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A Conversation with Matthew Cordell

Matthew Cordell is the author-illustrator of Wolf in the Snow, winner of the 2018 Randolph Caldecott Medal. Julie Danielson interviewed him by email for Calling Caldecott.

Calling Caldecott: Hi, Matt! Before we kick off the new Caldecott season in earnest, we thought it’d be fun to have a brief chat (a Matt-chat, if you will) about what your year as a Caldecott winner has been like.

We’ve always wanted to ask a Caldecott Medalist: Where do you keep the medal? Do you wear it to the store?

Matt: I’ve joked that I would have it put on a chain and wear it Olympic-style around my neck and for the rest of my life. As ridiculous and unamusing as that sounds (especially to my family), that is not the case. It rests comfortably (in the beautiful wooden box that came with) on our somewhat cluttered fireplace mantel. There’s lots of family memories, accolades, and artwork up there, including the Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor awarded to Wolf in the Snow and the glittery wax mold of my daughter’s fist that she had made at our local Renaissance Faire last summer.

CC: Rad. That girl-fist is giving the Medal a run for its money.

What are practical ways in which the award changed work for you? We know that Medalists get more invitations to speak at school, festivals, etc. How did you manage all the additional travel, while also still making picture books?

Matt: There’s been a lot of invitations to speak at schools, festivals, conferences, and the like. I’ve definitely tried to be as accommodating as I can, while still being a good dad and husband and also while being able to make more books with looming deadlines.

Among many lovely invites, in late fall I’ll be going Bozeman, Montana, to speak at the Children’s Festival of the Book. This will be particularly interesting, as it’s right by Yellowstone National Park. A significant resource for me while researching Wolf in the Snow was being able to exchange emails with some of the folks at the Yellowstone Wolf Project, a team of biologists who reintroduced wolves into the park in the mid-1990s, after all wolves had been eradicated in Yellowstone in 1926. So, I’m hoping to get a chance to meet some of them and hopefully to see some wolves in the wild, too!

As for how I manage travel and work, that is to-be-determined, I guess. Most things that were scheduled after the Caldecott announcement have yet to happen. So, it’s ongoing for a while. I’ve tried to be realistic and prioritize as best as I can.

From a school visit to Castleton Elementary in Castleton, NY, where they went all out with Caldecott celebrations and enthusiasm.

CC: What is a way that winning changed you or your work or the way you approach work that might surprise people?

Matt: After winning, my first impulse is that my next book should be something serious in tone — to follow Wolf in the Snow. But my next book, King Alice (which was already in production), is much more light-hearted, fun, and funny. I’m not a super serious person, but I think I can be somewhat quiet and reflective at times. And that balance of humor and sincerity within me seems to come out in my books. It comes in waves. I feel it’s good to have variety in work and in life.

Overall, though, I don’t feel very changed at all. My day-to-day has become a lot busier, and more opportunities have arisen, for sure. But I don’t feel suddenly different about myself or the world of books. I’m still here scribbling away in my messy studio. Doing dishes and laundry and picking the kids up from school. I must say, it is a little strange to spend a large part of one’s adult life chasing after a thing and to suddenly be in a position where you aren’t doing that anymore. It’s a weird feeling. I mean, it’s all a really, really good feeling, of course! But it’s a unique position to be in, that I’d never once thought about.

A Caldecott cake created by Matt’s friend Tom Lichtenheld, from a party thrown by his Chicago illustrator friends.

CC: Is there anything post-Caldecott you would like to tell pre-Caldecott you?

Matt: Oh, wow.

If I could go back in time and give myself a clue, I would say, “Just focus on the work and the books, and be as much in the present as you can be. And one day your book will win the Caldecott Medal.” I feel like I heard that sort of thing from friends and family over the years, but I never believed it. What a skeptic!

Caldecott medalist and honorees with the committee (all of the members who could attend ALA Annual).

More on Matthew Cordell from The Horn Book

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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Comments

  1. Cindy Olson says:

    I was just in the beautiful Bozeman library children’s section. I wish I’d gotten the name of the librarian. She was a delight–super interesting, had great book recommendations, and is SO excited about Matthew Cordell’s upcoming visit. I am jealous of the Bozeman folks, (and it tells you how weird I am that I visit children’s libraries whilst on vacation).

  2. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    What always strikes me about Matthew Cordell is his incredible kindness. This is such a lovely piece. I hope CC does an interview each year with medal and honors illustrators. Thank you.

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