Section: An Author/Illustrator Profile
I first met David
McPhail when I saw the wonderful, watercolor illustrations he created
for Nancy Willard's book The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon (Harcourt,
1983). I loved the small animal designs on the "too small" nightgown,
the large and bold flowers on the "too big" nightgown, and the
tasteful, but more daring, black nightgown. But the nightgown that the
moon selected was one hidden in a drawer in the back of a shop--a blue
flannel gown stitched with shining and shimmering stars. I began to
search for books illustrated by McPhail and soon found that he authored
stories as well. As I discovered books written by this
author/illustrator, I soon learned that while his illustrations are
marvelous, his writing is even better--to my delight, I met his
wonderful bears, his ingenious youngsters who get into interesting
situations, and his playful pigs.
Many of McPhail's stories spotlight reading.
Books are often in the hands of his characters--people are shown
reading newspapers on elevators, reading books while basking on the
deck of an ocean liner, and using books for information and enjoyment.
While the television serviceperson is attempting to repair the TV in
Fix-It (Harcourt, 1984), a young girl discovers that reading a book is
more interesting. In First Flight (Little, Brown, 1987) a young boy
boards a plane and while hi s teddy bear suffers from anxiety and air
turbulence, the boy says, "When the plane stops bouncing, I read my
book." In Lost (Little, Brown, 1990) a young boy who's helping the lost
bear find his way home says, "Let's try the library. We can find out
any thing there." And, indeed, they do.
But it's in McPhail's books about Edward that
reading takes center stage. In Santa's Book of Names (Little, Brown,
1993) Edward learns to read during a special ride with Santa. In the
sequel, Edward and the Pirates (Little, Brown, 1997), Edward reads
everything he can--from cereal boxes to storybooks. When pirates show
up it's the power of reading that saves the day. Edward in the Jungle
(Little, Brown, 2001) takes Edward from reading about Tarzan to a place
deep in Tarzan's jungle.
David McPhail didn't picture himself as an
author or illustrator while growing up in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
Born on June 30, 1940, into a "poor family," he really didn't know they
were poor, because he was surrounded by people who loved him. McPhail
says he had a "wonderful childhood." He was the big brother to Ben and
Peter. When McPhail was as young as two, his grandmother cut up brown
paper bags and gave him a large black crayon to make drawings. As he
got older he explored the fields and woods around his home and spent a
lot of time playing by himself--imagining himself as Robin Hood,
Robinson Crusoe, and Hiawatha. But by the time he entered high school
he aspired to be a big league baseball player--despite the fact that he
wasn't very good at baseball. The same was true of basketball.
Regardless, McPhail loved sports and played them all year round.
After high school he entered art school but
lasted only a year before picking up his guitar and aspiring to be a
rock-and-roll star. Six years later he was in California, playing his
guitar less and less and drawing more and more. McPhail returned to
Massachusetts, to Boston, and entered art school again but still hadn't
decided on the direction his art might take. During this time, the
girlfriend of one of his roommates was an editor at a textbook company.
After seeing McPhail's drawings she hired him to illustrate some
textbooks. At the time he was driving a delivery truck for $35. Every
picture he drew for the textbook company earned him $100. Then in 1966,
as a shipping clerk for a book clearinghouse, he rediscovered
children's books. During his lunch hours he would look at the books
coming across his desk. He began to write and illustrate his own
stories, and by 1972 he had published his first book, The Bear's
Toothache (Little, Brown).
McPhail's books are filled with bits and
pieces of information supplied by his friends and family. In The Bear's
Toothache, the little boy who tries to help is much like McPhail's own
son, who was two or three years old when McPhail created the book's
illustrations. Several other books feature characters that look a lot
like his sons, and the main character in The Dream Child (Dutton, 1985)
resembles his daughter, Jaime.
Sometimes McPhail even puts himself in the
books, because, "It's my book, and I can do anything I want." In fact,
he says that in many ways the human character in some of his books
"could be me" or perhaps they "could be a combination of me and my
father." He remembers his father as someone who never had time for
himself; he worked all night and played with the children all day.
A neighbor's pigs provided the models for his
many pig books. The first, Pigs Aplenty, Pigs Galore (Dutton, 1993),
was dedicated to Jack, the neighbor who owned the pigs. But who is
McPhail drawing when he creates the pig characters? "I look in the
mirror, I guess it is sort of me."
McPhail began his career using the technique
of cross-hatching, but then added pen-and-ink with watercolor. He
created some illustrations with pastels but soon returned to
watercolor. When he begin an illustration, he draws it in pencil, then
copies over the drawing in pen and waterproof ink. Then he paints over
those lines with watercolor. Because the watercolor is transparent, it
doesn't cover up the lines. Many of his recent books, however, such as
the three books about Edward, are illustrated with acrylics on canvas.
McPhail enjoys the writing process and says it "doesn't take long to
write the story." It takes longer to create the illustrations, however.
He spent two to three months on the illustrations for Edward and the
Pirates. During the illustration phase of creating a book, McPhail
draws at a drawing table. He draws with a #2 pencil and an ink pen, and
he likes to listen to music while he's creating pictures. He often
works on two or three books, at different stages, at a time.
In 2000, McPhail published Drawing Lessons
from a Bear (Little, Brown), which, in story form, gives young artists
some tips on how todevelop their own talent in the art field. Budding
artists will observe some of McPhail's smudges, erasures, and
cross-hatchings throughout the book--because as he tells children
during his rare visits to schools, he sometimes does "mess up." When an
illustration isn't coming out the way he thinks it should he revises it
and reworks it until it is the way he wants it. "Sometimes," he says,
"if I do a drawing and it doesn't work out. I have to be pleased." He
works on each illustration until he is pleased with it.
Why did he decide to write and illustrate
children's books? He responds, "I don't think I really decided.
Sometimes one just has to be open to what goes on. Someone came along
and said, 'I'll pay you to draw pictures for books.' " So drawing
pictures for books is what he's been doing for more than 30 years.
Drawings and sketches fill his attic studio. Over a period of more than
three decades as a children's book creator, he's illustrated more than
80 books, many of which he's also written. He tells about his career in
another children's book, In Flight with David McPhail: A Creative
Autobiography (Heinemann, 1996).
McPhail's sons, Tristan and Joshua, and his
daughters, Gabrian and Jaime, are grown, as are his three stepchildren.
He lives in the northeast, where he continues to enjoy baseball and
music--including rock and roll--and the beach and wonderful books.
By Sharron L. McElmeel
Sharron L. McElmeel
is a frequent contributor to Library Talk, in which she often writes
about authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults.
David McPhail is included in one of her recent books, 100 Most Popular
Picture Book Authors an d Illustrators (Libraries Unlimited). Visit
Sharron in her virtual home at <www.mcelmeel.com>.