The Styling Librarian

In my opinion, books are the best accessory.

Styling Librarian Author Interview with Matthew Cordell

I’m very honored that Matthew Cordell agreed to this interview. I’m a huge fan of his work. One of my first, “Aha! I must find more creations by this illustrator!” moments was when I read, Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It by Gail Carson Levine. I adore that poetry book and the illustrations are the perfect fit for every poem. Then I went on to read Another Brother that Matthew was the author and illustrator of and I said, uh oh, must read another one! So, I picked up Hello! Hello! and WOW, just couldn’t get over Matt’s creativity… I know I’ve blogged a few times about Hello! Hello! and how I’ve used it for many units and discussions with children.

Here is an illustrator that led me to pick up Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg, what a powerful, beautiful touching novel in verse this book is! (Can’t wait for the third book in the series, Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake, released March 18th, 2014!) Those books are borrowed constantly at my school and I know that many students are drawn to the illustrations first and find that the novel is touching, thoughtful, and less intimidating than some other selections. So happy to have them part of the library collection!

Rooting for You

Rooting for You

Again, I was quite honored that Matt said that he was happy to be interviewed… I also get to celebrate his THREE new book releases this year! Goodness, can we keep up with his creativity? I’m very excited that Rooting for You by Susan Hood, illustrated by Matthew Cordell wil be available on March 11th, what an exciting time! Please enjoy this interview with some insights, advice, and book excitement. Also, you get to have a few sneak peeks at illustrations in Rooting for you!

Enjoy the interview!

What was your favorite childhood book memory? My favorite memory of reading as a child, I think because it was incredibly potent, was when my 4th grade teacher read to our whole class (a little at a time) Where The Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. I don’t know if I’d like it now or not, but back then I was completely taken by the story. So much so that I really, really (really!) wanted our family to have an Irish Setter. (it never happened) I don’t remember everything about the book, but I remember being so absorbed into the world of it and being completely heartbroken when the dog dies near the end. Those dang dead dog books! It crushed me. In the best possible way.
Where the Red Fern Grows is a pretty special read aloud memory for me too. My parents read it aloud… broke my heart!

Would you let your daughter paint your face?:


Are there any authors or books that you liked as a child that you still read now? Somewhat recently after reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, I was inspired to go back and re-read a bunch of classic books that I remember enjoying as a kid. It was great fun reliving the old E.B. White stuff. Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan. Timeless perfection. And I’m always devouring picture books old and new. Some of my favorites then and now were Maurice Sendak, Virginia Lee Burton, Dr. Seuss, Arnold Lobel.

Have you read any children’s literature books recently? To research or get inspiration for a picture book I’ve been working on, I read all of the Julie Of The Wolves books by Jean Craighead George. We have an infant in the house, so it’s been hard to find time to read much of anything of any length, but once I read that first Julie book, I was hooked and went through devouring them all. So, so good.
Are you in a writers group? If so, has it helped you? I have a group of friends I meet up with here in the Chicagoland area. It is more of an illustrators group that dabbles in writing crits from time to time. The core of the group is myself, Jeff Newman, Stacy Curtis, Larry Day, Eric Rohmann, and Tom Lichtenheld. We call ourselves, kind of officially-unofficially, The Crusty Nibs. It’s been incredibly helpful. It’s great to bounce ideas and art off of friends, and that is invaluable. But I mostly like to get up with them and just talk and laugh and complain and socialize and spend time with nice like-minded individuals.

Do you have a key writing tips for kids? Or adults? I consider myself an illustrator who is occasionally blessed with an opportunity to be an author. I love to do both. But as far as writing, I always feel like I’m still figuring it out myself. But the main thing I would say, with my writing, is I try to get all my ideas from actual life experiences. Everything I’ve written or want to write has been, in some way, inspired by those around me–namely, my wife and kids–or some childhood memory from my past. I think there’s so much to be used from our own experiences, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to mold it into something publishable.
Do you have a new book being released in the next year? 🙂 In 2014 I’ll have three books out that I illustrated: ROOTING FOR YOU, a picture book written by Susan Hood; LIKE CARROT JUICE ON A CUPCAKE, a middle grade novel by Julie Sternberg (the third in a series); and JUSTIN CASE: RULES, TOOLS, AND MAYBE A BULLY, a middle grade novel by Rachel Vail (also the third in a series).
How do you feel about the development and growth of the e-Book industry? I’m pretty behind on technology, somewhat by choice, and somewhat by procrastination. For both of these reasons, I’ve never once looked at any e-Book. And I’m something of a print romantic, so put all this together and I have no interest at all in books on a screen. I am most prejudiced against picture books as e-Books though. I just think that there’s something necessary to shared reading by having a printed book in all hands to enjoy with the child in your lap, or at your side. The tactile quality of it, the printed, meticulously actualized artwork, the calm and quiet and everything but the light above us is turned off part of it. The way your kid can put a wrinkle on one page and a tear on another with that heavy-handed page turn and you pull it off the shelf and remember that time your kid did that when you read together. A printed picture book is permanent. It’s wholeheartedly owned. Concrete. Cherished. Passed down, even. Rediscovered–the EXACT same book–as an adult. If there’s only one book that never gets fully absorbed by the electronic age, it should be the picture book.

Did you always plan on a writing/illustrating career or if not…? In my late teens/early 20’s, during those “what do you want to do with your life?” years, it never once occurred to me to make a career in children’s books. By that time, I was completely invested in fine art and graphic design and that’s what I came out of school intending to do with my time and passion. Turns out, after some initial success in both areas, that I did not want to keep going at it with either of those. Around the same time of that disenchantment, I met my now wife, Julie Halpern, who is an author and a school librarian. She re-introduced me to picture books and their enormous potential. Julie had a picture book manuscript she felt I should illustrate and we could try to get it published. Fast forward a bit, through many months and a stack of rejections, and that book, Toby And The Snowflakes, by some great miracle, ended up getting published by Houghton Mifflin in 2004. It was my official introduction into the process, business, and art of picture books and I loved it with all my being. I’m so grateful to Julie for showing me the way and so grateful to the many folks I’ve worked with since for allowing me to do this every day.
How do you balance between being an illustrator and being an author/illustrator of books? When it comes to illustration only books, that is guaranteed work and guaranteed income. Meaning, when I am asked to illustrate a book by a publisher, that book is already under contract and when I’m brought in on it, it’s a guaranteed paycheck. The author/illustrator side is a bit riskier. When I have an idea for a book, I might spend hours and hours writing it up and dummy-ing it up and think it’s the best thing ever. But I’m not going to get paid for that time or that passion unless there is at least one other person in the book publishing world that feels the same. So if that book never gets published, that’s time without money. Nevertheless, it is absolutely necessary. At this point, I need to express myself as both an illustrator and a storyteller. Whenever there’s downtime from illustration work, I am using these hours to whittle away at a book dummy that’s been poking at the back of my brain to get made.

What truly influences you as a writer/illustrator? I am blown away by fearlessness in art. People who try new things that may not or clearly will not be easily digested by the masses. I am inspired by authors and illustrators who work in different ways from book to book and whose work often seems, at first glance, at least, well… ugly. And not in a kitschy and/or ironic way. Just brave, and original, and bold. Sometimes when you have never seen something before, it can appear ugly. When this happens, and I’ve been shaken to the core, I know I’m looking at something incredibly special.
If you weren’t a writer/illustrator, what occupation would you be working in? I live in a suburb of Chicago, but if I drive, like, 5 miles in any direction I will hit wide, open, rural territory. It is breathtakingly beautiful, driving by some of these vast open fields where corn (mostly) grows out here. There is a part of me that wishes, sometimes, maybe, I were out there farming this corn, living in some beautiful old farm house with my wife and kids. That noble, quiet, peaceful, selfless and pure profession of corn farmer. But I am quite sure it has it’s own headaches. And I hate getting up early, so I’m not sure any of this would ever fly.
Did any teacher or mentor specifically influence you in your career? At pretty much every step of the way, I had a wonderful art teacher at my side, showing me the way, cheering me on. In elementary school there was the eccentric and nurturing, Ms. Sullivan who showed us her snapshots from a trip to Rome, basically saying “look what’s out there.” Which was a big idea in my small town South Carolina upbringing. In high school, that way of thinking was amplified by my art teacher, Ms. Esrum, who really revved up my drawing skills and eye for the art world and need for doing something creative in life. And in college, I had an array of specialists who inspired me and coached me to take it even further with drawing, design, printmaking, painting. Paul Martyka, Chad Dresbach, Seymour Simmons. I owe a great deal to all of these folks.
*Do you have any favorite topping you like on your pizza? Long answer here… For about 16 years, I was a strict vegetarian and ate no meat whatsoever. When our oldest was born, and nursing, there was a brief few months where we could not eat soy because it was irritating her little digestive system. Without that good source of protein, my wife and I (who was also mostly vegetarian) both gave in and started eating occasional turkey and chicken. It’s been about 5 years since then and we could’ve gone back to being veg, but we’ve kept it as is. So these days, my favorite pizza topping is turkey pepperoni. I used to like pepperoni as a kid, but can’t bring myself to eating the real deal. (I love drawing pigs too much!)

The best advice I’ve received for my profession was…. Be grateful and thank everyone along the way. Be courteous and thankful to everyone in the business that you correspond with, not just the editor and art director you’re working with. Everyone matters here, and leave whatever ego you might have, checked at the door every day. Nobody is in this business to get rich, they are doing it because they love to do it. This is kind of an advice blend, I know, and I can’t attribute it to any one person, but these are things I try to keep in mind and they make good sense. Oh, and there’s that one about developing a thick skin, never giving up, focus on the positive road ahead. That’s a good one too.


The habit I never break for my writing/illustrating practice is… Hmmm. I’ve thought long and hard about this and I think the answer is: though I once had the luxury of being a creature of habit, now that I work from home with my wife and two young children in the same home, I do believe I am no longer allowed the luxury of habits. I think every day is a bit different from the last, in terms of work/kids schedule and time management, etc. Maybe someday when the kids are both in school, I can get back to habits. That will be nice.

If someone had told me… when I was a child that I would be a grown-up illustrating the very same kind of books that I liked to read as a child, I would have held up my hand and said, “nope, I’m gonna be a ninja when I grow up.” (seriously)
Justin Case Rules Tools and Maybe a Bully

Justin Case Rules Tools and Maybe a Bully

Why do people always assume… That I am Matt Cordell the Elvis impersonator? I have gotten emails from his fans, which means these fans have navigated through my website (children’s illustration work), gotten to my contact page and sent me an email still thinking I am Matt Cordell the Elvis impersonator. It would be really cool if I were, but I always just sigh and send them on the right path to the other and cooler Matt Cordell. One of these days I hope I get to catch his act, wherever he may be.
That’s hilarious! Haven’t heard of that predicament before!

Debbie, you forgot to ask me…  
who my favorite illustrator is. Actually, I don’t like this question so much because I have so many friends in this business who make books now that it is hard to choose and kind of insensitive to do so. But if you must ask and if I must answer, it is an illustrator that I don’t know personally or at all, really, to be completely fair and impartial about it. Someone who is so far out of my sphere and someone who I admire so much that I would never want him/her in my sphere because if he/she were not nice, it would most likely taint my opinion of his/her work. (guess I’m petty like that) I typically find it hard to choose a one favorite of anything. Really, it’s usually all I can do to just narrow it down to a top 5 favorite of anything. But if I had to choose, since you’ve got my back against the wall on this one, my favorite illustrator right now is John Burningham. I mean, his stuff always, always, always knocks my socks off. I don’t know how he does what he does, but what he does, it makes me so jealous. Like I said before…. absolutely fearless.
Want to view a day in the life of Matthew Cordell? Go here, you won’t regret it!

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One comment on “Styling Librarian Author Interview with Matthew Cordell

  1. Pingback: ‘Til We Meet Again: New Series Installments for Intermediate Readers │ JLG’s Booktalks to Go | School Library Journal

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