“Pop” artist Matt Van Fleet adds new titles to book menagerie

March 14, 2008
by Roberta Lasky

For Author’s Day on Wednesday at Roaring Brook Elementary School, local author, illustrator and book engineer Matthew Van Fleet brought along his menagerie of books including “One Yellow Lion,” “Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings,” and “DOG,” to share with his kindergarten audience.

He explained some of the themes of his books, such as opposites, similarities and rhyming, and showed them a sneak preview of his new book to be released in April: “Alphabet.” 

Van Fleet is a groundbreaking designer in the pop-ups and pull-tab genre, particularly educational-concept books, who lives in Chappaqua with his wife, Mara, his two sons, Alex and Ryan, and his two pugs, Boris and Tasha (from Rocky & Bullwinkle fame). 

Real cats and dogs cast as main characters in his books

His newest concept book, “CATS,” tentatively scheduled for publication in 2009, follows in the paw prints of his earlier work, “DOG.” He collaborated with photographer Brian Stanton for both books.

As is typical in his work process, he first came up with the idea for the book, then the text and finally the mechanics for making it almost come alive, or at least pop off the page. Using photography instead of illustrations for “DOG” also “made the animals more lifelike,” pointed out Van Fleet. “DOG” introduces verbs, opposites and synonyms to young children. Pull-tabs animate the dogs; for example, a dog turns its head from left to right. Different textures, such as a sticky tongue, entice readers to experience the tactility of the book.

Local Chappaqua residents, as well as a neighborhood veterinarian and dog groomer, own most of the 20 dogs photographed for “DOG.” The photo sessions were conducted in Van Fleet’s kitchen. Dog breeds represented in the book include basset hounds, Chihuahuas, English bulldogs, English sheepdogs, golden retrievers, greyhounds, Jack Russell terriers, Labrador retrievers, schnauzers, Springer spaniels, standard poodles and teacup Maltese. A Welsh terrier named Molly, a pug named Boris and a dachshund grace the cover of “DOG.”

Photographing the untrained animals created some interesting dilemmas. They often simply lucked out when they wanted a dog to behave in a particular way. For example, they needed one canine to scratch his leg, but he wouldn’t do it on command. The dog’s owner said that the dog scratches when he is tickled. Problem solved.

Van Fleet and Stanton attended The International Cat Association Show at the Westchester County Center this past November to do research on felines for their newest collaboration, “CATS.” They successfully photographed 16 breeds.

Serpentine route to success as an author, illustrator and book engineer

Van Fleet graduated from college with a bachelor of science degree in biology. As a senior in college, he dabbled in single panel cartoons, hoping to make a career out of cartooning. His first job out of college was working as a technician in a biochemistry laboratory. He took art production and cartooning classes at night. Illustration seemed the perfect way to combine his biology background with his talent in drawing. Van Fleet got his feet wet in the book business as a secretary in the art department at Grosset & Dunlap, the children’s book publisher best-known for its Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series.

When asked what his favorite part of the book publishing effort was, he replied with a grin, “Seeing the finished books on the shelf ready for people to enjoy.”
Matthew Van Fleet will happily sign and personalize his books when they are purchased from The Second Story Bookshop, located at 75 N. Greeley Avenue, Chappaqua, NY. 

Roberta Lasky lives in Chappaqua with her husband and two children. She has a B.S. in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.

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