Julie and Matt for Coffee, Pickle Juice, and Cookies

h1 March 23rd, 2011 by jules

“‘I could read you a bedtime story,’ she said. ‘I’ll read to myself,’ I said. I got a book, the first book I saw, and climbed with it into my bed. It was a very big book. I opened it and started to read. That very big book had very long words that I didn’t understand. But I kept pretending to read.”

It’s been a bit since I’ve done a post on an illustrated novel, but to be doing the first one in a while on Julie Sternberg’s Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (Amulet, March 2011), illustrated by Matthew Cordell, is good. And that’s because I asked them if they wanted to stop by and talk about the book, and hoo boy, they ran with it. Julie addressed specifically what it was like to see Matt’s illustrations for the book, and Matt gives us a detailed description of the stages in the life of his illustrations for this title.

And since Julie didn’t talk about the writing of the book, her debut title, let me tell you how much I enjoyed it. This short novel for children tells the story of a young girl, named Eleanor, whose beloved babysitter, Bibi, is moving away. Grabbing our attention right off the bat, Eleanor tells us on page one: “I had a bad August. A very bad August. As bad as pickle juice on a cookie. As bad as a spiderweb on your leg. As bad as the black parts of a banana. I hope your August was better. I really do.”

And that, to be precise, is it for Chapter One. These are short, verse-like chapters (“each chapter is a self-contained episode, written simply and presented in short lines, accessible to those still struggling with the printed word,” writes Kirkus) that capture with a spare, lyrical text the seemingly little moments of childhood that add up to so much for those experiencing them. Sternberg must know children and know them well, as her ability to capture the details that matter to them make this book an engaging read. Take Eleanor’s stance on Bibi (who is never pictured), for one. She’s been Eleanor’s babysitter her whole life. “She is the best babysitter in the world. She makes me soup when I am sick. She holds my feet when I do handstands. She knows which of my teeth are loose and which ones I’ve lost and where I was when I lost them…. And she knows not to tickle me. Because I hate to be tickled.” Eleanor’s grief—might sound like a bit much, but yes, it’s a loss she must work through—is, at turns, funny and poignant. (Sternberg captures “a sensitive kid’s first experience of loss with tender respectfulness and full acknowledgment that separation is a bereavement too,” writes The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.)

And Sternberg (pictured here) pulls it off with veracity; in the hands of a lesser author, we could easily see a forced kids-say-the-darnedest-things kind of characterization, affected whimsy, and an insincere, imposed quirkiness for Eleanor (as well as the cast of secondary characters, including her annoying neighbor, Agnes, and her best friend, Pearl). Fortunately, that is not Sternberg’s style. All these emotions run true. There’s humor and a real warmth at the heart of Eleanor’s saga. Ultimately, she must learn to accept her new ‘sitter and learn how to forge ahead without her favorite — a challenging task, indeed, when just about everything reminds her of Bibi.

And—as you can see below, since he sent a good sample of illustrations from the book—Matt packs plenty of humor into the cartoon artwork as well, doing his part, in fact, to extend the humor and charisma inherent in Julie’s writing. He, like the author, manages to capture the details of a child’s world in ways that will resonate with young children. (See below, for one, the cartoon in which Eleanor is writing a letter to Bibi. Her tongue is sticking out, placed to the side of her mouth, as children so often do when drawing and writing. It’s the little things sometimes.) Writes Publishers Weekly, “Cordell’s halftone cartoons convey the story’s pathos and humor.”

I thank Julie and Matt for stopping by this morning. The coffee cups are out so that we can discuss Sternberg’s promising debut before breakfast. Maybe I’ll throw in some actual pickles and cookies.

* * * * * * *

Julie: When my editor at Abrams, Tamar Brazis, first told me that she was considering Matt as illustrator for Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, I of course headed straight to his website. I clicked through the illustrations posted there, then clicked through them again, lingering on the ones I liked most, trying to imagine how he’d convey the characters in Pickle Juice — and the scenes.

I loved Matt’s illustrations, naturally. How could I not? They’re so expressive and vibrant and Steig-like. And funny! Matt’s a genius at conveying facial expressions. I particularly loved the humor in the illustrations gathered from Mighty Casey.

I did have one momentary qualm. Pickle Juice is the story of a girl moving on after a sad goodbye. Might Matt’s style be too lighthearted for the story?

My concern didn’t last long, for several reasons. First, there’s a poignancy to several of the illustrations on Matt’s site. My heart still catches, for example, when I see the image of Toby (from Toby and the Snowflakes) gazing out the window at the darkening sky.

I love the intensity, too, of the boy who taps his bat against his shoe in Mighty Casey.

A wise friend also pointed out the benefits of including as many humor-filled illustrations as possible in Pickle Juice. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if kids laughed as they flipped through the pictures? Besides, I’d already worked hard to keep the text from becoming too heavy. Why would I want the illustrations to add a lot of weight?

Now, as I flip through the newly printed hardcover of Pickle Juice, I feel so grateful to my editor for choosing Matt, and to Matt for agreeing to sign on. How many times have I looked at these pictures? How is it possible that so many of them still make me laugh? (The joggers kill me, for example; and every picture involving the crabby upstairs neighbor, Agnes, brings me joy.) None of the illustrations undercut the sentiment of the story, either; and several deepen it. And the cover! I really, truly love the cover. {Ed. Note: A jogger image is pictured below.}

For a first-time author with relatively little ultimate control in the publishing process, it can be frightening to know that someone else’s creative vision will shape the presentation of your book. I got so lucky! Here’s hoping that luck holds for many future projects.

* * * * * * *

Matt: When I first read Pickle Juice, I could see that there was a nice balance of a somber tone and a light-hearted one. So, I was thinking about this as I went into my first round of sketches. But something went wrong with my thinking. At that same time, my wife and I had a newborn baby to contend with. So, my brain was, um, mush. And somewhere down the line, I ended up skewing my sketches more toward the light-hearted, funny, campy side of things. Incidentally, I’d also been reading a lot of and thinking a lot about the Sempé/Goscinny Nicholas books. Which are brilliant, but not really appropriate inspiration for our Pickle. So, I was steering us in the wrong direction.

Notes from my lovely Abrams editor, Tamar Brazis, came back pointing me in the right direction. Because we are dealing with an important figure being lost from our young hero’s life, it was important to respect this by not making it so, you know, funny. Overall, I really needed a more simplistic approach to the drawings. And not so much noise. Background and otherwise. Tamar had responded well to the look/vibe of one of my earliest picture books, Toby and the Snowflakes, and suggested I take a look back there.

Also…more tonal/setting drawings were needed (drawings not so full of people, but more objects to set mood). Plus, I needed to take down the extremities in the character expressions. One final, important change—originally I had drawings of the babysitter, Bibi, who moves away, but Tamar had the good idea to not show her at all. So, she was out. We agreed to use my first round sketches as a bit of a foundation, but to start anew with character sketches. Which I normally do before starting a book, especially one with so many pictures, but like I said, my brain was mush.

I decided to work up the character sketches as pen and ink and wash (as opposed to pencil sketches) — to provide a clearer look at how the final art would look. Expressions are more subdued, and I took away the circles around the eyes. This particular detail, I think, very much changes the overall feel of the cartooning.

A few more tweaks were made here and there to continue simplifying, and we got a final set of character sketches I could work from.

At which point I went into another round of sketches for interiors. And I continued to sketch out in pen/ink, instead of pencil. So we could all have a better idea of the final vibe of the thing.

In the end, we’ve got a very sweet, soft, minimal style of art (which is my thing) that really supports the tone of Julie’s wonderful story.

“I had a bad August. A very bad August. As bad as pickle juice on a cookie.”

“My bad time started one morning when my parents sat down in my room. ‘We have some difficult news,’ they said. I hate it when they say that.
It means they have terrible news. Just rotten.”

“And now I know the worst thing in the world. The world thing in the world is a cab driving farther and farther away with Bibi in the backseat waving good-bye.”

“We could not ride my bike. Because Bibi helped pick out my bike.
So my bike reminded me of Bibi.”

“A little while later the doorbell rang. Agnes was there with her mom. ‘We should do this all the time!’ her mom said. Agnes didn’t say anything.”

“Dear Bibi, Agnes from upstairs is here. Dad invited her. He didn’t ask me first. Don’t worry. She is being very calm.”

“…I went to find my dad, to get Bibi’s address. He was standing with Agnes by the stereo. They were singing a Beatles song. My dad does not sing very well. But Agnes from upstairs sounded beautiful.”

“Finally, as she went downstairs with her mom, I went downstairs with my dad.
And I mailed my letter to Bibi.”

“‘Next time can we play mancala again?’ she asked. ‘Okay,’ I said.”

“Together we went outside and sat on a bench across the street from my building
and waited for Bibi’s letter.”

“The mail carrier lady waited while we looked both ways
and crossed the street and ran to her.”

“Dear Third Graders, My name is Mr. Campanelli. I am your new teacher.
I hope you are having a wonderful summer.”

“So we went on a walk and took pictures of Brooklyn flowers.”

“I keep the letter right by my bed so I see it when I wake up in the morning,
and when I go to sleep at night.”

* * * * * * *

Many thanks again to Julie and Matt for visiting. As for what’s next, Julie tells me she’s currently working on a book for Abrams that’s geared at kids aged 10-12. Matt has been hard at work on his next picture book, Leap Back Home to Me, written by Lauren Thompson and scheduled to be released on April 26, 2011 (Margaret K. McElderry Books).

He’s also just finished Another Brother, the second picture book he’s both written and illustrated, to be released by Feiwel and Friends, as well as Itsy Bitsy Baby Mouse, written by Michelle Meadows and to be released by Simon and Schuster. Currently, he’s working on the illustrations for the picture book Bat and Rat, written by Patrick Jennings (Abrams), and What Floats in a Moat, written by Lynne Berry (Simon and Schuster).

Matt also shares additional artwork, sketches, and news at his blog. Julie’s blog, Please Don’t Read This Book, is here.

* * * * * * *

LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE. Copyright © 2011 by Julie Sternberg. Illustrations © 2011 by Matthew Cordell. Published by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, New York. All rights reserved.

All sketches and artwork used with permission of Matthew Cordell.

11 comments to “Julie and Matt for Coffee, Pickle Juice, and Cookies”

  1. Wonderful! Thank you!

  2. Always, always, I love reading here the stories of how author and artist and story converged for the first time. This is a gem. And it helps that I remember exactly how Eleanor’s experience felt to me when I was a kid.

    Matt’s details of how the artwork evolved: loved it!

  3. This is a great, educational piece for both illustrators and authors.
    The book is excellent, kudos to Julie and Matt!

  4. Ahhh…I saved this post for the end of the day. Stories about stories what could be better? Matt’s illustrations zinged my heart and I can still hear Julie’s main character talking to me.


  5. Matt, Such great energy! A real kick in the pants. Love the kid staring at his glove. And the series of getting snow gear on.

    thanks, Jules!

  6. Exceptional post. Thank you, I sucked it in like a sponge! Such talent!

  7. You know, maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but I was surprised by how much I loved that picture of the little girl in bed reading Moby Dick. I really think children and teens have a natural affinity for classic literature, if they just have the willingness to stick with it.

    As far as books go, kids know what’s real.

  8. Thank you much for the kind words, all!

  9. Yes–what Matt said! Thank you all! 🙂

  10. […] Julie Sternberg, who visited with author/illustrator Matthew Cordell (March 23, 2011) at the release of Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (Amulet, March 2011), pictured below: “Now, […]

  11. […] by Lynne Berry; Like Bug Juice on a Burger, a middle grade novel by Julie Sternberg (a sequel to Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie); and Gone Fishing, a novel told in many forms of verse by Tamera Will […]

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