A couple weeks ago, author Matt Tavares was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to celebrate the release of his new book, Growing Up Pedro.
The children’s picture book describes how soon-to-be Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez and his brother Ramon grew up in the Dominican Republic. It follows how Ramon was drafted into the MLB, followed a few years later by Pedro. More than a book about baseball, it is a story about brotherhood, determination, overcoming obstacles, and dreams come true.
Growing Up Pedro is full of beautiful watercolor illustrations that help tell the story. Tavares both wrote and illustrated the book, and he talked with SI Kids about the process.
What got you interested in Pedro Martinez’s story as something that would make a good kids book?
Pedro Martinez is the greatest baseball player I've ever seen in person. Being at Fenway Park when Pedro was pitching was such a thrill, and I was excited about the idea of including that experience in a book. Once I got the idea that I might want to do a book about Pedro, I started reading every article and interview I could find. I started seeing him not just as a big superstar baseball player, but also as a kid who faced all kinds of obstacles and worked hard to make his dream come true. I knew he would be someone that kids would relate to, and root for.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I did a lot of research for this book. I read hundreds of interviews and articles about Pedro, and I even traveled to the Dominican Republic and visited some places where it still looks the way it did when Pedro was a kid. It was amazing to be able to see it all in person then go home and paint all these places I had just visited. I think that helped me really capture the feel of the place, more so than if I had just found pictures of it online.
How did you decide on what scenes from Pedro’s life to illustrate?
In my baseball biographies, I find that if I try to tell everything that's ever happened in a person's life, it just doesn't work. So I need to dig through all the information from my research and decide what part of the story I want to tell. For Growing Up Pedro, I decided to focus on brotherhood because that's something I think is very special about Pedro's story. When he was a kid, his big brother, Ramon, was the baseball star of the family and he was Pedro's idol. Ramon helped Pedro so much along the way, from teaching him how to pitch, to encouraging him to study English every day, so if he ever made it to the big leagues his transition to life in the United States would be easier. Once I decided on brotherhood as a major theme of the book, it helped me decide which scenes to include and which ones to leave out.
Did you learn anything about Pedro in writing ad illustrating the book that surprised you?
I guess the biggest thing that surprised me was that even though Pedro went on to become one of the greatest pitchers of all time, when he was a kid he wasn't even the best baseball player in his own family! Back then, everyone thought Pedro was way too small to make it as a baseball player. I guess that surprised me because I always imagine that all the guys on the Red Sox must have been standout athletes when they were kids. But for Pedro, that wasn't the case. It wasn't until his teenage years, after countless hours of practice, that Pedro started to show some real promise as a pitcher.
What were the most enjoyable part and the most challenging part about writing the book?
Of all the books I've worked on, this one was the most fun. It was so great to be able to relive some of my favorite baseball memories, and it was amazing to be able to paint scenes of the Dominican Republic after going there and seeing them in person. I guess the greatest challenge was making sure that all the excitement I felt for the story translated to the page so people reading the book can feel that excitement, too. Sometimes when a subject is very meaningful to me, it's hard to know if it will be meaningful to other people, too.
Has Pedro seen or read the book?
There is a copy waiting for him at his home in the US, but it arrived the day after he left for the Dominican Republic. So once he comes back, he'll get to read it.
Did you grow up watching or playing baseball? Are you a Red Sox fan?
Yes, I grew up near Boston, and for as long as I can remember I've always loved playing baseball and watching the Red Sox. It was just always a part of my life.
How did you get started writing and drawing?
My parents say that even when I was 2 years old, I was drawing all the time. It's just something I always loved to do. I think we all start drawing at the same time, when we're 1 or 2 years old, just old enough to hold a crayon without trying to eat it! When we're little kids, we ALL draw. But then as some people get older, they stop drawing. Those of us who become artists when we're grownups are just the ones who never stopped. When I was a kid, I never thought of myself as a writer. I always enjoyed writing, but it wasn't something I thought I was really good at. It wasn't until college that I decided I wanted to try to write my own children's book. And I found that I really enjoyed doing both writing and illustrating. So for my big senior project, I made a book. After I graduated, I found a publisher who actually liked it, but they told me they wanted to me to do the whole thing over again! So I started working with my editor (who helped me make the story better) and my art director (who help me find ways I could make my pictures better), and that ended up being my first published book, Zachary's Ball.
Who inspired you as a kid? Who are some of your mentors/ heroes/favorite authors and illustrators?
Barbara Gagel, my elementary school art teacher, had a big influence on me when I was a kid. And my parents have always been really supportive of me being an artist. A couple of my favorite artists are Chris Van Allsburg and Norman Rockwell. I get a lot of inspiration just by looking through all different kinds of books and seeing all the amazing things different writers and illustrators can do.
What’s the best advice you’d give a kid who wants to do what you do one day?
The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to be a writer and/or illustrator is to write a lot, draw a lot, and read a lot. There is no shortcut. The more you draw (or write), the better you'll get. Sometimes it happens very slowly, and it might not feel like you're getting better. But if it's something you love to do, then it won't feel like work a lot of the time. And for anyone who wants to be a good writer, reading is the most important thing.
Are you working on anything now? What’s the next book?
Yes, I just finished illustrating my next book, which is about a tightrope walker who walked across Niagara Falls on a rope.
Photos: courtesy Maxwell Surprenant (Tavares), copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA. (illustrations)