Author/Illustrator Interview: Matt Phelan

stormI’m honored to have the amazingly talented Matt Phelan visiting Shelf Elf today for an interview about his upcoming graphic novel, The Storm in the Barn. His book is already snapping up many glowing reviews all around the kidlitosphere (right here, educating alice, Reading Rants, Welcome to my Tweendom) and I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if it’s on a fast train to Awardsville. This is a book to buy and linger over and read again and again. Welcome Matt!

How would you describe The Storm in the Barn to a potential reader?
The Storm in the Barn is a graphic novel set in the Dust Bowl about a boy who discovers a sinister figure hiding in the neighbor’s barn. It is part tall tale, part historical fiction, and part supernatural thriller.

What are you most proud of in this upcoming book?
The story was first and foremost in my mind. I wrote it first as a very detailed script, describing each individual panel. I started to worry about how it would look only after the story was set.

When you were working on this book, which came first, images or story?
Although I wrote the script before I began drawing, the initial inspiration for the book was visual. I was very influenced by the WPA photography of that time and it was those images of the Dust Bowl that started me thinking. Also, the villain of the story originated as an offhand doodle that I once made during a meeting at my old copywriting job.

In what ways do you think a typical urban kid in 2009 can relate to the experiences of Jack Clark, a kid growing up in the Dust Bowl?
I think Jack faces some universal challenges of being a kid: bullies, a feeling of uselessness, the desire to impress his father, the desire to save his family. I think most kids can relate to that feeling of being powerless yet wanting desperately to make things better.

The Wizard of Oz is an important element in The Storm in the Barn. Why did you choose to bring this text into your book? What did you hope it would add to the fabric of your story?
I wanted the book to be an American fairy tale and to incorporate elements of folklore and myth. The Jack Tales were the first stories I wanted to include, but since the story is set in Kansas, I naturally gravitated to the Oz books. They had been around for many years by the time this story takes place (1937) so I knew that these kids would be familiar with them (especially if you are a young girl in Kansas named Dorothy). Reading Ozma of Oz, I found some passages that I thought would work nicely as a sort of commentary on what was going on in my story. So I had Jack or Dorothy reading these passages out loud in two scenes.

Name a contemporary children’s illustrator whose work you love. (Oh, and tell us why!)
David Small is one of my favorite illustrators. He paces his books better than anyone. Look at The Christmas Crocodile for how he moves the story along with his illustrations (he starts and ends the story in the endpapers). I think The Gardener is a perfect picture book. It is not the least bit surprising that his new graphic memoir Stitches is absolutely brilliant, particularly in his command of pacing and the precision of his panels.

What makes you happiest about being a writer and illustrator?
What makes me happiest is that I get to spend my day doing creative work, that there will always be more to learn and something to strive for, and that the finished work will be books that children can read and hopefully love as deeply as only young readers can.

If some nasty person cursed you so that you could have only one artist’s tool with which to illustrate, what type of tool would you pick? (You get all the paper you want, don’t worry).
I’d pick the humble pencil because drawing is what interests me most. If I had to be specific, I would choose a Faber-Castell Polychromos (Dark Sepia).

Thank you so much Matt! All the best with The Storm in the Barn. I’m sure it’s going to captivate many readers.

The Storm in the Barn is published by Candlewick in September 2009.


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