Monday, September 30, 2013

Matt Phelan Spotlights Buster Keaton With 'Bluffton'

For history buffs looking for interesting stories told in creative and compelling ways, Matt Phelan is the go-to author. Nominated more than once for an Eisner Award, the comic book equivalent of the Oscars, and recipient of the prestigious Scott O'Dell Award, Matt is an artist who can weave an engaging tale. Examples of his talent as an illustrator are many – The Higher Power of Lucky by Newbery-winner Susan Patron, Flora's Very Windy Day by Jeanne Birdsall, Xander's Panda Party by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, September 2013). But Matt's latest graphic novel, Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton (Candlewick, July 2013), showcases for the third time his talent as a storyteller.

In what Kirkus calls in a starred review, "Thrilling—a spirited, poignant coming-of-age vignette," Bluffton tells the story of Henry Harrison, a somewhat bored boy who becomes fascinated with vaudeville life when Buster Keaton and his outrageous troupe tumble into the Lake Michigan beach town of Bluffton for the summer. While Henry wants to learn all the tricks he can from Buster, who's known as the "human mop," young Buster just wants to be a regular kid. Using watercolor and pencil, Matt conjures up the simple pleasures of summertime – baseball, swimming in the lake, fishing off the dock, pulling pranks on unsuspecting neighbors. We see the boys' two very different childhoods through these summers together, and the story wraps up with a sweet ending as a mature Henry looks back.

Matt's other two graphic novels are both from Candlewick as well, and both earned starred reviews from Kirkus, too. Around the World (2011) spotlights three adventurers who set out on solitary journeys to circle the globe. Thomas Stevens pedaled a bicycle from San Francisco around the world to Japan in 1884. A few years later in 1889, daredevil journalist Nellie Bly took off on steam ship and train to beat the 80 days mentioned in Jules Verne's popular novel (and met the author along the way). And starting in 1895, seafarer Joshua Slocum set sail. Matt highlights their amazing physical feats as well as their internal, personal journeys. Booklist praises Around the World for ". . . tight research and a gift for evoking both an era and the personalities that lived in it, the stories are greatly abetted by the magic of Phelan’s art."

With The Storm in the Barn (2009), Matt tells the story of an 11-year-old loner named Jack, whose family is suffering through the Dust Bowl. In a blending of historical fiction and superhero action, Jack battles the demon that's tormenting his family and the small Kansas town. When Storm won the 2010 Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction, it caused a bit of a dustup. It was a graphic novel after all, not a traditional, text-heavy story. The Horn Book's Roger Sutton defended the committee's choice, saying, "The Storm in the Barn has all the ingredients of great fiction–astute characterization, evocative atmosphere, a compelling story, a theme rewarding consideration–and gives us a unique vision of the Dirty Thirties." Read Matt's interview with the Horn Book about Storm.

Question: You have been the illustrator for a variety of children's books, from picture books to middle-grade novels. What made you want to wear the author's hat, too? And why?

Matt Phelan: It was really just that I got the idea for The Storm in the Barn. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the story and writing it myself seemed like the only way to get it done. I had what Orson Welles' called the "confidence of ignorance." I didn't know what would be involved in writing a graphic novel, so I just plunged ahead.

Q: Like your second graphic novel, Around the World, Bluffton looks at the life of a remarkable trail-blazer. What made you choose to explore Buster Keaton's life? Was it hard to find ways to make his experiences relate to today's kids?

MP: I've been a lifelong fan of Buster Keaton. I think he was a true artist. When I read about his summers spent in Bluffton in his autobiography, I realized it would be a great way to get to the heart of Buster. I think the idea of a child star, which he certainly was, is something today's kids can relate to. If you met a kid who could flip in the air backwards and land on his feet, you would find that pretty cool.

Q: Many graphic novels have a comic-book feel, but your illustrations are done in a softer style that creates a sense of nostalgia. Can you talk about your creative process and how you use your art to set the tone and help tell the story?

MP: I came to graphic novels from picture books where I was using watercolors, pastels, whatever was needed for the particular book. I applied that approach to comics. Personally, I find that by using paint as opposed to digital, I can get closer to the mood I'm trying to achieve. I experimented with digital for The Storm in the Barn, but quickly discovered that I could get a better dusty effect with watercolor.

Q: From first lightbulb of an idea to finished manuscript, how long does it take for you to produce a book? And are you generally working on other illustration projects at the same time?

MP: Well,  the lightbulb seems to be one of those long-lasting, environmentally friendly bulbs because my ideas tend to spend several years just slowly stewing. The idea for Storm first came to me in 2003, six years before it came out. The germ of the idea for Bluffton is nearly 20 years old. Once it really clicks and I figure out the story, the process of writing, sketching, and painting the book takes about two years. With the exception of Bluffton (for the most part), I'm usually also working on other books at the same time. I don't necessarily recommend this.

Q: Graphic novels are incredibly popular with young readers. My own boys devour them like candy. But your books tend to carry more heft and vitamins than the typical graphic novel. What do you hope to accomplish with your books?

MP: I see graphic novels as a wonderful medium for telling stories. You can tell any kind of story you want: silly stories, superhero stories, historical fiction, whatever. I'm interested in seeing if I can achieve the "heft" of a prose novel in a graphic novel. I like stories with a bit of emotional resonance.

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