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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

The Deft Board Book Talents At Work In PET: A Matthew Van Fleet Interview

A long time ago, back in the days when I lived in New York City without small children, I had not yet acquired a full appreciation for the books of Matthew Van Fleet. It took parenthood to open my eyes to the sheer amount of work that goes into his works. After all, it is hard to describe the relief one feels when handing a very small child a book that they will (A) not be able to completely destroy in 10 minutes or less and (B) retains their interest. Touch and feel elements? Noises? Tabs? Photography?!? When compared to other books for babies and toddlers, these books stand apart from the pack.

Matthew’s latest book, out right now, is PET. And rather than quote the publisher on this one, here’s a sneak peek at what I’ll be writing about this book when my 31 Days, 31 Lists board book list rolls around on December 1st of 2021:

“When my children were very small we had a good solid run of Matthew Van Fleet books in our home. Not just these big, beautiful photography-centered books, but those small ones with the illustrations too. We were a Van Fleet household and we read those books until they were nothing but pulpy pieces of paper held together by frayed plant fibers and baby spit. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen another photo-based Van Fleet, but 2021 decided to give us a couple gifts this year, and this book is one of them. Once again, we have the gently rhyming text (that you’ll probably want to practice a time or two before you read it aloud). Once again there are touch-and-feel elements like a hedgehog’s spiny back or the sleek fur of a ferret. I loved the fact that all the animals inside are pets, and at the end of the book each one gets to take its proverbial bow. Stanton’s photography wows, thought I’m half convinced that the grin of that full-grown pot-bellied pig must have a whisper of computer generated magic in its pixels. The pull tabs are big and strong and just waiting for small hands to pull ‘em. Welcome back, Matthew. It’s good to have you here where you belong.”

Today, Mr. Van Fleet joins us to talk logistics, process, Bavarian ant farms, and why getting a hamster to run on a wheel is harder than it sounds.

Betsy Bird: Congrats on the release of PET! So this first question is an easy one. Did you have any pets growing up? And do you have any now?

Matthew Van Fleet: We always had dogs and sometimes cats when I was growing up, as well as the occasional mouse or gerbil. I also remember having an ant farm (the kind you mail away for the queen ant). I actually made an ant farm prop for PET, but we never used it in the book— for some reason I envisioned it as a sort of Bavarian “Ant Haus”.

When my children were younger I had my office filled with tanks with different pets including chameleons, several types of frogs, hissing cockroaches and even an African millipede. We also raised praying mantis from an egg case and Hercules beetles from larva (my wife made sure the office door stayed shut). We’ve also always had pug dogs and we adopted a French bulldog, Gwen, a few years ago. Our current pug Oscar appears in several of our books.

BB: I should tell you that when both my children were small paper-chewing fry, your books full of pop-ups and flaps and photography were huge staples in our home. When it comes to board books, I’ve seen you do both small illustrated board books and these big, thick, lush books that use photos. Do you have a preference?

MVF: I’ve only done 3 small format books, Lick!, Sniff! and Munch! which were done as a series. The smaller format is easier for a child to hold, but they usually read my books by putting them on the ground and turning the pages anyway. Almost all of my books are in the larger format which helps me to fit the mechanical pieces under the pages.

BB: I know it’s been a while, but what first inspired you to use photography as your images rather than your own illustrations?

MVF: I had always wanted to try using photos for one of my books, but I’m not a photographer!

By chance I met Brian Stanton through a mutual friend and we decided to take some test shots of dogs and see if it would work. We had a lot of fun taking the photos and eventually we created DOG, our first collaboration. I think kids are fascinated by photos of real animals. The photos also help children to identify the different animals, which is an important aspect of the books.

I do illustrate many animal books as well such as Tails, Heads, and Alphabet, but they require more imaginative scenes and characters that couldn’t be done using photos.

BB: Tell us a little about the construction of these books. When you write them, do you have an idea in mind of how you want the animals to look in the art?

Photo by Brian Stanton

MVF: We actually take hundreds and hundreds of photos for each book and then sift through them to find shots that fit the text and layout. There’s also a lot of adjusting in Photoshop to combine different elements to fit a particular layout or mechanic. Sometimes we’ll come across a great photo we weren’t expecting and then we adjust the book to use it. If we know that we need an animal in a particular pose we’ll position it over and over until we get the shot, but sometimes they just don’t cooperate— I think we have one photo of a cat pawing at a ball of yarn after trying to get every single one of them to do it.

BB: I know that Brian Stanton did the photography work for PET. What does a typical shoot look like for him?

Brian and I take all the photos together. A lot of times we’ll travel to different locations to photograph a particular animal, other times we’ll just set up in my kitchen (much easier!).

Some shoots we’ll get a lot of material, other times we’ll spend an entire day shooting to get one usable shot— we spent an entire day and took hundreds of photos of different pigs to get the single photo of the adult potbellied pig in PET.

BB: Tell us a little bit about the actual physical construction of a book like this. How much experimentation do you do? Do you test repeated use? Have you ever had an idea that just didn’t work out? 

MVF: I make a lot of hand samples of the different mechanical designs. There always seems to be a new element in each of the books that I’ve never tried before, and yes there are tons of things that don’t work out! I spent weeks working on multiple designs of a hamster running on a wheel, which was the original concept I had for the cover of PET. The challenge of getting the wheel to rotate and the hamster to “run” was really difficult. In the end I thought the mechanic would be too delicate to produce consistently. Worse, the hamster was so small that it just wasn’t that interesting. Eventually I came up with the rabbit and the carrot which I think is much more fun.

BB: One thing I’ve always liked about the books is how sturdy they are. Do you take care in the type of paper stock that you use?

The construction of my books is really important. I’ve tried to create books that a preschooler can use without breaking them (no small task!). The heavy pull tabs are hopefully large and sturdy enough for a child to use without breaking them. Over the years I’ve we’ve added a clear plastic over many of the mechanics (all of them in PET) so the visible moving parts can’t be damaged.

BB: Final question for you – What are you working on next?

MVF: My wife and I are actually working on a book together. It’s called Mermaid Dance and is a cross between my book Dance and her Three Little Mermaids.

BB: Three Little Mermaids! I can still feel those sticky little snails. Good luck!

Many thanks to Matthew and to Lauren Carr of Simon & Schuster for helping to put this together. PET is out in stores now or wherever your favorite board books are sold.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.