For the Love of Books and Baseball: Interview With Author/Illustrator Matt Tavares

tavaresauthorphotoMatt Tavares has turned his lifelong passion for baseball into a library of extraordinary picture books for the world to enjoy. And he’s illustrated a number of books on other subjects too. His latest title about baseball, Growing Up Pedro is so beautifully illustrated and well written that you don’t even have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it. After I read it several times and admired the artwork for a good, long while, my curiosity about Growing Up Pedro a masterpiece of a biography for children – left me with a list of questions I was eager to get answered. I’m sure you’ll be just as impressed as I was to discover how this incredibly talented author and artist (since toddlerhood) achieves a level of excellence in his children’s books that is difficult to match. Hint: It involves a great deal of raw talent and an incredible work ethic.

How old were you when you got hooked on baseball, and did you play yourself?

FenwayParkBaseball was a part of my life from the time I was very young. I played youth baseball, and kept playing right up through high school. For as long as I can remember, I always loved playing wiffle ball with my friends, collecting baseball cards, watching the Red Sox and drawing baseball players. I grew up near Boston and got to go to Red Sox games with my dad. That’s probably what got me hooked more than anything. Fenway Park is still one of my favorite places, and it’s pretty special for me to be able to bring my daughters there now.

Image of Fenway Park int he Public Domain

“I think I gained a lot of confidence from having this one thing that I was pretty good at, and it just made me want to draw more, which made me slowly get better at it.”

How old were you when you realized you had a talent for art?

My parents say that even when I was 2 years old, I was always drawing. By the time I was in elementary school, I started getting attention for being able to draw well. At indoor recess, kids in my class would ask me to draw different things, and I would draw pictures at home and bring them in to show my teacher. I think I gained a lot of confidence from having this one thing that I was pretty good at, and it just made me want to draw more, which made me slowly get better at it.

It sure sounds like you were destined to be an artist. Can you tell us about the strange ocean voyage several thousand copies of Growing Up Pedro went through to get to Los Angeles?

Yeah, the advance copies didn’t arrive when they were supposed to, and at first I heard it was due to some weather-related delay. But then the publication date arrived, and the books still weren’t here. Turns out they were trapped on a cargo ship off the coast of Los Angeles, unable to dock due to a labor dispute at the port. The ship had come all the way from China, but then it was stuck there for over five weeks until the dispute was over. Fortunately, the first books arrived just in time for my first book signing, a few weeks after the publication date. And at least they were here in time for baseball season.

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That must have been unnerving. yet it adds so much to the story behind your book. Can you elaborate on the extensive research process you went through before writing Growing Up Pedro, and how long did that take you?

I spent about a year working exclusively on Growing Up Pedro, but my research started about a year before that. At that point, I was still working on another book too, so I’d work on the illustrations for that book during the day, then read about Pedro at night. My first step was to read every article and interview I could find and learn everything I could about his life. I also gathered hundreds of photographs and video clips, to use as reference for my illustrations. The most rewarding part of my research for this book was my trip to the Dominican Republic. My family usually takes a trip to Florida in the winter, but last year my extremely supportive wife and kids agreed to skip Florida and travel to the Dominican Republic instead. So it was part family vacation, part research trip. We got to drive up into the countryside and visit some places where it still looks just how it did when Pedro was a kid. It was incredibly helpful to be able to experience these places in person, instead of just finding pictures online.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

What was the experience like traveling to the Dominican Republic, and what did you uncover about Pedro Martinez that you had not known before you went?

It was a pretty amazing experience. Most of my research in the DR wasn’t really focused on Pedro Martinez, but on the hqdefaultplace. I took hundreds of pictures of the houses, trees (especially the mango trees), and scenery, and just tried to soak it all in, so all the details in my illustrations could be as authentic as possible. It was great to get back to my studio after that trip and use all these memories that were fresh in my mind and incorporate them into my illustrations. It made the whole book feel much more personal for me.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

One thing I did learn about Pedro during that trip was just how beloved he is among the people there. I guess I knew that already, but I was actually surprised by how universally adored he seemed to be. People are just so proud of all he has accomplished, and all he has given back. So many people I encountered were eager to help me, once they heard I was working on a book about Pedro Martinez.

“I still think of myself more as an illustrator than as a writer, so I really appreciate it when people say nice things about my writing.”

I enjoyed the verse-style text you use in the book and was wondering if it was challenging for you in any way to write this biography for such a young audience?

Thanks! I still think of myself more as an illustrator than as a writer, so I really appreciate it when people say nice things about my writing. I guess the greatest challenge in writing this book was wading through the sea of information and trying to decide what story I wanted to tell, what information I wanted to include, and how it was all going to fit into a 40-page picture book. In a book like this, I find that I really need to narrow my focus. If I try to do too much and tell everything that’s ever happened in a person’s life, the whole thing falls flat.

My earlier drafts were way too long, and followed Pedro’s career right up until the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. But with the help of my editor, I decided that what really made this story special was the theme of brotherhood. This wasn’t just the story of Pedro Martinez, it was a story about two brothers who both overcame so many obstacles together. Once I established that, it was easier to decide which moments in Pedro’s life to include and which ones to leave out. Winning the World Series was certainly a major moment in Pedro’s big league career, but it wasn’t really a part this story, so in the end, I only mentioned it in the afterward.

“I never really work from life when I’m working on a book, mostly because it’s a lot easier to get someone to pose for a photograph than it is to ask them to stand there for 50 hours while I paint them!”

Watch this 3-minute drawing lesson with Matt Tavares

What medium(s) did you use for the book and do you paint from photographs, real life, or a combination of both?

I used watercolor, with some gouache here and there, mostly for highlights. I use a lot of reference photos to ensure that all the details in my illustrations are historically accurate. And I often find people to pose for me as my characters, and take photos or videos, which I use to help my drawing. I never really work from life when I’m working on a book, mostly because it’s a lot easier to get someone to pose for a photograph than it is to ask them to stand there for 50 hours while I paint them!

Usually the composition of my illustration comes from my imagination, and I mostly use reference photos for historical accuracy and to help with details like folds in the fabric, or lighting.

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© Copyright image of Matt at work in his studio, courtesy of Matt Tavares

“Then I got out my tiny paintbrushes and tried to make the little adjustments I needed to make. I felt like I was heading into surgery, and I was either going to rescue my picture or destroy it.”

Your ability to recreate the likeness of Pedro and his brother Ramon is remarkable. Are there specific techniques you use to accomplish this or does it just come natural to you?

DSC_0002Really, it’s just a matter of going back and making tiny little changes until I felt like everything looked right. The first time I thought I finished my cover illustration, I snapped a picture of it and emailed it to my editor and art director to see what they thought. They both loved it, except they thought that it didn’t quite look like Pedro. So I put it away for a few days to help me see it with fresh eyes. Then I got out my tiny paintbrushes and tried to make the little adjustments I needed to make. I felt like I was heading into surgery, and I was either going to rescue my picture or destroy it. Fortunately, Mr. Martinez came out of the procedure looking much more like himself!

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

How do you manage to capture light and accurately depict the time of day in such astonishingly beautiful ways?

Wow, thanks again. I guess it comes from careful observation, and lots of trial and error. Watercolor can be so tricky and unpredictable, so there are plenty of times when I’m trying to achieve a certain effect and it just doesn’t work. But that’s when I start over and try it a different way.

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GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

The relationship Ramon and Pedro have had all their lives is heartwarming and inspiring for kids. During your research did you ever discover any rivalry or jealousy between them at all, since they had to play against one another at times?

Amazingly, no. The only rivalry I ever came across was friendly and good-natured: seeing who could knock down the most mangoes when they were throwing rocks at the mango trees. Pedro would openly root for Ramon, even when their teams were playing against each other. Their bond was so much greater than even that of brothers. Ramon played such a large role in helping to raise Pedro, and Pedro has said many times that everything he learned in life, he learned from Ramon.

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GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Can you tell us what you learned about how Pedro has helped his family members and the people of the Dominican Republic since becoming wealthy and famous?

This is something I didn’t know about Pedro during his playing days. He has done some amazing work to help the people of the Dominican Republic, especially the children of his hometown, Manoguayabo. He has built schools, churches, and dozens of homes for families, and he’s started academic programs to ensure that the kids of Manoguayabo get a great education.

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How wonderful that he puts his wealth and fame to such great use! Have you met Pedro Martinez and has he had anything to say about your book?

I got to meet Pedro a few years ago, before I started working on the book. But he didn’t have any direct involvement with the making of Growing Up Pedro. I contacted his agent early on, but he told me that Pedro had just signed a book deal to write his memoir, so he couldn’t help me with my book. Fortunately, Pedro has done thousands of interviews over the years, so I had plenty of information to work with. I sent him a copy not too long ago, but I don’t know if he has seen it yet.

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Once he does see it, I imagine he’ll be overwhelmed by it. After reading your book, I was inspired to read more about Martinez and his success and positive press was overwhelming. I uncovered the Don Zimmer incident too and wondered what you thought of that?

Yes, I remember watching it. Pedro has said that is the one thing he regrets about his career. In his defense, it was sort of a no-win situation. Don Zimmer himself said that he wanted to “put my head in his chest and bowl him over and nail him”. Zimmer also said that Pedro “didn’t do nothing wrong.”

Watch a video about Don Zimmer discussing his fight with Pedro Martinez

Pedro had someone charging at him and had to decide in that split-second what to do. He sort of re-directed Zimmer and tossed him aside. I think they both felt really bad about it afterward. I know Yankee fans see it one way, but I guess that’s our right as sports fans, to be completely biased and unreasonable! I never condone fighting, but it’s just something that happens in baseball sometimes, unfortunately.

“Try to come up with a story that hasn’t told before. Even if you’re writing about a well-known person, try to find some different angle, something about the person that isn’t the same as what you’re finding in other books.”

I have to agree with you. Given the circumstances, I believe I would have reacted the same way Pedro did. What advice do you have for someone who wishes to write and illustrate sports figure biographies for children?

Try to come up with a story that hasn’t told before. Even if you’re writing about a well-known person, try to find some different angle, something about the person that isn’t the same as what you’re finding in other books.

Excellent advice. What book is next for you?

I just finished my next book, which is called Crossing Niagara (unless we change the title). It’s a picture book about the first person who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. It will be published by Candlewick in Spring, 2016.

9781455617661That’s sounds like a terrific story for a picture book. For your research, I recommend you check out the awesome picture book, Barreling Over Niagara Falls by Nancy Kelly Allen, the true story of Annie Edison Taylor, the first person to ride over Niagara falls in a barrel and live to tell about it.

Matt, thanks so much for sharing your passion for baseball, books and art with us. I can’t imagine a more perfect day than reading Growing Up Pedro and taking your child to a baseball game on the same day. Without the inside stories from artists and authors like you, none of us would know just how much thought, research and work goes into educating our children with outstanding books like Growing Up Pedro; you make it look so easy, but now we know there’s a lot more to the story than the story itself.

The next time you come down to Florida with your family, perhaps you can plan ahead so you can attend a Miami Marlins vs. Boston Red Sox game. We’ve got a spectacular new state-of-the-art stadium here in Miami with a retractable roof, and honestly there are as many Red Sox fans as Marlins fans at those games.

Readers, visit Matt Tavares’ website here.

Read my review of Growing Up Pedro here.

Buy Growing Up Pedro here.

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