Transcript from an interview with Matthew Cordell

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Matthew Cordell. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Storytelling and jokes

My name is Matthew Cordell, I write and illustrate picture books and I also illustrate chapter books and works of poetry.

Yeah, my dad was a big, he loved telling jokes and stories. He wasn’t a big reader but he, I think that I probably got some of my sense of, I know I got some of my sense of humor from my dad and probably a little bit of that love for telling fun and funny stories from my dad.

The first picture book

Yeah, so I grew up you know loving to draw and make pictures and you know, studied art all through high school and went to special art programs in the summer and then I ended up you know wanting to keep doing, trying to figure out a way to make a career out of art so I went to college for you know, I was trying to be sensible about it so I went to college for graphic design.

And so I studied graphic design and then I still continued to take classes in drawing and painting and print making so fine art classes. But my goal was to, after I got out of college was to work as a graphic designer and once I got out of school and was working as a designer for a few years, I didn’t like being a designer.

I liked the creative aspect of it but I didn’t really love the very business, very hard working sort of working for like a big company, I didn’t love that part of it. So at that same time I had met my wife, she’s my wife now, at the time she was my girlfriend, and she was an elementary school librarian and she said, and she writes too, she’s an author, and she said you know I can, why don’t you try to do a children’s book.

You know, she said I could write it and then she gave it, she would hand me the story and I’d try to do some pictures and get it published. And I thought that was a terrible idea and I didn’t really want to do it. But she started bringing me home children’s books and I had forgotten about the world of children’s books, so the ones she brought me home just really changed my mind.

She would bring me home you know classic children’s books, but also current you know contemporary picture books that had really inspiring, really just amazing illustrations. And so I, I at that point I really, it changed my mind about not wanting to do it, I really wanted to try it.

And we submitted, we ended up, you know she wrote the story and I did some, a few pictures for the story and we submitted it and we got mostly rejected but in the end it got like one sort of maybe letter and it ended up getting published so, and that was in 2004 is when that book came out, Toby and the Snowflakes it was called.

A lifelong comic book fan

I loved to read as a kid but I was also drawn to visual, to you know very visually driven. So I loved comics, I was really big into comics. I mean I read novels too but I really loved comics and back then it wasn’t, they didn’t have the selection of comics that they do today in terms of like graphic novels, it was all different sort of genres I suppose within the graphic novel form.

Back then, at least the comics I was able to get were like the superhero comics so I loved like Spider-Man and X-Men and I loved you know I think reading comics and also looking at comics is another sort of way that I was inspired to want to continue to draw and inspired to keep trying to be a better artist so I would copy the pictures from some of the comics that I would read, and sort of get better at making pictures in that way.

But yeah, I was just really a big comic fan throughout most of my youth, a big comic collector.

I still keep up with comics and I, you know I read as many graphic novels as I hear about. And yeah, there’s definitely a huge boom in amazing graphic novels and memoirs and you know fiction, it’s, I think really it’s really opened things up in terms of, because it used to be you know limited to however many pages a traditional comic book would be.

But now you can make an entire novel so it’s really, it’s really exploded in terms of what you can do and how stories can be told and so it’s a really inspiring time for, it’s a really cool time to be reading comics.

People ask me like my son is a reluctant reader and I always sort of say try like Bone, you know Bone is like a really gripping story and he makes you want to keep reading it and it’s a, it’s beautifully illustrated and so comics I think are a great way to get kids started on, starting to be more and more, you know better readers.

Loose expressive images

So I’m a huge William Steig fan. I mean, I really love most illustrators that are very loose pen and ink drawers, like I love pen and ink, it’s been, I didn’t grow up drawing with pen and ink, I didn’t really study it. I just fell into it when I wanted to be an illustrator and so I’m sort of self-taught in that part of art, as well as watercolor, my other, the other part of my art.

But I really love, I just love the looseness of some pen and ink artists like William Steig and Quentin Blake and Jules Pfeiffer. I just love that kind of very loose expressive line.

But I also love, you know, I’m drawn to other types of, the type of art I love is really handmade art. It’s sort of, it’s not perfect you know. It’s traditional in terms of materials. And things that are not super polished or realistic looking, I just, I’m more drawn to things that are unusual in some way. I think Maurice Sendak was good at that, you know he was, I’m a big fan of his books.

Because he did so many different ways of, he was sometimes it was like really realistic but it was really strange. And sometimes it was graphic in the way that he drew it with flat colors, and other times it was very scratchy pen and ink sort of like Where the Wild Things Are. So, but yeah, I’m just really drawn to artists and illustrators that are looser in their approach, that’s really just I think that’s most important to me.

Talking with kids about pen and ink

So I like, whenever I visit schools and festivals I like to talk a little bit about the pens that I use because most kids don’t use these types of pens. They’re kind of old-fashioned because it’s, pen and ink is typically means that you have a pen that doesn’t have ink inside of it like a more commonly used pen today. You have to dip into a bottle of ink and that ink for me, there’s all different types of inks you can buy but I use a waterproof ink.

Because when I color the pictures, I paint over the drawings with watercolor paints. So yeah, I use different pens that have different points in them that you can take in and out of the sort of holder and those are called nibs, so there’s different nibs that have different flexibilities and some can draw you know very thin lines that can open up to become very thick lines and some that aren’t as flexible and there’s some that aren’t as sharp so they don’t catch in the paper surface.

And there’s another type of pen I use, it’s basically like a, it’s what we’d call a bamboo pen or reed pen and it’s a sharpened piece of bamboo that you dip into ink. The bamboo pen is a very thick line usually so I use that for pictures that are more gestural or I know that that’s going to be a looser drawing and they have to be sort of larger in scale, the images, the pictures. So for me it’s really about just finding the right tool because my line, the lines that I draw for me it’s very important that that line be, have a character to it.

There’s some artists that really love a very clear, clean, consistent line and again for me that’s the opposite of how I want my lines to look, I want them to be very rough and scratchy and inconsistent and so the types of pens that I chose are the ones that are going to create those types of lines.

A pen in your pocket

I do always have a pen in my pocket and it’s definitely something, you know I think anybody should always have a pen because as an author, as an illustrator, the best ideas don’t always come when you’re sitting at your desk.

Usually when you’re out walking or you’re traveling somewhere, something will, something will just pop into my head and if I don’t have anything to jot it down on in a couple hours it’s gone, whatever, the next day and I’ve forgotten about it. So yeah I try to keep a pen at least and then I, somewhere I can find a scrap of paper to write down whatever it was that I thought of in that minute.

Picturing the characters first

So when I get a manuscript from a publisher by another author and I’m asked to illustrate it, I will read through it and the first thing I like to do is start to picture the characters so I want to think about what type of character it’s going to be, because some stories, some picture books need to be people characters, boys and girls.

But sometimes it can be an animal, it can be like a fox or a mouse or it can be, depending on the personality of the character you can choose a certain type of animal and it might work, which I do like to do whenever I can because if you choose an animal it kind of opens it up to the reader in terms of putting themselves within that character’s story.

And then I spend time just, I’ll read, I read through it several times and I’ll jot notes just on the man, you know printed it out on my printer and I’ll jot notes to the side of the story.

That this could be this picture and I’ll section it out into different pages because that’s another thing an illustrator needs to do is figure out what text goes on which page. So that’s how I begin doing it, and I don’t really even do much drawing for a while except little maybe little tiny sketches in the margins of the manuscript.

And then eventually once I have it sectioned out the pages, I’ll start to focus on each page or each spread and figure out more detail, you know more expanded sketches.

The illustrator’s imagination

Occasionally there’s some early preferences from a publisher but I think for the most part they want to see what I’m going to come up with or what any illustrator is going to do, what they’re going to bring to it. So sometimes an author may even write you know, little art notes here and there and the editor may take those out before they give them to me or whatever illustrator.

Because they really want to, they don’t want to you know box anyone in if there might be a better idea or if there might be some other way to do it that comes from the illustrator. And, but in some cases there needs to be some clarification. I did a book called Lost Found and the only words in the book are lost and found.

And it’s about a bear who has a scarf and this bear loses the scarf and then it goes, some other animals find it and they fight over it and they lose it, so it kind of goes in this cycle of losing the scarf and finding the scarf. And with, if I had only seen the words lost and found then it wouldn’t have been the author’s vision at all, if I just, you know what I mean.

There’s no way I could have, and in that case there needed to be some art direction in a sense from the author at least to tell me what’s happening because when you only have, it was very, it was almost like a wordless book in that it was only the word lost and found in every, the pictures were really driving and telling the story. And so in some cases there needs to be some level of explanation and art direction from the author or the editor on the project.

Big images and dramatic page turns

Yeah, so there’s parts of a text where there needs to be things revealed, so there will be a moment in the text where you wouldn’t want to have a big reveal on the second page of a spread because it doesn’t, it’s not as impactful as when you turn the page and you see this thing that’s happening that is very unique to a page turn in a book. Like, if you just, if your eyes move from left to right on the spread there’s not a revealing moment in that. So you, I go through the manuscript and I find those moments and you have to figure out like for that sort of device specifically like where is there going to be a reveal.

And some moments call for bigger images you know, bigger, you know big emotional or a big impact of a big full spread image, but some moments are about just moving the story forward so you can get away with a spot illustration on a single page or one on each page. So you really just, it’s about just the experience of creating a book and sort of knowing how best each bits of text are going to work in the layout of the book.

And I’ve always found that it’s my job as the illustrator to at least try out initially and then present that first sketch dummy to the publisher and then you know there’s usually some back and forth about what’s working or what’s not working but as the illustrator you know finding those moments that need to be, they need to be illustrated as a spread, there needs to be you know the impact of a page turn, all those moments.

And that’s part of the fun too of being an illustrator is figuring out, because it’s really, it really can change the dynamics of the storytelling if you can find those moments and fit them in the right spots.

Exploring different kinds of bookmaking

Yeah, I think you know as a person I feel like a blend of kind of quiet sincerity but also humor, so I, I always want to weave some level of humor into my books and I think yeah, Wolf in the Snow is probably my most serious of all the books I’ve done.

If I just did funny books I don’t think it would be, I would be as satisfied so I like to try to do different, you know explore different ways of making books and different you know styles of stories to tell. I’d like to get into some nonfiction in the near future, I’m working on some stuff and I’m also going to be working on some early reader stuff, so.

You know it’s just more satisfying and fun for me to not just do the same thing so I’m sort of always on the, on the lookout for different ways to express myself as a book maker.

Hand-lettering and onomatopoeia

So the reason I have a lot of hand lettering and sounds in my books, a lot of that comes from my, my you know childhood and my growing up with comics because comics uses a lot of that and also my, my, I still have a love for graphic design so I love to draw letters. I just, I don’t know, it’s, for me like letters, there’s no really right or wrong way, at least the way that I draw them.

So there’s not as much pressure in I can just kind of draw it and get in this sort of Zen state so I love to, I love to explore those two things, the drawing of letter forms and also making sounds and making, and having that be part of the artwork essentially. Because you know comics really uses a lot of that in you know big flashy lettering.

I even like to hand letter you know titles of my books whenever possible and things like that.

Collaborating with Philip Stead

Phil Stead and I were friends before we made books together and we really both liked each other’s sensibilities as artists and as storytellers. He was working with an editor who’s work I really admired as a picture book editor, Neil Porter is his name, and so I thought it would be just a really fun way to make a picture book with, you know I knew Neil already too and to just basically have three people with you know, all three of have I feel dif, similar approaches to making books and similar senses of humor.

And so that’s how that came together sort of organically and then it was a very different experience, in most cases if I’m illustrating another person’s book, the author is not involved. The editor or the art director is the point person for me, and even if the author has ideas or comments at any time it’s filtered through the editor or art director.

But in the case of the books I did with Phil, Special Delivery and The Only Fish in the Sea, those were very collaborative books of, I would send, you know I would get Phil’s text and then do a sketch dummy of all the text and send it in to Neil and to Phil. They would both get it, and then we would all get on the phone and just walk through it.

And we would be on the phone sometimes for an hour or two kind of talking about what’s working and what’s not working and it was really exciting you know, it was, you know, I don’t know it was, I kind of liken it to like a session of like free jazz or something where these three people are getting together and just making music and it just, it was, by the end of the phone conversation we all just felt really energized about the book and the project and that we were doing something that we all loved.

So yeah, it doesn’t happen like that all the time, I think it really has to be special circumstances when either you’re friends already or you know that you have very strong bond in some way but I can definitely see the reason behind keeping authors and illustrators apart, at least from a publisher’s standpoint in terms of artistic integrity from both sides and having too many opinions on a project, so. But in those cases it worked really well.

Color and white space

In Hello! Hello! the color and the white space was a very important part of the storytelling. So it starts out, so the girl is always in color because she’s sort of enlightened so to speak from the beginning. But the background of her, the interior of her home is always in black and white because the parents and the little brother are very, they’re very absorbed into the, their phones and tech, tech gadgets.

And there’s a lot of white space early on too, and then as she decides to walk outside she starts to see nature and she starts to see those backgrounds in color but it still hasn’t, the white space hasn’t all gone away. So as she’s slowly walking out doors the pages begin to fill up so the spreads begin to become more illustrated and more colorful.

And so by the time she’s really using her imagination which is when she gets, finds this horse, which I always ask kids do you think the horse is real or imaginary and most of the time they say imaginary because most people don’t just walk outside and find a horse in their yard so they kind of pick up on that. So by the time the spreads have evolved into all kinds of animals, dinosaurs and whales and fish flying through the air, the kids really know what’s happening.

Like she’s really, she’s really you know embracing the outdoors and she’s really embracing her imagination and so everything is in color, it’s really like you know very, you know more detailed illustrations and so yeah, the, it’s sort of like a Wizard of Oz moment in a way where as soon as you become, you know as soon as you’re reading the world of imagination, the outside world, that’s when things start to really bloom and become colorful.

Learning about wolves

Wolf in the Snow began with a picture that I drew. And sometimes I just like to draw pictures that aren’t for assignment or not for deadlines, I just like to draw things and for some reason I had this idea to draw a girl in a red coat and she’s in a completely snow covered field with basically just a white, complete white space background and just a few away from her is standing an adult wolf, staring, the two are staring at each other.

And I didn’t have a story, and I’ve tried to write stories about drawings before and it just ends horribly, like I just spend so much time trying to make a story out of nothing and it just, so I’ve tried that before and it didn’t really work so, but I loved the drawing so much and I wondered if there was a story that could be pulled out of that.

So I felt like a better way to approach it would be not so much to just try to write a story about these two characters but to try to learn a bit more about a wolf because at that point I didn’t know much about wolves and what I thought I knew about wolves was that they were you know bloodthirsty and frightening and wanted to eat people and you know a lot of that comes from old fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs where wolves are demonized and made into villains.

And you know are very frightening to people. And so when I actually took the time to research wolves and read about wolves and watched documentaries about wolves, I learned that wolves are, that’s not what wolves are, that they, they have been thought to be that by people and people have killed wolves and hunted them down and wiped out populations of wolves.

So wolves have really become very timid around people, very distrustful of people. So, I started to see some parallels in that story about you know people that distrust wolves and wolves that distrust people. I started to see parallels between that story about, and people that distrust people because of their differences and because of things they don’t know about each other that are happening all the time in our you know, and have always happened throughout history but it seems really, really amplified in our current sort of sociopolitical climate.

And so I felt like it was a good story to tell about how these two animals you know, or two beings, a person and a wolf that typically don’t trust each other, don’t know each other, they are put into a situation where they are forced to help each other. And by helping each other they become better, better people or better animals or better people because of that experience where they had to learn about each other and put their trust in each other.    

Realistic wolves

Yeah, so most of my drawing and illustration style has a sort of, it’s like cartoon based I would say. There’s an economy of line, it’s not very detailed in the finish. But for this story, I needed it, I needed it to be a visual distinction between the people and the wolves, in part because of what I was just saying about how different they are.

But I also knew that if I drew cartoon wolves it was not going to be as threatening, it was not going to be as, as daunting of a situation if it was sort of a very minimally drawn wolf that didn’t seem, that didn’t seem as dire of a situation. So I felt like it really worked for me on both of those levels to do something different, you know it would make the situation more real when it needed to be real.

It would make it more serious but at the same time I would still be able to keep my own voice, visual voice in the creation of the illustration so it really worked to distinguish the two, the humans and the wolves, but it also helped to really just turn up the volume on the drama of the story.

Winning the Caldecott

I’ve been making books for enough years now where it’s sort of like there’s never, in terms of awards it’s, there’s never any idea that you can have like, if it’s going to win or if it’s not going to win. It seems so very, the stars really have to align in those situations.

I did feel like I was doing something new and exciting for me you know, I felt like I was in uncharted territory which an exciting place to be when you feel good about the work that you’re making. So I felt energized about that, and I felt you know, I do like to share works in progress online so I was sharing some of the drawings you know before they were finished.

You know some of the wolf drawings and the general, you know reception was pretty strong like on Facebook or Twitter or whatever. But it’s such a hard thing to predict you know how a committee is going to, what their personal tastes are going to be.

My work is, it’s loose and it’s scratchy and it was wordless, you know some people don’t like wordless picture books. So I wondered is it going to be polarizing in those ways.

But when I was told, when I got the Caldecott call, when they said it was a medal like I, I was confused like I thought they meant, I meant it was the honor but I said is that the gold one because like I wasn’t sure if, if I was hearing it right.

No, I just, I never assumed, I never expected it but it’s pretty surreal still actually that it’s happened.

Behind the cover of Wolf in the Snow

So, a lot of times on newer picture books illustrators like to play around with the idea of having a different drawing or a different design on the jacket of the book than they have on the printed hardcover of the book, which is called a case cover. So I was thinking about, I knew this was a special book to me so I knew I wanted to do something unique and special for the case cover.

I was trying to figure out what was that going to be, so in other words if you, this is the outer paper of the book, the book jacket, so if you take off the jacket of this book you know, on this jacket you have you know the girl and the wolf pup on this side of the jacket and one of the adult wolves back here. So in a way it’s sort of a continuous piece if you look at it like this.

I wanted to tell a little bit of extra story on each piece, so this is a little bit of extra story about the girl and her family and sort of the bond that they have, the bonds that they have together. And on this side of the case cover are the wolves, different scenes showing the wolves bonding amongst the pack of wolves, so.

I just felt like it would have been a fun place to show … because there’s not a lot of scenes where you see the family together or you see the girl interacting with their dog, or you see the wolves and the wolf pup together. So I wanted to show a little bit, it could be before the story, it could be after the story. But there’s one panel right here where the girl is looking out and she sees a wolf howling in the distance.

And right here the wolf mother and pup are looking out and they see some smoke coming from the chimney of the house so they’re sort of aware of each other in that, in the context of where they live and nature and that there are other beings out there around them, so.

Whenever I go talk about the book I always point that out and I always sort of tell kids that always look underneath the jackets.

"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan