~ By Amanda Smith
We are excited to visit with author and illustrator Matthew Cordell at 24 Carrot Writing.
Matthew has illustrated poetry, novels, and picture books for children including Special Delivery by Philip Stead and the Justin Case series by Rachel Vail. He has also written and illustrated several picture books himself, including Another Brother, Hello! Hello!, Wish, and Dream.
Matthew’s books have been recognized as Best of the Year selections by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and his first wordless picture book, Wolf in the Snow, was awarded a 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book honor award.
Thank you, Matthew, for answering all our questions about the making of a picture book from an illustrator's point of view. We are honored to learn from you.
Tell us a little about your journey to becoming an illustrator.
As long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawing and making art in some capacity. I was never particularly into sports or some of the things other kids grow up interested in. Art and drawing was always my thing.
As a boy, I was really excited by comics and comic art like Spiderman and X-men. But by the time I got into high school, my eyes were opened to fine art and I learned about all different kinds of art-making—painting, sculpture, printmaking, etc. By the time I needed to choose a college major, I knew it would have to be art or something art-related. Trying to be sensible about it, I put my name down for graphic design. (I wasn’t entirely sure what “graphic design” was, but I knew it was a career where I could be creative.)
Throughout college, I learned more about graphic design and came to love it. I also continued taking classes in drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture. I loved it all, really. And by the time I graduated, I wanted it all. I wanted a career in graphic design and I wanted to draw, and paint, and show my work in galleries and ultimately museums. And with lots of work and persistence, I was on my way to success in both.
I got my dream design job at one of Chicago’s top design firms. And my drawings and paintings were being represented by an excellent gallery in the city. However… Once I got a taste of what both were really like… I realized neither were for me. The design world was too buttoned-down for me. The art world was too pretentious. I was at a loss. What I’d always wanted, I’d gotten. And I didn’t like it much at all.
Around that same time, I started dating a young woman named Julie Halpern who was a writer and an elementary school librarian. She had an idea that we should collaborate on something. She thought we should do a picture book together.
But I thought that sounded like the most uncool thing ever! To be fair, I’d been out of the picture book game since I was… I guess 6, 7, 8 years old. I had no real idea what picture books were, but in my mind they were wholesome and moral-driven, and not terribly interesting or inventive or inspiring. And, of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Julie started feeding me classic and contemporary picture books from her library. I was blown away by the quality of illustration in these books. I was particularly drawn to the more expressive and loosely drawn illustrations of those like William Steig, Bernard Waber, and Jules Feiffer. And I became excited about the idea of a completely different audience: kids, parents, and educators.
So, Julie wrote a manuscript and I put together some drawings, and we submitted our book idea to 20 publishers at the same time. One by one, we were told “no”, until we had a stack of 19 rejections. The 20th and last letter came from Houghton Mifflin. Theirs was a “maybe” that turned into a “yes.” And eventually, our book, Toby and the Snowflakes was published in 2004.
Once I began working as an illustrator with the folks at Houghton, and later, at one or two other publishers, I was hooked. I was hooked on the kindness and warmth of everyone in the business. I was hooked on the idea of making art that could be appreciated in an intimate setting and acquired at an affordable price. I was hooked on the idea of making art that would be in the hands of and before the eyes of children—a funny, fun, fresh (and not horribly jaded like us grown-ups) audience for me. I was hooked, and from that point on, I did all that I could to eventually make children’s book illustration my full-time job.
When you first receive a manuscript to illustrate, what is your process?
In the very beginning, it’s just some vague planning. And it’s not intense work right away, which makes for a good ice breaker. I’ll work out the trim size and number of pages and page breaks. I print out the manuscript and I read it through several times. Then vague images tend to materialize in my mind and I’ll jot down some notes in the margins. Before I draw anything in detail, I begin with character sketches and share them with my editor and art director. Nothing can or should take place in terms of work, until we’re all in agreement about the look of the main characters. (Which is, by the way, maybe my favorite part of the process—designing the characters for my books. It’s a fun problem to solve. Are they children? Animals? Something else? What are they wearing? Are they wearing clothes at all? What are the colors? The proportions? What else?) Once the characters are hammered out, I’ll go through and sketch out all the pages in the book. The first dummy is sent to the publisher and there will be several rounds of notes, and changes, and back and forth until we’ve got an approved sketch dummy that’s ready for final art.
You have written and illustrated your own books as well as illustrated books authored by other writers. Can you speak a little to the pros and cons of illustrating someone else’s story, versus a story you’ve written yourself?
I consider myself an illustrator first, who’s occasionally given permission to write my own stories. Writing has never been super easy for me, I guess mostly because I haven’t spent the better part of my life trying to uncomplicate it (unlike drawing). So, writing my own books is often a struggle, in one way or another. But it is extremely validating when it works (when something I write gets published). I do love having 100% ownership of a book. In terms of the finished piece and the assemblage of the thing. As I’m writing, I’m also aware, in some respect, of what the pictures are ultimately going to look like. The two different parts of assembling this puzzle are coming together organically and somewhat simultaneously. And having control over both the words and pictures is a rather satisfying thing to have.
Working on someone else’s manuscript is also validating and challenging in its own ways. I like to collaborate with like-minded individuals to put some squished-together piece of art into the world. There is not a lot of direct contact between author and illustrator in most cases, but the collaboration is still intact. Two names are on the book and two different skill sets have been combined to bring this new book into the world. There are some worries. Like, “is the author going to like how I bring her/his story to life visually?” What if someone really didn’t like what I did with her/his words? That would be pretty unfortunate. It’s always a possibility. But, like it or not, the magic of combining two things by two people is a pretty cool thing to be a part of. It’s also nice when it comes to marketing and promotion. Promoting my own books can feel a little lonely and egocentric. When there’s an author friend involved in this part of the process, it can make it more bearable and more fun.
How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author of a manuscript you are illustrating? If you do work with the author, what make those collaborations successful?
It’s pretty rare, in my experience, for an author and illustrator to have direct communication regarding the writing and/or the illustrating of their book. A book’s editor, or art director, or both are usually the connective tissue between the author and illustrator as the book is coming together. This has always made sense to me, mostly because the book is ultimately being produced by the publisher that has invested in it. So, the folks who work at the publisher and are involved in the project generally have final say in many aspects. It’s also helpful to have a person in the middle who can filter any communication between the author to the illustrator, so that no feelings get hurt, and to be a sounding board for any ideas that may not even be worthy of making the jump from the author to the illustrator or vice versa.
The sole instance in my career where I’ve collaborated directly with an author, has been on my books, Special Delivery and The Only Fish in the Sea, by author Philip Stead. Phil and I are friends and were so before we came to work on these books together. We’re both authors and both illustrators too, and we have strong feelings on both matters. Knowing all of this, it would’ve been incredibly weird not to speak to each other about what was going on in the making of these books as they were coming together. So, lines of communication were wide open with Phil and me and our editor Neal Porter, throughout the production of both of the books. I think it really needs to be a special circumstance for this to happen. Not only do the author and illustrator have to be close in some way, but the editor of the project must also be close and willing to open the doors to free and complete collaboration. But when it works, it works. I had so much fun making these books!
You illustrated Lost. Found. (Roaring Brook Press, 2015) a picture book, written by Marsha Diane Arnold, which consists of two words only, repeated throughout. Picture book writers are often intrigued, and a little intimidated, by the process of writing a wordless book, or book with minimal text. What does such a manuscript look like when you get it?
Lost. Found. (by author Marsha Diane Arnold) is a very different manuscript from any other I’ve ever been offered. There are only two words in the entire story, which are (you guessed it) “lost” and “found”. In a nutshell, it’s a story about a bear who owns a big red scarf that one day gets taken away by a gust of wind on a snowy day. The scarf is then found by a couple of quarreling raccoons who ultimately lose it themselves. The scarf is repeatedly lost and found by all different types of animals until it’s found by every one of them and battled over until it’s ripped to shreds. There’s more to it, obviously, but I won’t spoil the ending. So, there’s no narration or dialogue to tell the story. Just “lost” and “found.” In principle, it’s pretty close to being a wordless picture book. When my editor, Neal, sent me Marsha’s manuscript, there was some general description of the actual story. Some explanation of how the scarf is lost, what animal finds it, and what happens next. (Otherwise, no one but Marsha herself would’ve known what in the world was happening among all of those losts and founds!) I followed much of her outline, but did end up changing a thing or two once I started with the visuals. Even with proper planning, one never really knows how a thing will play out until the actual visuals are put in place. It’s a really clever and heartfelt book and I’m super proud of that one.
Do you collaborate more with the writer in the making of such a book?
Despite the unconventional nature of this book, I still had no actual discussions with Marsha about the text or the pictures as I was illustrating. Any questions I had were put to Neal and if he couldn’t answer, it would be asked of Marsha. Then I’d get answers back through Neal. That’s really just how it goes.
What advice do you have for writers who are walking around with a wordless book in their hearts?
I imagine it must be an unusual undertaking to be a writer and envision, write, and even pitch a story like this. Much less one with no words at all. But I know it can be done, obviously, and done well. One of my favorite recently published picture books is a wordless book, Sidewalk Flowers written by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith. If any author is ever on the fence about doing a wordless picture book, I say get off the fence and go for it. Some picture books simply function better with no words at all, and there’s really no better way to do it.
Yes, the dreaded illustration note question: We’ve read agents’ opinions on illustration notes. As an illustrator, what is your take?
When a manuscript is on submission, I think illustration notes are quite helpful. A picture book text, in the end, should not spell out every single twist and turn that is meant to be seen in the book. If it did, it would be working overtime and be terribly redundant as the pictures are already doing some of this work and filling in gaps. As an illustrator, I don’t mind the occasional illustration note, especially if there is no text to describe a critical element to the story. But if a manuscript is riddled with notes, I think it can be a bit overwhelming and stifling to my own interpretation and decision-making I’ve been hired to deliver. But most editors I’ve worked with strip the manuscript of most, if not all, notes to see how I might interpret the story. Unless, again, there is some critical description that must be seen by the illustrator.
When you are not working on an assignment, what do you do to grow your craft/art?
If I’m not on deadline, I like to use any free time to develop any story ideas that have been sitting around, or simply just to draw for fun. I think it’s important to continue to draw when there’s no pressure of contracts and timelines and expectations for specific books or jobs. Whenever I work on a book, there is a lot of extended planning involved: Image research, sketches, sketch revisions, pencil drawing, and then by the end, I break out my pen and bottle of ink.
When I’m drawing for my own pleasure, a lot of the pressure and expectations are stripped away and I can sometimes stumble upon new ways to solve problems and use the pen and line to do what I never knew it could do. I like to skip any time and labor involved with sketches and the pencil and just attack the paper straight away with the pen, which can be a little intimidating, considering ink is incredibly unforgiving. But often times the best drawing is the very first one that’s been put to paper. Sometimes the very first sketch has so much more energy than a final drawing—one that’s been drawn 3, 4 or more times. So it’s fun to just go at an ink drawing with no planning at all. It’s fun to just draw without limits or expectations.
At 24 Carrot Writing, we pay a lot of attention to goal setting and planning. Do you set illustrating/ art goals? If so, what do they look like?
This is a great point, one I probably haven’t thought much about in a while. There definitely have been many times in my career where I’ve stopped and set goals for myself. For instance, to get my first book published as an author and illustrator. Or to do everything I could to become a full-time illustrator. Or to stick my neck out and do more public speaking and appearances. I’ve been really fortunate, in that many of the goals I’ve set for myself have been met over the years. And in recent years, I think I’ve gotten a little slack about this sort of thinking. I think goal setting is a great way to make sure we’re all moving forward in some way and not getting too comfortable or sedentary. So, now that you mention it, I think my new goal is to think on this and set some more goals!
What does your typical work day look like?
Julie and I have two young children (4 and 8) and we evenly split up responsibilities and child care duty. On top of kidcare, we both work from home, so no two days tend to be the same. But our typical setup is that Julie takes the AM shift of the day for her work (she’s a Young Adult author) and I stay on top of the kids’ needs during that time. Then around lunch, we do a sort of virtual high five, and I start work and she takes over with the kids. So I work from mid-day through 5 on most days. And if I need to get caught up, I have to stay up late, when everyone else is off to sleep, and work into the wee hours of night. Someday, when both kids are in school full time, there will probably be a bit more normalcy to the work day, but it’s hard to imagine it that way right now.
What has been your greatest joy in your career as an illustrator so far?
I love connecting with kids who have read and appreciated my books. It’s incredibly satisfying and inspiring to meet and hear from these kids and to hear that I’ve even maybe had something to do with them wanting to draw and learn more about drawing. The most satisfying instance of all, is to see my own daughter taking a big interest in art. I might be biased, but she’s a terrific artist and she loves to draw. To be perfectly fair, I don’t know how much credit I can take for her talent and interest, because she is very much an individual and her own person. But I’d like to think I had a LITTLE bit of something to do with it.
What has been the biggest surprise?
I used to be terribly afraid of public speaking. I think many of us who make books are probably just more at home by ourselves and just being with the ones we love. I used to think that, no matter what, I would never be comfortable talking to large groups of people—kids or adults. I thought I would never agree to doing it, no matter how often I might be asked or by whomever was asking. But I realized, at some point, that I would only get so far in my career if I was holed up at my desk. And I would only be so content with myself if I never faced my fears.
So I started seeking out and accepting appearances at schools, book festivals, book stores, etc. And now, it’s, like, no big deal at all. I’m pretty much completely comfortable with talking to groups. I mean, there’s still some small bit of uneasiness about it, that I’m sure will never go away. But I never thought I’d be able to perform, speak, or draw in front of big crowds of people, and now I do it all the time. I’m happy that it’s something I overcame. And I’m glad I did too. The rewards of connecting with people face-to-face are endless.
To learn more about Matthew visit him online at matthewcordell.com.
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