100 Scope Notes
Inside 100 Scope Notes

An Illustrated Interview with Matthew Cordell

Matthew Cordell is an author/illustrator I’m always checking for.

After providing his refined cartoon visuals to books written by Rachel Vail, Amy Gordon, and James Preller, he made waves (and garnered flattering reviews) authoring and illustrating 2009’s Trouble Gum. Matthew recently sat down to discuss his work, chewing gum preferences, and undying love of the Duggar family. In a groundbreaking twist, he kindly illustrated some of his answers.

Travis: If you had to write and illustrate a picture book about how you got into the business, what would you title it and why?

Matthew Cordell: Um… How about The Accidental Cartoonist?

I totally lucked into this biz. I never knew it was something I wanted to do until I was coerced to do it. But I thank my lucky stars every day that I found children’s lit. And that it’s let me in. Artistically, it saved me.

Got your creative juices flowing in a new way?

Totally. Discovering kids books, and the art within, yanked me out of a personal artistic funk I was in. And it put me on a whole new, endlessly rewarding career path.

Next up, we’ve got an illustrated question. I used a collaboration program called Twiddla for this, but it isn’t exactly what I’d call “user friendly”. How are your skills at drawing with a mouse?

My mouse drawing skills are painfully unsophisticated. And I never put time or money into the fancy tablet/stylus drawing tools. But this is a great idea, and for those I am game. So let’s shoot for “naive”, or at least, “funny”.

Okay, here goes (click on image to enlarge):

Ha – very nice! Speaking of pigs, your book Trouble Gum was one of my favorites of 2009. It’s a story that I think children can easily relate to. Did that story come from personal experience?

Hey, thanks! The story from experience–generally speaking, yes. Specifically speaking, no. First came an image–a pig blowing bubble gum bubbles.

I wrote about a dozen horrible wacky stories around that image before I came to one that ultimately worked. I realized if I pulled a bit from some personal stuff, it might develop more naturally. I have an older brother, and together we got into various shenanigans growing up. Nothing, like, “criminal record” or anything. Just, you know, rig some pillows to drop on Mom’s head when she walks through the door. That kinda stuff. Otherwise, I love drawing pigs. Love me some gum. Add it all up, and I got a book out of it.

The pillow over the door trick is a classic! In regard to your love of gum: Bazooka or Trident?

I don’t discriminate. I love a crispy piece of Eclipse when the breath is, shall we say, difficult. I love a good jaw-busting hunk of bazooka when I’m snacky, working, or hanging tough.

From reading your bio, it sounds like you didn’t initially plan to work in children’s lit. How did the transition work for you?

Sad to say, I didn’t give kids lit much thought until about February 2000 when I met Julie (my lovely wife who’s a school librarian and author). At that time, I was banking on success in graphic design or fine art. And after some success in both, I realized I didn’t want either. So I had a moment of self-doubt, with art in general. A “does any of this even matter?” period. But Julie convinced me to take a crack at some drawings for a picture book story she’d written. TOBY AND THE SNOWFLAKES. After a bit of arm-twisting (my arm), some research (surprisingly refreshed by some amazing kid book artists), and some experimentation (acrylic or graphite or colored pencil or watercolor or…), I turned out a new style and some sample drawings for this pitch. Long story short… that book got published by Houghton Mifflin, and the whole experience just lit me up.

I fell in love with this business–the art, the books, the people, and, perhaps above all, the audience. Never looked back. Nine years later, I’m doing it full-time (alongside stay-at-home Dad duty). A beautiful life.

Does being a dad affect the way you approach your job? I hear sleep-deprived hallucinations can do wonders for your creativity.

Well, my days of Vision-Questing are long gone.

And, thankfully (THANKFULLY) our daughter is now sleeping through the night. But, yeah, already, I find kid-parent moments where I think, “hey that might make a good book”.  Being a stay-at-home Dad makes working at home a challenge, for obvious reasons. But I don’t complain.

So which illustrators have influenced your work? Trouble Gum brought visions of William Steig to my mind – is he on that list?

Steig, absolutely. He’s my main man, so it’s nice to hear him and me in the same breath. Otherwise, in no particular order, are John Burningham, Jean-Jacques Sempe, Ian Falconer, Ludwig Bemelmans, Saul Steinberg, Marc Boutavant, Richard Thompson, Barry Blitt, and Anthony Browne to name a few.

Do you have a favorite Steig title?

I have a few, if that’s ok. I love SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE because it’s a sharp-as-a-tack story and it’s just classic beautiful Steig. But I also love GORKY RISES because I’ve always wanted to fly like that, and AMOS AND BORIS because I love how he draws (in this order) the whale, the mouse, the sea, and how the art’s created in separations (therefore a limited palette) and not in his usual full-color approach.

How does it compare when you write and illustrate a book yourself (Trouble Gum) to when you illustrate an author’s story (James Preller on Mighty Casey)?

TROUBLE was a dream realized–my first author-illo book. So I never quite knew what it’d be like til then. I found it to be incredibly liberating. When I’m illustrating someone else’s story, there’s a bit of pressure (self-imposed) to do justice to that person’s baby. I’d hate to ever hear that the drawings I did for someone’s writing made that author unhappy. However, if it’s something I’ve written, I’m out to please number 1, so I’ve certainly got that covered. Or not, actually. I’m incredibly critical of my own work.

I would say all of those count. Hey, I noticed a novel coming out soon that you’re illustrating, Justin Case. What can readers expect from that?

For JUSTIN CASE, I’m teaming up again with super-talented Rachel Vail (we’ve also done a picture book together, RIGHTY AND LEFTY). It’s a pitch-perfect hilarious story of a full-tilt third grade worry wart, told through journal-esque day-to-day writings from the kid himself. It’s padded out with good solid friends, friends in question, frenemies, and family–for better or for worse. It’s very cool. Lots of drawings peppered throughout.

Sounds like something in my wheelhouse. Any author/illustrator projects coming up?

I’m currently writing and illustrating my next picture book, ANOTHER BROTHER.

It’s about a family of sheep that very quickly goes from only child status to near-Duggar proportions by adding another twelve kids. Or lambs, I guess they are. Of course, hilarity ensues. I will say I was only, maybe, subconsciously inspired by those TLC shows, cause I hadn’t seen them when this idea bubbled up. Now, however, Julie and I are glued to the Duggs.

I’m more of a What Not to Wear fan myself, but to each his own.

Thanks for taking my questions Matt – this was fun!

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Love his stuff. Another Brother looks great. Thanks for the interview!

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