Why Picture Books Are Important by Matthew Cordell

by Dianne on November 23, 2016

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Why Picture Books Are Important by Matthew Cordell
When Picture Books Saved My Life (well, ok… sort of)

Back in the day, I was an avid picture book reader. And because it was truly back in the day, (I was just 4 years old or so) I don’t remember too much. But I remember thoroughly enjoying the usual suspects. Seuss, Sendak, Scarry, etc. I remember enjoying the combination of quality art and quality words and I remember enjoying the experience of being read to. Of sharing a book. Being at someone’s side or in someone’s lap, just one book at a time between the two of us. Then, for whatever reason, picture books all but vanished from my life. I suspect it was because my Mom and my teachers and my librarians stopped putting them in front of me, and instead started pushing the chapter book stuff. At any rate, that was that.

Then came… The Great Picture Book Drought.

It wasn’t as bleak as it sounds.

During The Great Picture Book Drought, I learned a lot about myself. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that I loved to draw. Drawing and art became the thing that I was good at and known for by my friends, family, teachers, and peers. It defined me as a child, then as a young adult, and then as a 20-something more/less adult. And as time went on, I discovered the art of graphic design. Combining type and image to make layout and composition for things like magazines, books, websites. I loved that too. During The Great Picture Book Drought, I also learned that I loved to read. I loved books in many forms including art books, novels, poetry, and comics.

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I loved reading books, and I loved the art and design of books. Books were beautiful to me in multiple ways. But what about picture books… what were those again?

There was a critical moment that happened during The Great Picture Book Drought. At some point in high school, when I was beginning to take art more and more seriously (as in “maybe this could be some sort of career or something someday”), a well-meaning relative gave me a new picture book as a birthday gift. A re-introduction, if you will, to the world of picture books. The problem was, however, this picture book was not very good. It was not very good at all. The story was terrible, didactic, and hokey. The art was dreadful, unaccomplished, unoriginal, and uncool in every way. Looking back, I think it may have been a book that was remaindered or set on a deep discount clearance table someplace. I politely accepted the gift. And—not to sound like a jerk (if I don’t already)—but I thought to myself, “If this is what picture books are now, I need to be as far away from this as possible.”

I often think back to that moment. Had that book been a well-designed, well-illustrated, well-written, thoughtful and sophisticated picture book representative of that time, then The Great Picture Book Drought would have ended right there. Alas, it was not and it did not. And so The Drought continued.

I graduated from college with a degree and passion for graphic design. And also for fine art. I moved to the city of Chicago to pursue careers in both on a large scale. I dove head first into Chicago’s thriving design community and its gallery and arts community too. It was exhilarating.

And then it wasn’t.

After a couple of years’ time, it began to dawn on me that I really wasn’t cut out for design. The business end of it really wasn’t my bag. I didn’t like it and I stunk at it. And the long hours, committing my life to the name on the business I was working for… I became resentful of that. It wasn’t fun anymore. I flamed out. Simultaneously, I discovered that I really wasn’t cut out for the gallery scene either. Often times it felt too discriminating and alienating. Judgmental. Pretentious. Not what I wanted. All of this broke my artistic heart. Everything I’d worked for, my whole life up to this point, had become meaningless to me.

And yet… thankfully when all was seemingly lost, there came a flicker of a glimmer of hope.

Around this same time, I was dating a very ambitious young woman, an elementary school librarian named Julie. (A young woman who would later agree to marrying me!) Julie was also a budding and talented writer. She’d been poking at me for a while to consider teaming up with her to try and collaborate on a picture book idea and try to get it published. She would write it, I would come up with some sample art, and we’d give it a shot. Because of my picture book ignorance, I’d been resistant. But to my newly artistically burned out self, this proposal had new meaning. Maybe it could be a new outlet of drawing, design, all creativity for me. Still, all I could think of was that terrible picture book I was gifted back in high school. Then, as any great librarian is wont to do, Julie set me straight. First she put a stack of her childhood picture book favorites in my lap as a refresher. Some of which I’d remembered and loved myself. The Sendak, the Seuss, the Scarry. And amazing stuff from back then that I had not remembered at all because maybe I’d never been hip to it. Steig, Waber, Lobel, Marshall, Blake.

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My eyes were wide open. Then, once these books had gotten my full attention, she began to bring home stacks and stacks more of contemporary and inspiring picture books to continue and wet my whistle. I’d been won over. I fell in love with picture books again. Picture book art. Picture book storytelling. Picture book design. It was all so mind-blowingly sophisticated and sharp and funny and approachable and humble and humbling and perfect. Inspiration rained down on me, terminally and finally bringing The Great Picture Book Drought to its satisfying end.

We worked up our picture book proposal, Julie’s story and my art, and submitted it to 20 publishers.

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Months later, the rejection letters started coming in. One by one, we slowly received 19 rejections. And then came the unthinkable. The very last chance and last publisher, Houghton Mifflin, wrote and was willing to take a chance on our little book. Sometime after, Toby and the Snowflakes was published in 2004.

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Everything about the process had been an awakening to me. Discovering picture books. Then the hopefulness and thrill of trying to get a book published. Then actually getting it published! That part was through-the-roof insanity. Even the rejection letters were kind and thoughtful and encouraging. Everyone at Houghton was so welcoming and warm. And cool and clever and funny too. On the brink of turning my back on art completely, picture books had shown themselves at just the right time.

After TOBY, I continued to try and also to succeed, gratefully, to get published as an illustrator. I still had so much to learn about illustration and picture books and picture book history, but I was picking it up more and more. And with every page and corner I turned, it was always invigorating. Through the internet and social media, I began reaching out to fellow authors and illustrators. The sense of community and talent there was and is wholly inspiring.

Furthermore, as the books I’d illustrated began to come out, I slowly worked myself up to doing bookstore events and school visits, reading and sharing my books with their primary intended audience. Making way for even more inspiration on my part. The joy I got and continue to get from these kids and their grown-up counterparts (librarians, teachers, parents, etc) is immeasurable. I watch, first hand, picture books making art and artists approachable. They put art in a very grounded context. They make art affordable and reachable to everyone, everywhere, all walks of life. They make drawing and writing believable and achievable, inspiring readers everywhere. Which in turn inspires authors and illustrators everywhere.

And with these interactions, I slowly became aware of just how singular the picture book format really is. It is the one book that is read and appreciated by two vastly different audiences: the adult and the child. For it to work, the picture book has to work double time. It’s fascinating. And frustrating. And amazing. Simultaneously, they are bringing these two groups together in a shared space, with a shared story, and shared art, and shared page turns. Picture books are incomparable.

And, so, what else? What else can picture books do?

What more does one need? Like I said—and it probably sounds dramatic, and it probably is—picture books (and one very ambitious and multi-talented and lovely librarian wife) saved my life. And I’m grateful.

And I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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About Matthew Cordell
Matthew Cordell has illustrated many books for children including the popular Justin Case series by Rachel Vail, Special Delivery by Philip C. Stead, Lost. Found. by Marsha Diane Arnold, and First Grade dropout by Audrey Vernick. He is the author and illustrator of Trouble Gum, Another Brother, and Hello! Hello!, a New York Times Notable picture book, and, most recently, Wish. Matthew lives outside of Chicago with his wife, author Julie Halpern, and their two children. Visit him online at matthewcordell.com.

Literacy Activity
November 23 – Dessert/Chocolate

“Picture books provide excellent scenarios for word problems, using a plot line and characters that students know and relate to.” (from Picture Book Month Teacher’s Guide: Why Picture Books Belong in Our Classrooms by Marcie Colleen, 2013).

Extend the conversation about the topic or theme of the picture book that was read aloud in class by inviting the author or the illustrator for a Skype interview or an actual visit in school. Have students ask questions about their work, how and why they write. To connect the reading experience to writing, have students write the author or the illustrator a letter. Your students may be surprised if the author writes back!

Suggested reading:
Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert
Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lilian Hoban
The Popcorn Book by Tomie de Paola
Pancakes, Pancakes by Eric Carle
Oliver, the Chocolate Baker: Children’s picture book by Sini Ezer, translated by Lola M. Rogers

Be sure to download the Picture Book Month Teacher’s Guide: Why Picture Books Belong in Our Classroom for more engaging ideas and activities to bring picture books into the ELA, Math, Science, and Social Studies curriculum!

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