'My Aim Is to Provide Enjoyment'
Beloved children’s author-illustrator David McPhail publishes a picture book under his own imprint.Born in Newburyport, Mass., David McPhail began illustrating while attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was first published in 1971, and his books now number well over 200. His professional recognition includes a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books honor for Edward and the Pirates, a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor, a Children’s Choice Book Award, a Parents’ Choice Award, a Children’s Booksellers Choices Award, a Best Books of the Year designation from Publishers Weekly for Mole Music, and many others. McPhail spoke with BookLife about his decision to self-publish his latest book, Truffle, about a little dog with “a cat issue.”
Your books have had a long, extremely successful history in mainstream publishing. Why did this particular book need to come out as an independent project?
Ha! Very generous. The truth is that, out of the over 200 books with my name attached to them, only a handful could be described as “successful.” Truffle had been accepted for publication soon after I wrote it, in the late 1990s, but that acceptance was overturned by the new publisher.
I tried to place Truffle elsewhere, but there were no takers, so “he” languished in a file cabinet. Until my sister asked, “Whatever happened to that story about the little English dog?” I had never considered publishing a book on my own. In that very moment I decided to publish the book myself!Recently, I had gotten more than my usual share of rejections from mainstream publishers, of which there are very few left. I began to think that I was completely out of touch with what publishers were looking for. Plus, many of my long-time editors had retired, or moved into “management,” so my usual stream of contacts had dried up or disappeared. It made sense that, if I wanted my stories to reach the marketplace, I’d have to publish them myself.
However, I feel I must add a cautionary note here. Running a business is hugely unlike writing stories and drawing pictures! It takes so much time and energy. There is little of either left over for writing and drawing. So, if you are thinking of publishing your own books, please keep that in mind. You might just be happier sticking to writing and illustrating.
With the invaluable help of my “team”—which includes Deidre Randall of Peter E. Randall Publisher, Elena Stokes and Brianna Robinson of Wunderkind PR, Kael Randall, David Rogers, and my brother, Ben McPhail—Truffle: A Dog (and a Cat) Story is out this month!
Truffle is a little dog who learns to abandon long-held prejudices against a group—cats, in this case—after he helps and befriends a cat. What life lessons do you hope children will learn from Truffle?
There are dozens of versions of the Truffle story, and, in most of them, Truffle never resolves his cat issue. Even at the end of most of those versions, he is still chasing cats! In the book, there is even a token cat-chasing scene in the final pages. I was never quite happy with that scenario, and it wasn’t until very recently that I came up with a new ending. I think that it is more satisfying in many ways, including the ability of even a hardcore cat-chaser to change his ways. I hope that this “enlightenment” will affect the reader in positive ways, and encourage acceptance. Other than that, I make no claim to teaching anything in this book. My aim is to provide enjoyment.
How do you know when a story is “right”?
I think that most writers and artists will agree that nothing is ever completely “right.” The phrase “good enough” comes to mind. I always feel that I could do things better.
Why do you think the story of Truffle changed so often over the years?
I think the story has changed because I have changed. For a long time I stubbornly clung to the idea that he would never compromise his main conviction that cats were useless! I suppose that if the cat, Tom, had saved Truffle from drowning, it would be easier to make the adjustment to having Truffle open his eyes to his closed-mindedness, and to reveal the wonders of opening his mind to new experiences. That’s something I’ve had to do in my personal life.
Will we be reading further adventures of Truffle and Tom down the road?
There is a story, partially illustrated, about Truffle and a little boy named Billy, which predates this story. But before I get to that, I would like to present a few other stories that I have written. Of course, any further publications are dependent on Truffle being successful.
Do your future plans under your new imprint include publishing other writers or illustrators besides yourself?
Oh, I would love to publish other writers and illustrators! What fun that would be! But that might be a ways off: Right now, the acceptance of Truffle is foremost in my mind.