Michael Chesworth first painted in kindergarten. He remembers applying paint to a piece of paper and folding the paper in half to produce his own version of an inkblot. The extraordinary shapes were “shocking,” he says, and began a fascination with art that continues today. In first grade, Chesworth created a cartoon-style mouse named Zip because he liked the letter “Z”. “It was an early way of writing,” he says, “of grasping on to words.” By sixth grade, he’d created a cat named Fang that became a classroom mascot.
Chesworth’s most cherished childhood memories are his solitary rambles through the woods and stream behind his house in rural Pennsylvania. “It was me and the world,” he says. “No directions. Ultimate freedom.”
The Parsons School of Design furthered Chesworth’s love of art and illustration, but it also repressed the style that today’s readers love about his books. “Parsons did not favor cartooning,” he says. “It pushed us toward a realistic or stylized punk kind of look of the early 80s. Dr. Seuss wouldn’t have had a very good time there, and I had a Dr. Seuss mentality which I buried at Parsons.”
In his first book, Rainy Day Dream (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992), Chesworth draws on the rambles of his youth as he follows a boy in the woods standing on a bridge overlooking a stream. A wordless picture book, Chesworth says Rainy Day Dream’s “realism is partly due to my instruction at Parsons.” By the time Archibald Frisby was published in 1994, Chesworth’s unique cartoon-style illustrations had hit their stride expressing his characters’ full range of emotion and movement in a light-hearted way with instant kid-appeal. Archibald’s interest in science mirrors Chesworth’s, an interest that kept him a little on the outskirts of the mainstream in school. But Chesworth’s sense of humor makes Archibald a sympathetic character to whom kids can relate.
Before writing Alphaboat (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2002), Chesworth saved puns and plays on letters and punctuation in an empty tissue box. “I did that for months!” he says. When the tissue box was full, Chesworth thought he could make a book, except he had no story. A long-time fan of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Chesworth decided on a voyage (with letters of the alphabet as the sailors) culminating in the discovery of lost treasure. Alphaboat is Chesworth’s sense of humor at it’s best!
Chesworth is a sought-after illustrator for many publishing houses. When he illustrates a book written by another author, he views the process as a collaborative effort. He says a good author will leave room in the manuscript for the illustrator, like a singer and dancer performing an act on stage.
When Chesworth receives a manuscript from an editor, he reads it and starts making doodles. He also makes lists of details to incorporate into his final paintings. Next, he breaks apart the manuscript into pages, drawing quick thumbnail-sized sketches “as if looking at [the book] from a distance and squinting,” he says. “The process is to slowly bring it into focus. The decision of how one breaks and paces the book is very much a cinematic-type decision.” Chesworth can often bring something else to a book simply by the way he paces it.
For example, in Inventor McGregor by Kathleen T. Pelley (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006), Chesworth asked for a two-page spread with no words—an addition to the original text. “There’s a point in the book where McGregor is left alone in an office. He’s an artist-type and not sure he wants to be there, so it seemed appropriate from a cinematic standpoint to have a moment where he’s alone.”
Next, Chesworth draws character studies to determine exactly how a character will appear in the book—how old he’ll be, what he’ll wear, his facial expressions. In Jingle the Brass by Patricia Newman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004), Chesworth drew several versions of the engineer that narrates the story using colorful railroad vernacular. Some of Chesworth’s engineers were old, young, fat, and skinny until he found the perfect combination of a slender grandfatherly man with rimless glasses and a bushy white moustache in traditional railroad garb.
Once the pieces are in place, Chesworth draws sketches that become more and more detailed until he is ready to paint. “For Jingle the Brass,” he says, “I drew in colored pencil because I wanted to keep the loose quality of the pencil sketches to give [the trains] that speed. Then I water colored into the colored pencil.”
Working from his light, airy Amherst, Massachusetts studio, Chesworth rarely turns down illustration work. Because of his commercial art background first as a book designer, then as an art director he says, “My default is to accept it and find a way to make it mine.” To do this, Chesworth remembers what appealed to him as a kid and what made him laugh. “I feel there’s a continuity between when I was a kid and now,” he says. “There’s a core part of me that is still the same.”