Matthew Cordell's EXPLORERS

I'm thrilled to have Caldecott winner Matthew Cordell back to visit; especially after learning that he was a Winthrop University graduate in 1997 - small world, eh? Today, we're celebrating his latest book, EXPLORERS He dropped by to talk about it...
e: What was your creative process/medium for EXPLORERS, can you walk us through it?
Almost all of my work is drawn in pen and ink and colored with watercolor. I always start out with pencil sketches with the publisher, refining this way until everything is approved for final art. At which point, I print out all of my approved sketches, trim out appropriately sized sheets of 100 lb. cold press Arches watercolor paper, and begin. I always start with the pen and ink drawings, working my way from the beginning of the book to the end. For each drawing, I tape my approved sketch to the back of a sheet of watercolor paper and draw on a light table. I keep a second print out beside me, while drawing, so I can see it clearer while drawing. (It’s difficult to see details and subtleties in the sketch through the watercolor paper.) Once all the drawings are complete, I circle back and begin painting in watercolor. I always work from beginning of the book to the end. Not that it matters, really, it’s just a habit I’ve gotten into!

e: What was your path to publication?
In college, I studied graphic design and fine art [at Winthrop University!!!], intending to pursue both after graduation. And I did, with some success in both arenas. But I soon learned that I didn’t really enjoy either of those worlds. Around the time I figured that out, I was dating a school librarian/writer (Julie Halpern, who is now my wife) and she suggested since I was burning out on art and design, that maybe we could collaborate and try to get a picture book published. I hadn’t thought about children’s books since I myself was a child. And when I did think about them, it wasn’t in any cool sort of way. So, it took some convincing to get me on board. Julie shared with me some of her favorite books from when she was a kid and showed me lots of new picture books from the school library where she worked. I was blown away by how amazing the art in these books was. I had it all wrong, that picture books could not be cool. This was easily some of the coolest stuff I’d seen in years. So we put together a picture book proposal (Julie’s words, my art) and submitted it to 20 publishers. In the months that followed, the rejections began coming in. One after another, we received 19 rejections. The last one, from Houghton Mifflin, was a maybe. After months of revising the text, the maybe turned into a yes. In 2004, Toby and the Snowflakes was published. I loved the experience so much. Working with the publisher. A new (to me) audience of children and families. Work that combined my two interests (design and art), but in an environment and presentation that better suited me. After that, I worked tirelessly day and night and on weekends for 7 years (while working a full-time job at a letterpress printer) so I could make writing and illustrating my full-time, life’s work.

e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
The idea for EXPLORERS is based on my family’s love for museums. What I love doing the most in this world is spending time with my family. And what my family loves doing the most is visiting museums. We travel a lot and our first destination in any new place is to seek out the museums. Art museums, history museums, science museums, children’s museums… all of the above and more. I love the knowledge and culture that museums are rich with, but I also love the community of museums. People and families from all walks of life go to museums. Lots of difference races, languages, cultures, religions. It’s really enlightening and inspiring to have a shared experience with so many people who come from so many different backgrounds. So I really wanted to do a book set in a museum, and one where two families that are different from each other on surface levels, find that they have much more in common on a deeper level.

e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
I suppose we all have our own interpretation of art that is effective in this way. Personally, I’m moved by art that is unusual in some way. I’m inspired when I see something that is done in a way I haven’t seen before. Or is created in a way that isn’t traditionally successful or beautiful. Often times, when I encounter something like this, I don’t like it initially. Which… can be a good sign. Sometimes. In the context of making books, though, I think successful art is reacting or supporting or responding to successful writing. I think these “heart art” experiences that we find in books, are a perfect synergy of great text combining with great art. When this happens, I actually get goosebumps. It doesn’t happen often, so it’s really special when it does.

e: How do you advertise yourself (or do you)?
My self-promo has evolved over the years. In the beginning of my illustration career, I really focused on compiling an up-to-date mailing list of all the editors and art directors at the publishing companies. About 4 times a year, I would mail out post cards and samples of my work. With these efforts, the work started coming in slowly. In time, I got a literary agent, Rosemary Stimola, who has been an incredible advocate for me, and really helped me to get more book work. Since then, I haven’t done the mailings as much. I have a website, and recommend every illustrator have one for herself or himself. I’ve actually had a placeholder page up for a long while now, and it’s desperately in need of an update! I also have an illustrator presence on the major social media outlets. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I think a combination of promotional efforts is what works best to get your name out and about and in the conversation.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
I love making things. I love that I can start with a blank sheet of paper and in the end, I’ve left something new and unique in the world. Something that wasn’t there before. And something I can look back on and appreciate the experience in some way. It’s an amazing feeling, every time, to bring something new into the world. The most challenging thing is dealing with what happens after you share you work. In book illustration, the major elements of feedback are reviews (professional reviews and/or customer reviews) and book sales. It’s always difficult to put everything you have into something and it get lukewarm or poor reviews and/or sales. But I always try to stay focused on the creation of the work. That is something I can control. How the work is going to look and how well it’s executed. What happens when it’s out in the world for others to see and read—that’s completely out of my control. So it’s pointless to get too hung up on those things. And yet, it’s hard not to. But I do try and keep that focus going, with the love of creating the work.

e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
In Explorers, I tried to work in a diverse range of exhibits and world history and a diverse range of folks who are at the museum on this day. Some places that we choose to go—neighborhoods, restaurants, parks, etc—are inhabited by people who look and act a lot like ourselves. But it’s the places that draw a wider range of ethnicities and cultures that I find most stimulating. Museums have that, and that’s one of the things that makes them special. This is sort of the subtext of the story, and I hope people pick up on that.

e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
Because publishing takes as long as it does (after illustrations are done, it can take a year or more before the book is in print), I’ve always got several projects going in various stages. A couple of months ago, I finished my first non-fiction picture book—a biography about Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers) that will be out in May of 2020. Today, I just finished the interior illustrations (still have to do a cover) for my first beginning reader chapter book. And I have two more picture books going that are in different stages of sketches. I like to try and do new things, as it keeps things exciting and fresh for me. Hence, the two new formats I’m working with. But doing new things requires a greater investment of time, as there’s a big learning curve that has to be worked out in those situations. One other thing I’ve been wanting to do for years is a young adult graphic novel. I’ve had the story and done bits and pieces of art studies over the years, but I’ve never ramped up to actually make the thing. I hope to pull it off some day.

e: I hope you do too!

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