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Children's book illustrator, writer, and enthusiast.
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1. Edward & Me

Last year, the Oregon Children's Theatre (creators of the excellent stage version of The Storm in the Barn) contacted me about doing an illustration to promote their production of Ramona Quimby. This year, I was asked to take a crack at an image for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Kate DiCamillo.

I really enjoy these theater poster commissions. It gives me a chance to delve into a great book and try to boil the essence down to a single image. It is similar to designing a cover, but without the various input and compromises that sometimes go with that territory.

I was asked to try a few sketches with the hobo and Edward:

Those weren't dramatic enough so I turned to the sequence in the book when Edward is fished out of the ocean.

This seemed like the direction to take it. I pulled back to give more of a sense of the net and the lonely sea.

To avoid being too bleak, a bit of sunlight filters in from the top left.

The final was drawn in pencil and then digitally colored which was both faster (I was in the middle of painting Snow White and didn't have a ton of time) and also well-suited for the murky depths of the ocean.

The show goes up next season in lovely Portland, Oregon. Check it out if you can!

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Today's the publication date for MARILYN'S MONSTER, my new picture book written by the amazing MICHELLE KNUDSEN!

I met Michelle many years ago at an independent booksellers' conference. I was a big fan of LIBRARY LION so I let her know that I'd (obviously) very much like to work with her someday. Okay, I may have pestered her a little. Well, the pestering eventually paid off because here is the book! And here's what people are saying:

"Rich with feeling, it’s a warm, gently funny reminder to chase down one’s dreams, rather than waiting for them to appear on the doorstep." Publishers Weekly (STAR)

"Tender and witty..." Wall Street Journal

"A surprising spin on monsters with nicely effective artwork—and heart." Kirkus Reviews

The official Book Release Party is SATURDAY, MARCH 14th at CHILDREN'S BOOK WORLD in Haverford, PA! Michelle and I will both be there so here's your chance to get the rare and oh-so-nifty double signed copy!

To celebrate today's release, here are some sketches...

cover sketch

Unused title page
Early development sketch
dummy sketch

Monster character design sketch

And here's a final painting from the book:

Look for more process posts soon. To keep up on all of my book stuff (including upcoming events), check out my Facebook Author Page!

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3. Dancing Bear

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4. Snow White Begins

I'm off and running on the final art for my next graphic novel, SNOW WHITE. I'll try to share sketches and art whenever I come up for air.

Here's a test drawing to show you the mood and style:

(note: I thought I had posted this in December, but something is apparently went wrong.)

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5. "...like a memory recalled or a dream put to page.

You know what makes one a very happy author? Reading an analysis of your book as thoughtful as the  one Desmond White just wrote for Sequart. Go read it!

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And to conclude Monster Week '14, here's some preliminary art from my upcoming picture book, MARILYN'S MONSTER by the great Michelle Knudsen and published by the extraordinary Candlewick Press. Coming to a bookstore near you in MARCH 2015!


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7. Monster of the Week: Thursday!

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8. Monster Week Wednesday!

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9. Monster Week Tues!

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10. Monster Week!

Two years ago, I kept a sketchbook devoted entirely to monsters. It was a fun preliminary step to illustrating the picture book Marilyn's Monster by my good friend Michelle Knudsen (Candlewick Press, March 2015). 

It seems to fitting to post a beastie a day this week. Check back!

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If you had your druthers, what would you do?

My first picture book as both author and illustrator is now available! The idea for Druthers came to me ten years ago but it took many years (and, arguably, fatherhood) to get the book right.

Here are some images from the long journey:

Original cover concept from the pitch dummy.

Another cover idea.

Pages from the sketch dummy. The basic structure of the story is the same from the dummy, 
but we expanded the build-up to the ending.

Various character sketches. Fortunately, I have very good source material running around the house. This book is dedicated to her.

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12. A Tentative Shrew

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13. Wind in the Willows

More classic characters, this time from one of my favorite books, The Wind in the Willows. These guys were sketched just for fun while on vacation.

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14. Ramona & Me

What do you say when you are asked to draw one of the great characters of children's literature? YES! And YES, PLEASE!

That's what I answered when the Oregon Children's Theatre approached me to provide a drawing of Ramona to promote their upcoming production of Ramona Quimby. OCT of course had forever endeared themselves to me for their stunning production of The Storm in the Barn two years ago. I leapt at the chance not only to draw Ramona but to work with these great folks again.

As luck would have it, I was reading Ramona the Pest to my daughter when OCT contacted me. But although she was fresh in my mind, capturing Ramona on paper took some work. Here is a sample of the many, many, many sketches I made of Ramona...

Everyone liked those last two, but ultimately we decided the poster needed a bit more of the rambunctious side of Ramona.

One more try, and we settled on the final image.

And that's that! Here's an interview I did with OCT  about the project.

If you are in Ramona's home town of Portland next May, be sure to catch the show!

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15. Three Eisner Nominations for BLUFFTON!

I was beyond thrilled to learn that Bluffton has been nominated for THREE Eisner Awards. The Eisners are the "Oscars" of the comics industry and are named after the great Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and the artist most often credited with the creation of the modern graphic novel.

Bluffton is nominated in the categories of Best New Graphic Album, Best Writer/Artist, and Best Publication for Teens. Here is the press release.

VOTING for the award winners will close on Friday, June 13th at midnight PDT. Comics professionals, retailers, and... LIBRARIANS are all eligible to cast a vote. VOTE HERE.

It is indeed an honor to be recognized in these categories and to stand beside such amazing fellow nominees. I'll be at the awards ceremony on July 25th. It's my first time at San Diego Comic Con.

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16. ABFFE Silent Auction 2014

Once again I'm very happy to participate in this year's ABFFE Silent Auction event at BookExpo America. Here is one of two pieces that I've donated...

I'll be at the auction Wednesday night and will be in NYC for the rest of the week for various events including signing lithos of my upcoming picture book DRUTHERS (more on that later this week).

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17. BLUFFTON at the Muskegon Museum of Art!

On March 6, I had the immense pleasure of attending the opening night of Buster Keaton's Bluffton: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan, a new exhibit at the Muskegon Museum of Art.

The experience of seeing my paintings framed and hanging on a museum gallery's walls was amazing and more than a bit surreal. It took me a few minutes of standing in the gallery to really get my head around the whole thing.

The exhibit features paintings, sketches, and preliminary work as well as Bluffton memorabilia (including a porkpie hat made by Keaton's wife Eleanor and a bar stool from Pascoe's).

The museum is also featuring a range of special events around the exhibit and encouraging local schools to bring their classes. 

On opening night, I signed books and gave a talk about the making of the book. I met many people who either currently live in Bluffton or had relatives who lived there during the vaudeville era. 

One gentleman gave me a photo of his father as a boy sitting outside of Pascoe's. Needless to say I was overwhelmed with the warm reception the book is receiving from the people of Bluffton.

The exhibit runs through May 25, 2014.


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18. BOO!

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19. Fall Book Tour!

I'll be out on the road quite a bit this fall to promote both Bluffton and Xander's Panda Party. Maybe I'll see you at one of these fine occasions?

Saturday 9/7: Main Point Books, Bryn Mawr, PA, 11:00 am Details

Friday 9/13: Politics & Prose Washington, DC 10:30. Xander signing with Linda Sue Park! Details

Sunday 9/15: Hooray for Books! Alexandria, VA. Bluffton signing & Keaton film screening! Details

Monday 9/16: Politics & Prose, Washington, DC. 7 pm. Art & Style of Graphic Novels panel! Details

Saturday 9/21: Princeton Children's Book Festival. Princeton, NJ. Details

Saturday 9/28: Opening night reception at Allentown Art Museum. New gallery show with Eric Wight, Raina Telgemeier, and Dave Roman! Details 

Tuesday 10/1: Bookbug, Kalamazoo, MI. Details

Wednesday 10/2: Ann Arbor, MI (Details soon)

Friday & Saturday 10/4 & 10/5: Muskegon, MI (!) for the Annual Buster Keaton Convention! Event details soon.

Sunday 10/13: NY Comic Con. Raising a Reader Panel. 2:30

Saturday, 10/19: Greenlight Books, Brooklyn, NY. Xander signing with Linda Sue Park! Details

Sunday, 10/20: Children's Book World, Haverford, PA. Xander signing with Linda Sue Park (and David Wiesner, too)! Details

Sunday, 11/3: Allentown Art Museum. Event with Eric Wight. Details soon.

Saturday, 11/9: Lititz Book Festival, Lititz, PA. Workshops, too. Details

Saturday, 11/16: Rochester Book Festival, Rochester, NY. Details

Saturday & Sunday, 11/23-24: NCTE, Boston, MA. Details soon

Saturday, 12/7: Allentown Art Museum. Event with Eric Wight. Details soon.

Whew! I'll remind people closer to the events on my Facebook Page (you don't need to be on Facebook to see it).

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20. BLUFFTON in the Blogosphere

Today is pub day for Bluffton! Support your local indies if you can!

Review copies have been floating around for weeks now and a lot of nice reviews have popped up on the Internets. Here's a round-up:


Bookends (Booklist):

Green Bean Teen Queen:

Guys Lit Wire:

Out of the Past:


International House of Geek:

Outside of a Dog:

Lemon-Squash Book Club:


Kirkus (star):

School Library Journal (star):

Shelf Awareness (star):


Wall Street Journal:

AND I was honored to be a guest blogger at the Nerdy Book Club. I wrote about research and luck:


BONUS POINTS: You can enter to WIN a copy of BLUFFTON on the Nerdy Book Club site!

Whew! A heartfelt thank you to all who took the time to write about my book!

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21. The Road to Bluffton, Part 2: Vaudeville

Vaudeville. The entertainment form of the early 20th century. Variety was the order of the day. For one small price, you would get several acts in a single bill. Singers would be followed by jugglers. A tap dancer might be next, or a an actor reciting Shakespeare. There were knockabout comedians, illusionists, musicians, and contortionists.

Vaudeville was not a talent show. These performers were seasoned professionals. They honed their crafts and polished their acts through years of performances. Many of these performers went on to further fame in radio, movies, and eventually television. Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen... even Cary Grant (when he was still Archie Leach).

I had a great time learning about vaudeville for Bluffton. It left me with a great admiration for the performers and a desire to hop in a TARDIS for a trip back in time.

Nora Bayes
If you are interested in learning more, I recommend No Applause — Just Throw Money by Travis S.D.  which is a pretty good overview of the various performers and circuits. I was lucky enough to find a copy of Bernard Sobel's out-of-print book A Pictorial History of Vaudeville at Philadelphia's Book Trader. That book really brings the past to life. Good stuff.

Bill Bojangles Robinson was a huge star and a good friend of the Keatons. He taught Buster how to do the soft shoe dance years before he taught Shirley Temple on film. 

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22. The Road to BLUFFTON, Part One: Buster Keaton

I don't even know where to begin.

Cops and The General were in heavy rotation at my house when I was a kid. This was the seventies: pre-cable, pre-internet, pre-DVD, pre-VHS, heck... even pre-Beta. We had the films on Super 8 so we'd watch in a darkened room as the projector click click clicked along. The General required a few reel changes. Occasionally, the film would unspool onto the floor. It was a bit of work, but it was well worth the effort.

We also had Chaplin (The Rink! The Cure!) and Laurel & Hardy (The Music Box!!) but Buster was special. His movies somehow moved better, faster. His gags were bigger, the stunts more elaborate. That unsmiling little guy, beset by the world, was funnier.

Fandom turned into admiration which turned into obsession. By college, I was searching used bookstores for anything I could find on Buster (again, pre-internet). Kevin Brownlow's masterful documentary A Hard Act to Follow was watched over and over until I feared I'd break my VHS set (I have a set and so does my dad, as a back-up. It's never been released on DVD but you can watch the whole thing on YouTube, which I recommend). Keaton was a genius -- the genius of the silent era -- and his personal story was equally compelling. I admired him, but I also liked him.

I wanted to write about Buster Keaton. By focusing on Buster as that extraordinary boy star of vaudeville, that legend in the making, I found a way to explore the talent and the person. I wanted to show that boy who I genuinely liked enjoying the "happiest days of his life" during those Bluffton summers.

If my book inspires one kid to watch a Keaton film for the first time, I've done my job. They're streaming on Netflix. They're on DVD and Blue-Ray. Many, including Cops and The General, can be seen in their entirety on YouTube.

Watch. Laugh. Marvel.

Buster was also a ukulele player. Yes, this is pretty much why I play ukulele, too.

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23. Black Prairie Performs The Storm in the Barn

Here's the fantastic band Black Prairie performing their gorgeous score for the Storm in the Barn play. This music couldn't be more perfect for my book and I'm am deeply indebted to these fine musicians.

They are currently on tour. Go see them because they are amazing and you'll love them. I just know it.

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24. Messing About

I went to the New York Comic Con on Sunday. It was my first con and it was a bit overwhelming at first (and at last, come to think of it). After much searching, I did find the section that actually had comics and also original art to check out. That section also had a display booth for Holbein paints and I had a great chat with Tim Hopper about all of their products. Couldn't resist picking up some things and yesterday I messed about with Acryla Gouache and pencil for a bit.

Note to self: must draw for fun more often.

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25. Comic Book Resources Interview

Here's an interview I did with Alex Dueben at Comic Book Resources.

And here's a gorilla scribble on a scrap of paper because this IS supposed to be a sketch blog...

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