St. Andrew School alum speaks to students about his award-winning graphic novel

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

DREXEL HILL – St. Andrew School in Drexel Hill has an ongoing series that invites writers, particularly children’s writers, to the school to explain their craft to the students. This year the school decided to expand the program to other arts because, as St. Andrew’s principal Helen McLean explained, “For the last two years we’ve done young authors, but we wanted to expand and stretch into other areas of communication. Not everybody is a writer; some like to draw so we expanded it into illustration.”

In Matt Phelan they got something from both worlds. Phelan has illustrated a dozen children’s books of other writers in the past decade, and now he has emerged as an author in a very specific art form – the graphic novel.

As an added bonus, Phelan just happens to be a graduate of St. Andrew, something the school did not realize until after he agreed to come.

“It’s really like God’s hand, not ours,” McLean said. “It was good of him to come back.”

Unlike the typical novel, in the graphic novel the words are minimal and support the pictures, not the other way around. Graphic novels are really the outgrowth of comic books, more recently the adventure type. Going way back, they’re probably more akin to the “Classic Comics,” which pictorially introduced children of the 1940s to such existing works as “Ivanhoe” and “The Three Musketeers.”

Phelan’s entrance into the graphic novel genre is through “The Storm in the Barn,” which focuses on a tragic time, the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. The drought, coupled with crop mismanagement, reduced areas of the Great Plains states to virtual dust deserts.

But because his story is from a viewpoint of a child, Phelan explained to the students during his Oct. 8 visit, there is an element of magic introduced.

He first became interested in the Dust Bowl catastrophe through Works Progress Administration-generated photographs from the Great Depression.

His protagonist, 11-year old Jack, is based upon a photograph depicting both the strength and sadness of a little girl in one of the photography books. He changed her to a boy to place it in the tradition of “Jack tales,” the mostly oral stories of Appalachia, which descend from European fairy tales. But there is also a strong element of L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” stories too, which were widely read in Jack’s 1937. It is not accidental that the setting is rural Kansas, and Jack has a little sister, Dorothy.

Phelan shared an odd fact with the students: The barn, which plays a part in the story, is modeled after the Maine barn on the farm where Andrew Wyeth’s famous “Christina’s World” was painted. Phelan is an admirer of both Wyeth and his father, N.C. Wyeth, the most notable children’s book illustrator of his generation.

After St. Andrew School, Phelan went on to Msgr. Bonner High School and then Temple University, where he studied film. Although his career has been in illustration, he explained to the students that his methodology in composing his graphic novel reflects his film training.

The book, which was written under contract with his publisher, Candlewick Press, began not with illustrations but with the plot outline and narrative, quite similar to a screen play. He did this, he explained, because as the story developed there would be necessary changes, and it is much easier to change words than it is to draw new pictures.

After the narrative was finished and approved by the publisher, he drew the pictures – first in tiny, sparsely drawn images then, ultimately, in detail – mounted on story boards, two to a board, just as pages in an open book would appear. With experimentation he settled on water color for the illustrations, mostly in somber hues very reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s palette, but very appropriate to depict the grim Dust Bowl landscape.

In all, Phelan told the students it took a full year working seven days a week to finish the many hundreds of illustrations, which are the core of the 200-page hardcover book. Published last year, it received the Scott O’Dell Award for juvenile historical fiction, the first time ever the decades-old award was given to a graphic novel.

Phelan’s detailed presentation clearly held the attention of his audience of upper grade students, and he assured them art is a real career and very satisfying.

“I can relate to it because I like art,” commented sixth-grader Tylia West. I would like to be an artist, any kind of art. My mom thinks I write really good poetry, but that’s not what I’m into.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.