Caldecott-winning author-illustrator Matthew Cordell discusses the Cornbread and Poppy series.
Cordell draws from his personal experiences to create playful and adventurous stories that kids will love. With Cornbread and Poppy, he focuses on building a cozy and entertaining world for beginning readers to explore.
Matthew Cordell talks about:
- His motivation for creating books for kids
- Using personal experiences and observations to create stories
- Shifting towards writing fun adventures as an escape from darker themes in children’s literature
- Improving writing skills through reading books for young readers, being around kids, and being immersed in the world of publishing
- Showing, not telling in picture book storytelling
- His love for loose and expressive art, particularly in pen and ink and watercolor
- The characters of Cornbread and Poppy and how their contrasting traits complement each other
- Creating endings that leave a lasting impact on readers
- The friendship between Cornbread and Poppy and how they overcome their differences to make each other feel better
- Providing a cozy and humorous world for readers to escape into while also pleasing both adult and child readers
We hope you enjoy listening to this interview about his creative process!
Listen to the Interview
Read the Interview
Well, hi, Matthew. Welcome to the Growing Readers podcast.
Thanks for having me.
It’s an absolute pleasure. Before we jump right into talking about your Cornbread and Poppy series, which I love, let’s spend a moment getting to know you a little bit. So, I want to start with something simple. What does a typical weekday look like for you?
I’m pretty all over the place, I guess. My wife and I have a 14-year-old and a nine-year-old; excuse me, ten-year-old just turned ten. And my wife works from home sometimes, and I have a little studio not far from home, so we’re both pretty flexible, so it can change on any given day. Who’s dropping off the kids at school? Who’s picking them up? So, it’s all over the place from day to day. But I usually try in the mornings to take care of emails and administrative things, and then in my afternoons, I do the fun stuff, the writing, the drawing, and stuff like that at my drawing table. But there’s not really any formula for any given day. It’s kind of a mixed bag. And then, if I have a school visit or a festival to get to, that, of course, changes everything as well. So, I kind of like it that way. Every day is a little different, which makes it more interesting.
Yeah, I love it. I noticed that you kind of said it seems like you get the administrative stuff of your day out of the way. Is that so you can kind of clear the mind so that when you do get the opportunity to be creative, you can?
Yeah, I think so. And I think I get sort of behind on my emails and stuff, so I try to designate a time where I’m kind of just clearing them out. And I’ve gotten pretty bad at emails, I must say. I don’t know; maybe other people are bad at them, too, but I always feel bad because I lose track of things, and I’m not the most organized person, which is probably what this is kind of adding up to sound like. But I try to stay on top of things. But the emails are kind of my Achilles heel. And I often get follow-up emails, like just checking to make sure you got that message. So, it’s not my favorite part of the day, but I know that it’s better to get emails than it is not to get them, so they’re good to have.
Yeah. I did an Instagram Live with author Josh Funk, and he asked me a random question and said, do you check your spam folder? And I was like, oh, my gosh, I barely have time to check my regular folders, let alone my spam folder. But ever since he asked me that question, I definitely have given a little more attention to my spam folder. And sometimes I’m surprised by what’s in there.
Yeah, occasionally, something important will get into the spam, and you’ll either not find it for a long time, or it’s just gone forever. So, I do try to do that occasionally, but sometimes it’s a good excuse. Oh, I’m sorry. Your message was in my spam box. That’s why I’m so late getting back to you.
Well, now I’m not going to believe you, Matthew, if you ever say my email was in my spam folder.
My dirty secret.
All right. Well, then, that’s your weekdays. What’s something that you look forward to on the weekends?
Oh, just family time of any kind. My oldest is into musical theater, so there’s often some rehearsals and stuff that they have to get to, but we like to go to museums or go, like, this time of year, like an apple orchard or just hang out and kind of watch movies or play Nintendo Switch together. So, sleeping in a little late, a little bit later than on the weekdays. So, it’s just sort of relaxing. Family time is what I really look forward to. That time when no one’s at school. We’re all just kind of, for the most part, at home and together, doing things together. Definitely lots of family time on the weekends.
Yeah. That’s awesome. So, I would love to know now you, at this point, have created a bunch of books for kids; what is it that motivates you? What guides you? What drives you to create books for kids?
Well, a lot of times, I kind of draw on my own experiences. Early in my career, I was thinking in terms of storytelling. I was thinking about what I remember from my own childhood. I wasn’t a dad at the time, and I didn’t have a lot of kids in my life at that time when I first got started. So, I was sort of drawing on my own childhood and thinking about funny things that might have happened or unusual or maybe even things that are common amongst children that kids might relate to.
And then, as I became a dad, it sort of shifted, and I started thinking more in terms of my experiences, observing childhood from an adult’s perspective. And I started writing books about things that my kids would do or say that were interesting. And I was doing more and more school visits, so something at a school visit might inspire me, something a kid might say to me. So, I sort of started looking at storytelling from that side.
And then now I feel like in my recent work, I guess I’m kind of responding to the work that I’ve done previously because I did sort of a stretch of books that were more serious and somber, books about alienation or prejudice, or even did a book about death. And I started to want to just tell sort of fun, light, enjoyable, enjoyable stories that kids would just sort of be able to escape into. I think we’re living in a time, and we have been living in a darker time where a lot of things can be addressed through picture books and books for young readers. And I was doing that, but I kind of wanted to escape from that.
And that’s where I’m at now. I’m kind of writing and illustrating books that are adventures or mysteries or things like that. And that’s kind of what I’m enjoying doing now because not only am I creating these books, but I also need to read them to large groups of children and families and parents and teachers. And reading those books can take a toll as well because you have to have these serious conversations. So, I’m really enjoying just writing kind of fun adventures and things that are, like I said, escapes from the darkness, the dark reality that we’re confronted with a lot of times. And a lot of books, I think, are addressing that as well. So, I don’t feel like I need to be another voice in that area.
So, it’s nice to kind of contribute to this other side of getting kids out of that for a little while, and their parents as well, because the parents and the caregivers and the adults are the ones that are reading these picture books with the younger person that they’re with or people that they’re with. So, it becomes that sort of escape experience for all of us. So that’s where I’m at now, and that’s where I’ve been for the last couple of years, and I’m still in that space currently with the books that I’m making now.
I love that, as a mom of three kids, those moments when you get to sit side by side and cozy up in bed right before bedtime, and you pick up a book, and there’s just a really nuanced, joyful moment that’s just gentle and it makes you smile, and it makes you laugh. And we’re going to go further into the Cornbread and Poppy books, but I feel like that’s what I love about it. There’s these special moments that just do what you say, where it just brings that little bit of joy, and they’re just these nuanced moments that you can just kind of look at each other and go, yeah, I get that too.
So, in terms of when you first began creating books, you’re an artist, and you’re also a writer. So, if you think back to childhood, what do you think it was that came to you first? Just the desire to create art, or did you always have a desire to tell stories? Which one came first for you?
Definitely art and drawing. I wasn’t really making stories. I wasn’t writing consciously with any kind of devotion until I was already an illustrator of picture books. And so, I enjoy writing, and I have at different times of my life and growing up, but I’ve always loved to draw, and that’s been the kind of continuous thread through my entire life.
Some of my earliest memories, actually, are sitting at the dining room table with my older brother and drawing Star Wars characters because when we were born, the first Star Wars movies were coming out. So that was a big deal. It was such an explosion in pop culture. So that was a big deal for us. So, we would just sit around and, just from memory, just draw, like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, Boba FET, and a lot of those early characters.
And then I remember this really validating moment. And I don’t remember exactly why I did this, but for some reason, I drew a picture of George Washington riding a horse—the first American president. And I was really little, so I don’t even know really how I knew about my brother. I wasn’t even in school. I was in maybe preschool. And my brother liked it so much that he took it into his class for a show and tell. And the teacher, he came back, and he was like, my teacher really loved that drawing. She was really impressed by your age and how you drew that. And I can remember feeling this gratification.
And that’s kind of what makes me draw. That’s not the only reason, but that’s what has kept me drawing. That kind of encouragement and the love from educators and teachers that give you that little nugget of keep going; you’re doing a good job. And that’s what’s kept me on that path, I think. That and just the love of creating and wanting to make a new picture all the time. I’ve always loved to draw. And then the writing side came much later, and that was really because I was drawing, I was illustrating books, and I’d never really thought about writing until it got into the world of publishing.
And then I started to think, like, wouldn’t it be cool if I could draw the pictures for a story that I also wrote? I could kind of do the entire thing. It took me years to be able to figure out what makes a good story—how to tell it and also, I think it really changed me when I became a dad. And it made things a lot make sense to me a lot more. And just reading more books, more books for young readers. Just constantly just really immersing myself in that world and just constantly reading other people’s books and being around a lot more kids and all those things together have made me a better storyteller and a better artist, too.
But I really struggled with the writing for years, and then things kind of slowly took hold in that area of crafting a good picture book text.
So, it sounds like, obviously, reading books by others really helped you shape and come into your writing and your storytelling. But was there any kind of piece of advice somebody gave you, or what do you think the moment was that clicked where you’re like, okay, I’ve got this? I can tell a story with words as well.
I think it really came with the very first book that I wrote and illustrated called Trouble Gum. And again, it was based on my childhood. I have an older brother, and we were very close growing up. And we like to do—my dad was kind of a big joke prankster guy. So that’s how we grew up, and just sort of we never got in any big trouble, but we like to play little pranks on people. So that book kind of touches on that. These two brothers they’re pigs, and it’s a rainy day. They’re stuck inside, and they have a pack of bubble gum that they get from their grandmother. And it kind of becomes this big, weird thing where it starts out, they kind of chew the gum, and then they get it stuck places, but then they start blowing these giant bubbles that lift them up into the air. So, it gets kind of crazier and crazier.
I had written a version of it, and I was sharing it with my editor, Liz, at Macmillan; she liked my illustrations first and foremost, but she liked sort of the basic structure of the story and the characters, but she knew that it needed quite a bit of work. But they put it under contract, they took it, and I was really excited about that, knowing this needs some work, but we want to do this with you.
And so, I don’t know if this is going to sound really simple, but I also worked with another editor, Rebecca Davis, and I had written sort of a longer story. And Rebecca basically just—you know, this is a thing that I probably should have known already, but she was like, you know, you’re writing things that the pictures are already telling. You’re writing storytelling that the pictures are doing, and you don’t need both all the time. And she just basically said, think about showing, not telling because that’s an important part of picture book storytelling and just that simple advice that, again, I probably should have known. I probably should have picked that up somewhere.
But that was a huge moment for me because I could really just start extracting text, entire sentences, even pulling that out. And it became such a clear moment for me to think of a story; when you’re crafting both parts of the story, think of it as the pictures and the words working simultaneously, hand in glove, and they’re helping each other tell this story. It’s not like a novel; you need all this descriptive writing, dialogue, and explanation. Picture books are unique in that way, where a lot of the storytelling is carried on through the art.
And so, when you write a picture book text, you kind of have to write it with that in mind. So, when you read a picture book text, for instance, when I read a picture book text by another author, it’s very sparse. But I can already picture in my mind how I’m going to tell this part of the story, how I’m going to add to this part of the story to get across this point or get across this plot point, this description. So that was a big turning point for me, just kind of figuring out and understanding how the text and the pictures tell the story together.
Well, while your art style is uniquely yours for me, when I look at it, I often get nostalgic feelings of artwork from books that I read as a child. So, I’m wondering, who are the artists that have been the biggest influences on you as a children’s book illustrator?
I think I’m really drawn to artists who draw and paint very loosely, are not super realistic, are not very controlled, and are really expressive in the lines that they draw or the brushwork that they’re painting. Brushstrokes. So, I started out when I was illustrating illustration wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t something that I thought I would be doing. I was a fine artist, and I was also working in the world of graphic design. So, I was doing commercial art, but I guess for the adult world mostly. And it wasn’t until I met my wife Julie, who is a writer. She writes mostly young adult fiction, but she wrote a picture book, and I illustrated it. That was our first book together. It was called Toby and the Snowflakes.
And Julie sort of proposed the idea to me: why don’t we try to get a book published? Why don’t I write something? And she’s saying this to me: why don’t I write something, and you illustrate it, and we’ll try to get it published? So, I wasn’t super into the idea because I didn’t remember or think about children’s books for a long time, and I didn’t really know what they were. And I thought I was sort of stuck on the idea of making art for people like me, adults. She started showing me all these books, both from her childhood and contemporary picture books. And it really opened my eyes to how expressive and experimental people could be with the art.
I think I thought it all had to be very polished and sort of wholesome. And there’s just a lot of things happening in picture books that I really had no idea, and I was very dismissive of, and it really opened up my mind about what could be done. And in those early days, the artists I was and still the artists I still love are very loose pen and ink and watercolor. Artists like William Stieg, Arnold Lobel, Quentin Blake, Jules Pfeiffer, Bernard Waber. A lot of that is just really rough, gestural, organic drawing. And that’s kind of how I was working as an artist. It wasn’t as cartoon-like as these artists draw, but it was very loose drawing, simple drawing, and color. It was a natural progression for me to think maybe I should work with these materials.
And so, I did a bunch of different studies using different things, you know, pastels and graphite and acrylic paint. And I kept coming back to the ink drawings. I just really liked how unforgiving ink is. And sometimes the best things happen in those moments where you think it’s a mistake, but it actually looks cool. And I feel like in those moments; I sort of learn something about what it is that I like or what it is that I can do and wasn’t thinking about doing. I still look at a lot of those artists. I still love a lot of their books, and I still am inspired by them.
You know, there’s a lot of great contemporary illustrators as well. And some of my favorites now are—Catia Chien is an amazing illustrator. I feel like she’s constantly doing different things, working in different mediums. And David Ezra Stein does about the same thing. He works in different ways. I could go on. My friends Philip and Erin Stead work in different ways. They do some printmaking; they do some drawing and painting.
So, I just love things that are loose and expressive. There’s just so many ways to make art in picture books, and it’s endlessly inspiring to me to see how different people choose different ways to do that. I feel like I try to do that myself. I mostly pretty much exclusively work in pen and ink and watercolor, but I do try to mix up the drawing style from time to time, which I’ve been doing in recent years, more so just trying to keep it interesting and different and not get bored with myself.
Yeah, that’s awesome. When you were talking about sort of the permanence of ink and that you like that, and sometimes some of the magic happens in the things you weren’t planning. And one of my favorite kids’ books, it’s an older one, not super old, but definitely older. And it’s by Barney Saltzberg. And it’s called Beautiful Oops. And it’s just all the little art mistakes that get how they actually turn into something beautiful. I always loved reading that with my kids when they were younger.
Yeah, we love that one too.
Yeah, it’s a goodie, so when I was thinking about that, does anything come to mind that has been sort of your favorite beautiful oops in your own artwork, where I’m sure it happens just sort of randomly, but is there one moment that you were just like, oh, I didn’t think of that?
I think one thing I’ve done is I tend to draw when I’m making watercolor, so I draw everything in ink first. When I’m ready to do all the final pictures, I will draw everything in ink first, circle back to the beginning, and then paint everything in watercolor. So, I’m working in pen and ink and watercolor. And when I’m doing the ink drawings, I will sort of scratch a little test scratch, not a drawing in the margins, but I’ll kind of get my pen ready, and I’ll do some little scribbles in the margins. And when I do the watercolor, sometimes I’ll have little blobs of paint in the margin.
So, I’ve kind of used that the way that by the end of the picture, there’s like just all kinds of random marks and blobs around the edges of the picture. So, I haven’t really found a way to use that. But I feel like it’s the looseness of that and the kind of spontaneity of it. And it’s not really a picture, but sometimes I’ll draw a little quick picture just to kind of loosen up my hand so all of that together looks a little look very strange and sort of surreal and textured. I kind of see that, and I want my drawings to look like that. So, I kind of use that as inspiration to be as loose and as spontaneous and as sort of random and free as that.
It’s an interesting thing because making those marks, it’s all sort of like throwaway marks, but when they come together, it’s sort of the beauty of that. And I think that’s sort of a little bit about what Beautiful Oops touches on is that something happens that is unintentional, and you look at it, and it’s sort of ugly, and it’s sort of a mistake. But there’s a beauty to it that you didn’t know you liked, or you didn’t know that was a thing that you could do. It’s constantly happening sort of in the margins. As strange as it sounds, I try to make my pictures have that sort of quality as well, that looseness and freshness and that free, uninhibited vibe about it.
Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, I have a lot of admiration for anybody who works in watercolor because I’ve dabbled in the little kitty home kits like the Crayola. I’m like, I cannot pull that off. So, there’s a Klutz Watercolor Scholastic book that gives a few little lessons, and that helped me a little bit. But I’m going to leave the watercolors to the experts.
Right? Yeah. Pen and ink and watercolor they’re both these very unforgiving mediums. And I don’t know, I guess it doesn’t bother me, or I just kind of lean into that. But I think sort of the interesting thing, too, is that I went to school, and I took drawing and painting and printmaking, but I never took any specific class in pen and ink or watercolor. So, it was just kind of I’m sort of self-taught in both, and I had many years where it was just trying to figure out why this isn’t working or trying to figure out why this is so hard.
And I kind of think it worked to my advantage in some ways just because I was doing things that probably weren’t supposed to be done or not the suggested way of going about it and discovering things that I liked that were maybe unorthodox or different from sort of the tried-and-true method. But, yeah, I guess I made it difficult on myself by not really knowing how to use these materials. But I think it’s been okay.
It’s definitely been okay. It’s more than okay. Well, let’s get into your Cornbread and Poppy series. So, I would love for you to share a little bit about who Cornbread and Poppy are, where the idea for these characters even came from, and then, of course, how you came up with their names.
As I said, my wife and I, Julie, worked together on that one book, and it was Julie’s first book and my first illustrated picture book. I had illustrated one novel before that, but Toby and the Snowflakes came out in 2004, and we’ve never worked together since. Julie sort of went more into young adult fiction, and I stayed in picture books, and there was never really another opportunity that came about to make another book. And there was this sort of random moment in time when Julie was thinking about maybe writing another book, and she was jotting down some ideas, and she had these two; she was thinking of two friends, and they were named Cornbread and Poppy. And so, she was like, do you want to make a book together, try to get something published again?
So I was, like, drawing some sketches. I think we both thought they should be animals, and so they were just great names. I should say that Cornbread as a character name is just hilarious. Poppy is sort of the more subdued, but it’s still very fun and playful. It’s a sweeter name, and it’s kind of a name that you might hear. Occasionally, I’ll find at a school visit or something, there will be a poppy in the audience, but there’s never a Cornbread. So, I was drawing some different animal characters. I think I drew some pigs and a pair of pigs, a pair of dogs, and maybe a pair of mice, and then not much happened with it after that. I think we both got busy, and it didn’t really evolve too much.
And so, years went by, and I remember I was cleaning out my studio one day, and I came across those old sketches, and I really still liked the mouse one, so I posted it on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or whatever it was somewhere. Yeah, and maybe all three, I don’t know. But I had this editor, and she was like, because it had these two mice and sort of scribbled underneath was Cornbread and Poppy. And she was like, what is that? Cornbread and poppy? That’s hilarious. And is this something that you’re working on? And I said, well, it’s not, but it could be. I had some time to flesh out some new ideas. So, I was thinking maybe I’ll do it.
So, I asked Julie, I was like, would you mind if I took your awesome character names and tried to figure out a story with these two mice? And, of course, she’s a wonderful person. And she said, yes, I wrote this story. I wanted to do something. I’d done several picture books, and I wanted to kind of try something new, but nothing drastically new. I wanted to kind of still draw and still write, but maybe for a slightly older child. So, I was thinking, I’ve never done a beginning reader chapter book, and so maybe this could be known, sort of, in these two friends in sort of the legacy of can’t.
I don’t know if Arnold Lobel started the whole two-friends trope with Frog and Toad, George and Martha, and a lot of these very classic friendship series beginning readers, which other people have continued to do, like Elephant and Piggie, of course. And maybe this could be sort of a springboard for a series of stories. So, I grew up in sort of a more rural area. I grew up in South Carolina. I live in the Chicago area now. But I was picturing these two mice, sort of country-type mice, but also a small-town vibe.
I think I just started writing. This is sort of a story about things that they could do that were fun. As I mentioned earlier, just wanting to write a story that is an escape, something that just talks about something fun and funny. Lots of humor as well. I wrote a few different ideas down, and it sort of made sense that these two characters would be different from each other so that they like different things, but they still like each other.
And I guess if there’s one serious thing about these books, it’s really just that there’s this underlying theme that we can be friends with people who aren’t just like us. We can love them, and we can learn from them. And I feel like. A lot of times, as adults, we don’t do that. If someone’s not like us, we find ways to be mad about that and distance ourselves from those people. So, if there is one serious thing about it, it’s that sort of underlying message of acceptance and working with others and learning from others and appreciating others for their differences, not just for our similarities.
And so, Cornbread evolved into this. He’s more put together, more prepared. He’s very particular, and he doesn’t like adventure so much. He likes to learn, and he likes to research and be prepared. Poppy is very spontaneous and free, and she’s very outgoing and wants to be outside all the time and do fun, wild things. So Poppy is that, but because she’s free and spontaneous, she’s a lot of times unprepared. She’s not put together; she’s not organized. So those are her flaws. Cornbread is very organized and put together, but his flaws are that he can be a little kind of a stick in the mud. He doesn’t want to try new things. He doesn’t want to go and do exciting and spontaneous things. He can be a little bit more reserved and conservative in that way.
So, when you put them together, it’s sort of like their lesser parts fill in the parts where the other person is kind of doing more. So, they sort of even each other out nicely. I didn’t realize this until later when I’d already started writing, but I sort of subconsciously took my wife Julie’s good traits and sort of sprinkled her good traits over both characters. So, Julie is very she likes adventure. She likes she’s spontaneous. Well, she likes to plan trips and go out and seek adventure in those ways. But she’s also very organized, and I like to do things, but I don’t always like to prepare and plan. I’m kind of a curmudgeon in that way. So, I’m kind of the negative traits of both characters, and my wife is the good side of both.
It’s a strange, subconscious creation I made, but I love it. Yeah, they’re kind of based on our relationship in a weird way, but not super intentionally.
I love that. After reading the books, I totally can see that dynamic playing out. Well, there’s currently three books in the Cornbread and Poppy series, the latest obviously being Cornbread and Poppy at the Museum. So, as you said, they’re ideal for beginner readers, early readers, and those kids who are branching out on their own, not quite ready for a chapter book yet, but wanting something a little more than a picture book. So, I’m curious for you. What differences did you find in either writing art or even the layout and design of an early reader book versus your picture books?
The immediate difference really was just being able to write more in picture books. Like I was saying earlier, there’s this kind of subtraction process you go through as a writer where you eliminate text, and you’re kind of working towards not overwriting, but when you take it up to the next level of reading, you want there to be more reading. You want there to be more words; at least I did. There are some beginning reader books that are sparse in text, and I wanted to do something different, so I wanted to write a longer text. And looking at Frog and Toad is sort of my gold standard for beginning readers. And I think that Frog and Toad, Arnold Lobel, was like the most perfect writer.
His stories are just every word is so perfectly placed and chosen, and it’s a bit of a longer text, and that’s what I wanted to make. I think there’s kind of different approaches with beginning readers, but I was already writing a sparse text, so I wanted to write a fuller text but still have a lot of pictures. So that’s what these books turned into. It was interesting for me to be able to write more words, describing things, more character development through the words and world-building, describing the places they’re in, the characters they see, and how they get from point A to point B. Being able to draw that out more was a lot of fun for me because I could write every—normally, what I do is I write a lot in picture books, in my picture book text, and then I’ll go back and just start pulling things out.
But in this case, I could just write and write, and then it stays in. So, it was such a fun thing, and it’s been fun for me to make these stories because I know that I can kind of open myself up a bit more and not have to edit as much in terms of taking out sections or taking out the word count. And I love the idea, too, that these books are a bit longer and they’re sectioned off in chapters. So, in theory, a child could read one chapter a night. This could be a book that could be read over multiple sittings. And that seems fun to me, too. That’s a different way of reading a book. So, it was a fun exploration for me, and it has continued to be fun.
I’m sort of bubbling up in my mind these past several months. I’m sort of envisioning doing a middle grade novel now, so I’m kind of like, that’s exciting. Yeah, I think I’m ready to maybe take it to the next step up, age-wise, and maybe write something even longer. So, we’ll see if I can manage that. It’s a very different approach and skill set, but I like a challenge, so we’ll yeah, yeah.
That’s awesome. Well, I kind of feel as though, and I mean, there may be people listening here, and they’ll be, oh, no, Bianca, that’s wrong. But I wonder if you’re a middle grade author and you decide to write a picture book if that’s actually harder than if you’re a picture book author and you decide to write a middle grade book. Because I think to be able to dial in a story and tell it well in 600 words or less, it’s really hard.
And so now, when you move into writing a middle grade, you understand what the story needs to have to be a good story, but you have all this space to say more. But I wonder, when you write a middle grade story, like, how tricky that is to suddenly dial everything back. I don’t know. I don’t know which ones are harder, but I’m going to guess it’s harder to be a middle grade writer and then switch to picture books.
I would think so. I mean, picture books are deceptively simple, to begin with, and that’s why so many people sort of take a crack at writing one because there’s not a lot of text. But there’s so much more to it than not writing a lot. You have to first and foremost have a good idea, a good, well-conceived idea, but there’s definitely this sort of distilling process that goes into it where you would have to change your mindset to go from middle grade to picture book. That’s a good question.
I’ve never had that conversation with a middle grade author or any author of a longer book or novel. But that’s a good conversation to have, I think. What was it like writing a picture book? And what were the challenges? Did it come as easy as anticipated, or was it a lot harder? Because I would think it would be a huge learning curve, especially for the first time you attempted to write a picture book as a middle grade author. So, yeah, it would be a fascinating conversation.
I’m going to use Cornbread and Poppy at the Museum as an example. So, you described the characters, and Cornbread really wants to go to the museum in this story, but Poppy prefers the outdoors and camping, as you said, and she does not want to go to the museum. But Cornbread says, well, if you come, maybe I’ll go camping with you. And so, Poppy’s like, well, okay. And I’m not going to give away the ending because when you have a book with a good ending, you need to experience it for yourself.
But I love it when you can really tell the difference between a good book and an excellent book because a good book wraps up tidily. It’s got a really great beginning, middle, and end. But I think an excellent book leaves you with feelings inside, whether it’s sad, happy, mad, glad, or whatever. But when I got to the end of Cornbread and Poppy at the Museum, the ending made me smile. It made my heart feel warm. And so, I’m curious if you have a secret behind that. Are you somebody who knows your ending first, or do you just play with the story, and the ending comes? How do you get that ending so that your book moves from just being a good book to an excellent book?
Yeah, that’s a good question. Thank you, by the way. I really appreciate that. It’s a very thoughtful description of the book.
I don’t know. I think it’s a process. I usually start out with these books in particular; I start out with an environment or a situation. Whether it be there’s a springtime carnival or in the first book; there was this kind of food harvest preparation thing that happened and more of a winter book. And this, again, sort of is not an outdoor thing, but because it was going to be released in the fall, I’m thinking it could either be outside and cold or inside somewhere. And museums are just such an important part of—it’s such an important thing to me.
Museums of all kinds—art museums, natural history museums, science museums. I love art, so I’ve always loved art museums. But when I met Julie, she started introducing me to going to other museums. Museums are vast and mind-opening and just fun places to explore. They also open your eyes and mind to other people who visit museums because everyone seeks knowledge. So, there’s so many different people that come to museums, different races, different cultures. That is inspiring about museums, too.
So, I wanted to create this museum that had all these weird, unusual, sometimes funny things but also fill it with people that were characters themselves that were sort of interesting and fun and funny characters too. And I sort of poked fun at sort of the academia of museums, sort of like the geekiness of museums, people liking really specific strange things and liking certain exhibits that are unusual. It all comes from love because I love that, and I kind of consider myself one of those people, too.
And so, it starts out like that, and then I start thinking about where’s the conflict in this, though? Because I could see, like, Cornbread really liking a museum but Poppy not wanting one. And so, I’m thinking, like, what’s going to happen? Where will the wedge come in? Where will the problem come in? And I started to think like, well, maybe Cornbread loves this museum so much, and Poppy is sort of indifferent to it. But what could happen so that everyone at the museum loves Poppy? Cornbread loves the museum. He has all these friends there, and he likes that kinship. But Poppy goes, and she’s kind of like, I don’t know. This isn’t my thing. But then what could happen where everyone just loves Poppy—and Cornbread gets so upset about that?
And so, I don’t want to give away there’s all these different surprises that kind of evolved out of that moment when I was thinking, like, where can that problem happen? And when I started thinking that, I was thinking, oh, my gosh, there’s something I don’t want to say too much because the surprises are, so I think the surprises in this book, I want every book to have, every Cornbread and Poppy book to have little surprises where you turn the page, and you’re like, what? I wasn’t expecting that. And this one has some big moments like that something happens that causes this rift.
But they love each other so much that Cornbread is really upset, and Poppy can see that, so that becomes her priority, making Cornbread feel better because all he wanted was for her to like this experience, and it just becomes this day that really unravels under his feet. You come back to the heart of these books, which is really the strength of their friendship and the bond that they have, and being able to overlook differences and overlook ego and all those things so that they can make the other person feel better or be in a better place. So that’s where it sort of comes back around in the latter half of the book.
And then one thing that I like to do in all of the books is called a callback, where the very last page usually calls back a phrase or a moment from earlier in the book where you’re like, oh, yeah, I remember when Cornbread said that. But now it means something a little bit different. So that’s kind of similar. I don’t remember if I did that in Carnival or not. I may have, but that’s something I like to do at the end of stories a lot, is sort of like make it come full circle with a turn of phrase or just an expression or something like that that makes you feel like, oh, yeah, this is the end, and it feels right.
Yeah, well, I definitely felt that when I got to the end of when they go to the museum, it was very well done. So, you’ve definitely already touched on this, but sometimes it’s just nice to hear a summary. But in regard to the Cornbread and Poppy series, in regards to the Cornbread and Poppy stories, what do you hope that readers ultimately take away?
I think I want them to enjoy themselves reading these books, and I want them to feel a sense of warmth and coziness in this world that has humor, love, friendship, and community, nothing intimidating, nothing dark. And I just want them to have that experience of getting away from whatever it is that is going on in their life, to be submersed into this world of animals and community. And the whole world-building aspect of these books is something that I really kind of tried to craft—making this little town and all these little animals and the situations that they get into, and sort of a lot of weird random jokes in the background, sort of a lot of the things. But I just want them to enjoy it.
My hope is that it’s something that families enjoy. Adults will get a little bit of humor out of some of the things that I’ve put in there that kids might not fully see at first. And those are the fun moments for me when I hear that I’ve been hearing because this book just came out a couple of days ago, I get these interesting comments on Instagram and people saying, I’m a teacher, and my kids just love these books, and they ask me when’s the next one coming out. But I love reading them, too. I think they’re hilarious. I love that.
And that’s one of the things that I think someone who makes books for young readers has to be conscious of. It has to kind of seek out and try to do, is to please these two very different brains, an adult brain and a child’s brain. You want to satisfy them both because, you know, they’re both reading it. You don’t want an adult to be reading your book and just be, oh, this is so corny, this is so bad. I don’t think I can read this anymore after this time. You want them to want to read it again. You want them to continue to enjoy it, multiple readings, and even want to read the next book, want to read the sequel, or the next part of the series.
So, I love those moments when I hear from adults, parents, teachers, or anyone else because those are the people that you hear from on Instagram. You don’t hear from the little ones.
I love it when they tell me that they enjoy them together. They enjoy these little pockets of adventure and escape 80 pages of pictures. It really puts them in that world, and they laugh, and they want to see what happens on the next page. So those are sort of the moments of redemption and all this just hearing those kinds of comments.
Yeah. That’s awesome. And will there be more Cornbread and Poppy stories?
Yeah. So, there’s another one. I just finished drawing it this summer. It’s called Cornbread and Poppy for the Win.
So, it’s a fun story. It’s outside. We’re outside again. And it’ll be out in the spring. So, it’s a nice outdoor spring-summer story. And got to put them in bike helmets and gear and stuff like that. So that was fun. And so, I don’t know beyond that if there will be more. But there’s definitely a fourth one, and that’ll be out. I’m not sure exactly, but it will definitely be in the spring or early summer.
Fantastic. I can’t wait. We definitely can’t just leave without giving a shout-out to your picture book Evergreen because of the buzz that it’s been getting. It’s got a gazillion starred reviews. It’s been heralded as one of the best picture books of 2023. So, in a nutshell, do you want to share a little bit about Evergreen?
Yeah, Evergreen is kind of a love letter to a different time in picture book making. It’s a longer picture book text. It’s funny; I’ve been talking about pulling words out of your picture book text, but I wanted to write a longer text. A lot of picture books from years past are longer, and it has a different vibe like you’re telling a long folk story or fairy tale. So, I kind of went at it like that. I wanted to tell this longer yarn of a story.
Again, I’m still in that space where I want to make these cozy stories with not just animal characters. I mean, I’m doing other things too. But Evergreen is about a squirrel, and she’s afraid, and she has to go on this journey across the forest in order to deliver some soup to Granny Oak. And so, it’s this story where it’s like a quest story. So, she goes from one problem to the next until every problem sort of turns your mind around. She meets, for instance, a rabbit, this nice, fluffy white rabbit. And you think, oh, so it’s a rabbit. It’s going to be very sweet and nice, and it ends up being like a rabbit that tries to steal the soup.
So, a lot of the things that happen to her are these sorts of surprises. I like being surprised when I’m a reader. I like not to be able to predict when something happens. So, as a writer, I want to make those moments happen. So, by the end of it, the biggest surprise of all happens when she gets to Granny Oak’s House with the soup. And I won’t spoil the surprise, but I wanted that to be this moment where the rug is pulled out from under you in terms of what your expectations were. And it’s just so much fun, I think, being surprised like that, to read a story and something really unexpected happens. And so that’s what I wanted to do in this book.
And so, the illustrations, too, I did a lot more drawing. I’m sort of like a throwback to sort of vintage illustration where there’s, like, intricate borders around everything and maybe even a subdued, limited color palette. And so, it has this sort of old-school fairy-tale folktale vibe in storytelling and the pictures, but there’s also lots of things that I sort of wove into it that make it feel contemporary and the humor and the facial expressions and things like that. So, I think what I try to do is just a nice blend of classic and contemporary and still have that warm, cozy vibe to it.
And so, it’s been fun to share and read, and yeah, I’ve been really appreciative of the response to the book. It’s been a great year for it.
Yeah, that’s fantastic. It’s always so nice when a book does have that contemporary and then nostalgic feeling about it. I definitely love that in a picture book. Well, Matthew, I just want to take a minute to give a shout-out to Julie because I feel like she was a big star of our conversation.
Yeah. I still want to know from her one day how the name Cornbread came to be because it’s brilliant. So, shout out to Julie, and just thank you so much for always creating books that manage to satisfy the mind and the heart really deeply because I think that’s magical. And you do that with both your words and your artwork. So, thank you so much for putting what you do out into the world. And thank you so much for being on the show today.
Oh, my pleasure. That’s very kind. I appreciate that.
About the Book
Written and Illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Ages 4+ | 80 Pages
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | ISBN-13: 9780759554870
Publisher’s Book Summary: Caldecott medalist Matthew Cordell debuts his first early reader series about two best friends who are as different from each other as can be.
Cornbread LOVES planning. Poppy does not. Cornbread ADORES preparing. Poppy does not. Cornbread IS ready for winter. Poppy…is not. But Cornbread and Poppy are the best of friends, so when Poppy is left without any food for the long winter, Cornbread volunteers to help her out. Their search leads them up, up, up Holler Mountain, where these mice might find a new friend…and an old one. Celebrating both partnership and the value of what makes us individuals, young readers will find this classic odd-couple irresistible as they encounter relatable issues with humor and heart.
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Matthew Cordell is the author and illustrator of many celebrated picture books, including Hello, Neighbor!: The Kind and Caring World of Mister Rogers and Wolf in the Snow, recipient of the 2018 Caldecott Medal. As an illustrator, he has collaborated with many more authors, including Gail Carson Levine, Philip C. Stead, and Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Matthew lives with his wife, author Julie Halpern, and their two children in suburban Chicago.
For more information about Matthew Cordell and his books, visit https://www.matthewcordell.com/.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Matthew Cordell Talks About the Cornbread and Poppy Series. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Subscribe or Follow Now.