Tag Archive for Children’s Books

James Preller Interviews . . . Matthew Cordell

In the past, I’ve had the opportunity to interview many children’s book authors and illustrators. In the clumsily named The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators (the title was soooo not my idea), there are profiles of 75 different, urm, authors and illustrators, including Barbara Cooney, Donald Crews, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, James Marshall, Barbara Park, Brian Pinkney, Jon Scieszka, Peter Sis, Mark Teague, Charlotte Zolotow — and more.

But I haven’t done that in a while. Until – oh, what the hey! — I decided to try it here. For, like, free. Beats the price of gas, and better mileage, too. I might even make this a recurring feature. So if, Dear Reader, you enjoy reading this kind of thing, encourage me with a friendly comment in the “Friendly Comments” section.

My first guest is Matthew Cordell. Primarily an illustrator — Toby and the Snowflakes by Julie Halpern, Righty and Lefty by Rachel Vail, The Moon Is La Luna by Jay M. Harris — Matthew has recently completed his first self-penned title, Trouble Gum (Feiwel & Friends, Fall ’09). And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the book we worked on together, Mighty Casey, which you must purchase right now (Feiwel & Friends, Spring, ’09).

Hey, Matt. What have you been doing today?

Hi, JP. Um. Woke up and did my cholesterol-lowering daily jaunt on the treadmill. Then answered email — some business with an editor, an art director, an agent. Then had breakfast. Now here we are.

Wow, I’m impressed. I used that same time to stare vacantly out the window, mumbling and gripping a cup of coffee.

I’m mumbling in my coffee too. We are so self-employed.

It must feel like a big accomplishment to write your first picture book, Trouble Gum. I didn’t even realize that you artists could spell. Tell me about that. Does it take a different part of your brain to write? Was it words first, then pictures? How does that happen?

Spelling aside, writing for me is very, very hard. Trouble Gum is big for me. This will be my first published picture book as both author and illustrator, but not my first picture book idea. I’ve had many. And they always start the same way — visually. With a single image in my head. Then I try to wrap a story around that. It usually bombs hard, but this one
stuck. One of my downfalls as a “writer” is that I can’t stop editing. I write one story about ten different ways and can’t decide on one. Which is how this story happened too, but I had two willing and excellent editors on this who helped keep me calm and focused, Liz Szabla and Rebecca Davis.

How does it work for books you don’t write? I’d guess that different editors send you manuscripts from time to time. How do you decide which ones to accept?

At this point, I’m really aligning nicely, publishing my author-illustrated work with Feiwel and Friends. And regarding my illustrator-only stuff, I used to pound the pavement solo and try to find work that way. But last year, I got picked up by my rock ‘n roll agent, Rosemary Stimola, and she’s been keeping me well stocked with work. Honestly, I haven’t met a manuscript I didn’t like yet. I have turned down projects due to time constraints — if I have a job that conflicts with a proposed project and due dates can’t be moved.

So you’re basically saying you’ll do anything for money.

Wasn’t it one Ludwig Bemelmans who said, “It’s all about the Benjamins.”

I love your blog, by the way. It’s so informal, loose, and friendly. You seem really willing to share your work — even the crummy stuff. Oh, you know what I mean: rough sketches, incomplete ideas, doodlings. It feels like you are open and really enjoy the process.

I love the crummies — a real accident aficionado. It seems to work well as blog fodder. I think everyone, doing whatever they do, finds a different groove to do the thing she/he does so it works for her/him. These differences are what make decent blog news. And for people who know very little about art-making, it’ s all news.

Kids often ask me about “Writer’s Block”. They seem fascinated by the idea. For me, Writer’s Block is just another way of saying that I’m bored — that I’m boring myself. It’s a sign to change things up. Is that true for you? Do you ever get stuck as an artist? And if so, how do you deal with it?

I don’t think I’ve ever been completely “blocked”. I, too, have been somewhat bored at times, with myself, my approach. But it’s so easy to get re-inspired. There’s so much incredible work out there — in both writing and illustration. Inspiration gets me going
again. I like what I’m doing in illustration, but I don’t want to churn the exact same thing out over and over. I like to change a bit here and there — add to and develop in subtle ways. With style and with the tools I use.

At this point, we’re both sitting around, twiddling our thumbs, waiting for Mighty Casey to hit the stores and rock the free world. We’ve both been finished with our part of the work for a long while. How does it feel when you finally get that finished book in your hands? Is it exciting, anti-climatic, disappointing? Will you do the Dance of Joy?

Let me start by saying that, as an illustrator, my single greatest feeling is at the moment of completion. The moment that the art is finished and fresh, successful, and alive and about to go into a sturdy package to FedEx. Now, as for the book itself, man, I’m so self-critical. It’s hard for me to let loose and fully celebrate my own accomplishments. So, honestly, I often look at books hot off the press and immediately think of things I could have done differently. I know. It’s not healthy. Possibly because the publishing process takes years from start to finish. Long after I wrap a book, and it’s published, my new work might have taken a new direction. I probably haven’t seen that art for a long while, either. But then I look at it again, and again, and again (cause that’s what I do), and remember and love it again. And I DO get excited and I do NOT dance. One thing that is, without fail, cool: throughout the process I see my books in various oversized, untrimmed, unfinished ways — single drawings on larger pieces of paper, untrimmed print proofs, or even floppy old F & G’s. To see the final book the first time, professionally designed and trimmed and jacketed — it’s always a unique thrill. Mighty Casey is gonna look great. Thanks to our uber-talented art director, Rich Deas!

What about school visits? Have you visited classrooms? One writer I spoke with, Tedd Arnold, said that it helped him “keep track of their squirmy little reality.” How do you make sure your work connects with young readers?

Aw, man. Public speaking is a minor terror to me. As mainly the book’s illustrator, I’ve not yet felt the pressure to aggressively promote. I kind of felt that each book belongs more to the author — the artist is support player. Which is, I understand, not entirely accurate with the picture book genre, but I’ve used that sweeping conclusion to my own benefit. Having
said it, I haven’t done a ton of stuff with schools. I have done some stuff when I first fell into this biz, with my first picture book, Toby and the Snowflakes. Cause that was written by my main squeeze, author and wife-to-me Julie Halpern. We promo’d together at a few schools and bookstores. It was easier for me to go in as a team. But it’s really something I have to overcome. Can’t hide in the studio forever!

How’s that working out for you, living with a writer? I hear they can be insufferable.

Truthfully, I think my writer might have more to say about living with her illustrator.

Okay, now for the Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Mouse Tales, Martin Pebble, Leon and Bob, The Lorax, Olivia, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!, The Monster at the End of this Book.

Favorite musicians?

Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, The Who, Woody Guthrie, George/Ira Gershwin, Toots and the Maytals, Vinicius de Moraes, Hank Williams, Fugazi.


It’s a Wonderful Life, The Big Lebowski, Rushmore, The Matrix, Rear Window, American Splendor, Breaking Away, Vertigo, The Aviator, Sideways, Raising Arizona, Singin’ in the Rain.


William Steig, Saul Steinberg, Francesco Clemente, Art Spiegelman, Michel Rabagliati, Chester Brown, Martin Kippenberger, Jean-Jacques Sempe, Cy Twombly.

Dessert? (And for some reason, I just know you are going to say, pie. Maybe it’s the Southern-roots thing.)

Even though I do enjoy many varieties of pie, I must disappoint you by answering cake.


How’d you know?

Is there another kind? Anyway, Matthew, I see that our time is up. Thanks. You’ve got a great spirit. I know your career is just beginning to take off — great things ahead. I hope we can actually meet-meet one day, outside of Cyberspace. But until then, we’ll remain Brothers in Blog!

Opening Sentences: Great Beginnings

There’s nothing quite like the first sentence in a book. After all, it’s the first. Numero Uno. Isn’t that what we all do, in bookstores and libraries? We scan the cover, read the flap, crack it open and read the first few lines, maybe a paragraph or two, and . . . DECIDE.

My all-time favorite opening sentence comes from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and I know it (almost) by heart:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

How do you NOT read the next sentence? An ax! Daddy? I’m alarmed, almost as much as Fern. Where IS he going with that ax?

Here’s some other first lines, taken almost at random. The list is not exhaustive or well-researched. I’d love to see more contributions in the comments section:

The day Shiloh come, we’re having us a big Sunday dinner. (Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor)

Again, wow. Those words, “come” (not “came”) and “us” signaling a rural voice and setting, a voice we’ll grow to love, to root for, a voice that will pull us all the way through.

Brian Robeson stared out the window of the small plane at the endless green nothern wilderness below. (Hatchet, Gary Paulsen)

Nothing fancy here. But again: setting, character, and foreshadowing in one simple sentence. A grammatical aside: I love the lack of commas in that description of the endless green nothern wilderness.

Here’s some more I like. I’ll save my writerly observations for, I hope, a later discussion:

Under a chill, gray sky, two riders jogged across the turf. (The High King, Lloyd Alexander)

Miyax pushed back the hood of her sealskin parka and looked at the Arctic sun. (Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George)

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. (The Giver, Lois Lowry)

Bradley Chalkers sat at his desk in the back of the room — last seat, last row. (There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, Louis Sacher)

On a warm October night in Chicago, three deliveries were made in the same neighborhood. (Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett)

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog. (Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo)

A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. (Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling — ever heard of it?)

Personally, I’ve never written a great first line — too hard, I guess — though I like the one that began Ghost Cat and Other Spooky Tales:

“Aaaaaaccck!” Mother screamed.

The book I’m revising now, Bystander (Feiwel & Friends, Fall, 2009), begins — as of now — this way:

The first time Eric Hayes ever saw him, David Hallenback was running, if you could call it that, running in a halting, choppy-stepped, stumpy-legged shamble, slowing down to look back over his shoulder, stumbling forward, pausing to catch his breath, then lurching forward again.

It is my hope that this post leads to some kind of discussion, responses, comments. So please — readers, teachers, students, librarians, dogs who can type — what’s your favorite opening sentence? Maybe we can grow this into something. Create a list. Vote. Any students out there?

What makes a great first sentence, anyway?

The Writing Process: Humble Beginnings

Now that school is here, I hope to write some pieces that more directly speak to students who might be interested in writing. I previously mentioned a new book I’m thinking about, as opposed to, um, actually working on, though I suppose they are one and the same. You can’t exactly write without thinking (and believe me, I’ve tried, doesn’t work).

So, anyway. I have an idea for a character who gets into trouble at school. The book is about this kid, and, in part, the surprising relationship he builds with the school principal. But how and why does this boy get into trouble? What does he do? What kind of hilarious escapades can I conjure? Then one notion hit me over the weekend: He smuggles a goldfish into school!

I love that idea. I can WORK with that idea. That is: There are possibilities that appeal to my (bent, twisted) sensibilities. So then begins the series of questions: How does he do it? Why? What goes wrong (because something must go wrong)? I’ve already daydreamed over a host of options — involving a thermos, soup broth, and a swallowed goldfish — but I know I’m not there yet. I’ve got to learn more about tropical fish, and probably make a visit to my local fish store (Davey Jones’ Locker on Delaware Avenue). Maybe they’ve got some ideas; research like that always helps, talking to experts always helps.

Yet I did “hear” a line of dialogue, a principal bemoaning something like, “Because of your actions today, an innocent goldfish is dead.”

I wonder if any of that will make it into the book? I wonder if this kid has got a name?

Finding the Story: Writing Spider

I plan on writing a series of “behind-the-scenes” blog entries about my experience writing the book, Along Came Spider. My writing process, if you will. Sigh. I have to confess that the thought of it makes me want to hurl, since it borders on self-obsession and pretentiousness. I really don’t want to this be about me, per say, but that’s all I’ve got, my story. Here’s how I came to write a single book.


A few years ago, two editors at Scholastic, Craig Walker and Shannon Penney, came to me with an idea. They wondered if I’d like to try writing for readers who were slightly older than my Jigsaw Jones audience (ages 6-9, approximately). They also hoped that I could make it a school-based story, probably for grades 4-5. I agreed to give it a shot.

But . . . what next?

I didn’t have a grasp on 4th- and 5th-grade classrooms, so that became the first order of business. I couldn’t begin writing until I could speak with author/ity on that world. While writing Jigsaw, I sat in on many, many 2/3 classes; I enjoyed it, learned from it, was inspired by those sessions of silent watching. The ideas came organically, growing from the specificity of that soil. I contacted a local fifth-grade teacher, Chris Porter at Glenmont Elementary, because I’d known her for years, admired her enthusiasm for literature and her commitment to teaching. With openness and warmth, Chris invited me into her classroom, where I was free to visit any time throughout the school year. Over a period of six months, I came and went as I wished, sitting in the back, silently observing. If something particularly cool was going on, Chris might send me a note. Like, oh, “For our Canada unit, we’re making an eight-foot long paper mache moose. It’s a mess, and it’s crazy, and we don’t really have any time to do it, but it’s so much fun! You’ve got to come and see it.”

I didn’t have a story in mind. I didn’t know what I was looking for. My goal was to sit and absorb the goings-on of a lively, creative classroom, and see what comes of it. I saw the flow of the school day, the way things worked. I filled a composition book with random notes, quick character sketches, hair-brained ideas. No story yet, but I was getting a handle on that world. I soon realized that sitting in a well-structured classroom was not nearly enough. I needed to see the students “in the wild,” meaning: recess, the lunch room, gym, on the bus. That is, all the time they were away from Chris’s watchful eye, when they had more freedom to interact, to be themselves, to mess up.

Eventually the themes in this story — which was to become Along Came Spider — began to take hold. I began deeply interested in exclusion and inclusion, in how some kids didn’t quite fit with the larger group. At the younger grades, eccentric behavior was more easily absorbed. But after a few years — second grade, third, fourth — the students become more familiar with each other. I could see how some of them were in danger of becoming increasingly isolated. I could imagine that Middle School could easily become a problem; they were at risk of becoming lost in the crowd, alienated, separate and alone. I didn’t see students who were picked on or bullied. They were just . . . accepted, tolerated, ignored.

When responding to an email query, Chris wrote to me:

“I know as a fifth-grade teacher, I always hope that the ‘troubled’ student who doesn’t fit in the mainstream group is able to find just one friend. I truly believe you can get through anything knowing that you have someone who likes you and see you for just you — as well as someone who will include you in the most difficult times of the day — recess/lunch!”

I taped those words to the wall beside my computer. And I was on my way. I still didn’t have the story, exactly, but I had the stirrings of what I wanted to write about. Now I needed to do a new kind of research. It was time to hit the books . . .