When an early career in graphic design hit a dead end, Matthew Cordell’s wife, writer Julie Halpern, suggested they collaborate on a picture book. Today, after nearly two decades of illustrating picture books for other writers and creating several of his own, including Caldecott’s winner wolf in the snow (2017)—Cordell began a series of early readers about two mouse friends named Cornbread and Poppy. Denser and more complex than her picture books, they play off Poppy’s exuberance against Cornbread’s natural caution, but not always. In Corn and Poppy Bread, which was released in January, Poppy’s inability to stock up on winter food leads them on a foraging trip to the spooky Holler Mountain. In Corn Bread and Poppy at Carnival (June), the two friends share the traditional carnival thrills and discover that Poppy isn’t as carefree as she looks. TP spoke with Cordell about the possibilities of early readers, the appeal of quirky characters, and a near-disaster with lots of artwork.
When writing to an early reader, is there a list of pointers or a vocabulary list given to you before you begin?
Not really, surprisingly. I kind of expected that. What I did was I just wrote a manuscript, using much the same approach as writing a picture book, but with more words. I’ve broken it down into chapters so each has a beginning and a cliffhanger moment, or punchline. My son is old enough to start reading, so I was listening to what you can or can’t do. It was kind of plug-and-play, in terms of writing. It wasn’t a huge amount of adjustment in sentence structure or word complexity.
What did you learn about the mechanics of a first drive? It’s different from picture books in terms of pacing and page turning.
Right. There are still things going on. The drama of the turned page—this I wanted to include, but yeah, there’s a lot more text on each board, so it was a different balance. I like being able to get away from the “say nothing” approach, because at this point in the reading, you want to show and to tell about.
With picture books, I end up writing a longer manuscript and then going back and pruning it. With an early reader, I can leave a lot. It’s fun to be able to work with the words more and not have to edit myself.
What kind of research did you do before you started?
I was just reading a lot of first readers, and it seemed like there were two different camps. One type is quite sparse in the text, as Mo Willems does. There are many pages, but not much text on the page. And then there’s the kind of heavy, chapter-based text, almost like short stories, and that’s what I wanted to do. I imagined that the child might not read all of a sudden. I wanted it to be a more complete world, with more descriptive text, more character development, and more world building, and to me, you can’t really do that with a book that has fewer words. I knew I wanted to write a longer book, and it is a longer book; I work with 80 pages.
In Corn Bread and Poppy at Carnival, carnival scenes attract a lot of visual attention. Do you have your own childhood memories of carnivals?
I’ve been to more of them as an adult. My wife loves circus culture and carnivals, so before we had kids we used to go to all of those things together. The story started as a circus book. The circus is in steady decline, however, and it has been suggested to me that it should be made more like a carnival. Every town has a carnival – the junk food and the colorful characters and the community atmosphere.
It reminds Charlotte’s webthe scenes with Fern and Avery halfway through.
Snacks, right, and Templeton gorging on all the junk food! You lean over it. You eat the sweet fried stuff.
The carnival lends itself so much to illustrations; you don’t have to think too much about the background because it already exists. When you start with a town and houses, there’s a lot more to it. With a carnival, we find the old standards: the roller coaster, the Ferris wheel, the game stand. And it’s colorful too, it really pops off the page.
I based the Ferris wheel on the huge wheel of London, the London Eye – it has these fully enclosed modules, little oval-shaped gondola-like things.
Carnival is exotic in itself. And a boost to the excitement is the different sized animals involved. The rides were big enough for the mice.
Like the drawing of tiny Cornbread and Poppy in their huge Ferris wheel seat?
I have to take my hat off to my editor, Stephanie Lurie, for sizing relationships. At first, the animals were of different sizes, but not completely proportional. It’s too hard to have a mouse next to an elephant and see the mouse. At first, the proportions were skewed even more towards the same size, and she said, “You should really increase the volume of the gap.” This ended up making it more playful and fun.
After this first great adventure in Corn and Poppy Breaddid you feel it was time to change gears and take a closer look at these two characters in this evocative setting?
Well, what’s interesting is that this book, the carnival book, was not the second book. It was planned to be the first book. I can’t even remember the specifics, but due to late fall and early winter release schedules, the self-titled book came out first.
And there was also another complication. Originally, these books were signed to be Disney Hyperion, but ended up at Little, Brown. And I had a few different editors while I was still at Disney Hyperion. One of my editors, Rotem Moskovich, left shortly after I finished Carnival, then I worked with Stéphanie Lurie, who is still there, and Mary-Kate Gaudet is my current editor at Little, Brown. They were all wonderful collaborators. They each had a hand in this world and these characters.
Mary-Kate was a joy to work with. We really have each other’s sense of humor, we just like the same things a lot. She laughs at things that I hope people will laugh at.
What were his contributions?
The one that stuck in my mind was that she was very fond of Old Larry, who is a grumpy pig. He was not in Corn and Poppy Bread when I delivered that one, and she said, “What’s going on? I want more Old Larry! We don’t know much about him, he just appears. It was a funny moment for me, that she liked Old Larry. There are those weird moments that maybe haven’t been in more classic books.
Do you feel more Poppy, or more Cornbread?
It’s interesting because they’re both based on my wife and me, but not completely. What I did was kind of an unconscious thing…all the positive character traits are Julie, and all the negative personality traits are me. Cornbread is very prepared and above all but he is more worried. Poppy is more adventurous, and she procrastinates and isn’t on top of daily necessities. Julie is by far the most prepared person, and she’s also the adventurous, fun-loving type. I have more apprehension and a procrastinator.
Is it a challenge to get the characters to show different sides of themselves and not fall into the same typical behaviors?
I wanted Poppy to be the bravest. It’s not like 50 years ago when all the books were about brave boys and sweet girls, but I think it’s important to have a male designer writing strong, confident female characters, and I try to do this as often as possible. I have many strong and brilliant women in my life; it’s not like I have to put in the effort to make it a reality!
But in Carnival I wanted to return it. I didn’t want it to be too predictable. Cornbread comes to the rescue – and when you least expect it.
Did Corn Bread and Poppy at Carnival take longer to draw and write than Corn and Poppy Bread?
I think so…the backgrounds in particular, there was a lot more to work with. There are some big spreads of a lot of rides, and even a spread that isn’t even into the carnival, the barn dance. This one took still. The pages are smaller, and they are distributed differently, but it’s still an 80-page book.
Side story: because there was so much drawing to do on this book – and that was years ago, when I was doing it – I was traveling a lot for events related to the book, and so I was transporting the art everywhere, I was working on it in my hotel room, carrying it from plane to plane. One morning, I was boarding very early, and I passed the artwork through security, and I went to have breakfast, and I sat down to eat it, and I looked down and l work was not there. I almost had a panic attack. It was so drawn! I thought, “If I can’t find it, I’ll have to start all over again!”
Then I thought, maybe I left it at security? Maybe I didn’t take it off the belt? And there it was. It’s the most terrifying moment I’ve ever had. How am I going to tell the publisher that I lost all that art?
There’s a letting go quality to both of these stories, compared to some of your more recent work, of completely immersing yourself in the possibilities of the characters. Was it a conscious decision?
One thing that stands out from the early readers format is the trope of two characters: Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Elephant and Piggy – there are so many. It works so well, and I thought I’d do it too. These two solid characters, what are they going to be for each other?
Many of the picture books I’ve done are more serious, even, sometimes tackling socio-political topics in different ways – hopefully in subtle ways – but I had just done a picture book about death, and I was ready to walk away from any kind of deeper meaning. I just wanted them to be adventures, like a little trip you take with these characters.
Will we see more Cornbread and Poppy?
Yeah, I just signed on for two more books, and I’m working on the third right now.
What happens in the new story?
The one I’m writing now is about a museum. I entered into a more complex vocabulary since it was a museum. My editor asked me to tone it down a bit…I got carried away.
Do you ever get stuck?
Good question! I feel quite inspired in terms of what the characters are going to do, what kind of problems they find themselves in, adventures and how they are solved. If there’s anything that worries me in terms of creating a series, it’s that it’s running out of steam – probably the way many creators feel if they create more than one story about a character. Luckily, I’m still pretty early. I draw a lot from my own life, the people in my life and the things I love to do, and the well is pretty deep. I try not to hurt myself! But I feel pretty good right now that I can make more stories.
Corn Bread and Poppy at Carnival by Matthew Cordell, Little, Brown, $15.99 Jun 21 ISBN 978-0-7595-5489-4