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Profile of 2018 Caldecott Medal winner Matthew Cordell

I always knew Matt would win a Caldecott. Does that sound obnoxious? Let me explain.

Matt and I have been married fifteen years this summer. Our relationship began as what I like to refer to as “Hipsters: A Love Story.” Matt had moved to Chicago from South Carolina to work as a designer for a web design company. I was getting my MLIS and working in a school library in the Chicago suburbs. The two of us were separately involved in Chicago’s zine culture, writing and publishing zines (independently produced and printed mini-magazines) and selling them at various places, most notably Quimby’s in Chicago’s Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood, where we both lived. Matt wrote his own zine, The Plan (an ironic title, as Matt is rather loath to plan things), while designing and writing for another publication, The 2nd Hand. I co-wrote a zine with my friend Liz called cul-de-sac. Looking back, we probably hung out at the same places, saw the same bands, ate at the same dives, but we never met until Matt read my zine. He and three friends shared a loft in a four-story walkup building on Milwaukee Avenue, and they planned an epic zine release party for The 2nd Hand, complete with an art show and a performance art piece. (Ah, the pretentious life of twenty-somethings.)

Matt turned to the zine high society of Chicago (I’m pretending this is a thing) for the party’s guest list, and after reading an issue or two of cul-de-sac sent an email inviting us to the party. I don’t have the email because this was the year 2000, and whatever email services we were both using don’t exist anymore. ’Tis a shame, because whatever he said, and whatever I said in return, led to two weeks of getting-to-know-each-other emails. We were funny and I’m certain super-adorkable. In fact, the final email exchange Matt and I had before the party included a detailed survey containing such burning questions as “What celebrity do people think you look like?” His answer: David Duchovny. Mine: Drew Barrymore. (Fun fact: Our family met David Duchovny last year, and I told him this story. He concurred that Matt looks a tiny bit like him.)

Keep in mind this was before most people had smartphones. Certainly before people took selfies. The first time Matt and I saw each other in person was at the Chicago Hipster Zine Society Release Party (not actual title of party). When I arrived, I saw a group of guys sitting at a long table, hawking their wares. I approached a young man who sort of fit Matt’s description, extended my hand, and introduced myself. Matt ended up being the other guy, the skinny dude in a button-down sitting next to the guy to whom I’d just introduced myself. I did not see David Duchovny (and I can pretty much assume Matt did not see Drew Barrymore), but that didn’t stop us from spending much of the night talking, watching the performance artist drop pots and pans on the floor, and dancing to The Notorious B.I.G. At party’s end, I still wasn’t quite sure if we were merely zine buddies or more than that, so I asked him to be my valentine. That was February 12, 2000. Keep note of the date. It’s a pretty important one.

Our courtship in Chicago consisted of more zines, art galleries, live bands, and ridiculous costumes at Halloween parties (Matt’s best: Oates from Hall and Oates). Living in a loft, Matt worked on a lot of large-format paintings, semi-realistic and taken from photographs he’d shot of friends. Matt’s main goal at the time was to show work at galleries as a “fine artist.” It was the art world he knew from going to school as a teen and taking art classes, as well as a young adult in college working toward his art degree. It was not a world with which I was familiar. Of course, I had visited art museums. Growing up near Chicago, I felt a deep connection with the Chagall windows and Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute. But Matt was making art, not just looking at it.

While both Matt and I worked on zines, we had yet to create anything together. Eventually we shared an apartment, staying in Bucktown and moving further west on Milwaukee Avenue. By then the web design boom had gone bust, and Matt switched careers to letterpress pressman. I had finished my degree and was working full-time as a librarian at Francis Parker School in Chicago. It was important to me that somehow our creative lives intersected, and, surrounded by kids’ books every day, I thought we should try to write a picture book together. I would write the words, and Matt would draw the pictures. Matt was hesitant, and even after I gave him my manuscript, he sat on it for about a year. I don’t think Matt was very familiar with the world of children’s books at the time, and I also think that he, as an artist, didn’t want to be told what to do. Eventually he came to his senses, and the story would become our first book, Toby and the Snowflakes.

Julie Halpern, Matthew Cordell, Romy, and Dean. Photo courtesy of Julie Halpern.

After that, Matt dove headfirst into children’s books. He was determined to find his place in that world. He regularly sent postcards out to art directors and editors and quickly built a list of contacts. It’s almost impossible to envision our lives before kids, but the amount of time we had to devote to ourselves and the building of our adult lives is now but a blurry memory. Over a series of years, Matt acquired more illustration work, we got married, I switched jobs, and, no longer feeling a place in the scene in Chicago, we became two suburbanites. And we liked it.

Away from the fine-art world, Matt’s art became more connected to real life. I wrote novels. Matt illustrated books. When we figured out that our finances would be okay, he quit his job at the letterpress (and waved goodbye to his three-hour round-trip commute) and began working as an illustrator and writer full-time. It sounds rather idyllic. But I don’t remember it that way. Because around that time Matt and I started trying to have children. And that wasn’t idyllic. It is a very long, painful story, one that I may write one day, with two eventual happy endings. For now, I will say this about our family journey: it changed both of us drastically. Matt’s work became more personal, and that real life I mentioned before came out in his illustrations. The most obvious example of this is in Wish, his book dedicated to our experience with pregnancy and loss and pregnancy again. Matt is not one to talk about his feelings, but all that he has stored up is channeled into his art. Our children, now nine and five, blossom out of the pages of his books. Wolf in the Snow is not about our daughter, but it is for her and for the world in which we now live.

When I say I always knew Matt would win a Caldecott, it’s not just because he is my husband and I wanted him to win. I believe in Matt’s talent, focus, work ethic, and passion for drawing. I knew he’d win because all of these years filled with hard work and almosts were leading up to this moment. I knew because his drive and will and gift for drawing made it impossible for me to believe he wouldn’t someday win. And maybe I’m a little psychic.

Matt is now a grown man with a wife and two kids, a little house in the suburbs, and a cat named Norbert, all less than a mile from the very end of Milwaukee Avenue where our journey began. On February 12, 2018, eighteen years after we met, Matt received the long-awaited phone call from the Caldecott committee. I screamed and cried, yanked the kids out of bed, and we have not stopped celebrating. I am so very proud of him. He did it.

From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2018.

Julie Halpern About Julie Halpern

Julie Halpern is the author of six YA novels, one novel for adults, and one picture book. A school librarian for ten years, Julie now works part time in a public library, part time as a writer, and all the time as mom to her two children with Matthew Cordell. She is working on her seventh novel with Feiwel & Friends.

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Comments

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    A beautiful Cinderella story with the most soulful and happiest of endings.

  2. Janet F. says:

    This is so filled with love. So very happy for Matt and you and your kids and all the kids, big and small who read, love and learn from his books.

  3. This couldn’t have happened to a more deserving couple. Congratulations to both of you!

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