News and Interviews

Matt James on Last Minute Edits, a Kitchen Table Studio, & How to Get the Most Out of Picture Books

author_Matt James

Governor General’s Literary Award winner Matt James is well known for illustrating Northwest Passage (an acclaimed tribute to the Stan Rogers song of the same name) and writing and illustrating The Funeral, which deals sensitively and intelligently with a child's view of grief and death. 

His new picture book Nice Try, Charlie! (Groundwood Books) shows more of James' unique talent for smart, funny storytelling that helps kids understand the world.

A story of cooperation and community, Nice Try, Charlie! is both funny and sweet as it follows the title character in his quest to track down the owner of a pie he's found. Neighbours come together and get to know each other during Charlie's adventure, making a busy urban neighbourhood suddenly feel a lot more welcoming.

We're excited to welcome Matt to Open Book to talk about his new book as part of our Kids Club interview series. He tells us about a very last minute edit, describes how his writing and illustrating process has changed during this unusual year, and makes us laugh when he explains why his loved ones are motivated to help him through moments of artistic blockage.

Open Book:

Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?

Matt James:

Like, you mean one really clear message? No, not really. I’m hoping that my book says a lot of different things. For example:

I think it says that life can be hard sometimes and that adults don’t necessarily have all the answers to every problem and that that can be ok.

It says, learn your neighbours' names!

It says hey look, there is a lot of garbage everywhere in this whole wide world, to the extent that there is garbage orbiting the earth, garbage floating in space and that that is sort of sad and that we should maybe try to solve that problem somehow (even if we can only play a very small part in that solution).


Did the book look the same in the end as your originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?


I say this honestly and with very little exaggeration: I changed the title five minutes before this book went to print.


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


The writing process and the illustration process have sort of gotten woven together, intersecting and overlapping each other in a way that makes sticking to a serious routine difficult for me. I do keep regular hours but outside of that time, which is consistent, there is a lot of room to move. I suspect that I’m a person whose routine will never be actually routine, and that change is what I thrive on, but I’m slow to draw conclusions.

But... I need sketchbooks and my pencil case (which tends to be bursting with pens, charcoal, ink, pencils, and X-actos.) I like to have my iPad Pro with me too. Often, I sketch really small but I also mix it up and do thumbnail illustrations on big newsprint pads using up the entire page for one "thumbnail".

I used to go to the library to write, in the morning on my way to my studio. I would grab coffee and a pile of picture books from the children’s section and head up to this little loft, where, with any luck, there would be room to spread out. I’d read for a while and think about the library books and then see if I had any new ideas to shake out onto paper.

Lately my studio has a different feel (my studio mates sand I are alternating when we use our space so my new scene is that I’m always here alone) and I’ve been enjoying that.

This year has been different (of course) and I’ve been learning new ways to work. I often worked on my stuff at the kitchen table with my kids while they were doing their homework—it was inspiring. I love and miss the energy of a classroom, especially when everyone is really focused on what they are doing and you can almost hear their brains working.


How do you cope with setbacks or tough points during the writing process? Do you have any strategies that are your go-to responses to difficult points in the process?


When I hit a snag I usually become totally insufferable to the point that my family have no choice but to help me out of whatever quagmire I have landed myself in.

Usually for me, when I find myself stuck in the aforementioned swamp it’s because I haven’t been watching where I was going and I’ve gotten hyper focused on something that isn’t working (you can’t win 'em all).  So almost always the best thing for me is to find a way to get a fresh perspective and just to see more of the world (and react to it) rather than trying to invent everything. That might mean going for a walk or hitting a museum (olden days etc.) or finding a tree to sit under somewhere.

This book was a really long and winding road with a lot of setbacks and strange turns. At times it was tricky to know when to walk away for a little while and when it was time to dig in and work though. It’s easy to feel insecure as a writer and that is a difficult thing to work around. As my dad used to say to my kids when they were struggling with something or other: It’s hard to be a person!


Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about writing for young people? What do you wish people knew about what you do?


I’m not sure that this is an actual honest to goodness misconception or not but it seems to me, that a lot of people think that writing for young people = writing that is lightweight and not worth adult attention.

I think picture books (which probably suffer even more from this bias) are often taken at face value, judged purely on the beauty of the illustrations and the design or conversely, on the merits of the text. My favourite books are the ones where you have to read the images as much as read the words. It is my wish that people would not simply flip through a picture book (often from back to front) the first time that they read it. I wish more people would sit down and try actively to engage in the story that they are reading/seeing, that they might try to wonder why the words and images were put together in this way or that way. I mean I hate to tell someone how to enjoy a book and truly, whatever floats your boat—read it backwards or forwards or just look at the pictures if that is the way you like to do it, but I do think that people miss out on some amazing literature!


How would you describe the writing community in Canada in terms of authors writing for young people? What strengths and weaknesses do you observe within?


I’d say that we have a pretty beautiful scene that includes many amazing and caring characters. We tend to be a community of hermits and are thus not naturally inclined to congregate or to organize ourselves but these are small shortcomings to my eyes. I see this community as one that is very open and supportive; it is seemingly and hopefully growing and getting stronger. 


Matt James is a painter, author/illustrator, and musician whose many highly acclaimed children’s books include Yellow Moon, Apple Moon by Pamela Porter (New Mexico Book Award); I Know Here by Laurel Croza (Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award) and its companion volume, From There to Here; and The Stone Thrower by Jael Ealey Richardson. Matt’s illustrations for Northwest Passage, a stunning tribute to the iconic Stan Rogers song, won the Governor General’s Literary Award. He also wrote and illustrated the highly acclaimed book The Funeral. Matt lives in Toronto.