100 Scope Notes
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Catching Up with Philip Stead and Matthew Cordell

Philip Stead and Matthew Cordell are again teaming up for a wild romp of a picture book: Follow That Frog! The book publishes today, so I asked the creators a few questions about their collaboration.

(Side note: Philip Stead and Matthew Cordell are doing a live event with Literati Bookstore this Friday, Feb. 5th at 7:00pm ET. Click here for details.)

Travis: Phil – I saw you write that Follow That Frog! might be the weirdest book of 2021. How did this happen?

Phil: This book is the third in a loose series that I’ve made with Matt. The first one, Special Delivery, was the weirdest book I’d ever made up to that point.

Weird is a relative term of course. But I guess I mean weird in the Monty Python sense—anarchy+absurdity. Anyway, the next book, The Only Fish in the Sea, was weirder than the first by a significant margin.

With the third book I really wanted to up the ante again. I was doing some brainstorming, trying to come up with some ideas when I pulled a book off my shelf that I’d owned for a long time but had never read—A Near Thing for Captain Najork, by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake.

There’s a giant mechanical frog in that book that’s used as a mode of transportation. I thought: This is pretty much the level of weird I’m aspiring to. I wrote the first draft, sent it out, and was informed shortly thereafter that our publisher was no longer in need of our services. Ha!

Luckily for us our editor, Neal Porter (who is a punk rocker at heart) tucked the manuscript away in his back pocket and revived the project a year or so later when no one was looking. SADIE LIVES!

Travis: Matt – did you ever think that, for your job, you’d draw a giant frog riding piggyback on an ostrich? It seems like you’re having a good time on this one.

Matt: Haha I am living the dream, there is no doubt! All three of the books I’ve done with Phil and Neal have been an absolute joy. It’s literal hijinks and laughs with these two pals. Lots of fun brainstorming phone calls, and lots of fun drawing. I tried to squeeze in as many surprises with the drawings as I could. Things that weren’t in the text. Trying to wrench control into my own hands, I guess.

Travis: Phil – all the text in your books with Matt is dialog. What’s the biggest pro/biggest con of writing in this way?

Phil: I’d probably never try a dialogue-only book for Erin or myself to illustrate. Telling the whole story in dialogue inevitably leaves a lot of gaps to fill. This is perfect I think for Matt, who seems to relish in filling every inch of the book with insane little details. The stream-of-consciousness dialogue makes for a breakneck pace to the story too, which Matt can keep up with no problem. I would fall flat on my face if I tried.

Travis: Matt – is there an illustration in Follow That Frog! that you’re particularly proud of?

Matt: One of my favorites is the lesser-seen case cover. I made it look like a couple of pages from Aunt Josephine’s journal.

If you look at the notes where it shows the scientific names of the frogs in her sketches, you’ll see we made some fun tweaks there. I’m also especially fond of the picture on the last page. But if I talk too much about that drawing, it will give away the fun surprise at the end! 

Travis: An important question: What snack puts you in peak creativity mode?

Phil: Ahhhh, donuts. I run everyday specifically so I can eat all the donuts I want. Like my old college track coach once told me: When the fire’s hot anything burns!

Matt: For me, coffee is a must. Not exactly a snack, but it gets me up and running. I’m normally fond of unhealthy, sugary treats (donuts and the like), but I’m trying to stay away these days. I’ve got a bit of a frog belly going, in my old age.

Thank you Matthew Cordell and Philip Stead for the interview. Thank you Sara DiSalvo for making it happen.

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.