Special Delivery: A Visit with Matthew Cordell &
Philip Stead and Even a Moment with Neal Porter

h1 February 16th, 2015 by jules

There is an abundance of adventure and humor and energy and style seepin’ right out of Philip C. Stead’s Special Delivery, illustrated by Matthew Cordell, which is coming to shelves in early March from Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press. It’s the story of a girl named Sadie, who really wants to mail an elephant to her Great-Aunt Josephine. It turns out that entirely too many stamps are required, so inventive Sadie brainstorms other ways to surprise her Great-Aunt. These involve a harrowing plane ride, an alligator and a trip down the river, bandits, lots of beans, and much more.

It’s such an entertaining book on many levels, and it’s clear that both Phil and Matt—as if there were ever any doubt—know child audiences well.

Phil and Matt visit today—and their editor, Neal Porter, even briefly pops in—for an informal chat about the book. As in, it’s one long email conversation that I am posting here for fellow picture book fans. I ask about the book; we talk about our love for John Burningham’s artwork and books (not to mention Sebastian Meschenmoser); Phil looks at another instance of an attempt at elephant-mailing; Matt shows us some stamps and talks pigeons; Phil and Matt look ahead at what’s next for them this year; and much more.

Scattered throughout this post are five new drawings of stamps from Matt. These are homages to some of Phil’s favorite animal stamps, and each has a Special Delivery spin. These original drawings will be raffled off, and all proceeds will go to charity. (The charity is yet-to-be-decided, but it will be related to literacy.) Information on this raffle will go out via Phil around publication date, but you can see the drawings in today’s post. Right after each drawing is the image of the actual stamp it honors.

Let’s get right to it, and I thank them for visiting.

* * *

Jules: I do story times at the wonderful Parnassus Books in Nashville whenever I can. The thing I miss the most about school librarianship is reading picture books to big groups of children — and, especially, to see how they respond to books. This is probably breaking all kinds of rules—and might even make authors and especially illustrators twitchy—but I sometimes bring F&Gs.

I brought the F&G of Special Delivery to this morning’s story time (since the hardback is not out yet). Now, I had a bigger group than normal — a good number of children of all ages really ready to hear stories, as well as really responsive parents. (I’m always grateful for those adults who respond to picture books, too.)

“‘Hey, Sadie.’ ‘Hey, Jim. I’d like to mail this elephant, please, to my Great-Aunt Josephine—who lives almost completely alone and could really use the company.”
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And I mean to tell yoooouuuuu: They loved this book. There were so many laughs that I found myself wishing it was being recorded so I could play it back for you. There were even laughs where I didn’t expect there would be laughs. And everyone especially loved, not surprisingly, the “chugga chugga chugga BEANS BEANS BEANS” moment. [For readers: This is a phrase repeated in the book during a particularly festive spread, mid-way in the story.] I even had all the children sort of chant it with me.

Know the “Hey, Sadie!” that appears before even the title page spread? That got a huge, happy laugh. I mean, right off the bat they loved it.

This was so lovely for me to see. It validated my own experience first reading the book. I think this story is a breath of fresh air in many ways.

I guess my first question is: Have you all shared it with a bunch of children yet, by chance? Whoever wants to answer first … go for it.

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Phil: Hey, Gang. I’ll go first.

No, I have not yet shared Special Delivery with a group of kids. But I’m excited to do so eventually. I’ve discovered that I learn a lot about my books through the experience of reading to a group. I never test my stories on kids prior to publication, so it’s always a bit of a mystery as to how they’ll go over. Inevitably, there are moments that seemed minor or insignificant during the making of the book that end up being big at reading time. The first time I read Amos McGee to a group of kids, I was floored by how many moments were getting big laughs. The page turn that reveals Amos playing chess with the elephant is, apparently, hilarious in ways I never intended. It’s sounds cloying to say that a book is not complete until it finds an audience. But, well, it’s true.

Hey, not to steer this thing off topic right from the get-go, but have you guys seen this book yet?

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Sebastian Meschenmoser’s last book published in the States, Waiting for Winter, is on my 10 Best-of-All-Time list, so I was really excited to see that this one was coming out. It got some negative reviews pre-publication, but they were the kind of negative reviews that only made me want to buy the book more, i.e. don’t let your kids read this book or they will have bad dreams and generally view the world as a scary, unpredictable place. Given my belief that children’s books ought to acknowledge (at least in some small way) that the world is a scary, unpredictable place, I had high hopes for this particular book. And, boy, does it deliver. Sidenote: This book is one of only three books that I can remember in recent memory that made me laugh out loud in the middle of a book store.

Jules: Well, since you mentioned this, I quickly snagged a review copy, and you’re right: It’s great. I identify all too closely with Squirrel. The book, especially the prison spreads, had me and my girls laughing so hard when we first read it. I requested some art from the publisher:

“They had to get rid of the moon!”
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“They had to get rid of the moon!
The best thing would be to send it back to the sky where it belonged.”

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“Now that the moon was back in the sky,
Mr. Squirrel thought it would soon be its old self again.”

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I always like to see Sebastian’s books.

Also, yes, that’s what I meant about story time — that I knew I loved your book and it made me laugh outloud, but I was surprised by laughs in places I didn’t even expect. It’s like the group of parents and children there just hugged it with their active responses. That’s always a good kind of story time to have.

Matt: Great. Right off the bat I’m showing my ignorance. Haven’t heard of the book or the artist. But I’m loving the anti-reviews, so now I’ve gotta hunt this down pronto. It’s almost hard to believe, based on its cover design, that this book could ruffle such feathers. Intrigued.

Jules, thanks much for sharing Special Delivery pre-pub with what sounds like a crowd with impeccable taste! It sends a little tingle down my spine to hear it was getting such a raucous response, because it is a very raucous ride of a read. I’ve only shared it thus far with my daughter, who really enjoys it, but the glass-half-empty in me always thinks my girl’s just being nice because it’s her old man’s book. But we have done our daughter-daddy chants of “chugga chugga chugga! beans beans beans!” around the house. I’m looking forward to riling up shouting chants of that at my school visits this spring.

Also, I love that the opening page did what it was supposed to do. At first glance, the design of it—with that big, loud lettering—might make it appear to function as a title page. But the point of it’s actually more like that loud snare drum crack that kicks off “Like A Rolling Stone.” (Title page actually comes two page turns in.)

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Jules: I love that you just compared part of your book to a song. When I wrote last year about Brian Floca’s Locomotive, I wrote that legend has it that Tom Jones passed out in the studio when hitting the final, dramatic note of “Thunderball” for the 1965 James Bond film of the same name. And I wrote that I sort of imagine Floca similarly falling to the ground after having finished the artwork for that book (because he worked on it so long and hard). Point being, I think I should make it a 7-Imp tradition to work song references into every post. Thoughts?

No, seriously. Can you all talk a bit about whose idea this was? Phil, had you written a story for which you were searching for an illustrator? Or did you write it with Matt in mind?

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Phil: I tend to get mixed up when trying to recall the details of my own past, but the basic facts are these: Matt and I decided we’d like to do a book together. We seem to have a lot in common—for example, a mutual love and respect for the work of artists like William Steig, John Burningham, and Quentin Blake—and a mutual woe-is-me-I-think-I’ll-just-quit-life-and-live-on-an-island mentality that exists in close partnership with an otherwise boundless enthusiasm for life and art and bookmaking. So we knew we were sympatico, but we didn’t yet have a project we could work on together.

Several months passed, and then one morning I had an old friend over for coffee. She began telling me about a dream she’d had the night before. In the dream she’d brought an elephant to the post office. Once she got there she realized she’d never be able to afford the postage. Within the next few hours, my friend’s dream had become the first draft to Special Delivery. Some stories take months, even years to figure out (I’m looking at you, A Home for Bird), but others change very little from the first moment of inspiration on. Special Delivery was in the latter category. Almost nothing changed from day one till now.

Once I had a finished manuscript, I could’ve just emailed the story over to Matt, but that hardly would’ve been keeping with the spirit of the book. So instead I packaged it up and walked it right over to the post office. And that’s that. Care to add anything, Matt?

Oh, wait, before Matt edits my history, I should mention one last thing. My favorite Maurice Sendak illustration actually comes from one of his lesser known books, Lullabies and Night Songs. On page 60, there is a single image of an elephant covered in postage stamps. The image tugs at two of my heart strings at the same time — my love for elephants and my love for stamps. I’d had that image in the back of my mind for years and years prior to the making of Special Delivery. My friend’s dream just sort of jostled something loose, creatively.

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Matt: I love your description of our commonalities. Very true. Such a fine combination of horribly bleak and triumphantly upbeat, don’t you think?

Yep, your hazy memory of it all matches my own hazy memory of it all. I loved the idea of working with you and with Neal too, and then out of the blue I got a manilla envelope in the mail with the Special Delivery manuscript. I remember reading over it and not expecting at all the thing I was reading over. An elephant delivery, a plane crash, train robbers, and ice cream. This was like my picture book dream come true. You presented it like, “if you don’t like it, we’ll find something else to do together.” But there was no way in hell I was gonna let this go. Thankfully, Neal saw the same beautiful madness the two of us saw and signed, sealed, delivered.

When I first read the Special Delivery manuscript, I remember feeling it was kind of unusual for a Phil Stead. Like a little more off-the-rails or something. I think your collaborations with Erin and also, like, A Home for Bird and Ruby naturally came to mind. More earnest stuff. Although, maybe it was your art and Erin’s art that brought the earnest and sincere vibe to those projects.

But then later I thought, maybe because I was reading this story (the first I’d read of yours without illustrations) and immediately infusing my own mental imagery (which, let’s face it, is often loose, often nutty) into your words, that’s what was making it more off-the-rails. Weeeiird. Was I right then or am I wrong now?

Phil: I think you’re a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Knowing I was writing for you and not for Erin or myself definitely informed my thinking. When I write for Erin, a natural gentleness comes forward. When I write for myself, the manuscripts tend to be more moody and unsettled. I don’t know, something about your line quality was asking for a much quicker pace and a lot more imagery than I’d normally be comfortable with. Still, I think a close read shows that Special Delivery is still a Phil Stead book. (Apologies for speaking in the third-person; I know that’s gross.) The sentence structures are still quite formal, and the characters are always, ALWAYS polite. Sadie may be crashing an airplane or hijacking a train, but she always says please and thank you.

“Goodbye, Alligator, and thank you. Someday I’ll mail you a real letter
and inside will be a giant stick of bubble gum.”

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I remember there was one page, in particular, that I had to fight to keep in this book. This was one of the few disagreements that arose during the copyediting stage of the book. The page I’m thinking of comes near the end. It’s the scene where Sadie finally arrives at Aunt Josephine’s. I really wanted to keep that page wordless and just let your art silently show the tender moment of happiness shared between those two characters. Maybe because the book was so raucous up till that point, I was getting some pushback about that decision. It was suggested that that page be much more exclamatory. But to me that’s the page that shows the sincerity of Sadie’s whole adventure. And like you said, sincerity has become a bit of a hallmark of my other books.

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By the way, it’s interesting that you used the word “earnest” as well. I just used that word to describe why I can’t stand Fleetwood Mac. So now, of course, I’m questioning my entire raison d’être. Maybe I’ll just quit life and go live on an island.

Matt: Fleetwood Mac? But I always thought you an Eagles man!

Now I’m remembering some of these discussions. Man, talk about a hazy memory. I love that subtlety of consistent politeness in your books. And I do remember that crossroads of the wordless page vs. the exclamation. It’s all coming back to me now (to the tune of Celine Dion).

Jules: I think there’s good-earnest and then earnest that is like someone is trying to shove sugar down your throat. Neither one of you would ever go for the latter. If so, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

One quick question before we see if editor Neal Porter wants to join the conversation. (Because why not?) Several things about this book made me think of John Burningham’s Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present, which I love so fiercely – any time of year.


And I am especially fond of his work in general. I know Matt owns this, but Phil, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, because it is ALL ABOUT his long and wonderful career and heaven bless Candlewick for publishing it:

I don’t really have a question here, except I guess I wonder if you know that book, Phil (Harvey Slumfenburger). I already know Matt knows and loves it. There are elements of the text of Special Delivery that remind me of it – but in a fresh and wonderful way, not a way that makes me think you were trying to mimic. In fact, I think of Special Delivery as a worthy successor to Harvey. That’s saying a lot, only because I’m a huge fan of Burningham’s work and don’t think many people can touch it.

Phil: Nope, I’ve never seen Harvey before. But I’ll go ahead and take it as a big compliment that you found any similarities at all between it and Special Delivery. Every now and then I discover an unintentional similarity between one of my books and a book from someone I really admire. Take Mr. Squirrel and the Moon, for example (the book I mentioned earlier). When I picked it up I was shocked to see that it had an almost identical beginning to A Home for Bird. For a few minutes, I was really patting myself on the back about that. But then I saw that Meschenmoser’s book was first published in Europe in 2006, four years before A Home for Bird. So, once again, I am the copycat. At least I copy the best!

A few weeks ago I was working on some early ideas for a potential third book featuring Sadie from Special Delivery (there will be a second book featuring Sadie, called The Only Fish In The Sea, out in 2017). I realized midway through the second draft that the running gag in the story is very similar to the running gag in Quentin Blake’s Mrs. Armitage, Queen of the Road. I suppose these things happen.

As long as we’re talking Burningham, I’d like to add his new book, The Way To the Zoo, to the discussion. That book is truly beautiful and deeply strange. I love it.

Jules: Ooh, ooh. I posted about that book here last summer. I like it too. There’s art from the book at that link.

And a second Sadie book? Most excellent news.

Matt, did you think of Harvey Slumfenburger as you worked on this?

Matt: I am very excited about that second Sadie book! I’m sort of equal parts excited and terrified. I want to be able to bring back just what we did for Special Delivery and have it live up to Sadie #1 and, furthermore, kick it up some notches. And right now, it’s just a gigantic piece of white paper locking eyes with me. If white paper had eyes.

In regards to Harvey Slumfenburger, that is one of my all-time favorite Burninghams. I don’t always gravitate to extremely seasonal/holiday picture books, but occasionally one does strike a chord and this one does just that. It’s interesting, I love JB for both his text and his art, but I’m mostly thinking about his art. But now that you mention it, Slumfenburger and Special Delivery do have a bit of that constant-motion spirit and hijinks in common! I love the comparison. One thing I thought I’d point out, since we’re on the topic, is how this one spread in Slumfenburger has been quite influential to me on a few books in recent past, Special Delivery included.

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When I first saw this spread, I was blown away by several things. The amount of stuff going on, the wordlessness of it, the whole show-time-through-sequential-image comic strip-esque-ness of it. It’s kind of like a comic strip, but leave it to Burningham to totally jack up the traditional grid. It’s more like the suck-it-grid grid.

I was not not familiar with this device, but when I saw it here—in a picture book—I was sort of like… “YES. THIS.” One such instance I found a place for it was in Another Brother. I love looking at this spread during school visits and pointing out all the weird stuff.

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Then, as we were working on Special Delivery, there’s this insane moment in the manuscript where Sadie and the elephant board a cargo train, and they are promptly hijacked by a band of monkey train robbers. This sounds insane and it’s because it is and … good grief, I love this book. Initially, I took a single page and did sort of a mini-Slumfenburger approach with it in the first sketch dummy. Somebody (Phil or Neal or both) suggested to let this mad moment breathe. Breathe heavily. So we turned the volume up on it, full-spread.

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So I guess what I’m saying here is that Burningham is never too far from my thoughts. … I think that sounds way creepier than I meant it to sound.

Jules: Ooh, this is interesting. Yes, I love that spread in Harvey. And Another Brother (which I still think was one of 2012’s best picture books).

The primary thing that made me think of Harvey was the repetition of:

I’m delivering this elephant to my Great-Aunt Josephine—who lives almost completely alone and could really use the company.

In Harvey, Santa says each time he meets someone (as if they’re actually going to wonder who he is):

Excuse me. My name is Santa Claus. I still have one present left in my sack, which is for Harvey Slumfenburger, the little boy who lives in a hut at the top of the Roly Poly Mountain, which is far far away. And it will soon be Christmas Day.

I love how he says those exact words with each new encounter (and I think children find comfort in that repetition), and Sadie does the same.

And, I should add, what gets me every time about Harvey is that Santa is wrecked on Christmas Eve after he gives all those toys out, yet he still starts to walk in the cold to Roly Poly Mountain. He doesn’t break his promises, especially not for Harvey Slumfenburger, whose parents can’t afford to buy him presents.

He’s just … well, this will sound hokey, but he’s just extremely thoughtful, which comes back to what Phil was saying earlier about sincerity. I love that Sadie is thinking of her grandmother. And she’s super dedicated to getting that gift there already.

(I also love the ending of Harvey — that deliciously mysterious “I wonder what it was.” AFTER ALL THAT EFFORT. Oh, the lovely wonder of it all, Burningham letting the child reader imagine the possibilities.)

Matt: Yes! All those things! I forgot. I forgot how JB repeats that crazy long phrasing OVER and over and over. Now I see what you mean with the repeat phrasing in Special Delivery. And the extreme dedication, no matter what obstacle literally slams itself into the hero of both stories. A fine comparison.

Lastly, the Slumfenburger text is pretty long, if memory serves, and I’m usually reading it as a bedtime reader when all parental parties are brutally tired, so I feel ol’ Santa’s pain from page one. I love the ending too. So perfect.

Jules: Let’s pull editor Neal Porter into this discussion.

Hi, Neal. So, I’m wondering: The first time you read this story, did it include Matt’s illustrations already?

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Neal: Hi, Jules. Embarrassing to admit, but my memories of the genesis of the project are a little hazy. As Phil has reminded me, I first saw his text for Special Delivery in the summer of 2012 when I was visiting him and Erin in Ann Arbor. He broached the possibility of having Matt Cordell, whose work he very much admired and with whom he had struck up a friendship, illustrate it. I knew Matt’s work from a couple of books our sister imprint, Feiwel and Friends, had published, and was all in. The text, all dialogue, had no “stage directions” but it just seemed like a lot of loopy fun, and I knew we could make it work. There were no illustrations. I asked Matt to do a couple of samples and a character sketch of Sadie, and we were off to the races, once we juggled Matt’s schedule a bit to come up with a delivery date that made sense.

The most memorable part of our collaboration occurred on an extremely hot piece of concrete in the vast expanse surrounding McCormick Place in Chicago during ALA. Phil had scouted the location the day before and said there were nice wrought iron chairs and a view of the lake. When we arrived, the chairs had disappeared but there was an awful lot of bird poop. We had our meeting there anyway, perched on a retaining wall, sweating profusely. Astonishingly enough, we had a very productive session, and from then on it was mostly a question of watching Phil and Matt go to town.

Guys, tell me if I’ve gotten this all wrong.

Matt: I can indeed confirm all of this to be true! Our pigeon poop stoop will forever go down in picture book dummy discussion history. At least in my mind. Actually, I ultimately included pigeons in the book because of that day. Plus, pigeons are kind of like the gross, punk rock, urban warriors of the bird world. Seemed like the right choice here. Take a peek at the title page spread and one or two other places in the book to find our poop-happy friends. (However, all pigeon occurrences in Special Delivery are poop-free, if you don’t mind.)

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Here are the original character studies, plus one piece in color that sealed the deal and got us up and running:

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Jules: Thanks, Neal. It hadn’t even occurred to me til now that, indeed, the entire book is in dialogue.

And, Matt: It’s really neat to see these original character studies.

Neal, now that I have your attention (and even one though one day we should just do a long 7-Imp interview), I want to ask: What’s your super secret Neal Porter trick for getting what you want out of your authors and illustrators? I guess if it’s a secret, you won’t tell. But I really look forward to books from your imprint—as in, Neal Porter/Roaring Brook picture books are usually some of my favorites, and it’s not often I feel let down—and so I’m wondering what you look for and how you get it.

Or is that waaaaay too complicated to even answer? Are you shooting daggers in my general direction now?

Neal: Well, that is a very difficult question, Jules, and at the moment I’m shooting a few butter knives, if not daggers, in your direction.

If there is a “trick,” it’s to try to be sensitive to the needs of authors and artists I work with. Phil designs the books he writes and/or illustrates, so I get very tight layouts very early in the process. Usually, it’s a question of fine-tuning. We did have a mild dust up over one sentence—four words—that came towards the end of the original draft of Special Delivery. He didn’t think they were necessary, as he thought the picture told the story. I thought we needed them to make the action clear. He won, and he was right.

Working with Laura Seeger is very different — it’s more like playing, or improvisational theater. The words “what if?”—also the title of one of her books—are invoked constantly. Another phrase that comes up is “it needs something.” Sometimes I have no idea what, and sometimes I have an inkling. But it’s more fun to let her work out the solution, which is often not what I had in mind at all. In all cases, I’d like to think that my edits are unobtrusive — I’m a firm believer in the Hippocratic oath, “do no harm.”

Jules: This is sort of what I expected you to say. I got the sense—probably from various interviews with illustrators I’ve done over the years—that you accomplish a lot with few words. Rather, that you have a way of getting illustrators to see what you want them to see without explicitly pointing it out to them, by letting them come to the realizations on their own.

I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s still early. Still on my first cup of coffee.

Thanks for answering my question. One day, let’s do a long 7-Imp interview.

Neal: Makes sense to me, but I’m on my first cup of coffee, too. Happy to do a long interview. Just say the word.

Phil: And if I may chine in, please: I will confirm that Neal, on his better days, has a Yoda-like quality to his craft. I will also confirm what Neal only hinted at. That is, that I am difficult to work with, stubborn, and ill-tempered.

Neal: True, but only in the nicest possible way.

Matt: Neal, I know we’ve only done two books together, but what extremely positive slot do you categorize me in?

Neal: Extremely talented sweetheart.

Matt: Aw, man! See, this is why we all love Neal Porter!

Jules: Matt and Phil, I have only an F&G of Special Delivery, but tell me about the dustjacket and the cover, which I hear are speshul. Also, isn’t there fun with the bar code on the back cover? I also can’t see this on my F&G, but I think Matt told me about it.

Matt: Speaking for myself, this book was a little like weird magic happening from start to finish. Everything came out so organically and free. It sort of felt like we grabbed a puzzle off the shelf, shook up the box, dumped it out, and it assembled itself by the time it hit the floor. And … wow, look at that crazy picture we just made! I mean. Maybe I’m reaching with the metaphor. But the making of this book traveled along–chugga chugga chugga’d along–with so much free-form fun.

The jacket and case cover are two good examples of this. The case cover idea was the first to materialize. I had this thought to design illustrated endsheets, and in my first dummy I quickly roughed out one page of what would be a massive two-page spread of postage stamps.

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Because I was exceeding a budget-conscious page count by doing this, someone at the table (Neal or Phil) suggested we go with traditional endsheets (not illustrated/4-color) and use this stamps-abound design for some hidden-under-the-dustjacket fun. And much, much later … voila!

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The next thing to come—uncharacteristically, very early on in the sketches—was the cover solution. Phil and Neal and I had just been on the phone, discussing the first-round sketch dummy for a couple of hours. It was a tremendously energetic brainstorm session. When I hung up the phone, for whatever reason, that super-famous, famously misprinted U.S. postage stamp—the “Inverted Jenny”—immediately came to mind.

In Special Delivery, we have stamps and we have bi-plane flight, which is—shall we say—less than ideal. What a perfect homage! I quickly roughed up this cover sketch, emailed it out to the guys, and just like that, our cover was solved.

(First cover sketch)

And last—but not least—came the jacket back. I was closing in on the finishing the art for the book, and we still did not have an image for the back of the jacket. Neal was asking. I’d been putting it off, I guess, trying to finish the book. When I sat with it seriously, minutes later I had an idea. Every book sold in stores has that pesky eyesore of a bar code on the back. You do the best you can with it. Sometimes the bar code eats you and, well … sometimes you eat the bar code. This image is a throwback to a happening within the book. And just like that … jacket back solved.

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Jules: Thanks, Matt. The “free-form fun” fully comes across in the final product.

One more question about the book: Who came up with the “chugga chugga chugga beans beans beans”? Did you add that when illustrating that spread, Matt? Or was it part of the text?

Phil: The inclusion of the “chugga chugga chugga beans beans beans” refrain is maybe the greatest example of this puzzle seemingly coming together all on its own. That line did not appear in the manuscript. All that existed was the implication of some manic bean-eating. Matt added that text all on his own (without even asking, mind you). But I love him for that, because all along I was telling him: Do whatever you need to do to make this work. Even change the text if you have to.

The only other artist I’ve worked with is my wife, Erin. When we’re working on a book, both the text and the art are in constant flux. Each informs the other as the work progresses. I wanted to keep that back-and-forth alive for this, my first book made outside of our home studio. “Chugga chugga chugga beans beans beans” has become the unintentional slogan that’s followed this book around. Several months ago I was in Cincinnati and a total stranger came up to me, threw his arms in the air and hollered “Chugga, chugga, chugga, beans, beans, beans!” That was when I first realized we may have stumbled into some weird magic.

And as for the cover art, I have nothing to add other than that I love it, and that once again it was all Matt’s genius, not my own. Sometimes I think the job of a picture book writer is similar to the job of the guy who throws the pitches at a home run derby. Just lob ’em in and watch ’em leave the park.

Jules: Okay, last question: I’m curious to know what is on your plates for this year. Matt, I’d love to hear about Wish. Anything else you’re doing?

Phil, you and Erin have Lenny & Lucy, releasing in the Fall, yes? I haven’t seen it. I just had to go look up that release date. (There’s evidently a song with the same name.) Can you talk about that a bit? Anything else you’re working on now?

Matt: Before we move on, let me just get the last word in. And I’m about to get ooey gooey weird here, but so be it. Getting Phil’s okay on the art was a big deal for me, still is. This was the first time I had ever illustrated a book for another illustrator (not to mention one whose work and decisions I highly respect), and I must admit I was pretty worried about it, going in. After that first dummy went in and all signs pointed to “yes,” and I was real glad about that. It was ripping and roaring and BEANS-BEANS-BEANS from there on out.

Okay, let’s move on.

Phil: As for other 2015 projects, I feel like I have a dozen things all happening at once. The book I’m actively working on is a story called Samson in the Snow. It’s about a woolly mammoth who goes looking for a friend in a snow storm. The art for this one is done in oil pastel — a new medium for me.

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In addition to Samson, Matt and I are working on another book featuring Sadie from Special Delivery. Book two is called The Only Fish in the Sea. In this one, Sadie and her friend, Sherman, must rescue a discarded goldfish. (Sherman is the unnamed character that yells “Hey Sadie!” at the beginning of Special Delivery.)

I’m also working on a super-top-secret writing project that I would love to tell you all about, but, well … it’s super-top-secret. At least for now. I will say this: It involves a collaboration with a long dead American literary icon. And it keeps me up at night.

Hmmm, what else? I have a finished novel sitting on my shelf that no one’s read. Not even Erin. Maybe I should dust that off?

Later this year, Erin and I have Lenny & Lucy coming out. This is Erin’s first book in a couple years, so I’m pretty excited about it. The book is a bit darker than her other books, both literally (it’s mostly black and white) and emotionally. I’m not aware of any song called “Lenny & Lucy.” Hopefully, there are no lawsuits coming our way.

(Click each to enlarge)

Finally, I’m looking at proofs right now for a book that will be out next year, called Ideas Are All Around. It’s a difficult book to describe. It’s part personal essay, part fiction. It’s an odd little book. It’s long (56 pages), and it’s illustrated using a variety of techniques from monotype printing to collage to Polaroid photography. Ideas will be out next spring. I’m equal parts excited and nervous for it’s arrival.

(Click each to enlarge)

How about you, Matt? What’s piling up on your desk?

Matt: Look at all this great, new Steadstuff! Looking forward to seeing these materialize into books soon. I may have to hound you later to find out about this dead American literary icon secrecy.

So, on the VERY SAME DAY Special Delivery is released, I have my next author-illustrator picture book, Wish, being released too. Ask me about it some time, but long story short, it was kind of an avoidable, then unavoidable, pub-day collision.

Wish is my answer to a “New Baby!” book. The inspiration here is a long story, but I’ll try to keep it not so long. When Julie (my lovely wife, who is also named Julie) and I finally took the plunge and said “we’re ready to try for a baby,” we had no idea there’d be such a tumultuous road ahead of us. There was waiting (LOTS of waiting … years), heartbreak, and too much loss on that road. So by the time our firstborn was actually born, it was a drop-to-your-knees, life-changing, heart-swelling moment of moments. I think all parents must have that moment when a child is born that they’ve just brought into the world. And for us, we felt that — and we reflected, too, on the many broken battles that laid in our past. And in the midst of all that time, we also met so many couples that went through similar hardships. We didn’t know it at first, but now Julie and I know how common it all is. So I wanted to tell our story—a book about what it sometimes takes to wish a child into this world—and let it be a story that other parents could share and read to their children that they fought so hard to will into existence. I’m really excited about this book, and I really, really hope that it finds its audience.

“At first, there is us. There is only us.
But even then, even before we can know to know it …”

“Ready for you. We wish you were here.”
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“… but you never come. And everything stops.”

“You are here. You are …”
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The case for Wish
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In July, I have another picture book coming out with the most excellent Audrey Vernick, via Clarion. The book is called First Grade Dropout. I probably shouldn’t say too much since it’s, like, five months away, but it was so fun to illustrate, because it’s about a kid who, of course, is already ready to drop out of school in the first grade.


And in the Fall, I’ve got my next book out that I did with Neal. A super clever picture book by Marsha Diane Arnold, called Lost. Found. There’s only two words in the whole book, and you can guess what those two words are, I think.

I’m currently, just now, starting final art for The Knowing Book, a beautiful picture book with Boyds Mill Press by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. I’m also working on my next author/illustrator picture book, called Little Jupiter, with Feiwel and Friends. I’ll soon be starting sketches for a picture book called Bob Not Bob by dynamic duo authors Audrey Vernick and Liz Garton Scanlon. And, of course, I’m thrilled about our Special Delivery sequel, which is next in line. There’s some other great stuff that carries me all the way on through 2018, but I’ll shut up and cap it off with that. I’m lucky to be so busy with such good stuff!

Jules: I think I have a very early copy of First Grade Dropout in my stack of F&Gs.

I also have a copy of Wish, and I love the moment when the baby elephant arrives, à la Moses parting the Red Sea. It made me laugh outloud, and it is so joyful.

“… becomes a roar.
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It’s wonderful to see sneak-peeks of your future titles. Thank you both for sharing and for talking to me about Special Delivery, which is—in the words of StingRay—specialness forever.

Thank you both for your time!

Chugga chugga.

* * * * * * *

SPECIAL DELIVERY. Text copyright © 2015 by Philip C. Stead. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matthew Cordell. Published by Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press, New York. All images here reproduced by permission of Matthew Cordell and Philip C. Stead.

12 comments to “Special Delivery: A Visit with Matthew Cordell &
Philip Stead and Even a Moment with Neal Porter”

  1. Another chock full post about collaboration. I love it!

  2. Wonderful interview. Looking forward to reading all these books and especially “Wish” and “Special Delivery.”

  3. Oh my goodness! My to be read pile just grew by a gazillion. These two are among my favorites- how fun to see them together. Thanks for bringing us all this goodness! And good luck in your cold and snow. We are remembering back to our days in Richmond when winter weather really was paralyzing!

  4. Geez. Really good. I needed a short nap about halfway through. Cordell has a way of making one feel lazy, doesn’t he? Cut it out, would ya?

  5. If I don’t do another thing today my day will be complete after reading this post. I’m going to print this to keep it close at hand. Outstanding everyone! So happy to see all the book goodness coming our way.

  6. We seem to be in another golden age of the picture book, and this interview has made me feel all aglow. And I’m glad to see the love for Blake, Burningham, and Steig; three of the greatest ever. Coincidentally (ha) some of Matthew Cordell’s work is very Blakeian. In a good way.

    And I want the elephant stamp. I bet you’re all surprised to hear that.

  7. OK, this is an absolutely aMAzing interview! I can’t believe what’s packed into it. First: talk about a fantastic match of author and illustrator! I’ve been looking forward to this book since I first heard of it several months (I think) ago. I didn’t know the cover with the upside down airplane was based on an actual stamps (love all the stamps, btw), and am thrilled to hear there’ll be another Sadie book ’cause she sounds delightful 🙂

    I didn’t count how many song titles were mentioned here, but there were a LOT! lol I do think that might be something to start, Jules–a song reference in every post. That may result in quite a challenge though! Thanks, everyone, for an excellent Q&A 🙂

  8. These are guys who love the world of the picture book. They love how books are imagined, they love how books are made, and they love the audience they write and draw for. The ability is clearly there, but their enthusiasm–even fervor– for telling stories with words and pictures elevates their books above most of the lackluster efforts on the shelves. Matt, Phil (and Neal) forever!

  9. Love this conversation and very looking forward to reading Special Delivery.

  10. What a wonderful interview! Can’t wait to read Special Delivery! Thanks, Jules, for all the great work you do promoting the beautiful world of picture books.

  11. […] specifically, I turned to Matt, who I think is one of this field’s best illustrators. (And Special Delivery, illustrated by Matt and written by Phil Stead, is one of my top-five favorite picture books from […]

  12. […] The Only Fish in the Sea …   (Click each to enlarge)   A sequel to 2015’s Special Delivery with Phil Stead. Apparently, this is the year of the sequel for me! I’m cool with that. I […]

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