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Viewing Blog: Planet Ham, Most Recent at Top
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Children's book illustrator, writer, and enthusiast.
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26. 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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27. 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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28. 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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29. 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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30. BOO!

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31. 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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32. 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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33. 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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34. 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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35. 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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36. 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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37. 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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38. ALA 2013, or An Alley Full of Artists

Alternate cover sketch for BLUFFTON

This Friday I'll be heading to Chicago for the annual American Library Association conference. Not only am I going, but this time I will have my very own table in the Artist Alley which is where they contain/corral/quarantine graphic novelists. My table is #2458 and if you stop by, I'll have arcs of BLUFFTON, behind-the-scenes glimpses, Buster prints for sale, and a top secret freebie.

On Friday evening I'll be part of the Comics Quickfire! which will surely be as exciting as it sounds. More so, I reckon. I'll be drawing really fast to cheers and jeers alongside Dave Roman, Raina Telgemeier, Gene Yang, and other Masters of the Sharpie. 

For more info on graphic novel festivities, click HERE.

I'll be at the table all day Saturday and Sunday. Sunday night, I'll be going to the Newbery Caldecott Banquet to applaud loudly for my pals Jon Klassen and Peter Brown and all the other winners.
I hope to see you there!

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39. BLUFFTON: The BEA Schedule!

Folks outside of my immediate family will finally get a chance to see BLUFFTON (well, at least a b/w advance reading copy of it) this week at BookExpo America. I couldn't be more excited about this book getting out there, so I'm going to be spending the week in New York talking to anyone who will listen about Buster Keaton. Here's my official schedule of events:

Wednesday, 5/29
I'll be on the Visual Storytelling panel along with Lizzie Boyd, Oliver Jeffers, Chris Raschka, and David Wiesner. Not too shabby, huh?

I'll be mingling, bidding, and casting sideways glances to see how my donation is faring.

Friday, 5/31
9:30 am   Signing arcs of BLUFFTON at the Candlewick Booth (#1575)!!!

12:15 pm   ABC/CBC Speed Dating!

In addition to those events, I'll be wandering the floor and socializing and stuff. Say howdy if you see me!

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40. Happy Children's Book Week!

Have a great week of reading, writing, and drawing, everyone! Go HERE for info on Children's Book Week and to see the great art created by Brian Selznick and Grace Lin for the occasion.

It's just a tad early to share some artwork from my upcoming two books, but here's a sketch of a fierce grizzly from Linda Sue Park's XANDER'S PANDA PARTY (coming this September from Clarion Books).

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41. Buster at BEA

This rather bookish portrait of the young Buster Keaton will be auctioned off on May 29th as part of the annual ABC/ABFFE Silent Auction at BEA (the gargantuan book expo). I'll also be at the auction bidding on other works of art which you can see HERE.

Earlier that day, I will be speaking on the Visual Storytelling panel at School Library Journal's Day of Dialog symposium.

And then I'll be doing a bunch of other things at BEA, including signing advance reading copies of BLUFFTON and Speed Dating!

Whew! And speaking of BLUFFTON (which, honestly, I'll be doing A LOT in the coming months), here's a swell Q&A PDF created by my friends at Candlewick.

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42. More Sketch/Experiments

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43. BLUFFTON Teaser Trailer!

(Full trailer coming closer to the July pub date.)

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44. Elephants at Night

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45. Draw Small, Print Big #2

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46. Ready for Her Close-up

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47. Happy New Year!

Here's to more laughter in 2013.

This is a tune called the Laughing Rag by Roy Smeck from the 1920s. Buster Keaton would have certainly known this one and probably could have played it better than I can. Anyway, here's a version recorded during the packing and moving from my old studio. I'm using my 1930 Reed/Regal ukulele purchased from Antebellum Instruments.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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48. Bluffton is Finished!

Today I delivered the cover painting for my third graphic novel, Bluffton. It's historical fiction and deals with friendship, stardom, vaudeville, summertime, and the young Buster Keaton. Of all my books, this one is probably closest to me.

Graphic novels are a long haul. I successfully pitched the idea for Bluffton to the good folks at Candlewick Press in fall of 2009. I spent 2010 researching and thinking about the story (including a very fun trip to Muskegon, Michigan and the neighborhood of Bluffton). I wrote the manuscript in early 2011, did all the sketches for the book in the springtime, and began drawing the final artwork in August. In August of this year, I "finished" the artwork and the past few months have been focused on revisions, speech balloons, and the cover. With a great deal of thanks to my talented, tireless art director/designer Heather McGee, it looks like we're about to wrap it all up.

Bluffton will be out in fall of 2013. I plan to do a bunch of posts leading up to the release with lots of behind-the-scenes goodies and whatnot.

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49. ARRRRGHH!!!!!

A beastie from me...

and one from my 4-year old daughter...

(I had to piece hers together a bit in Photoshop. She works large.)


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50. Experimenting

All of this Random Penguin House news inspired me to try my own merger.

This started as a pencil sketch in my sketchbook:

I placed the sketch on my lightbox, and very loosely marked the landmarks of the sketch (eyes, pose, etc). Then I turned off the lightbox and drew a new drawing with ink on Arches watercolor paper:

I then put a new piece of Arches paper over the original sketch on the lightbox, marked the same general details, and did a fast watercolor wash:

The last step was to merge the ink and watercolor in Photoshop. I didn't worry about it lining up exactly to keep some energy for the final.

This process opens up the possibility of trying various color schemes without losing the original pen drawing. The idea is based on the color separation technique that used to be standard for picture books. 

It's always difficult to keep the energy of your sketch through to final, and I'm thinking this might be a possible answer to that problem. What do you think?

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