Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast » Blog Archive » Random Illustrator Feature: Matthew Cordell

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This is little Casey Jenkins. He’s the the worst player in the Delmar Dogs, the underdog Little League team of James Preller’s new picture book, Mighty Casey, a re-working of Ernest Thayer’s Casey at the Bat, illustrated by Matthew Cordell (Feiwel & Friends; March, 2009). “It’s unkind to speak ill / of a batter who can’t hit. / So, um, gee . . . that Casey . . . / he sure could chew and spit!” writes Preller. Not only does Casey’s every at-bat end “not with a bang, but a whiff,” but his teammates aren’t faring much better: Omar scrapes a knee, Ronald relieves himself over in left field, Ashanti takes a nap, Tommy Maney’s climbed a tree, Jamal got stung by a bee, and Johnny Reel refuses to run. Eventually, things turn around for the boys, and above we have Casey up to bat there, during a crucial moment. He strides to the plate, as you can see. He really is a true-blue geek—a lovable one at that—so I love the seriousness with which he taps his cleats there.

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This isn’t Matthew’s only illustrated title out now. He’s also illustrated a new title from Phyllis Root, which will be released at the end of next month by Candlewick — Toot Toot Zoom! I’ve already enthusiastically established here at 7-Imp in several locations, mainly my 2007 interview with her, what a picture book goddess I think she is. Well, here she does it again. Toot Toot Zoom! is a hoot is what it is. It’s the tale of Pierre, who “lives all alone at the foot of a sky-high mountain, and ah, his heart, how it longed for a friend.” Hopping into his car and zooming off, he hopes to find a friend on the other side of said mountain. Here is one of Matthew’s early sketches from the title:

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Along the way, he meets a goat, a sheep, and a bear. They all hit it off — and in such a way that will have preschoolers howling, because of statements like this:

“I’ve always wanted to ride in a little red car,” said Goat. “May I come, too, and help you find a friend?”

“That is exactly what my friend will ask, when I find a friend,” said Pierre. “Hop in.”

…And then later, when their car breaks down…


“Alas,” cried Pierre, “my little car cannot make it over the mountain.”

“Then we must push you!” growled Bear.

“That is exactly what my friend would do,” said Pierre.

Yup, sometimes we just don’t know how good we got it when we got it good. Root pieces together the text in such a way that the child reader is one up on Pierre, which you know—if you’ve been around preschoolers lately—they will totally dig in a very serious, and likely very loud, fashion. It’s great fun. (She also pieces together the text in such a way that makes you think picture-book-writing must be easy, but that’s her charm. You don’t need me to go on AGAIN about what a picture book goddess she is, do you? Nah, I think we’ve got that straight.)

Matthew’s illustrations have a freewheeling spontaneity and loose lines that bring to mind William Steig — and, in both titles, great humor (the geekery of the Delmar Dogs and their stressed-out parents, as well as the naive earnestness of poor Pierre and his pals. That one’s not only a great read-aloud for your next story time adventure, but it’s a hoot of a lap-sit read to your favorite preschooler, too, if you take the time to really soak in the expressions of these anthropomorphic characters). I asked Matthew, who does editorial illustrations as well as children’s books, to stop by today and do one of those in-their-words type of features I’m addicted to anymore, and you’ll see that Steig is undoubtedly a big influence on him.

Without further ado, then, here’s Matthew, and I thank him for taking the time to stop by:

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“On Art:

I’ve been drawing in pen and ink for the past ten years. And I love it. And I hate it. Mostly I love it. Sometimes I don’t.

By ‘pen and ink,’ I mean I use India ink and dip pens with replaceable/interchangeable nibs—which, unlike, say, a good ol’ ballpoint, can be painfully and excruciatingly unpredictable. Inks dry up or get stale. Nibs clog or get gunked. Lines can go from pretty and smooth to ugly and crusty all too quickly. This is why pen and ink makes me crazy (bad). And this is why pen and ink makes me crazy (good).

I hate to say it, but I don’t always know what I’m doing. I’ve been through various art classes and schools for most of my life, but I’ve never taken a class in pen and ink. And, truthfully, I probably never will. Not having complete control over the pen is a pain and a struggle, but also, in a weird way, a triumph, because it yields good and unexpected results.

Chunky, awkward, choppy, sketchy, wobbly. Clumsy. Spontaneous. These are characteristics I aim for in my drawings. For me, the whole thing with pen and ink is to get a great line. And for me, personally, a great line is not a clean one. It’s an irregular one. It’s a choppy, chunky line that does it for me. That’s where the real character of pen and ink drawing is.

Steig, Steinberg, Sempé. These are my pen/ink heroes. And there’s a reason I put Steig first. For me, he was a master of spontaneous, irregular pen/ink drawing. I read somewhere once that he couldn’t get the level of spontaneity he wanted from his drawings, ’cause he’d draw first in pencil, then draw over the pencil with the pen. That extra step dulled down the freshness of it. So, eventually he ditched the pencil and went straight to paper with the pen. No plan, no blueprint. That takes guts. Graphite is undoable. Ink is not. And that scares the poop out of me. But, someday. Maybe someday I’ll get you, Steig ol’ boy.

Until then… Sometimes I eat the pen. And sometimes the pen eats me.

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“On Mighty Casey:

When I was this age, 7 or 8, I seriously wanted to get on a real, official (uniforms and all) baseball team like the one in Casey. Organized, but so disorganized. Where playing is fun and winning is optional. But sadly… never got it together. Never happened.

Drawing Casey was my chance to live young again and vicariously through this team. Good-natured kids who pull together in their mostly-lousy baseball skills just as much as their not-so-lousy ones. The humor’s big and crazy and in all the right places. We can fail and laugh at that. And we can rise up and make good and keep laughing. James Preller, a little league coach himself, knows it well and does it well. Drawing his kids was a lot of fun.

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On Toot Toot Zoom!

Animal stories are my favorite. If told well and drawn well, it’s a timeless book. When I read Phyllis Root’s Toot Toot Zoom!, I knew it’d pull that off. I love this book, ’cause it’s got this great European countryside vibe to it. And it was so fun squeezing a fox, a goat, a sheep, and a bear into a tiny Mini Cooper-esque car. And pushing them up a tall, tall green mountain. And then pushing them off the mountain. (They live to tell the tale. It’s cool.)

Ms. Root’s text also gave me a good chance to play around with something I love doing—hand-lettering. Lots of car sounds (Toot!) and lots of animal sounds (Baaah!) throughout that go well with the hand-drawn letters.”

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To keep up with Matthew and his forthcoming titles/projects, you can catch him at his site and his blog. At this link, you’ll find his ongoing online-published graphic novel, Village Park.

We’ll close with two pieces from his upcoming debut as an author/illustrator, Trouble Gum, to be published in September of this year by Feiwel & Friends. Hmmm, that looks like an inconvenient—or blazingly fun—confection, indeed, depending on your point-of-view, but we’ll have to wait ’til Fall to find out more. Thanks again to Matthew for stopping by . . .

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Illustrations from TOOT TOOT ZOOM! Text copyright © 2009 Phyllis Root. Illustrations copyright © 2009 Matthew Cordell. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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