Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Happy book birthday to Matthew Cordell's hello! hello!

Yay! Matthew Cordell's hello! hello! is celebrating its birthday today! I've been looking forward to this special day ever since Matthew read it to a group of librarians during ALA Annual. I instantly fell for it. I took it on vacation, started promoting it in my library in August, and pre-ordered four copies. 

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that I once read it while jumping on an odd-shaped trampoline. Here's the evidence: 

I think it is best if we move on to the interview before I embarrass myself any further.

Mr. Schu: I know that librarians and teachers around the world will tell their students about hello! hello! What are three things you would want anyone booktalking it to mention or point out ?

Matthew Cordell: I sure hope they do! So, three things…

1. Be present. In our world of ever-shortening attention spans, it has become difficult to be conscious of and present for the people sitting beside us. Listen and talk. Ask questions. Pay attention.

2. Everything in moderation. Technology is fun and helpful in so many ways. But it is important to limit our time with our gadgets so that we can spend quality time with the people we love. Just as it is unhealthy to have a whole cake but tasty to have one slice, it is also unhealthy to spend hours alone on the computer or phone or game device, but fun and engaging to spend shorter, more reasonable times playing games or on the internet.

3. Create and be created for. It is wonderful to find and appreciate and learn from things that have been created for us by others. Books, television, games, art. But it is equally as important to use our own minds to create something for the people we love and for ourselves. Express yourself. Make something. Never stop using your imagination.

Mr. Schu: I think of hello! hello! whenever someone almost bumps into me because he is too busy texting, or when I spot a family in a restaurant glued to electronic devices. Did similar experiences inspire you to write hello! hello!? 

Matthew Cordell: Absolutely. The entire idea came to me because I was being that guy who was glued to the device. At home one day, I was playing with my daughter, Romy, who was around 2 years old at that time—too young to know if I was giving her my complete attention. Or so I thought… In the middle of playing with some toys, I thought I would be fine sneaking over to a nearby laptop computer to check my email (or worse… my Facebook page). After a minute or two of having my face stuck to the screen, I heard Romy say from across the room, “Dada, stop checking email and come play.” She was a very verbal young toddler, and I knew she was putting together sentences, but I had no idea she knew the word “email.” I felt bad, in a way, that, already, she even knew that word, but worse that I was not giving her what she wanted because I chose to be selfish at that moment. Whatever I was doing, work or not, it could’ve waited until later when my wife was going to be taking over toddler duty. Later on, it occurred to me that with the amount of technology we are exposed to these days, this whole scenario must be playing out with parents and kids everywhere and all the time. The movable laptop at home is certainly distraction enough. But it is worse with the omnipresent smart phone that follows you everywhere you go, always beckoning to be looked at. At this point, in our culture, you cannot go anywhere without seeing someone in the company of another who is attending more to a device than to the person sitting at his or her side.

Having said all of this… It is not my place to judge anyone for doing what’s right or wrong. Or even to set that limit of how much is right or wrong. This was never my intention with hello! hello! Like I said earlier, I wrote this book because I was not doing my job as a good Dad. Not doing my job as a good person. And I wanted to say, “this is happening to all of us. Let’s think about what’s going on here…” I would give any parent who is locking eyes with an iPhone—instead of the eyes of their child—the benefit of the doubt that he or she is still, of course, a good parent. It is just really easy to forget what is happening—to forget who is happening around us. But what is important is being cognizant of the fact that this exists and keeping it in check. Being mindful of when it is legitimately important to look in on the phone or computer, and when it is not. 

Mr. Schu: What came first: the text or the illustrations? 

Matthew Cordell: Usually I will write a book as completely as possible before beginning to sketch it out all the way. Though I will do some sample art to share with my editor and sketch the rest out in my head, making notes along the way. But this book is told primarily through the illustrations and I knew that would be the case when I was first envisioning it. So I developed the art and text somewhat simultaneously in working sketch dummies with my editor and art director. I wanted the dialog to be pretty plain, just as it is when people aren’t really paying attention and talking in depth with each other. So I thought it would be fun idea to single out the simplest piece of conversation, and make a whole book out of, more or less, just one word. “Hello.” The book begins by using “hello” in a rather dismissive and disinterested way in the black and white world of the parents, devices, and the neglect. But as the story evolves and life and energy pick up, I flipped “hello” on its head and began using this plain word in a very different way as the animals greet one another and the new world very enthusiastically. It was a lot of fun bringing out a wide range of emotions from using only one word and also letting the artwork do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Mr. Schu: I read your blog post about the bamboo pens you received as a Christmas present. Can you share a bit about your bamboo pens and how you used them to create the art for hello! hello!? 

Matthew Cordell: A quick explanation: A bamboo pen is very simply just a short stick of bamboo that is sharpened to a point. It’s very old school. To use one, dip the pointy end of the bamboo in a bottle of ink and draw with this until the ink runs out. And repeat….

One year my mom gave me a bunch of art supplies, including a few bamboo pens, all of which she knew I did not typically use. It was an interesting and thoughtful gift, really. If looked at the right way, it could be a perfect excuse for an artist to step outside of his or her old box. But of course, being a relative creature of habit, I just put them all up on the shelf. Then one day, a year or two later, I happened upon what would be one of my all time favorite picture books, Leaves by David Ezra Stein. Aside from the genuine, warm, satisfying storytelling, I love his very confident, free-flowing very natural line work and watercolors in this book. (I love the fearlessness of all his books.) And I found in the art notes that he had used a bamboo pen. So, finally, I dug around in my messy studio and pulled out my own never-before-used bamboos and gave them a spin. It was a horribly unpredictable drawing experience. Drawing with, essentially a pointy stick, does not allow for consistency or predictability with the line. Until that point, I had been using a more obvious pen and nib—which is a metal, machine made point that you dip into a bottle of ink and use to draw. I was so frightened of the bamboo that I STILL did not use them for any final art. Fast forward to another year or so where I finally found the perfect moment, and finally had the right amount of nerve to use the bamboo for finished artwork. I was beginning work on hello! hello! and I was building up the courage and seeing wonderful possibilities in drawing with a bamboo pen. Once and for all, with this book, it was the right time to tackle the bamboo. It has a wonderful and varied organic line quality. It’s very heavy and wet/drippy at times, but then very coarse and dry at times (almost like the texture of a dull pencil). Drawing with a stick instead of with plastic and metal just felt right with this nature filled book. It is loose and chaotic and, yes, unpredictable at times but it is the perfect instrument for getting back to nature and back to imagination. I learned to embrace the unknown. The ultimate freedom. 

Mr. Schu: It is a good year to be Matthew Cordell. In 2012, you’ve published seven instantly lovable and well-designed picture books. I am in awe of your ability to manage work, family, and social media. What’s your secret, Matthew? 

Matthew Cordell: Well, thank you, sir! My secret weapon is my amazing, amazing wife, Julie Halpern. She is an inspiration, an incredible support system, a wonderful mother and wife. (As well as a top notch talent! She’s an acclaimed Young Adult author!) There are times when my head is totally slammed and clouded from the world of book making and she is very tolerant and patient and ever so helpful when I’m up against a wall. It’s been such a blessing to stay so busy with work that I absolutely love, and to have my two most favorite people in the world, Julie and our daughter, Romy, to share it with.

Another Brother 

Mr. Schu: Please complete these sentence starters: 

Reading is a magical collaborative experience between the creator(s) of a book and its reader. Every reader will bring the characters of a book to life in a different way, infusing a part of themselves and their own experiences into that story. Reading is transcendental and stokes the imagination. Reading is essential.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me about what’s next?

Well, hello! hello! is out on October 30. Before that, comes If You Were a Chocolate Mustache (October 1, Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press), a brilliant collection of poems by the master himself, J. Patrick Lewis. It was a real honor to illustrate his work.

And on to books I illustrated that publish next year…

Ollie and Claire by Tiffany Strelitz Haber (Philomel/Penguin)

What Floats in a Moat? By Lynne Berry (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers)

Like Bug Juice on a Burger by Julie Sternberg (a sequel to Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, Abrams)

Gone Fishing: A Novel in Verse by Tamera Will Wissinger (Houghton Mifflin)

I’ll be illustrating a third JUSTIN CASE novel by Rachel Vail!, (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan) maybe out in 2013?

I’m currently in finishes on art for a picture book with Disney-Hyperion with author Susan Hood.

Last, but not least, I’m quite close/a whisper away (knock on wood!) from approval for two picture books I am terribly excited about. One will be written/illustrated by me. The other is written by an amazingly talented and prolific friend. That’s about all I’ll say on that…Fingers crossed!

Thanks you so much for having me here, Mr. Schu! As you know, I am a huge fan of all that you do for kids and books and books for kids. You are an inspiration and a true ambassador of children’s books. 

I am giving away two copies of hello! hello! 

Rules for the Giveaway

1. It will run from October 30 to 11:59 P.M. on November 4. 

2. You must be at least 13. 

3. Please pay it forward.

Borrow hello! hello! from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops


  1. Loved the interview! Can't wait to get my hands on "hello hello", looks like it is perfect for parent and child. What a list of awesome books to look forward to in 2013.

  2. Love this book, the story behind its creation, and the message it has. Can't wait to have it in my hands. :)