Bear Island: A Conversation with Matthew Cordell

h1 January 19th, 2021 by jules


It’s a pleasure to have a chat today with author-illustrator Matthew Cordell about his newest picture book, Bear Island (Feiwel and Friends, January 2021), a moving story about loss and working one’s way through the emotions involved. It’s a story that, as the Publisher’s Weekly review puts it so well, “respects grief’s slow pace.”

Louise mourns the loss of her dog, Charlie. When Louise boats to an island near her lake house, she meets Bear. Their first encounter is rough — Louise is still angry about her loss — but she recognizes a “familiar sadness” in Bear. Eventually, the two become friends, spending more than season together and working through grief as a pair.

It’s a deeply felt and reassuring story, and I’m grateful Matt had to time to chat about it. Let’s get right to it.

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Jules: Hello, Matt! Thanks for chatting with me about your new book.

Matt: Hi, Jules! It’s good to be back here at 7-Imp talking books with you. Thanks for having me!

Jules: Before we talk about Bear Island, I feel compelled to ask how you are doing during this bizarre time. Have you and yours stayed safe and healthy? I hope so. How have you kept yourself motivated while sheltering in?

Matt: It’s been a weird and unsettling time for all of us for about this last year or so. Thankfully, all of my immediate family and most of my extended family (that I know of) have been very vigilant about masks and social distancing, and we’ve all been in good health. (I’m knocking on some wood right now.) Work has been challenging at times, but I remain grateful to be busy and inspired, and I’ve tried to keep that focus at the drawing table. And I couldn’t be happier with the crew I’ve been stuck at home with — my family. It gets a little dicey having all of us in one place all the time, but we all really enjoy each other’s company.

Over the last year, I’ve also really gotten into birding. A few months before the lockdowns of COVID, I randomly saw a bald eagle on one of my morning walks, and it’s been a deep dive ever since. Birding has been a terrific escape and good excuse to get myself outdoors, get some exercise, and clear my head.

Jules: Your bird-watching photos — the ones you share anyway — are one of my favorite things about Instagram.





Matt: Oh, thanks! Sharing my bird photos and adventures has been part of the joy of birding for me too. It’s been fun to meet other birders and find out which of my friends were already out there birding. I’ve learned a great deal just from sharing those photos and from the conversations they start.






Five images above: Matt’s sketchbook drawings after an eight-hour birding session
(a Christmas Bird Count on New Year’s Day) with two birder pals


Jules: One more quick question before Bear Island: We haven’t had a chance to talk about your Fred Rogers picture book biography — Hello, Neighbor!: The Kind and Caring World of Mister Rogers. What was that experience like for you? Was it as thrilling for you to get that book out into the world as you expected it would be? I know you’ve been a long-time Fred Rogers fan. The book is wonderful — so affectionate and gentle, like the great man himself.


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Matt: Thanks so much! Making that book was definitely one of the best experiences of my career thus far — if not the best. Doing the research, traveling to Pittsburgh and connecting with the folks who knew Fred intimately well, and bringing my skills to a project that allowed me to honor him and his legacy: it really was a dream come true.

Jules: I want to ask you about the genesis of Bear Island, what the spark of the story was. But I also don’t want you to feel pressure to answer if it’s too, too personal (I see that you dedicated the book to your late father), since it is partly a story about loss. What was the spark, if you don’t mind discussing it, and how long have you been working on it?

Matt: This book does have a very personal connection for me. In fact, I think most or all of my books do, as I’m one of those “write from your life” kind of authors.

In 2016, I lost my Dad to pancreatic cancer. It was a shock in multiple ways (outside of the obvious), in that he had always been one of the most rock solid and confident people I’ve ever known. He was very much a helper to everyone who knew him. Always tirelessly looking out for others. So, it was a shock to hear at first that he was sick. Then it was a shock again to see how quickly it manifested. (Pancreatic is a particularly unforgiving, mostly untreatable cancer.) And it was a shock again when, ultimately, he was no longer in my life in less than a year’s time from his initial diagnosis. It was a huge loss and has continued to be a part of my life, but it wasn’t anything I thought I would reflect on with one of my books.

In 2018, I started going on long walks in nature — partly for exercise, partly just to get away from my desk and clear my head. Simultaneously, I started keeping a semi-regular sketchbook. I was drawing mostly whatever I wanted in the sketchbook (not related to deadlines, books, etc.), and one day I drew a girl and a bear. In the days that followed, I drew more pictures of a girl and a bear, and something about these two characters was pulling me in closer and closer to whatever was going on between them. There was a closeness between the two — but also a solemn, and quiet, contemplative vibe.


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I started to feel like whatever was going on here could be my next book. So I started thinking about what this bear might mean to this girl. Bears are massive and soft and cuddly. But they are also massive and scary and grumpy and emotional. Perhaps the bear was some sort of metaphor for something big happening in her life. Maybe a loss of some sort? It was then that I realized I was going to dip my toe into the idea of making a book about the enormity of grief.

Jules: I love the way you use color here to communicate the emotions — how the palette gradually warms.

Matt: That color palette idea came to me pretty late in the game. That’s generally the time I start to think about color — at the end of all the pen and ink drawing. It just occurred to me that it might make more sense to start the book off in a monotone and, as Louise works her way through her grief, the world around slowly begins to brighten up.



Two pictures above: Exploring the book’s palette
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Jules: I keep lingering over the wordless spread with the bear and the girl staring at one another, right before she says, “Don’t go.” Her face! Those nuanced colors! What was it like to work on that spread?


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Matt: That spread of Louise and Bear was definitely one of my favorites to draw. It’s an emotional moment in the book, and it was fun to really go to town with that bear drawing. I think drawing this spread, and how happy it made me doing it, was part of the reason I wanted to have Bear’s big bear face front and center on the cover.


Cover sketch
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Alternate cover sketch
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Alternate cover sketch
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Alternate cover sketch
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Jules: I appreciate the story’s pace, particularly the way in which it honors how grief can work. I think of the “Some days, Louise was better” and “Some days, only Bear was better” spread.

Matt: I do think a slow and meaningful pacing and moments of silence were an important part of telling this story. Loss, grief, and sadness — once they arrive, they are really entrenched in our daily existence. It all really soaks itself into our bones. It’s the first thing we think of when we wake up, and it’s the last thing we think of before we fall asleep. In time, it eventually drifts away, but it’s forever a part of us. And in that time of waiting and working it out, I think we find different ways to cope. Sometimes we want to be in the company of others, but sometimes we really need to be alone and not feel watched and taken care of. We just need to work it out on our own, I think. I know I’m this way. I don’t always want to be with someone I love, when I’m a sobbing mess. I’ve seen my own children intuitively seek out that alone time when they are grieving too. Solitude, silence, and long periods of contemplation are necessary, I think, in accepting loss and being able to move forward with that loss permanently in our lives.


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Jules: We also need that alone time for when we’re angry about our loss. I love how Louise thwacks a tree with a stick — and she ROOAARRs! I think it’s always good for us adults to remind children that anger can be a part of grief.



Two images above: Click either image to see spread in its entirety


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Matt: Oh, yes. I wanted anger to have a say in all of this. I agree. It’s a natural part of the process. To be incredibly angry at … whatever. How can we not feel that way when someone we love is taken from us? And that’s part of the reason for the bear. These are big feelings. Some of the biggest we will ever feel as living beings. Love and loss. It’s a colossal, bear-sized emotion.


Early sketch from the book
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Another early sketch; the final text differs from the text here
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Jules: Well-said.

Thanks for talking with me about Bear Island. I’ll stop here so that we can let this beautiful story stand. I hope readers find a copy soon and experience it.

Before you go: I’m going to steal a question from one of my favorite podcasts (Pop Culture Happy Hour) and ask: What’s making you happy this week? Also, which bird is your favorite?

Matt: It’s been a weird month to cap off a weird 2020, so happy things are most welcome.

Music is generally something I turn to when I need to feel good. It doesn’t always have to be “feel good” kind of music. Music is just good for putting you in a different place and space. I’ve been listening to a lot of David Bowie over the past few months. I’ve been a longtime fan, but there were albums that I had never gotten around to listening to, so I’ve been filling in the gaps from his discography.


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As far as favorite birds … wow, it changes all the time! It’s usually one that I’ve been seeing a bunch of and having a chance to observe. A recent favorite of mine is a little raptor called an American Kestrel. Recently, I had one hover just a few feet over me for a few minutes while it was hunting. Moments like that really stick with you!



Thank you for having me, Jules. Always a pleasure.

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Quick post-interview note for readers:

If you are fans of Matt and Philip C. Stead’s picture book collaborations — Special Delivery (read a 2015 chat about this one with Matt and Phil here at 7-Imp) and The Only Fish in the Sea (see also this 2017 7-Imp post), you’ll want to look for Follow That Frog! (coming in February from Neal Porter Books/Holiday House). It is great fun; we get to see Sadie again (and a glorious whale spread); and there’s hope for some frog-cataloging:


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BEAR ISLAND. Copyright © 2021 by Matthew Cordell. Published by Feiwel and Friends, New York. All images here reproduced by permission of Matthew Cordell.

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