Matthew Cordell – Illustrator Interview

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matthew_cordell_author_picI was reading Matthew’s latest book, WISH, a few weeks back and remembering how much I had also loved his mini technology-bash in  HELLO! HELLO! and it dawned on me I should invite him on the blog. It is such a thrill to me that 95% of all the illustrators I invite for an interview say yes immediately (the other 5% are simply too busy, which I fully understand.)

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

[MC] I’m a most-of-the-time illustrator who’s occasionally given the chance to have my stories published. Which would classify me as an author/illustrator. And when I wear that hat, I almost always start with words. There is usually some amount of character sketching and art testing involved, but once that’s out of the way, I tend to want to write out the whole story and get it as close to finished as possible before beginning with any substantial amount of art. Having said that, I have recently begun to accept that drawing and writing simultaneously will poke at different sides of my brain and that seems to work well too. Wow, that was a very ramble-y almost non-answer to that question, wasn’t it?

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

[MC] I was born and raised in a small-ish town in South Carolina. When I was 24 years old, in the spring of 1999, I moved up to Chicago, IL. Six years later, I was married and my wife and I moved out to the Chicago suburbs. And it’s suburb which is actually about the size of the town where I grew up.

This is an interesting question, because I don’t feel like I do a huge amount of looking back in life or in my work. I’m mostly consumed by what is happening in the present and what might happen in the future. Putting out day-to-day fires, trying to enjoy the great things happening in the moment, and also wondering and/or fearing what might happen next. Before I had children, I did try to mine my childhood experiences in the south for things that might make interesting picture book stories. And this worked for me for my first two offerings, TROUBLE GUM and ANOTHER BROTHER. Both stories stemmed from growing-up experiences and from family ties down south. Though neither of those stories are distinctly southern. The interesting thing about my southern heritage is that in my teens and twenties, I spent a lot of time trying not to be “southern.” I wanted desperately to find something else in life and expand my horizons artistically and socially and culturally. I wanted to travel and experience a lot more than what I knew growing up. Now that I’ve done that, I can stand back and embrace my roots and yearn at times to get back to some of those things that are deep down in my old southern self. Simplicity. Patience. Kindness. Modesty.

TROUBLE GUM interior

TROUBLE GUM interior

TJ15-3-11 P01-40 150L CTP.indd


Now what most inspires me are my wife and my children and also children I meet in my travels (school visits, etc.). I’m incredibly inspired by my immediate family. I often say that my children were my best investments. I’ve got a truckload of story ideas waiting to be shown to publishers. Well… that’s a huge exaggeration, but I’ve got a handful waiting in the wings and I hope it stays that way. (knock on wood!) My books HELLO! HELLO!, WISH, and the 3—possibly 4—that I’m currently knocking around in various stages of development are all directly inspired by my current state of living and loving family.



WISH interior

WISH interior

[JM] Yay for your southern roots! Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.


5th grade art

5th grade art

[MC] As far back as I can remember, I loved to draw. It was the one thing I seemed to be ok at and be recognized for in school and by friends and family. That recognition is what has carried me throughout life. The recognition and the criticism, I suppose. I’ve had wonderful teachers all the way that kept me going. By the time I got to college, I knew almost nothing about what careers were available in art or in any creative capacity. I dreamed of going to an art school, but with money limitations, I ended up at in state school, Winthrop University, that had a nice art department. Graphic design was offered as a major and that seemed like an answer to my problems. So I learned all about design and totally fell in love with it. Meanwhile, I was continuing to take classes in painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture. (Incidentally, illustration was not offered at my school and by the time I got out of college, I knew next to nothing about it.) I worked in design in North Carolina for a couple of years out of college (still also drawing and painting), but ultimately needed to experience someplace different. At that time, I thought I’d probably end up in New York someday, but I had friends living in Chicago, so I made the leap there. I loved it. I landed a terrific design job and within a year or so, I was also getting my paintings and drawings in galleries in Chicago.

And shortly after I realized… I didn’t like doing either of those things. I didn’t like the demands put on me or the business-y side of my design job. I didn’t like the often schmoozy pretentious stuff that went with the fine art world. Or maybe, actually, I just was no good in either. And it was horribly depressing to me, because this was the stuff I’d been working up to doing my whole life. Fortunately, around that time I also met my wife (then my girlfriend), Julie Halpern. Julie was a librarian assistant in an elementary school, but was also a very funny, very talented writer. I met her after discovering a super funny zine, Cul-De-Sac, she was writing with a friend. Julie could see I was bummed and offered a suggestion. Why not try to do a children’s book? She’d write a story and I could illustrate. Children’s books and the illustration within had not occurred to me at all since I was a child. And doing one myself had never occurred to me ever. But in fact it really is a melding of the two things I’d grown to love. Art and graphic design. At the time I was doing some relatively minimal drawings. Line had been a big deal to me already for many years. I thumbed through some picture books that Julie was showing me and I seemed to respond most to those creating in pen and ink (line) and watercolor. Steig. Lobel. Waber. Blake. We created a proposal using her manuscript and some sample finished art I created, and sent it off to 20 publishers into their slush piles. Many months and nineteen rejections later, we got a nibble of interest from Houghton Mifflin. Then after lots of luck and revision, TOBY AND THE SNOWFLAKES was published in 2004. I loved creating that book and I loved the people in children’s books and I loved the audience (art for KIDS!—and the adults who read with them—who’d have thunk THAT??). And I knew this was what I needed to be doing for the rest of my life. And thankfully, it has been working out that way so far. (knock on wood again!)


[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

I work almost exclusively in pen and ink with watercolor. I’m a serious creature of habit so I stick pretty close to that combo. I have on occasion dabbled in drawing in pencil, scanning that, blowing it up and making the line black, and color in photoshop with flat, graphic colors. I did that on two books, ROOTING FOR YOU and LEAPS AND BOUNCE (2016) and really enjoyed it. I may do it on one other in near future, to be determined. I like pen and ink a lot and still feel like I have a lot to do there. A lot yet to explore and learn. I do bounce around with choice of pen, however.



The go-to for me is a nib pen. I’ve been using a couple of different nibs I ordered from this place in England. But I also often use a bamboo pen. It’s essentially like dipping a sharpened stick into a bottle of ink and drawing with it and repeat. Both pen and ink and watercolor are two horribly unforgiving mediums and I often wonder why I put myself through the agony (being dramatic). But I do love them both. By the way, I’m totally self-taught in both arenas, which is also probably adding to the agony (being dramatic again).

pen ink bamboo

pen ink bamboo

[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?

I end up making my characters animals pretty often. Reason being, it doesn’t pinpoint any specific ethnicity when you draw your characters as animals. And every child can find a way to connect, or at least not be alienated. Which is not to say that all my picture books need to be animals with human characteristics. Sometimes there are stories that call specifically for people to be in the pictures. In which case, depending on how personal the story is or is not to me, the difficult choice must be made about race, gender, etc. You want to do what is right and what is right for the story and meaningful to your own self, and you try not to just be a people pleaser too. So it’s hard. But backing up a bit, I was really in a big pig phase for many years. They are very interesting creatures. Smart. Weird-looking. Funny. Messy. You can do a lot with pigs. But I kind of burned out on pigs. At least for a while. My last two books featured elephants, which are also very versatile and magnificent beasts. But every story (when I turn it into an animal story) will call for a different animal. Different animals have different historical contexts or preconceptions. It’s a fun thing to figure out, what animal your character should be.

[JM] I love that idea of what animal your character is and even if not illustrated, it is interesting to ask oneself that question for an MG or YA novel. Your wife, Julie, is a picture book and YA author, how much do you talk about your WIP’s and do you ever collaborate?

After our book together was published (TOBY AND THE SNOWFLAKES), there was a short period of time where we did try to conjure up another picture book as a team. Meaning, Julie wrote some things and I did some sample art to accompany, and we tried to submit, but none of those ideas ever shook out to anything. Shortly after that, Julie began getting published in the Young Adult arena and we sort of left the idea of collaboration behind us. At least, we’ve not yet returned to it since those days. I’m a pretty solitary person when it comes to my work (probably annoyingly so). I tend to not want to talk about much face-to-face. I think I’m afraid I’ll have to hear some things I don’t want to hear. When I get in a pinch about something, I will run it by Julie (or even sometimes my 6-year-old) to get an outside perspective here in the “office.” Julie helped me recently when I was hacking away at a wordless picture book dummy. I was having a hard time solving some things and I thought it might never get published. Happy to say that in a couple of years, it will, thanks in part to my lovely wife! Well, all my books being published are thanks to the wife, as I really owe it all to Julie.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of on of these WIPs, and the process of creating them?

Here are a couple of sketches/studies for the wordless book in-progress. And I just finished art for a beautiful picture book written by the wonderful Rebecca Kai Dotlich, called THE KNOWING BOOK. That book will be out spring of 2016 from Boyds Mills Press. Here’s a few sneak peeks from that work.




[JM] Do you have a favorite form of social media and if so, why?

[MC] Social media-wise, I’m on Twitter (@cordellmatthew) and Facebook but I’m mostly a Facebooker. I think it’s better suited for someone who wants to speak with images. Images display better and it’s not just a matter of looking at an ever-moving scroll of text. Which makes my head hurt. (Though Twitter has gotten a LITTLE better with this). I also don’t like being limited to 140 characters when I need to say something. Some people like this. I don’t. I gather that many people seem to prefer Twitter to Facebook these days. Truthfully, I’m just not technologically savvy enough to tell which is cooler or smarter or less invasive. I can’t tell, truthfully what is cool or smarter. But Facebook works best for me, and that’s that. (Can I get a kickback, Facebook?)

[JM] What does your workspace look like?

[MC] For many years, I worked out of one of the bedrooms in our house, on the top floor. It was a little tight, but loads of natural light and a nice view of our back yard. When our second child was born, I gave up the room for the little guy and moved everything down to the basement. It’s dark, cold, stinky, and messy. (The messy part is my own fault.) But you gotta do what you gotta do. We put some new lighting in and it’s not too bad. I miss the view of outside and the good light, but it certainly works for now. I like the ease and affordability of working from home, so I’d like to keep it that way. There’s been some talk lately of maybe moving back above ground when baby boy’s a little older. Combining the kids’ rooms with bunk beds. Our daughter was thrilled about that idea, but we’ll see how she feels when/if the time comes!

[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?

[MC] I’m love buying great original art, or swinging a cool trade with a friend, or buying great posters, prints, etc. I have lots of stuff in a stack waiting to be framed someday, and we get to it bit by bit, here and there. I found a great place online where you can order frames at custom sizes and I have a mat cutter, so it’s a D.I.Y. operation. But we’ve got some cool stuff on our walls, if I do say so myself. Here’s just a few things…

Every house needs some Herge…


We’ve got a Cul De Sac strip from the master himself, Richard Thompson.


A quartet of Marlys drawings from Lynda Barry.


This sweet piece of spot art by Cece Bell.


My supertalented pal, Larry Day, gifted us this custom piece when our son was born.


An art study by one of my favorite contemporaries, David Ezra Stein.


And a print by one of my all around favorite people, the most excellent and superbly talented Edward Hemingway.


Fabulous. Your house artwork could be a children’s illustrators museum!

Five Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                              [JM] What’s your favorite pizza topping?

[MC] I was a vegetarian for 15 years and Julie was too, mostly. We eventually broke at the time Julie was nursing our daughter. It’s a long story, but Julie needed some new sources of protein, and she turned to chicken and turkey. I turned with her. But I still don’t eat it all the time and I don’t eat any other meats. But I used to love pepperoni pizza as a kid, and it turns out I can enjoy pepperoni pizza again. Turkey pepperoni pizza.

Cats or dogs?

[MC] I grew up with both and appreciate both for their very different personalities. Julie and I (and Romy for her first few years) had a cat named Tobin who was 16 years old and passed away just a couple of years ago. He was an amazing cat. Loved everyone. Loved everything. We still think of him often. For that reason alone, my answer here is cats. Miss ya, Tobes.

[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[MC] I started out not minding cilantro, and then went for years disgusted by the taste of cilantro. Now all of a sudden, I don’t mind cilantro again.

[JM] What word best sums you up?

[MC] Pseudo-calm. I think (maybe) when people first meet me, they might perceive me as calm, chill, laid back, etc. I don’t think I’m NOT these things, but I am also quite often a ball of tightly wound nerves.

[JM] I love pseudo-calm, I might just borrow that. Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[MC] Throughout my life, the most consistent snack in my snack vocabulary has been sunflower seeds. The salted, roasted-in-shell kind that you have to work at to actually reach the edible seed. Salty goodness. It’s kind of a disgusting snack for those around you who don’t like them. Because you leave a container full of spitty discarded shells in your snacky wake. And maybe this goes hand-in-hand with my snack of choice, but I’m kind of a tacky drink drinker. I like sugary soda pops. I’m partial to Coke (not Pepsi), Dr. Pepper, Ginger Ale, 7 up, Cheerwine (ask your friends from South Carolina) and on occasion I’ll take a hike up the wondrous Mountain Dew. Don’t judge!

OK, so now I need to take a trip to South Carolina to taste some Cheerwine. I am also a seed-nibbler (reincarnated hamster maybe?). Matthew, this has been so much fun. You have a great knack of sharing just the right snippets of life for us to feel like we know you so much better after this interview. My review of WISH will be posted on Friday!

Check out Matthew’s blog here and his website here.

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24 Responses to Matthew Cordell – Illustrator Interview

  1. Really awesome interview! How cool that Matthew’s first collaboration with his wife was a book…before the kids. 😉 His style is somewhat reminiscent of David Ezra Stein’s to me so it’s funny that he has a Stein piece in his home. Can’t wait to read the upcoming book with Rebecca Kai Dotlich!

  2. Joanna is quite right. Matthew has a gift of the written gab for sure. Feels like I’ve just stepped off his front porch. Is it possible that we might see a Cordell middle-grade novel with more childhood snippets, maybe something involving sugary soda pop? I certainly hope so! Loved every book Matthew has worked on, and I believe I’ve read them all. Looking forward to all that may come! Thanks, Joanna and Mathew.

  3. Lovely interview, Joanna! I love Matthew’s illustrations in Special Delivery, and have had Wish on request at the library for some time now. I just love the beauty and simple elegance of pen, ink & watercolor. His work shines. Those pigs are just adorable, and I love his rabbit from Knowing.

  4. This is jam-packed with goodies! Totally interesting and inspiring! Thanks so much for sharing, Matthew, and Joanna for interviewing him!

  5. Super cool. Particularly love the elephant and heart illustration. 🙂

  6. Heather Dent says:

    I definitely want to read this “Tony and the Snowflakes” book now! I really really love watercolor and ink illustrations and Matthew does it so well. Great interview! I really enjoyed reading this.

  7. Wow, that was such a neat interview, Joanna and Matthew. Interesting about being in the basement because we have a lot of room in the basement but I just don’t like the lighting down there or lack of light from outside so I make do with an art desk between the kitchen and front lounge. Maybe when I need more space I’ll go down there.
    Love those pig drawings! I love how you have followed your passion so intentionally through numerous changes. Very inspiring!

  8. Thanks much for reading, everyone, and for leaving all these kind words here! And thanks for having me, Joanna!

  9. I read this earlier today, but wanted to stop by here and officials say I enjoyed this and Matthew’s work. Thanks for sharing your process. Great interview!

  10. Pingback: Wish – Perfect Picture Book Friday | Miss Marple's Musings

  11. Dana Carey says:

    My heart goes out to Matthew– I had to leave my beloved attic workspace but luckily not for the basement. I hope both of us get another top floor someday!
    I really enjoyed reading this interview, Matthew and Joanna.
    Love the illustrations!

  12. I’m a big fan of Matthew Cordell’s books! This was a great interview, Joanna. I loved seeing the art in his house 🙂

  13. Pingback: The Knowing Book – Perfect Picture Book Friday | Miss Marple's Musings

  14. Caroline Armitage says:

    Great interview Joanna, very interesting and lots of fun. x

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