March comes in with a roar for Matthew Cordell as two books of his are released simultaneously: Special Delivery, with text by Philip C. Stead, and Wish, which Cordell wrote and illustrated himself. Special Delivery follows the imperious Sadie as she braves biplanes and monkey bandits to deliver an elephant to her great-aunt Josephine. Wish, by contrast, is a quiet love letter to a longed-for child. Both stories feature kindly elephants—and, of course, Cordell’s sweet-tempered pen-and-ink drawings. PW spoke with Cordell via telephone at his home outside of Chicago about the medium of pen and ink, the complicated process of trying to bring a child into the world, and how to draw love.
Let’s start with Wish, which seems like a particularly intimate, personal story, something you might have written for your own child.
It was a story for my daughter, that’s right. I had finished Hello, Hello for Disney and I wanted to do another book with them. Hello, Hello was based on an exchange I had with my daughter, and I wanted to make another story like that, something that resonated for me personally.
I wanted to tell the story of how difficult things were before my daughter was born, and what I felt like while we were going through it. We struggled with conceiving. It took years, and we suffered some losses. And then when our daughter came, she was born six weeks early. It was the most… I mean, everybody says when your child is born it’s the most incredible thing, but it was the most incredible thing. And children themselves are miracles, too, you know? It seems more believable that you could make a smart phone or a spatula than a living, breathing person.
You imagined the baby and the parents in the story as animals rather than people – they’re elephants. Their baby is in a little boat, and it’s sailing across the ocean to get to them.
I wanted the story to be universal. Sometimes, when you draw people, you leave some people out. I wanted everybody to be able to say, “That’s me.” The choice of the elephants was there from the beginning. Elephants seem to have this incredibly intelligent way of being in the world. They have strong ties to their children, and they seem very strong and stoic themselves. That was important. If the publisher had said, “Can you make them pigs?” that would have been a problem.
Were there any parts of the story that did change?
Well, when I wrote it, I titled it We Wish You Were Here. It has all these connotations of traveling, of missing someone, longing for someone. But my editor, Kevin Lewis, said – and this is why it’s good to have more than one pair of eyes on a book – “It feels too dark.” If it’s simply called Wish, there’s a sort of magic there. It was a moment where I had to step aside and let go.
The way you represent the love the parents and the baby feel for each other before they meet is interesting, too – it’s this kind of rainbow confetti that flows back and forth across the ocean.
When we were working on it, we called it “Wish Dust.” I had done this drawing close to 10 years ago of a little mouse, and the mouse had its arm stretched into the air and there were these little colored dots, and I saw that that was what was needed here. It came together perfectly. The parents are sending out hope, they’re sending out love. And the baby is sending out the same feelings. That’s where the family begins – with the love that they have for each other.
How did your daughter respond to it when you read it to her?
She knows it’s her story. Every time it’s lying on the floor or sitting out somewhere, she’ll look at it and say, “That’s about me!” Or she’ll see the elephant baby and she’ll say, “Look, it’s me!”
It’s meant to be a book for a family to read together. It’s not written exclusively for a child. I hope parents will take something away from it, too. The child who’s listening to it will hear that story possibly for the first time, and they’ll understand a little bit about how important it is that they’re there.
Special Delivery was an unusual collaboration. Philip Stead came to you with the story, right?
Phil and [Philip’s wife, illustrator] Erin [Stead] and I have known each other for years. Phil had written the story before we had a contract or anything. He sent it to me and said, “Take a look at it. If you like it, let’s try to get it published, but if you don’t, that’s fine, too, we’ll come up with something else.” I looked at it and I loved it. There was no question in my mind. It had so much potential, visually. Without seeing any pictures I already knew what Sadie was going to wear. I could already see her in a flight helmet and a shoulder bag, and as soon as I started to illustrate it, that’s just what came out.
Phil and Erin and I share a similar sensibility. And [Roaring Brook editor] Neal Porter shares in that, too. He appreciates a lot of the same things we do. One of the things that’s important to all of us is that stories have to have a timeless appeal. If there’s an airplane in the story, you don’t want to put in a 747. You want something clunkety that’s held together with spit and dirt. You want a biplane.
Were there parts of the process that worried you?
There was this moment where I was doing the first sketch dummy. You never know… I mean, that’s a kind of scary moment, when you present your first sketch dummy, because you’re showing the book for the very first time. Phil and Neal had approved the character sketches, but, you know – they didn’t know that the post office was going to be outside. They didn’t know the bandits were going to be monkeys. I worried, will they think I took too many liberties? But when I showed it to them, they thought it was right.
While we were working on it together, I’d get proofs, and I’d think, I’m going to have a hard time looking at these, and Phil would reassure me that the art was good, he was happy with it. It was a really fun collaboration. Sometimes in life you just sit down with someone and know immediately you’re going to have a good time with that person. Your hair is standing up on your arms and you’re jazzed after you leave them.
And it sounds as if we might be hearing more about Sadie?
Phil and I have a sequel. The second book is called The Only Fish in the Sea, and the pub date is scheduled for spring 2017. That one has been written but I haven’t done any of the art yet. Phil has a story in mind for a third one, and I’m hoping that becomes a reality, too.
You’re probably working on other projects, too.
Right, I am. I’m illustrating a book of Rebecca Kai Dotlich’s called The Knowing Book, for Boyds Mills Press. And I’m writing a story called Little Jupiter, about a young winged horse who lives in a world of fantastic creatures. It’s sort of this backwards situation, where nobody believes that humans exist, and he goes on a quest to find one.
That’s a lot of projects to juggle.
At this point, I take the kids in the morning and my wife does her work. We all have lunch together and then in the afternoon I go to work. I have to solve the problem of how to cram the amount of work I have into the time I have.
The good thing about the way that I work is that for me, spontaneity and quickness about drawing is the best way to be. I want my drawings to be fresh to look as if I sat down and drew them without thinking about it too much. I’m very particular about some things and I’m ok with letting other things go.
What are you very particular about?
Well, one thing is facial expressions. When you draw in a very reduced, pared-down way, like I do, you use very few lines, and sometimes just the slightest twist of a line can completely change a facial expression. Like if the line curls down just a little bit instead of up, suddenly it’s a frown instead of a smile. And there’s not a lot you can do. I’m sort of a purist about correcting things. If you go in and doctor it up with white paint, the integrity of the whole thing is thrown off.
If it’s a very detailed drawing, I try to start with the face, because if I draw everything else and then ruin the face, everything is wasted. I’ve been reading a little more about Quentin Blake recently – he’s an artist I really admire – and I found out that he does it that way, too. I just figured out that that’s the safest way to do it, and it makes sense that he would do the same thing.
And you work with a whole range of pens, I’ve read.
I try to have each book look a little different than one before it. A nice way to do that is to have a variety of pens. If you’re adventurous about it, instead of you choosing the pen, you let the story choose the pen.
I try to give the books a consistent feel, though. It’s not that every book has to be drawn with the same hand, but you want to be able to reflect on each one. I want to look at them and see parts that I like and can take from them, and continue on down that road.
Special Delivery by Philip C. Stead, illus. by Matthew Cordell. Roaring Brook/Porter, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-59643-931-3
Wish by Matthew Cordell. Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-4847-0875-0