March 13


Learning to Understand Comics by Matt Tavares

When people ask what kind of reader I was as a kid, it’s hard to give just one answer. From the time I was very young, my mom read to me and my sisters every night, and our family made countless trips to the public library. There are picture books from my childhood that when I read them now, I can still hear the words in my mother’s voice. By the time I was old enough to read on my own, I would usually read for the allotted amount of time before bedtime, but not much beyond that. I loved Choose Your Own Adventure Books, and anything about baseball. I liked reading, but in those quiet moments in my room, I was far more likely to draw, or to build something with legos, or to organize my baseball card collection. And unlike so many of my fellow children’s book authors and illustrators– especially the ones who make graphic novels– I almost never read comic books. 

I didn’t start to fully appreciate comics until I was an adult. In 2005, early in my career as a children’s book author-illustrator, I taught an illustration course at Maine College of Art. One of my students loaned me her copy of Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. That book opened my eyes to how comics work, and how powerful the graphic novel format can be. It even helped me tremendously in my job as a picture book illustrator, as it focused on how words and pictures work together to tell a story.

Later, I saw the way my daughters devoured books like Smile by Raina Telgemeier and Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. They would read them over and over again. I started reading them too, and fell in love with the format.  

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it now, but before I read Understanding Comics, and before I really started reading and studying graphic novels myself, I think I looked at cartoon art as somehow inferior to the more realistic, fully rendered style of illustration that I was going for in my picture books. I’ve always gravitated toward art that stopped me in my tracks and made me say, “Wow! How did they do that?!?” Think Norman Rockwell, or Kadir Nelson. Art that reviewers might refer to as “stunning”, or “majestic”, or even “magisterial”. I still love that kind of art, but this book helped me understand that there is much more to cartoon art than I had realized.

Of all the helpful lessons I learned from Understanding Comics, perhaps most important was the concept of the universality of cartoon imagery. One panel shows a series of five faces. On the far left is a photo-realistic, fully rendered image of a man’s face. Moving left to right, each face is simplified more and more until the one on the far right, which is just a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth. McCloud makes the point that while the face on the left could only be one specific person, the face on the right could be anyone. So even though the face on the left might require more impressive drawing skills, more readers will probably connect with the face on the right.

It took years for this concept to truly sink in for me, but eventually it had a huge impact. When I decided to try to make my own graphic novel, I re-read Understanding Comics and its companion book, Making Comics, as I had done countless times over the years. For this book, I needed to learn a whole different way to draw. Instead of creating fully rendered, realistic artwork, my goal was to focus on clarity and readability, and to create characters that young readers will connect with.

As I navigated this new format, I remembered what I learned from Understanding Comics. Look at any of the characters in Hoops, and you’ll notice that they all have two dots for eyes, a line for the nose, and another line for the mouth. Honestly, these faces didn’t take very long to draw. But it took me years to understand why this was the right way to draw them for this book.

I don’t expect any reviewers to refer to my illustrations in Hoops as “stunning”, or “majestic”. And that’s okay. What I really want for this book is for kids to care deeply about the characters and to get lost in the story. I hope a kid sits down to read for twenty minutes before bed, only to find that they’ve been reading for over an hour and they can’t stop turning pages. And I hope that when they reach the final page, they’ll go back to the beginning and read it again.


Matt Tavares is the author-illustrator of the New York Times best-selling picture book Dasher, as well as Red and Lulu and several sports biographies, including Becoming Babe Ruth and Growing Up Pedro. He is also the illustrator of Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Jeff Gottesfeld, The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and Over the River and Through the Wood, among many other picture books. Matt Tavares lives in Maine.