by Sharron L. McElmeel
UPDATE: November 2014

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.

Wonderful Characters Shine on Reading

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.

In the Beginning

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).

Family & Friends

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."

Creating the Illustrations

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).

UPDATE: David McPhail grew up on Lime Street in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He returned there to raise his children. McPhail's sons, Tristan and Joshua, and his daughters, Gabrian and Jaime, are grown, as are his three stepchildren. He is married to Jan Waldron and sometimes collaborates with her to create books. He lives near Newburyport, in Rye, New Hampshire where he continues to enjoy baseball and music--including rock and roll--and the beach and wonderful books. Many of his sketches today grace the walls of the Newburyport Public Library and the Cashman School in Amesbury, in addition to other local institutions.


Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books.

This article first appeared in  Library Talk (first publication rights only) Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel.  The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use. First appeared:  Library Talk, Jan/Feb2002, Vol. 15 Issue 1, p25, 2p     Current Source:

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