What is Matthew Cordell Up To?

h1 December 15th, 2015 by jules


When you find the news—both world and local—discouraging and you feel a lot like the characters look in the above illustration from Marsha Diane Arnold’s Lost. Found., illustrated by Matthew Cordell and released last month (don’t worry — things turn around for these guys), I turn to art. Because we all need art every day.

More 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 this year.) He and I had a relaxed conversation—I say relaxed, since we may or may not briefly veer off into discussions about movies and music—as I wanted to hear a bit more about Lost. Found., and I wanted to see what was on his drawing table. (Wait till you see the wolves below.)

Let’s get right to it.

Jules: Hi there, Matt! Did you see my subject line? The name of the book, Lost. Found., makes me want. to. talk. like. this.

Matt: Hi. Jules. Thank. You. For. Having. Me.

What if we had our whole conversation like that? To be read like that robot-y voice thing from that one Radiohead song. Or better yet that Flight of the Conchords one.



Jules: BINARY SOLO. I could do a whole post like that maybe. I love Jemaine and Bret (but Jemaine more), and I’m now wondering why my almost-12-year-old couldn’t watch that show. I don’t recall it being, you know, super salacious or anything.

Matt: Have you seen What We Do in the Shadows? It’s so good! Jemaine is in it, but not Bret. And there’s a bunch of other hilarious New Zealanders in it including Rhys Darby, the guy who played Murray from Conchords. Love me some Murray! “Band Meeting!”

Jules: Yes, What We Do in the Shadows is so funny. We actually saw it in the theater. “I was just thinking I’d bring a broom down here if you want to sweep up some of these skeletons.”


Title page illustration from Lost. Found.


Allright. To the point: I’m happy you’re here to talk about this book, but I also wanted to just check in and see what new things you’re working on. I guess, first off, I’m wondering what it was like to get Marsha’s very spare manuscript. Did you get copious author notes about the action to depict and/or notes about the storyline? If I had to guess, I’d say you probably didn’t and got to let your imagination run wild. Am I right?

Matt: I remember first hearing about Lost. Found. from Neal [Porter of Neal Porter Books]. There was an ALA in Chicago that summer, and Neal and Phil and I had just been going over some Special Delivery sketch revisions somewhere at the conference center.



As we were walking someplace afterwards, Neal mentioned he had a manuscript he wanted to show me. He said there were only two words in the whole thing. “Lost” and “Found.” He told me a bit about the story, and I was definitely intrigued. A scarf changes hands—or paws, claws, etc.—and eventually makes its way back to the original owner. But by then it’s kind of a scarf reborn, so to speak. I think he said it was the most he’d ever paid for a manuscript per individual word. Which is really funny when you think about it! I wondered later if he’d thought of me for Lost. Found., because I’d just done a book that basically only used one word: “Hello.”

Jules: Only one of my favorite picture books, if not my very favorite, from 2012.


(Click to enlarge spread)


Matt: That’s a really neat thought — that an illustrator, such as myself, could be given a sheet of paper with just two words on it and just … go to town. I wish I could say that that’s how this happened, because it makes me look a whole lot cooler in that scenario. But, in fact, Marsha’s manuscript did have notes about the story, described which animal finds the scarf and loses it in the sequence and how, and also how it comes back around in the end, etc. And all of this was influential in grabbing my attention. I loved the playfulness of Marsha’s outline, the artful simplicity of the text, and the sincerity of the book’s resolution that grounds the whole thing.


Spread from Lost. Found.
(Click to enlarge)


Jules: The picture book reader never really knows if it’s the author’s or illustrator’s (or both) idea to extend the action beyond the text, nor should they have to know (and, in the end, what matters is that it just works), but it’s fun to ask. And it’s not funk to ask, which is what I initially typed on account of having only just started my cup of coffee.

Speaking of Radiohead (as you did in the beginning of this conversation), I just listened to this, which was entertaining in many directions and not just ’cause they play Blake Mills. (They mention Radiohead.) Allow me to briefly digress and ask: If you had to advise someone in the ways of Radiohead, which album would you tell them to listen to first?

Also, that whole conversation made me think that, if you took over 7-Imp right now (MUTINY), what would you ask yourself first? You could always ask yourself RIGHT NOW and answer it. OR play a song like those guys did, except I’m clearly not a music podcast.

Matt: Radiohead: Yes, that’s that same Radiohead song they were talking about that I was talking about! When a friend of mine, Jim Williams (my pal who did the music for the Wish book trailer) …



… introduced me to Radiohead, he had me start with the start. Which would be Pablo Honey. Then I worked my way through their stuff chronologically to get the evolution as it happened. I think my fave Radiohead albums are, like, mid-period. I really like The Bends and OK Computer. The stuff after that is good, too, but I really like that middle stage of Radiohead.

Question to myself. Maybe I would ask myself, because this sort of just happened, “Why the heck you gotta go on Goodreads?” Shameful disclosure: Sometimes I go on Goodreads and see what people have to say about my books. I know I’m not supposed to. (I mean … Jeez, some people—author ones I really love—have even gotten bullied on there.) And I know it’s not really there for us (authors and illustrators) anyways, but sometimes curiosity (the same one that killed the cat) gets the best of me and I go on there and poke around. Sometimes you just want to know! It’s too quiet — and you just want to know! It’s sometimes good but sometimes not. And it’s the sometimes not that people like us (authors and illustrators) will remember. In the last year or two, I made a conscious decision to just stop saying negative things on social media or online. Not even about something huge and maybe deserving or maybe incapable of feeling pain — like a not-good, big budget movie or a political something. There’s more than enough negative gunk going around the internet and people sort of normalize it and keep it going, and I’m just not going to contribute to that. Sometimes the world … it feels too much like this too much of the time:


(Click to enlarge spread)


(See how I brought it back to Lost. Found.?)

Don’t get me wrong. Offline, I might poke fun at stuff amongst friends (I guess I’m not that pure), but not in a public forum. If some random person happened to stumble upon this conversation (how the heck did that happen?), she/he is probably wondering, “what the heck is Goodreads?”

Jules: I’ve heard horror stories about how Goodreads can be painful for some authors and illustrators. I can understand the temptation to go read, though. I think there’s a place for constructive criticism and critical analysis (and maybe that sometimes happens there? I don’t visit enough to know), but I don’t understand hatefully griping about a book in a thoughtless, unorganized way as if you think you’re Leonard Marcus making an important point.


Spread from Lost. Found.
(Click to enlarge)


Your anti-negativity pledge reminds me of the final question on each episode of a podcast I frequent, Pop Culture Happy Hour: What is making you happy this week?

Wanna take a stab? It can be anything from music to books to movies to whatever.

Matt: I just finished out a pretty great bucket-filling weekend. I was at the American Association of School Librarians conference in Columbus, Ohio. I got booked into a bunch of fun stuff. I was on a panel moderated by the wonderful Matthew Winner and did a couple of fun signings and a superfast-paced, table-rotating, book-talking thing for Junior Library Guild. I saw several old friends and made some new ones too.


From left to right: Rafael Rosado, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, Loren Long,
Matthew Cordell (um, me), Jonathan Auxier,
Marc Tyler Nobleman, and Matthew Winner


It’s times like this, it really gives one a sense that this business and community is a wonderful and cozy and humble place to have lucked into. And speaking of the internet stuff: As positively negative the internet and online conversation can be, on the other side of that coin (bitcoin?), super positive things can bubble up too. Over the years, I’ve connected with artists and educators and editors, art directors, publishers, and general like-minded picture book enthusiasts via Facebook, Twitter, etc. So, whenever I get to go to a conference or book festival, I tend to finally run into people I’ve known for years online. I love when that happens. It’s like you kinda already know each other. Not really, but … kinda. So the ice is, like, half-broken, and you already know you have all this stuff in common with that person and that s/he is a good person and a smart and funny and modest and kind person. Social media can, at times, be a totally narcissistic and soul-sucking place. It’s true. But I’ve really made some great cross-country friendships on there. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful.


Spread from Lost. Found.
(Click to enlarge)


Jules: I know what you mean, and that conference looks like it was a blast. Do you often do such conferences? I would think that it’d be great to get out of the studio, working alone, to see folks for a while (but then also really great to go back and sit in silence again — at least if you’re an introvert).

Matt: I feel like I haven’t done a big book conference in a while until now. It’s a tricky thing, conferences. Many of them are in the summer (ALA, BEA, etc.), and to be featured at that time you sorta have to have a big (or big-ish) marketed book that’s on the Fall list (to be released just after that Summer). That’s kinda how it works. I think. I did Nerd Camp in Parma, Michigan, over this past summer, which is sort of an “un-conference.” I think that’s how they bill it, which I love. It was very fun and very laid back and grassroots, and I got to meet face-to-face and hang out with several book-making and educator friends I’ve been wanting to meet for a while. And I got to see some old friends I hadn’t seen in a while too.


From left to right: Larry Day, Miriam Busch, Lauren Castillo, Erin Stead,
John Schumacher (a.k.a. Mr. Schu), Aaron Zenz, Matt, and Philip Stead


Some of the conferences rotate through here in Chicago. And when that happens, I tend to just go ahead and shoehorn myself into a signing or something since … well, I’m here. They’re here. I’m kind of a sucker for conferences. They’re pretty fun. I think my whole family’s into the vibe of these things. Big gatherings of like-minded people. We go to comic conventions, toy conventions, and the like as much as we can handle too.

Jules: Yes, conferences like this can be revitalizing, I find, since I work at home alone, reading picture books to myself.

I’d love to find out what you’re working on now. I use social media sites, like Facebook, primarily to keep up with children’s lit, and I always like it when you share sneak-peeks at upcoming books or peeks at your drawing table. What’s on the table now?


Spread from Lost. Found.
(Click to enlarge)


Matt: Okay, so here’s the point in our conversation where I get to dump a whole bunch of images and info into your lap (if that’s okay).

Jules: Bring it. I’m eager to see.

Matt: Here’s what my studio looks like today. Pull up a chair! Oh … wait.


(Click to enlarge)


(I was actually drawing on the floor today. For real.)

I’m currently juggling four projects that are in various stages of completion. The first deadline is for what will be my next author/illustrator picture book. It’s called Wolf in the Snow, coming out in January 2017 via Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. This book’s been years in the making. It started out with no story at all, just this drawing of mine that came from I don’t know where:


(Click to enlarge)


Then, over the years, a story has pushed its way out of that picture. But not easily. I ended up reading a lot about wolves and watching documentaries about wolves and even having the pleasure of exchanging emails about wolves with a biologist who is part of the Yellowstone Wolf Project (the team responsible for the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone after they’d been completely eradicated and gone from that land many years ago). Now I love, love, love wolves. I love them. Before, I never knew them. There’s still a lot of time between now and when the book comes out, so I probably shouldn’t say say too, too much about it. It will be my first wordless picture book. Okay, that’s the last thing I’ll say. Here are some drawings in progress and lettering in progress and studies for this book right now. It’s epic, a high-adventure picture book, making this thing (48 pages worth!).


(Click each to enlarge)


I’m also writing and dummying a book that will be a companion to my book Wish that came out earlier this year. It’s not a sequel that picks up where Wish left off — but a separate, stand-alone picture book that will be similar in tone and vibe. Here are some early studies to share from this one, called Dream (Disney-Hyperion, 2016).



Next due is art for The Only Fish in the Sea, which is a sequel to this year’s Special Delivery (Roaring Brook Press). I’m intently working my way through a sketch dummy right now, so not a huge amount ready to share publicly. But I can’t help but share this character study of Sadie and her friend from Special Delivery (spoiler alert: his name’s Sherman!) and this high octane in-progress sketch from one of my favorite moments from Phil’s story.


(Click each to enlarge)


The fourth project on the burner is illustrations for Gone Camping. This is a sequel to Tamera Will Wissinger’s, Gone Fishing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). Nothing yet to show here, just familiarizing myself with the manuscript. Reading, re-reading, plotting out stuff. But here’s one of my favorite pictures from Fishing. I drew this book in Sharpie markers. Like, five or six that were all very different in personality — ranging from juicy, new ones to nearly dried up ones. Excited to give that approach another go.



And I should also mention the book I just finished illustrating a few weeks ago. It’s called Bob Not Bob. A picture book from Disney-Hyperion that I’m illustrating, written by, not one, but two super-talented authors — Audrey Vernick and Liz Garton Scanlon. Here’s some not-great photos I took of some of that work just before I shipped it off. An incredibly funny, clever book!


(Click last two images to enlarge)


So, it’s a wonderfully generous bounty of work to say the least. Amazing opportunities on deck. Amidst the daily challenges and obstacles life likes to lob at us all, I’m working day and night and trying not to crack. I. Will. Not. Crack!


Cover of Rebecca Kai Dotlich’s The Knowing Book,
coming from Boyds Mill Press in February 2016


z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z ….

Jules: Thanks for sharing. I feel like I should stop talking here and let people just scroll back up and look at your art.

I have to add, though: My two daughters think “Bob” is the funniest and most versatile name. They have a Stormtrooper named Bob. His best pal is Larry. So, they will be extra excited about Bob Not Bob.

Thanks for visiting, Matt! And happy holidays to you and yours.

Matt: Awesome. Thank you, Jules.

* * * * * * *

LOST. FOUND. Copyright © 2015 by Marsha Diane Arnold. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matthew Cordell. Published by Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press. Spreads used by permission of Matthew Cordell.

All other images used by permission of Matthew Cordell.

3 comments to “What is Matthew Cordell Up To?”

  1. You must’ve interviewed Matt Cordell, what, 4 or 5 times now? And when I know you’ve done so, I always click through to read. He’s such a wonderfully generous interviewee, and I do love his work. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve always sorta-kinda thought he himself looks like he was DRAWN by Matt Cordell. (Which makes me wonder if illustrators in general — like people and their pets — sort of gravitate to a common ground of appearance… Look into that, wouldja?)

    Goodreads is selectively worthwhile. Whenever I do a book review at my own site, I cross-post it there at Goodreads. (I’m a generous reviewer; if I don’t care for a book, there’s no point in slamming it.)

    Thanks for another wonderful interview, both of you!

  2. Thanks for the super kind words, John! That’s an interesting observation about one’s art and appearance. I think my often times disheveled, unshaven appearance definitely goes with my disheveled, unshaven art. I think you’re onto something here… In the end the stuff we make is equal to the stuff we… take? Does that line work in this scenario? I would be curious to see a series of candid snapshots (a totally unstaged pic) of someone with an image she/he feels most represents her/his work… hmmm.

  3. […] I was reading this just the other day, your late-2015 7-Imp visit, where you were schooling me (by request) in the […]

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