Twenty-One Steps is new children’s book that tells the story of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Submitted photo

A Maine children’s book author and illustrator who graduated from Bates College in Lewiston is winning praise for his artwork in a new book that puts the sacrifices honored on Memorial Day front and center.

For “Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” artist Matt Tavares said he spent several days at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in northern Virginia.

The Ogunquit resident said he went at different times of the year with the goal of soaking in the scene as much as he could as he thought about how to illustrate what he called a “beautifully written” story by Jeff Gottesfeld, a graduate of Colby College in Waterville.

The work paid off.

Details from artist Matt Tavares’ illustrations of a new book, “Twenty-One Steps.” Submitted photo

The Wall Street Journal said it is “patriotic and deeply moving,” with “sobering beauty.”

Kirkus Reviews said, “Tavares’ magisterial art soars, awash in opposing forces: shadowed but luminous, soaked in both melancholy and reverence. The fallen who have died nameless deserve the very best. This is it. Impeccably honors its subject.”


A Kids Book a Day hailed Tavares for creating “exceptional illustrations to capture the sober topic and the seriousness of purpose of the sentinels” and urged readers to “file this one away for Memorial Day.”

The Horn Book called it a gorgeous book “and reverent tribute both to veterans” and to “The Old Guard” soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment who guard the tomb in addition to providing escorts to the president and other ceremonial occasions.

Tavares said he was most impressed with spending time with the guards.

“Their standard is perfection,” he said, and they spend hours each day polishing their shoes, making sure their medals are perfectly placed, inspecting one another’s uniforms for even a stray piece of lint.

They are determined, Tavares said, “to honor the unknowns” by presenting themselves “as shining as they can be” when they march solemnly 21 steps at a time, one second per step, on and on, day after day, in perfect order.

The number is meant to salute the highest symbolic military honor, the 21-gun salute, reserved to honor chiefs of state and major milestones.


Matt Tavares, children’s book author and illustrator, sits at his drafting table in his home in Ogunquit. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Gottesfeld wrote the book from the vantage point of the unknown soldier laid to rest inside a white marble sarcophagus overlooking Washington, D.C. since 1921. Initially meant to honor the unknown dead from World War I, more remains were added in 1958 and 1984 from later wars, making the site a more general spot to reflect on the price many have paid in service to their country.

Tavares said he first read the text on his phone while he was at a shopping mall, after an editor pitched him on the idea of illustrating the work. He said the words got to him so much he began crying.

“I knew right away I wanted to do it,” he said.

Tavares said he spent a long while trying “to picture it in my head” before getting down to the hard work of creating the art.

He said one of his goals was “to find ways to expand on what’s written” in the text, to tell more of the story with his art.

Artwork by Matt Tavares appears in the new book “Twenty-One Steps” about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Submitted photo

Tavares said it’s not easy to make a book suitable for children that tells the story of a soldier slain in battle.


“It’s kind of a tricky topic for a kids’ book,” the artist said.

On the one hand, there is “this peaceful, serene place” in Arlington, but there was, inevitably, a scene of horror somewhere overseas that killed the young soldier entombed there, Tavares said.

He said the whole story had to be told without making it too scary, something he thinks the book manages to pull off.

“I feel like kids can handle a tough thing like that more than grownups give them credit for,” Tavares said, especially given the reality that many of them have had to deal with deaths in their own families and with other traumatic experiences.

Children are not just “sunshine and lollipops,” he said, and they can take it.

Tavares is working these days to polish off his first graphic novel, a book inspired by the Warsaw, Indiana, girls’ basketball team’s quest to win the first-ever Indiana state tournament.

He’s finished drawing the art and is coloring it in. He’s got about 30 pages to go for a 220-page volume that is slated for publication in the fall of 2022.

“I’m getting there,” Tavares said. “I’ve enjoyed it.”

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