hear other thoughts.
 It would be interesting and helpful [to know why this is so].

  23. What Matt said about cherry trees and wooden teeth was great! I feel we stuff too many books down kids’ throats that de-mystify our heroes and try to make them cuddly or silly or funny. I’m glad he gave the art the gravitas, yet also charm, the story called for.

    And I like what you said, Joy, about raw energy, for George Washington certainly had that in abundance.

    • I think you’d like the theme for the next San Diego picture book party meeting:

      Bring a recently published picture book which is:
      1. Nonfiction or fictionalized
      2. Not primarily a biography
      3. Based on a true incident or event

      In other words, nonfiction told and illustrated as pure story.

  24. Good morning, Anne! It’s marvelous to visit your creative process and Matt’s! I love art that embeds the qualities of sketching. Makes the visual so much more alive. It’s that raw energy it exudes, I think.

  25. I love seeing the sketches and finishes here, Joy and Matt!

  26. Good morning Matt and Joy!

    In answer to your question Joy, no I didn’t supply any visual materials for Matt. I’ve found you just have to close your eyes and hope for the best when another illustrator takes over your manuscript. Sad, and iffy, but true.

    But after an incredibly long wait for this manuscript to find an artist who’d do it justice, I really lucked out with Matt Phelan, I soon discovered.

    Sketch for fireplace scene

    Sketch for fireplace scene

    Final art for fireplace scene

    Final art for fireplace scene

    For in my research, I discovered that George Washington (not all that surprising considering his surveying and engineering ability) might have been a very good artist had he not become the father of our country instead.

    The maps he drew when surveying in the wilderness that surrounded his native Virginia are exquisite, strong, accurate, and delicately colored with watercolor. Matt’s art reminded me of them. Not only that, but he (Matt) lives in Philadelphia, not far from Valley Forge, site of the hardest days of the Revolutionary War.

    So I just waited to hold the book in my hands, and when I opened it, I was thrilled.

    It does have something of the Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth illustrations I still also remember vividly from my childhood. The Howard Pyle ones were my father’s childhood favorites and he passed them on to me.

    Like almost everyone, I knew little about George Washington when I started work on this book. But when I discovered how little my then-youngest grandson Nigel, who was five or six knew, I decided I wanted to write a book telling who he was and what he did.

    My image of him had always been that he was a character far less interesting than his great contemporaries. Yet — if so — how did he do what he did?

    Sketch for carpenter's hall scene

    Sketch for carpenters’ hall scene

    And so began this adventure of learning about a boy who had lost not one but two fathers by the time he was seventeen. For his older half-brother Lawrence took him in when their father died, and became George’s beloved role model.

    The loss of Lawrence from tuberculosis was a grief George never recovered from. From the books in his brother’s library, and the wild forests surrounding him, the painfully shy George Washington began inventing himself.

    The finished product was a man of stunning good looks, remarkable athletic ability, the blessings of fortune in battle, with his shyness masked by a dignity and reserve that impressed everyone who met him. He was indeed the man for the job!

    Matt seemed to tune in what I hoped I had written, and the end result is a book I’m extremely proud of and hope he is to. He should be.

    Sketch for ambush scene

    Sketch for ambush scene

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