Since it requires far too many stamps to mail an elephant to her Great-Aunt Josephine, “who lives almost completely alone and could really use the company,” resourceful Sadie delivers the pachyderm herself in Special Delivery, written by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Matthew Cordell. Published this month by Roaring Brook’s Neal Porter Books, the picture book had quite the imaginative sendoff with Special Delivery Day, a promotion in which elementary students in 38 schools from Maine to Hawaii made their own special deliveries – courtesy of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group and the USPS. The book also inspired the collaborators to launch a raffle of stamp-themed art by Cordell to benefit various non-profit literacy initiatives.

Serendipitously, a dream sparked the original premise for Special Delivery. Over morning coffee, a friend told Stead that she had dreamed she’d brought an elephant to the post office, but couldn’t afford the postage to mail it anywhere. “I wrote the first draft that day,” recalled the author, who is an avid stamp collector. “My friend’s dream reminded me immediately of one of my favorite Maurice Sendak illustrations. In Lullabies and Night Songs, there’s a spot illustration of an elephant, all covered in stamps, ready to be sent off in the mail. I suppose that on a subconscious level my love of stamps fueled the spirit of the story, too. I view every stamp in my collection as the artifact of an incredible adventure.”

Stead, who became friends with Cordell on the publishing convention circuit, knew that the two “share similar sensibilities about bookmaking and life in general” and credits the illustrator for having “one of the best natural lines in the business.” Noting that he had been anxious to work with Cordell for some time, Stead added, “It really was just a matter of being able to convince him with just the right story – a story that played into his particular strengths as an artist. When I turned this manuscript over to Matt, I basically said, ‘Good luck! Add and subtract as needed!’ And he did.”

Cordell eagerly tackled that artistic math. “The second I laid eyes on the manuscript, I was in love with it,” he recalled. “Phil’s story was unlike anything I’d ever been asked to illustrate. In addition to a girl who tries to mail an elephant, there is an ill-fated biplane flight, a locomotive that’s hijacked by bandits, and a river cruise on the back of an alligator. It was fast and furious and manic. There was no way I was ever letting go of this thing!”

Yet after creating “a whole visual world wrapped around Phil’s words,” Cordell admits to some jitters when sending his initial dummy to Stead and Neal Porter, who has edited many of Stead’s books, including the Caldecott-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee, illustrated by his wife, Erin E. Stead. “I’d never worked with Neal before, and I’d never illustrated a story for another illustrator,” Cordell explained. 

His worries were unfounded, since Stead and Porter instantly gave Cordell’s vision their stamp of approval. “I was initially delighted when Phil mentioned the possibility of collaborating with Matt, and I knew immediately that we all could have a lot of fun with this book, and that was indeed the case,” said Porter. “We sort of triangulated on Special Delivery, and each built on what the others suggested – it became a kind of game.”

Special Deliveries to and from Kids

Mary Van Akin, senior publicist for the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, was more than happy to jump into the game when it came time to shape a promotional plan for Special Delivery. Playing on the story’s theme, she organized a pen pal-themed Special Delivery Day for the book’s pub date (March 3), and reached out to teachers around the country – many of whom are devoted bloggers and tweeters – who helped spread the word about the campaign.

“We wanted to find a way to connect classrooms in the spirit of the book,” said Van Akin. “I’ve always wanted to put together a pen pal program to help enlarge kids’ worlds a bit, and this was the perfect book for that. And we like that this is not a contest and has nothing to do with winning prizes. This is a great feel-good project that is all about teachers and kids making connections.”

Van Akin paired each of the 38 grade K-5 teachers who signed on with another from a different part of the country, and all received a very special delivery: a copy of the book, wrapped in brown paper tied up with string, to read to their students. Also included in the package were a letter from Stead extolling the fun of letter writing and a packet of postcards featuring art from the book. After a read-aloud, kids wrote to “friends” in their sister classrooms, citing something they’d like to either send or receive via mail.

That prompt, and the tale of Sadie’s own special delivery, unleashed kids’ creativity. At Hillsdale Elementary School in Pennsylvania’s West Chester Area School District, one student wanted to mail himself so that he’d have a chance to travel, and another fantasized about sending an automaton to a surgeon to help in the operating room.

An aspiring wrestler who is a third grader at Parma Elementary School in Parma, Mich., wished for a professional to help him wrest a championship title. His teacher, Colby Sharp, said his students were very excited to take part in the pen-pal initiative – as was he. “We live in a one-stoplight town, and the kids’ world is very small,” he observed. “Any time we can help them see the world as a bigger place is rewarding. And I welcome any book promotion, like this one, that puts kids first.” 

The Adventure Continues

Stead, who eschewed e-mail and headed to the post office to mail Cordell his first draft of Special Delivery, to “send the story on its first of many adventures,” is pleased that the Special Delivery Day promotion embraces that same spirit in this era of electronic communication.

“There’s something about that adventure, sure, and the time it takes to get a piece of mail from one place to another,” he said. “But more so, it’s that a letter is a real object. And real objects matter when looking to make real connections. Books are real, and when we share them we make a connection that cannot be made another way. Kids are going to receive real letters from other children, maybe for the first time in their lives, and they will feel the realness of the sender in a way that they would not if a computer stood as the middleman.”

Taking another step to engage kids and enrich their lives, the author and illustrator have initiated a Special Delivery literacy fundraiser: a raffle of five pieces of original art inspired by both Stead’s stamp collection and Cordell’s mosaic of book-themed stamps decorating the casecover beneath the jacket. Stead, who said the idea of the fundraiser surfaced in “another moment of spontaneousness,” created an online video to announce the raffle. For every donation of $10 made to a non-profit literacy organization of one’s choice before March 31, participants receive one chance in the art raffle.

 “I’ve been overwhelmed with how excited and generous people have been,” said Stead. “So far, we’ve raised several thousand dollars, all in small donations, connecting people with over a dozen different non-profits. We’ve raised $1500 for An Open Book alone. That’s six whole classrooms in Washington, D.C. that will be receiving free books – and there’s still time to go!” Which guarantees that even more important special deliveries will be made.

Special Delivery by Philip C. Stead, illus. by Matthew Cordell. Roaring Brook/Porter, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-59643-931-3