When an early career in graphic design hit a dead end, Matthew Cordell’s wife, the writer Julie Halpern, suggested that they collaborate on a picture book. Now, after almost two decades of illustrating picture books for other writers and creating many of his own—including the Caldecott winner Wolf in the Snow (2017)—Cordell has begun a series of early readers about two mouse friends named Cornbread and Poppy. Denser and more complex than his picture books, they play Poppy’s exuberance off Cornbread’s natural caution—though not always. In Cornbread and Poppy, which came out in January, Poppy’s failure to lay in a winter food supply leads the two on a foraging trip up scary Holler Mountain. In Cornbread and Poppy at the Carnival (June), the two friends share traditional carnival thrills and discover that Poppy isn’t quite as carefree as she seems. PW spoke with Cordell about the possibilities offered by early readers, the lure of eccentric characters, and a near-disaster with a lot of artwork.
When you write an early reader, is there a list of pointers or a vocabulary list that you are given before you start?
Not really, surprisingly. I was sort of waiting for that. What I did was, I just wrote a manuscript, using pretty much the same approach as I would writing a picture book, only with more words. I broke it up into chapters so each one had a beginning and a cliffhanger moment, or a punchline. My son is beginning-reader age, so I was tuned into with what you can or can’t do. It was sort of plug-and-play, in terms of the writing. It wasn’t a huge amount of adjustment in sentence structure or word complexity.
What have you learned about the mechanics of an early reader? It’s different from picture books in terms of pacing and page turns.
Right. There are still some things that carry over. The drama of the page turn—that I wanted to include—but yeah, there’s a lot more text on each spread, so it was a different balance. I like being able to pull back away from the show-don’t-tell-approach because at this stage of reading, you want to show and tell.
With picture books, I end up writing a longer manuscript and then going back and pruning it. With an early reader, I can leave a lot of that in. It’s fun to be able to work more with the words and not have to edit myself.
What kind of research did you do before you started?
I was just reading a lot of early readers, and it seemed like there were two different camps. One kind is pretty sparse in text, like Mo Willems does. There are a lot of pages, but there isn’t a lot of text on the page. And then there’s the text-heavy, chapter-based kind, almost like little novellas, and that’s what I wanted to do. I envisioned the child maybe not reading it all in one sitting. I wanted it to be a fuller world, with more descriptive text and more character development and more world-building, and for me you can’t really do that as much with a book that has fewer words. I knew I wanted to write a longer book, and it is a longer book; I’m working with 80 pages.
In Cornbread and Poppy at the Carnival, the carnival scenes grab a lot of visual attention. Do you have your own childhood memories of carnivals?
I’ve been to more of them as an adult. My wife is into circus culture and carnivals, so before we had kids we went together to all of those things. The story started out as a circus book. The circus has been on a steady decline, though, and it was suggested that I make it look more like a carnival. Every town has a carnival—the junk food and the colorful characters and the communal atmosphere.
It’s reminiscent of Charlotte’s Web, the scenes with Fern and Avery on the midway.
The snacks, right, and Templeton gorging on all the junk food! You kind of lean into it. You eat the sugary fried stuff.
The carnival lends so much to the illustrations; you don’t have to think too much about the background because it already exists. When you start with a town and houses, there’s a lot more to do. With a carnival, there are the old standards: the roller coaster, the Ferris wheel, the game booth. And it’s colorful, too—it really pops off the page.
I based the Ferris wheel on the massive one in London, the London Eye—it has these fully enclosed pods, little oval-shaped gondola-type things.
The carnival thing is exotic on its own. And a boost to the excitement is the different-sized animals involved. The rides were quite big for the mice.
Like the drawing of tiny Cornbread and Poppy in their huge Ferris wheel seat?
I have to tip my hat to my editor, Stephanie Lurie, for the sizing relationships. In the beginning the animals were different sizes, but not completely proportional. It’s too difficult to have a mouse standing by an elephant and still see the mouse. In the beginning the proportions were even more skewed toward their being the same size, and she said, “You should really turn up the volume on the discrepancy.” That ended up making it more playful and fun.
After that first big adventure in Cornbread and Poppy, did you feel it was time to switch gears and examine these two characters more closely in this evocative setting?
Well, the interesting thing is that this book, the carnival book, wasn’t the second book. It was planned to be the first book. I can’t even remember the details, but because of the publication schedules in late fall and early winter, the self-titled book came out first.
And there was another complication, too. Originally these books were signed up to be Disney Hyperion, but they ended up at Little, Brown. And I had a couple of different editors while I was still at Disney Hyperion. One of my editors, Rotem Moskovich, left soon after I finished Carnival, and then I worked with Stephanie Lurie, who’s still there, and Mary-Kate Gaudet is my current editor at Little, Brown. They’ve all been wonderful collaborators. They have each had a hand in this world and these characters.
Mary-Kate has been a joy to work with. We really get each other’s senses of humor, we just like a lot of the same things. She laughs at the things I hope people are going to laugh at.
What were some contributions she made?
The one that stands out in my mind was that she really liked Old Larry, who’s a grumpy pig. He wasn’t in Cornbread and Poppy when I delivered that one, and she said, “What’s going on? I want some more Old Larry!” We don’t know much about him—he just appears. That was a fun moment for me, that she appreciated Old Larry. There are these quirky moments that may not have been in more classic books.
Do you feel more like Poppy, or more like Cornbread?
It’s interesting because they’re both sort of based on my wife and me—but not completely. What I did was a sort of subconscious thing... all of the positive characteristics of the characters are Julie, and all the negative personality traits are me. Cornbread is very prepared and on top of everything but he’s more apprehensive. Poppy is more adventurous, and she’s a procrastinator and is not on top of the day-to-day necessities. Julie is by far the more prepared person, and she’s also more fun-loving adventurous type. I’m more apprehensive and a procrastinator.
Is it a challenge to get the characters to show different sides of themselves and not to fall into the same typecast behaviors?
I wanted Poppy to be the braver one. It’s not like 50 years ago when all the books were about brave boys and meek girls, but I think it’s important to have a male creator writing confident strong female characters, and I try to do that as often as I can. I have a lot of brilliant strong females in my life; it’s not like I have to try hard to make it a reality!
But in Carnival I wanted to flip it. I didn’t want it to be too predictable. Cornbread gets to come to the rescue—and at the moment you least expect it.
Did Cornbread and Poppy at the Carnival take longer to draw and to letter than Cornbread and Poppy?
I think it did... the backgrounds in particular, there was a lot more to work on. There are a couple of big spreads of a lot of the rides, and even one spread that’s not even in the carnival, the barn dance. That one took forever. The pages are smaller, and they’re distributed differently, but it’s still an 80-page book.
Side story: because there was so much drawing to be done on that book—and this was years ago, when I was making it—I was traveling a lot for book events, and so I was carrying the art everywhere, working on it in my hotel room, taking it from plane to plane. One morning I was boarding really early, and I put the artwork through security and went and got breakfast, and sat down to eat it, and I looked down and the artwork was not there. I almost had a panic attack. It was so much drawing! I thought, “If I can’t find it, I’m going to have to start all over!”
Then I thought, maybe I left it at security? Maybe I didn’t take it off the belt? And that’s where it was. It’s the single most terrifying moment I’ve ever had. How am I going to tell the publisher that I lost all this art?
There’s a quality of letting go with these two stories, compared to some of your more recent work—of immersing yourself completely in the possibilities of the characters. Was that a conscious decision?
One thing that stands out about the early reader format is the trope of two characters: Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Elephant and Piggy—there are so many. It works so well, and I felt like, I’m going to do it, too. These two solid characters—what are they going to be to each other?
A lot of the picture books I’ve done are more serious, even, at times touching on sociopolitical topics in different ways—hopefully in subtle ways—but I had just done a picture book about death, and I was ready to step away from any sort of deep meaning. I just wanted them to be adventures, like a little journey that you go on with these characters.
Will we see more of Cornbread and Poppy?
Yes, I just signed on for two more books, and I’m working on the third one right now.
What happens in the new story?
The one I’m writing now is about a museum. I got into more intricate vocabulary since it was a museum. I was asked by my editor to tone it down a little bit... I got carried away.
Do you ever get stuck?
Good question! I feel pretty inspired in terms of what the characters are going to do, and the sort of problems they get into, and the adventures, and how they’re resolved. If there’s anything I do worry about in terms of creating a series, it’s running out of steam—probably what many creators feel if they’re creating more than one story about a character. Fortunately, I’m still pretty early on. I draw a lot from my own life, the people in my life and the things I like to do, and the well is pretty deep. I’m trying not to jinx myself! But I feel pretty good right now about being able to make more stories.
Cornbread and Poppy at the Carnival by Matthew Cordell, Little, Brown, $15.99 June 21 ISBN 978-0-7595-5489-4