Javaka Steptoe and Matthew Cordell: A Caldecott Conversation
Today we have something special. Our past two Caldecott Medal winners, Javaka Steptoe (Radiant Child) and Matthew Cordell (Wolf in the Snow) interviewing each other about their lives, work, and how the most prestigious award in picture books has changed their lives. Over the last couple months, Steptoe and Cordell traded questions and responses. Here is their conversation.
Javaka Steptoe: Before we begin, did you know that Wolf in the Snow’s editor, Liz Szabla, also worked on my first book, In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall?
Matthew Cordell: I knew you had a connection to Liz! I think that’s fantastic. This is one of my favorite parts of this business. How it often feels so small and familial at times like this. And knowing how one person can be connected to the success of many. Also knowing how so many wheels are turning and folks are working together at all times to achieve.
Steptoe: How did you start drawing and how was your artistic development nurtured?
Cordell: Some of my earliest memories are of sitting at our family’s kitchen table and drawing. My older brother and I were kids of the late 70’s and early 80’s, so we were really into Star Wars and trying to draw Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and the like.
We had some neighbor kid friends who were a few years older than us. They were into Star Wars too, but they also had some Batman and Superman comics that they gave us, so we quickly fell into that too. I can remember getting older, up through middle school, and trying to copy covers of X-men and Spiderman. I loved Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.
These were my earliest dips into art. As I went into high school, I had the good fortune of studying under a teacher who took art much more seriously than I ever knew it could be. She introduced her students to a lot of fine art and artists, and approaches that were a lot more intense and academic in nature– observational and figure drawing and lots of techniques and art supplies I had never known. It was all really eye opening.
As I got older, my brother and I both kept an interest in art and that inspired us both to keep going. But his interest tapered off in our high school years. My interest only intensified. However, our parents were not at all interested in art. They were proud of me and my dedication to it, but they didn’t fully understand it, or know specifically how to encourage me to keep going. It was a string of wonderful and supportive teachers and college professors that carried me along in that way. Honestly, I think my Dad would have preferred I’d gone into medicine or something. He was a lifelong mechanic and he wanted me to study hard and do something with my brain that would bring in lots of big, comfortable money. Something where I didn’t have to endure hard physical labor like he did his entire life. Alas, I became an artist. I know a bit about you and your family, with your Dad being a celebrated children’s book artist.
I imagine your story is much different from mine. Were you encouraged by him to go into “the family business” as it were? Was your mother also an artist in some way?
Steptoe: Interestingly enough much of your story resonates with mine. I also was a child in the 70’s and 80’s influenced by Star Wars and comics, but with a younger brother who was my drawing partner until about middle school. We would go back and forth creating stories, superheroes, and battling over who could draw the best dinosaurs. But being 3 years apart, once I began going to middle school and becoming more mature, our relationship changed. As a child, the distance of age is so much bigger than as an adult, and 3 years can create lots of distance. From middle school, I went to High School of Art and Design and had some really influential teachers that helped to elevate my craft. In college it continued.
Where our paths diverge is with our parents. My mother and father were both artists. My father wrote and illustrated children’s books, my mother painted and collaged. I learned equally from both.
Their friends were artists, and their curiosities about life were often expressed through art. My siblings and I went to the Children’s Art Carnival after school program, and our family outings were generally centered around art. Though I loved to play outside and watch TV, art was part of the air I breathed. It was not separate in my life.
My parents were very supportive of my artistry. I learned from them the challenges they faced putting food on the table and a roof over their heads as artists of color. They never pushed me to go into the family business and didn’t need to because I was always creating. It was a natural progression. I can count on my hands the times there was a formal art lesson at my house. Most of the time I explored on my own and would bother them when I needed help or I was especially proud of what I created.
Who is your favorite art hero and why?
Cordell: I’m usually pretty terrible at choosing a favorite of anything! I can never decide. I like a lot of things, I guess. For a long stretch of years, near the end of college and for some time after, I thought I would be a fine artist. I always pictured that being the most open and free avenue in which to make art. No real deadlines. No instructions or assignments. Just… making art, when and how you want to make it. I was (and still am) mostly moved by artists who are a little unhinged and messy, visually speaking. I love the scratchy and scribbly-ness of Cy Twombly.
The rough and sometimes ugliness in the portraiture of Alice Neel. I was really into Jim Dine for a while. I loved how he was more about exploring the physical marks he made in his paintings and etchings, than he was about the images he was painting and drawing (hearts, robes, tools, etc). As I moved into illustration, I found a whole new world of influences, but I’m still drawn to scratchy, scribbly, and ugly drawings and art. Drawing in pen and ink, I love others who draw with this and with a loose kind of energy, like I like to draw. I love the drawings of Quentin Blake, William Steig, Bernard Waber, Jules Feiffer.
As far as contemporary influences, I’m often drawn to more of the same in aesthetic . . . pen and ink or not. I love what Catia Chen is doing, and Sophie Blackall. Big fan of David Ezra Stein’s books. The Steads.
I love how you interpreted Basquiat’s work in Radiant Child, and made it your own. The roughness and expressiveness and layering.
I’m a big fan of what he did, and I can only assume you must be too? Is Basquiat your number one? (if you had to choose) Who are you drawn to in children’s books?
Steptoe: Basquiat is definitely in my top 5 favorite artists.
There are a couple people that were on my radar before Basquiat like my parents and other artists of color like Betye Saar, who was a Black Arts Movement artist known for her work in the medium of assemblage, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jack Kirby, and comic book artists like Art Adams. When it comes to children’s book artists, of course it’s Leo and Diane Dillon.
I love the way they seamlessly create glowing magical figures and fantastic landscapes. I love how they flow back and forth into each other’s styles, creating art that is the most appropriate for the story. With that said, I like how the art of children’s books continues to become more and more interesting. Today I see people playing with all sorts of mediums and styles—I think it’s really fascinating and exciting.
How has having a family affected your work?
Cordell: It’s had a huge effect on my work and my life in general. I never knew that I needed to be a Dad until I became one. As I got into my twenties, I had an inkling that I wanted more from life—I wanted to be married and have children—but I wasn’t completely sure about anything. I was really drifting a lot back in those days. Now, I couldn’t be any surer. Above all else, I love having a family. It’s such a blessing, and one that didn’t come easy to me or my wife.
Before all of that, I hadn’t been around or with kids in many years. I feel like I kind of knew what kids were, and what they liked, and how they felt about things. Like… I remembered what it was like to be a child, myself. But my memories weren’t terribly clear. Having my own kids brought a lot of that back, but with a totally different perspective. Observing children and childhood through the lens of an adult. I’m inspired, in some way or another, every single day by the things my kids do or what we do and celebrate or suffer through as a family. My story ideas have multiplied, my art has flourished. I joke a lot about how my kids are an “expensive hobby”, but it’s money well-spent, since they give me lots of ideas to work with.
Steptoe: Has winning the Caldecott changed your life goals at all, and if so how?
Cordell: A number of immediate goals surface—some of which I hadn’t expected—when your book wins the Caldecott. (I know you can relate.) A heartfelt, lengthy, well-written speech must be prepared and edited and later recorded at a studio.
A fancy, intricate program must be designed (and, in my case, illustrated) for the awards banquet, held a few short months after the official announcement is made. A cover for The Horn Book magazine needs to be designed and illustrated. A slew of print, radio, and internet interviews need to be done. School visit, festival, conference invitations need to be considered. New book deals immediately surface. Piles of emails to answer. It’s an incredible embarrassment of riches, to say the least. And it’s like a whole bunch of goals are getting checked off one by one, in rapid succession! It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, or probably ever will hereafter.
As far as what’s next… I’m not sure. More books are in various stages of completion. I’m challenging myself to try new things. I’ve signed up to write and illustrate my first beginning reader books. I’m *this* close to closing a deal to write and illustrate my first non-fiction picture book. But right now… there’s this ongoing hard-to-explain combination of feelings of intense disbelief, happiness, satisfaction, and… relief. Relief that I never again have to fully obsess over “will one of my books ever win a Caldecott Honor… a Caldecott?!?!”
I’m sure you can relate to much of this, Javaka. Can you relate to all of it?
Steptoe: Yes, I can, and it’s great I don’t have to ever think about whether or not I’ll ever win a Caldecott. I experienced all the fan-fair and pomp and circumstance and it was great fun and definitely overwhelming.
And as much as I appreciated the experience, I spent a lot of time last year wishing I had time to work. Wishing I had time to continue doing the type of work that brought me this acclaim. It’s been eighteen months now, and after being on the road more than I’ve been home, I’m settling back into my rhythm. One thing that comes up is what stars should I reach for now? There are so many ways to move forward from here. With the power of a Caldecott behind me l can do anything! Really the best thing I can think to do is just to focus on the next project and the one after that; to keep doing good work of exploring the curiosities of my mind that inspire passion within me.
Thank you Javaka Steptoe and Matthew Cordell for taking part.
Previously . . .
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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 email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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