Matthew Cordell did not sleep well on Sunday night. He’d been in this position once before—as creator of a book (hello! hello!, Hyperion, 2012) that was getting some Caldecott buzz—and he dreaded the prospect of another winter Monday waiting for a phone call that never came. “I can remember feeling totally destroyed and not wanting to be in that place again.”
But when his four-year-old son climbed into bed with him at 4 a.m., Cordell, whose wordless picture book Wolf in the Snow (Feiwel and Friends) was a favorite among both online prognosticators and mock Caldecott voters, realized his mind was too active to allow him more sleep. By the time his friend Laura Vaccaro Seeger—who’s won two Caldecott Honors herself—phoned at 6:30 a.m. to ask if he had gotten “the call,” Cordell had resigned himself to another lost day wondering, “What if?”
“When Laura called I was already thinking, ‘They [the committee] would have called by now,’ ” said Cordell, who lives with his wife, novelist Julie Halpern, and their two children in the Chicago suburbs. “And yet I was trying to figure out what time it was in Colorado and if there was any possibility they hadn’t been able to reach me for some reason.”
Then, at 7:30, the phone rang again. This time the Caller ID said, “Colorado Convention Center.” The voice on the other end belonged to Letitia Wilson, chair of the 2018 Caldecott Committee. She was having her own struggle—with the speakerphone, which she couldn’t get to work. “She said, ‘I’m so nervous,’ ” Cordell recounted, “and I was freaking out. I said, ‘Please just tell me what’s going on.’ ”
And so she did: Wolf in the Snow had won the 2018 Caldecott Medal. Cordell said he doesn’t even remember what he said in response, other than, ‘Do you mean the gold one?’ ”
“I’m still very much in disbelief,” he said. “I think a lot of [artists] are our own worst critics so I just prepare myself to be insanely disappointed. On the days leading up to this I tried to tell myself, ‘If I’m lucky, maybe I will get an Honor,’ but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this would really happen. “
Wolf in the Snow, one of six books Cordell has both written and illustrated, began with a single image: a girl in a red coat standing in a field of snow face to face with a wolf. “I normally finish a manuscript before I even start the pictures, because the writing is always a little harder for me,” Cordell said. But after posting the illustration of the girl and wolf to his Facebook page, people asked, ‘What’s the story here?’ ” Cordell recalled, which encouraged him to find out.
He started by reading nonfiction about wolves. “I didn’t know much about them and if you work in children’s books you’re pretty familiar with all the negative stereotypes like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs,” he said. “But what I learned was that wolves are really quite timid and in a lot of cases they are really fearful of humans. They have grown very distrustful of us as we’ve wiped out whole populations of them.”
In the finished book, girl and wolf end up helping each other out after each becomes separated from their family in a blizzard. “I started this years ago and the initial idea was a story about how stereotypes and prejudice can prevent us from knowing each other,” he said. “That problem has become even more heightened at this point.”
The book received five starred reviews and made just about every Best of 2017 list. Back in May, the book won a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor.
Because the book came out in January 2017, Cordell feels like he’s been waiting for the Caldecott issue to be resolved for a very long time. “The reviews came out months before the book did and there was a lot of build-up and hype, but then there was a long stretch in the middle of the year where I worried that people would just forget about it, because who thinks about snow books in July?” he said.
His editor, Liz Szabla, had faith. She called right after the Caldecott committee and Cordell said it was only then that he allowed himself to believe that Wilson’s announcement was not “some sort of elaborate prank,” because “no way would Liz have been fooled.”
“There are so many joys involved in working with Matt—his talent, his vision, his sensitivity, and in the case of Wolf in the Snow, his deep empathy,” said Szabla, associate publisher at Feiwel and Friends. “I’m thrilled for him that this Caldecott committee chose to celebrate his accomplishment and artistry.”
It is the first Caldecott Medal for the Feiwel and Friends imprint, which was founded by Jean Feiwel in 2007. One of the first books Feiwel acquired was Mighty Casey, a picture book written by James Preller, which she hired Cordell to illustrate. “This is a great day for Matt, who is richly deserving of the Caldecott Medal,” said Feiwel, senior v-p and publisher. “Just HOORAY!”
Cordell said the rest of his morning was a blur of congratulatory texts, tweets, emails, phone calls, and Facebook messages, but he and his wife had enough presence of mind to quickly retrieve their kids from school (“We made something up about a doctor visit,” he said) so the family could all watch the livestream from Denver.
“My daughter is nine so she knew something was up,” Cordell said. “My son had no idea why this was something we wanted him to see. He was just really happy to get the day off from school.”