Matthew Cordell is best known for his Caldecott Medal-winning Wolf in the Snow, a book that contains almost no words. His new book, Cornbread & Poppy, contains a lot of words—80 pages of them, in fact! It’s Cordell’s first foray into early readers, those books nestled snugly between picture books and chapter books and designed for children who are just beginning to read independently.
Featuring oodles of Cordell’s signature sketchlike illustrations, Cornbread & Poppy is an endearing tale of two mice who embark on an expedition up Holler Mountain in search of enough food to see them through the winter.
Why did you want to create an early reader?
I love the picture book format for its challenge and need to distill and consolidate lots of thoughts and ideas into a short amount of text and space. But I’ve often wondered what it would be like to open things up and put more words on the page for readers to chew on. Not quite ready to jump into a full-length novel, I thought an early reader would give me a chance to play with a longer text and still hold on to lots of illustrations.
What are some early readers you admire, and what did you want to accomplish in your own?
There’s quite a range of offerings, past and present, in early readers! I wanted to write a longer text, broken up into chapters. I really wanted the character development, world building and rich plot that one can create with a fuller text.
Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad is the gold standard for its charm, humor and exquisite, pitch-perfect writing. In terms of contemporaries, I love Cece Bell’s Rabbit and Robot books for all of the same reasons.
What were the pleasures and challenges of telling and illustrating a story in more than 32 pages?
After years and years of keeping only essential words and working with the picture book mindset of “showing not telling,” it was liberating to just write and write and write and not worry too much about how much pruning would need to be done in the end.
But it was challenging too, not to go in and start slicing and dicing. I’m so used to working that way that I had to remind myself that I wanted to keep the storytelling language nice and beefy for those new little reading eyes that would be reading it.
Early readers are designed for children who are still gaining literary fluency. How conscious of these developmental needs were you as you wrote the text, and how did you balance them with the creative demands of the story?
I’m a dad of two kids who are on either side of the world of early readers. My daughter is 13 and devours books, but it wasn’t all that long ago that she was just learning to read. My son, who’s 8, is just now picking up early readers. So, having seen it firsthand, I was very conscious of wanting to not write over the heads of these littlest readers. I did, however, want to make the book a little challenging. Something longer and a little complicated, so that they might take a little more time with it—maybe even not finish it in one sitting.
How did Cornbread’s and Poppy’s names come to you?
They are such great names! I can say that with actual modesty, because I didn’t come up with them. My cleverer-than-me wife, author Julie Halpern, gifted me these character names one day, and I used them as a springboard for everything that followed. To me, Cornbread and Poppy conjured a world of fun and adventure with animals in a rural setting. And Poppy is a great name, but Cornbread . . . I was in love with that character name from the get-go!
Were Cornbread and Poppy always mice?
More or less, yes, they were always mice. In the very beginning, before I even had any stories, I jotted down a list of animal possibilities. Those notes are forever lost, but I remember thinking, maybe pigs or dogs could work. But my very first sketch was of these two mice, and I looked no further!
What was their character development like? Did you land on their personalities right away or did they evolve as you wrote?
I think it was a gradual development, overall. I knew I wanted one to be uptight and the other to be a free spirit, but it wasn’t until I started writing more from that basic premise that I felt like each personality should have positives and negatives. When you put the two characters together, they fill each other out nicely. One’s positive traits fill in for the other’s flaws and vice versa. They don’t always see eye to eye, but they really like each other, they’re willing to listen and learn from each other, and in the end, they make a great team.
What’s your favorite illustration in the book? Do you have a favorite line?
My favorite spread is where Cornbread and Poppy first encounter an owl on Holler Mountain. It’s their worst fear to be descended upon by a mouse-eating owl, and when they find themselves under the giant shadow of a flying owl, the look on their gaping faces is horrific and priceless. There’s lots of drama in that picture, and I just like how it looks.
My favorite line (or lines) in the book are probably the very first two. “It was winter. The first snowflake had fallen.” Very simple idea, but I love the idea and visual of the first single snowflake falling signifying the beginning of winter itself.
The book’s dedication hints that you may be more of a Cornbread than a Poppy. What Cornbread-ish qualities are handy for a writer and illustrator to have?
Cornbread is very on top of things and has things planned out perfectly. He’s ready for anything! This mindset would be very helpful to someone writing or illustrating a book. Or to any person doing any job, really. Be prepared! I should follow my own advice.
Are there Poppy-ish qualities that are also helpful for a creative person?
Poppy loves to try new things, explore and seek thrills. Going on adventures in life is a great way to find new things to write about and draw. We’re never too old to learn and experience new things. As long as we keep looking, we’ll always have something to be inspired by and something new to create.