Matthew Cordell and Sophie Blackall: A Caldecott Conversation
Today we have something special. Our past two Caldecott Medal winners, Matthew Cordell (Wolf in the Snow) and Sophie Blackall (Hello Lighthouse) 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, Cordell and Blackall traded questions and responses. Here is their conversation.
Matthew Cordell: Hi, Sophie! Congratulations again on the Caldecott twins! I imagine the whole experience has been surreal in a “how is this happening again?” kind of way. I mean… of course, it must be incredible all over again, but is it surreal? I found–and still find–that winning it period is a very surreal experience. Can’t even imagine circling back into it!
Were there any things in particular that made winning a second Caldecott a different experience? For instance, did you approach the banquet program design and speech with a different perspective?
Sophie Blackall: Hi Matthew! Well, I never expected to win once and if anything, a second Caldecott was even less likely, so all the more surprising. I knew that many people wanted a different book to win in 2019, and knew some would be disappointed and angry with the results. In the phone call with the committee I even tried to give the medal back. But then two thoughts occurred to me.
One, I trusted the process. I realized that a diverse committee of fifteen esteemed librarians had devoted their year to studying and discussing and poring over picture books — and what a year for picture books! — and through some unknowable, but undoubtedly difficult process, decided to give Hello Lighthouse this award.
And two, I thought of every child I have ever met in every school visit, whom I have told, Girls can do anything. I owed it to them, especially the girls, to pull my shoulders back and accept this honor.
It took reading the acceptance speeches of my forebears — artists, immigrants, soldiers, parents, teachers, men and women, to figure out what the Caldecott really means to me. As I said in my own speech, our work as book makers, and our work as women, is built upon the foundation of those who came before. Until we look back, we can’t see forward. This second award means I can begin to look forward. I can lend my ears and voice and hands to help advocate for children who don’t have books, for children who don’t have access to vaccines, for children who are robbed of their childhood.
When you look behind you at the long list of previous Caldecott Medal books, is there one you hold most dear? (I think mine would be The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, which won in 1943. I even painted my own little house in the country pink, although it’s rather more meat colored to be honest.)
Cordell: When Wolf in the Snow received the Caldecott, I made it a personal goal to seek out and buy a copy (I like the old tattered library copies just fine) of every Caldecott book. I didn’t get very far before the Caldecott avalanche happened. Lots of travel, art deadlines… you know the drill, of course. So, my Caldecott self-education has not yet been what I hoped it would be. Meaning, I haven’t looked at every single one. But of the ones I have seen, I hold closest to my heart Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.
It’s got everything that I love. Impeccable and unexpected storytelling, anthropomorphization (did I make that word up?), beautiful drawing (disheveled!), a howling wolf, and Steig.
I’ve always wanted to know more about your style. You have a very distinct style that is instantly recognizable as yours. Some folks who have a certain style, like me, I think it’s maybe easy to decode who their influences are. I imagine it’s fairly obvious that I’m more or less obsessed with loose pen and ink artists like William Steig, Jules Feiffer, and Quentin Blake.
Are there any specific artists or illustrators who have helped to influence or shape your style over the course of your career?
Blackall: I am very fond of the uncredited 19th century illustrators of advertisements for things like soap and firecrackers and lard. I have adopted their muted palettes and rose-cheeked children. I like the way they cut sentimentality with mortality and poultices and eels.
I have long-time favorite artists like Eric Ravilious, William Blake, Alice and Martin Provensen, Virginia Lee Burton, and Barbara Cooney, and then there are amazing illustrators working today whose books I admire and envy in equal measure, like Carson Ellis, Isabelle Arsenault, Julie Morstad, Beatrice Allemagna, Sydney Smith… And I’m lucky enough to share a studio with Brian Floca, Rowboat Watkins and Doug Salati whose extraordinary collective work inspires and influences me every day.
I’m also curious if — like me — you sometimes look at an artist’s work that’s very different to yours and feel a sort of wishfulness? For instance, I am downright envious of JooHee Yoon’s graphic sensibilities, of Jon Agee’s brilliant understanding of the form of a picture book, of Jon Klassen’s comic genius mixed with empathy and tenderness, of Chris Raschka’s fluidity and energy, and I’m envious of every line Yuko Shimizu ever draws ( I could go on and on)… How about you?
Cordell: That’s a great question. I sometimes look at folks who do realism well (or in a way that I would do it if I did it), like Erin Stead, and think about maybe trying that sometime. But I just don’t really enjoy working that way. It takes too much out of me! But I also love artists who layer and layer and use all the materials and the kitchen sink. I remember being blown away when I first discovered John Burningham’s work.
It’s so unexpected all the time. And disheveled. My favorite art is art that is disheveled. I need to wince a little bit or it doesn’t do it for me. In terms of contemporaries who works this way, I love David Ezra Stein and Catia Chien. Their work and approach always surprises me. (I freaking love Jon Agee.)
Blackall: I love seeing a glimpse of other illustrators’ desks (one of the many fun things about sharing a studio.) Here’s mine.
Can you share a photo of your desk top? Don’t tidy it too much, because I don’t want you to show me up.
Cordell: That’s a great-looking desk! I spy a piece you shared back in Virginia of your upcoming book. Looks excellent. Here’s my desk.
It’s a photo I took a few days ago for a social media something-or-other, but it basically looks this way most of the time.
I’ve been loosely following (via Instagram) your adventures of the barn rehabilitation. What exactly is that and how did that project come about? When will it be finished?
View this post on Instagram
So here’s my BIG NEWS: I have bought an old dairy farm in upstate New York with plans to turn it into a retreat for artists and writers. It’s called Milkwood (after Dylan Thomas) and you can find out more here! Milkwoodfarm.org. #milkwood #retreat #milkwoodfarm #westerncatskills #childrensbooks #writersretreat #artistsretreat
Blackall: Milkwood Farm is going to be a retreat for children’s book people — authors, illustrators, publishing folk, librarians, educators, scholars. Right now it is a partially renovated old dairy farm on 20+ acres of rolling hills in upstate New York, but by this time next year it will be a place where all are welcome to gather, to eat and drink and think and walk and talk and write and make things together. It’s a big, ambitious project but I am loving working on it. I’m building a stone wall right now which is hugely satisfying, like an extremely heavy jigsaw puzzle.
I just followed in your footsteps to the Bozeman Festival of the Book in Montana and heard of your incredible trip to Yellowstone to see wolves in the wild. Does that sort of heady, unforgettable experience, which comes through researching a picture book, make you want to do more books where you get to go places and see things that you might not have the excuse to see otherwise? And if so, are there any such research trips in your future?
Cordell: Oh yes. Definitely. That Yellowstone experience was post-research for me, but it really makes me want to do more like it in the making of the book now. I still think about that trip all the time. I want to do some non-fiction work from time to time, yes. My first go will be my Fred Rogers picture book biography, where I did travel to Pittsburgh and Latrobe and meet with folks who knew him well, and see where he grew up and lived and all the Mister Rogers stuff. I loved the experience of making that book.
I’ll be illustrating a book about Isabella Stewart Gardner soon (quirky and fascinating Boston art collector) and visited her museum recently, which I loved. But in terms of big, vast research trips like Yellowstone…. Yes, I hope to do more of that in my life as well. It was thrilling. I love animals and nature. So I hope to dip back into that world again soon.
At ALA Annual last summer, when Hello Lighthouse was officially picking up the Caldecott medal, and Wolf in the Snow was handing over the crown, I found that to be a surprisingly bittersweet experience. That weekend was a bit of a fond but sad farewell to an insane and insanely wonderful time of my life. Did you have those feelings the year after Winnie won?
I kept feeling like there should be some sort of official “passing of the torch” celebratory moment to commemorate the experience. Some sort of turning-the-page moment. It felt weird that there wasn’t something like this! If you remember, I mentioned this when I met you that night up at the dais? And you had a great idea…
I look forward to seeing your contribution to the Caldecott Torch. I look forward to seeing who it will have it next!
Blackall: I am so happy we started this tradition together! I was thrilled to pass the torch to Javaka Steptoe in 2017. The Caldecott connects us all as though we’re a kind of family and it’s exciting to welcome the incoming medalist, just as those who came before welcomed me. I can’t wait to pass on the official Caldecott Torch in 2020.
Cordell: What was the first celebratory act you had after you got “the call” number 2? When I got the call, before anyone outside of my family and my publishing family knew, my daughter and I went out and bought a dozen donuts to eat while watching the webcast. Ah… memories!
Blackall: I’m impressed you and your daughter got through a dozen donuts! You have given me license to up my donut intake for celebrations.
Funnily enough we have a Caldecott tradition in the studio, of watching the live stream together with donuts. One meager donut apiece. This year when I got the call from the committee, I was on the other side of the world in Myanmar, with my parents. It was evening and we celebrated with a fermented tea leaf salad!
And a geeky illustrator question to end: What one tool could you not live without? (Mine’s a size 2 Windsor and Newton Series 7 sable brush.)
Cordell: For me, it would definitely be a nib pen. I always draw with either a J nib or a Waverley nib. I could not go without!
Thank you Matthew Cordell and Sophie Blackall 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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