Philly Artists: Matt Phelan

I always like to believe that with equal doses of talent and hard work, good people can make their living doing awesome jobs. Illustrator Matt Phelan is proof of that. As he puts it: “I was a copywriter for Drexel where I spent many meetings doodling in my notebook. After years of building a portfolio on weekends, I went to a conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and showed my portfolio to an art director from Simon & Schuster. She liked it and hired me to illustrate my first two books.”

Since then, Matt has illustrated eight beautiful children’s books, with more on the way. Recently I asked Matt some questions about freelancing, his future books, and why his Newbery award winner stirred up some controversy.

What’s it like to work as a full-time freelancer in Philadelphia?
Most of the publishers that I work with are in New York which is close enough that I can zip up for the occasional meeting, but almost everything is handled over email or via Fed Ex. In Philadelphia, I can live in a house with my own studio for the price of a (shared) closet in NYC.

If you had your choice, what would you spend most of your time drawing?
More of my own stories. But I don’t think I ever want to give up illustrating other people’s books too.

I hear you had a pretty ridiculous experience after one of the books you illustrated, The Higher Power of Lucky, won the Newbery Award. Can you talk a little about that?
The fact that it is a beautifully written novel became sadly overshadowed when it was banned by some libraries for containing the word scrotum. The scrotum in question belonged to a dog, so any kid who has seen a male dog has actually seen a scrotum. I guess it was the use of the correct anatomical term that worried some adults. At any rate, that lead to Barbara Walters discussing it on “The View” in front of a giant screen showing my cover… probably the most surreal moment of my life.

You’re working on some projects now where you’re both writing and doing the artwork. Can you tell us anything about those?
I’m currently finishing a graphic novel for ages 9 and up. It’s a creepy story set during the Dust Bowl. If all goes as planned, it will be coming to a bookstore near you sometime next year.

Why do you like living in Philly?
I love being able to walk everywhere. The food is fantastic, the local beer is world class, and the people are pretty friendly overall.

Okay, I’m food-obsessed, so I have to finish with this”¦ what’s your favorite place to eat in the city?
I can’t resist the kielbasy hoagie at Memphis Taproom. Also, Franklin Fountain is one of the greatest places ever.

You can view more of Matt’s work on his website and his sketch blog.


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