I have been following today’s illustrator, Matt Tavares, with interest on FB for the last couple of years. It was actually Pat Tilton’s review of Helen’s Big World on her blog, Childrens’ Books Heal, that peeked my inquisitiveness even more, and prompted me to invite Matt onto my blog today.
- llustrator or author/illustrator?
[MT] Author/illustrator for some books, illustrator for others.
- What’s your nationality and where have you lived and how has this influenced you?
[MT] I grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Now I live in Ogunquit, Maine, right near the ocean. Where I live has influenced the subjects and the settings of my books. Zachary’s Ball was set at Fenway Park in Boston, which has always been one of my favorite places. My version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was set in Beacon Hill in the mid-nineteenth century. And several of my books are based on American History.
- Tell us a little of your beginnings as an artist.
[MT] As soon as I was old enough to color without trying to eat the crayons, I colored all the time. As I got older, I kept drawing and drawing. It’s just something I have always loved to do. I always thought of myself as an artist, even when I was 5 or 6. My parents always encouraged my art, and I had a great art teacher when I was in elementary school, Mrs. Gagel. I got a lot of attention for being good at drawing when I was young, and I think that made me want to keep doing at it, and it made me want to keep getting better at it. Who knows if I ever would have ended up doing what I do for a living if I hadn’t gotten so much wncouragement when I was a kid.
- What inspired your first picture book?
[MT] My first book, Zachary’s Ball, was my senior thesis at Bates College. It was inspired by childhood memories of going to Red Sox games, always wanting to catch a foul ball. It was also inspired by the black and white books of Chris Van Allsburg. At the time, I really wasn’t comfortable working in color, and my best work was in pencil. Seeing books like The Widow’s Broom and Jumanji made me decide to do the whole book in pencil.
- How has your illustration process changed over the years?
[MT] My first couple books were done completely in pencil. Over the years, I’ve gone from doing mostly black and white to mostly color. This sort of happened naturally, based on the books I’ve illustrated. For ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, I wanted it to feel like an old 19th century book, so black and white pencil drawings felt right. But for a book like, say, The Gingerbread Pirates, it really needed bright reds and greens, so I used lots of color. I try to not get locked into one style or process, and let each book determine what the artwork is going to look like. I’d really like to do another book in pencil though.
- Do you have themes/characters that you return again and again to in your art?
[MT] Baseball and history. I really do enjoy the research aspect of doing nonfiction books. And I love reading about baseball, which is why I keep coming up with book ideas about baseball.
- What books and/or illustrators influenced your childhood?
[MT] My mom took us to the library every week when I was a kid, and she read to us every night. I loved Dr. Seuss books, and I read all the Matt Christopher books. I really wasn’t a big reader when I was in elementary school- I spent most of my time drawing. But I’d read anything about baseball. I also loved “Choose your own adventure” books. And I’ve always loved Chris Van Allsburg.
- What does your workspace look like?
[MT] It’s a room in my house, with nice big windows.
- Can you share a piece or two with us, and the process of producing them?
[MT] Here’s a video showing one of my pictures from Over the River and Through the Wood, from start to finish.
Just to explain my process… for this book, I worked in pencil, watercolor, and gouache (in that order) on Arches 300 lb hot press paper. I started out by pencil in the whole scene, then built it up with watercolor, working in thin washes, working monochromatically at first, then building up the color. Then I work back into it with gouache, mostly to add lighter details over darker backgrounds, like falling snow.
- What advice would you share with an artist fresh out of art school who wants to become a children’s book illustrator?
[MT] Remember that the most important thing is that you are really great at what you do. Don’t focus so much on the “getting published” part that you stop focusing on making yourself a better artist, even after you’re done with school.
Also, do your homework. Educate yourself about how the children’s book publishing business works so you know how to approach publishers. There are plenty of helpful websites, like Harold Underdown’s site, that can get you headed in the right direction. Also, join SCBWI. They’ll provide you with tons of helpful information to get you started.
- Tell us about your most recent publication.
[MT] Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller,
written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by me,
published by Disney-Hyperion, came out in October.
My next book, Becoming Babe Ruth,
published by Candlewick, comes out in February.
- Five Fun Ones to Finish?
What word best sums you up?
[MT] Um… human?
If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?
[MT] As long as I could take my whole family with me, I wouldn’t mind skipping a Maine winter and spending it anywhere warm.
Early bird or night owl?
[MT] Early bird.
Cats or dogs?
[MT] Goldfish (I’m allergic to cats and dogs).
If you could spend a day with one children’s book character, with whom would that be?
[MT] Ted Williams, in the 1940’s. I wrote a book about him, so that makes him a children’s book character, right?