Local children’s author, student illustrator bring clumsy character to life

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Author Matt Pelicano and illustrator Ashley Spikings collaborated to bring Philbert to life. Photo by Will Crooks.

Philbert LaRue’s journey begins with a hole in his shoe but by the last page ends with a valuable lesson.

The clumsy 65-year-old man is trapped in a comedy of errors.

“He’s kind of an ‘aw, shucks’ type character,” Greenville children’s author Matt Pelicano says. “Bad things are happening to him, and he never really figures out why.” 

The recently released picture book “Philbert LaRue Had a Hole in His Shoe” is written in a Dr. Seuss rhyming style.

“Rhyming is fun because you can do things with a rhyme that are more clever and more surprising than you would with prose,” Pelicano says.

The fun-to-read book also teaches a moral.

“The moral is: Face whatever problems you’re experiencing; face them head-on,” he says. “Take care of them before they get out of hand, before your hole in your shoe turns into a comedy of errors.”

Philbert LaRue made his debut on Aug. 15, which has special significance for Pelicano — it was his wife’s birthday. More than two years ago, she died after a long battle with cancer. 

Writing “Philbert” during the grieving process, Pelicano developed the idea of needing to face demons head-on.

“I think part of it was me talking to myself about just facing the difficulties that we were going through and doing it in kind of a fun way,” Pelicano says.

Ultimately, his goal for all of his books is to encourage children to read and parents to read with them.

“It’s a fast read, it’s under 10 minutes, but that can make all the difference in bonding with your kids and doing it in a very organic way,” he says. “I think reading is a very organic experience; it’s not digital, there’s nothing between you and the story and the images, and your child.”

Not knowing how old Philbert should be or what he should look like, Pelicano gave the illustrator creative freedom to develop the character.

“I wanted an illustrator who was local and who would get the opportunity to build their resume,” he says. “So I thought it would be great to have a high school illustrator.”

After reaching out to St. Joseph’s Catholic School, where his wife taught, Pelicano looked at three students’ mock-ups of Philbert. Ultimately choosing 10th-grader Ashley Spikings’ version of Philbert, the two worked together to create his character.

“She really brought him to life, and her illustrations just stood out,” Pelicano says.

Spikings used markers and digital painting to illustrate the book, but she enjoys working in various media.

“I feel like there’s not a lot of published illustrators at 15,” Spikings says. “The experience for it was really great even without the benefits that came from it. It was just a really fun thing to do.”

She says the process taught her how to draw a living character with consistency.

“My favorite part was developing his character and being able to allow Philbert to be expressive and get the emotion of each page across,” Spikings says, “and that was also probably the most challenging thing.”

Creating art since she could hold a pencil, Spikings says she realized her artistic abilities in the sixth grade.

“It’s always been something in my life, and I really hope it’s always going to be something in my life,” she says.

“Philbert LaRue Had a Hole in His Shoe” is available online at mattpelicano.com, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

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