Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Best Books from 2014 not from 2014

Now's the time of year when all the "best of" lists come around. I don't recall if I've ever done one myself. At least not publicly. I usually keep this sort of thing to myself or in private conversations. Seems like the right thing to do. But this year, I read some incredible books. I read some incredible books that came out in 2014, of course. But I also read some incredible books that did not come out in 2014.

So in the interest in doing something different, I've decided to make a list of the best books I discovered in 2014. The ones that did not come out in 2014.


Flora and Tiger by Eric Carle, published by Philomel in 1997


Early this year, I lucked upon the spine of this Eric Carle book in the nonfiction section of my local public library. I was a little confused as to why a book by Carle was wedged in there, so of course I slid it off the shelf. And I’m glad I did. Turns out this book—that looks much like one of his picture books, but with smaller bits of art and longer bits of text—is Carle’s answer to the question many of us picture book makers continually tolerate throughout a career. Question being, “do you think you’ll ever make a real book?” Real, of course, meaning something for grown-ups, not kids. [sigh] Anyway, I love that he did this and I love that he did it like he did it. It’s 19 true, short (long by picture book standards) slice-of-life autobiographical stories from the picture book master himself, from various times of his childhood and adult life. 



I have long admired Carle’s work and I love this peek into his world. The writing is clever, poignant, precise, and fulfilling. The art is as stylish and charming and accomplished as anything he’s done and accompanies the stories impeccably. Other than the length of text and subject matter throughout, everything about it—fittingly so—feels like a picture book. The size, shape, illustrations, and design. Wonderful.



My Side of the Car written by Kate Feiffer, illustrated Jules Feiffer, published by Candlewick in 2011


Jules Feiffer is one of those Old Guard, Real Deal, Bulletproof Pen and Ink Illustrators. I love how he just goes for it with his drawing. He is clearly not afraid of much when it comes to hitting pen, pencil, etc to paper. I have immense respect for that attitude. I have immense jealousy over it. This book is drawn up-to-perfect-snuff by the great Mr. Feiffer and it is just-right written by his own daughter Kate. And that, in itself, grabs me. 



But backing up, and to be perfectly honest, I had seen the cover of this book bouncing around online when it first was released. But I am not always on top of things, so it ended up being one of those books I mentally set aside with all good intentions of eventually checking out. But then more books are released on top of it, and time goes by, you forget, and that’s that. Such is the life of a book. Luckily, this was another great happenstance at my local library. Thumbing through the new (-ish) picture book section, there it was again, allowing me to rediscover it. Thankfully so. The story is sweet, funny, and just the right amount of weird. A little girl wants to go to the zoo with her dad, and they do, but it starts raining. Only it never starts raining on her side of the car. So on they go. And by the time you get to the sweetly satisfying ending and then through it, you are rewarded with a short back and forth conversation between the Feiffers about how this story is based on a true story—a childhood one that took place with Kate and Dad. Much here reminds me—in the best way—of one of those perfect days I’ve shared with my own daughter. Which is not to say that I’m always a sucker for a daughter and dad book. But I am a sucker for one done well.



Wild by Emily Hughes, published by Flying Eye Books in 2013 (US edition)


I am not terribly sharp when it comes to regurgitation of historical facts and anecdotes. Throughout school, I memorized just enough of that to skate by, much of which was promptly forgotten when I was released into adulthood. Perhaps you learned the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron? I may have. I may have forgotten it. Essentially, in 1800 a boy was found alone, in the woods in Aveyron, France. Presumably abandoned at a very young age, and he had somehow survived for his many years alone. He was about 12 years old when he was found and he was… well, totally wild. Once he was discovered, people attempted to assimilate him into civilized society with mixed results. I don’t know if I learned this in school, but I did learn about it in Mordecai Gerstein’s incredible picture book The Wild Boy which I discovered a couple of years ago. Later, specifically earlier this year, I read a version of this same story in Wild. I suppose it’s one that’s been told and retold and adapted many times over. But in Wild the feral child story (with a twist at the end) is accompanied by absolutely triumphant drawing. 



The cover alone is reason enough to buy the book sight unseen. Which is what I did. 



Seasons and Mr. Gumpy's Motor Car By John Burningham, published by Jonathan Cape in 1969, published by HarperCollins in 1976 (US edition), respectively



What the great John Burningham has contributed to art and illustration and picture books (and also to my own obliterated perception of all the above after discovering his work) is very much immeasurable.  I could go on about how utterly fearless his work is (and I have), but I won’t.

But backing up for just a minute… Whenever I’m fascinated by an artist or an illustrator, I don’t typically go out and consume every book or image by this person as quickly as possible. Because: a) financially speaking, it is not ok for me to do that; and b) I prefer to consume a bit here and a bit there, taking in and digesting reasonable amounts at a time. I prefer to luck upon one of said artist’s books someplace, somewhere, sometime completely unexpectedly. On a library shelf, in a bookstore, in a used book sale, etc. That’s how I seem to work.

This year, I picked up two out of print (I think?) Burningham titles.

I first heard about Seasons at my artist’s group. When Burningham came up in conversation, someone noted he had been hunting a copy of this book for a while. I hadn’t even heard of it. So that, coupled with the fact that it sounded difficult to find, made me want it all the worse. Eventually I got lucky and found a pretty well worn copy online for cheap. There’s not much story or even text to this book. Each season of the year is introduced very simply. “Spring is…” with a handful of scene-setting words to describe each changing time of year. All of which, it seems, take place on and around one sprawling, rural plot of land. And for the lack of text here, we are treated to an explosive range of dense, layered, rich Burningham illustration.



Just a few weeks ago, I found for sale a beat up library copy of Mr. Gumpy’s Motor Car. One that was taken out of circulation and put up for sale in my local library’s used book room. I have to say, a beat up library picture book is sometimes so much more interesting to own than a pristine never-been-touched copy. How many children and parents and picture book enthusiasts have pored over and grabbed and twisted, turned, laughed over, cried over, smelled and ripped theses very pages? It sure looks like a lot. This sort of picture book patina will only make a Burningham book that much better.

Like many of his books there are weirdly perfect juxtapositions of strangeness and tenderness. The art is both classic and groundbreaking. There are moments of absolute awkwardness alongside ones of absolute finesse.



Mr. Gumpy and his children and animal friends squeeze into his car for a lovely drive across the countryside. There is a moment of conflict with rain, mud, and the arguing of the pushing and then the pushing of Gumpy’s mud-stuck car. It gets hot, they go for a swim. They go home.

“Good-bye,” said Mr. Gumpy. “Come for a drive another day.”

And I don’t mind if I do.



Frog and Toad are Friends, Frog and Toad Together, Frog and Toad All Year, published by HarperCollins in 1970, 1971, 1976, respectively


I’m pretty embarrassed to admit to this, but… 2014 will henceforth be known as the year I read Frog and Toad. For the first time. I love Arnold Lobel and have slowly, over the years, been digesting his great picture books. He is, in fact, one of my favorites. Frog and Toad are, in fact, one of my wife’s childhood favorites. So I don’t know why or how I could have not read Frog and Toad for shamefully this long in life. Taken for granted maybe? Forgot I’d never read them maybe? But now I have. And I’m much better off because of it. 




These books are every bit as perfect as I’d always heard them to be. Pitch perfect, top to bottom. Not a line out of place. You know the rest. You’ve all read them. If only I’d gotten to them sooner.



Words and Pictures and Beyond the Page by Quentin Blake, published in 2000 and 2012 by Jonathan Cape, respectively



There has been a lot of Quentin Blake moving through our house this year. It started when my wife decided to begin reading to our daughter some Roald Dahl books before bedtime. Our girl is 6, so not all Dahl is appropriate, but she did get to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. Both of which were, by choice, the (later) Quentin Blake editions. I was then inspired to read The Witches, a Dahl/Blake book I’d never gotten around to. At which point I was hooked—or shall I say rehooked—on the drawings of Sir Quentin. Blake is one of those true blue pen and inkers who is so good at what he’s doing and has been for so long, that you almost forget just how good he really, really is. You take the work for granted. For shame.

Shortly thereafter came my birthday. I used a Powell’s gift certificate to snap up these two Quentin Blake art books I’d had on a “wish I had that” list for a long, long time.

Words and Pictures follows Blake’s career and pen from early beginnings all the way to the year 2000. Much of this volume focuses on his incredible and evolving book work. 



Beyond the Page picks up with Blake’s art after 2000 and carries us up to when it was published, in 2012. This book showcases many of his exhibits and art installations through Europe where he created many original drawings that were displayed on museum, gallery, and even hospital walls. And other fun side projects like postage stamp and greeting card illustration. (Bonus: the endsheets are a peek into QB's blissfully chaotic studio.)




The text and descriptions throughout both volumes were entirely written by Blake himself, in a wonderfully charming, wonderfully humble tone. It seems impossible to say, but I love his work even more having read what he has to say about it. I found we shared many of the same processes and idiosyncrasies in the way we approach our drawing. I loved reading about his influences and outside study and art-making that had little to nothing to do with the world of children's books. These two books fascinated me. And they would fascinate any other Quentin Blake lover. And they would surely make Quentin Blake lovers of the rest of them too.


Micheal Rosen’s Sad Book written by Michael Rosen, Illustrated by Quentin Blake, published by Candlewick in 2005 (US edition)


And I could not come away from those two QB books without hunting down several of the picture books mentioned within. Some of them I knew and loved already. But some I was fortunate enough to seek out and experience for the very first time. One of these was Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. My favorite book of the year.

How do you take the ultimate soul-crushing life experience and write something beautiful and brilliant and… soulful out of it? How do you illustrate it? Point blank, a child died suddenly and unexpectedly. Specifically, British poet and author Michael Rosen’s teenage son Eddie died suddenly and unexpectedly. Rosen completely opens up his heart about it, revealing himself and his memories and his despair, and ultimately the beginning bit of perseverance and hope at the end. Where one must begin to rebuild—unfathomable as it seems—after something so horribly tragic has happened.



This is lemonade-from-lemons picture book making at its finest and in the absolute best and absolute worst way. It is—in my estimation—unparalleled. It is honest, graceful, shattering. Rosen and Blake, they broke my heart into a thousand little pieces. And they somehow managed to put it back together again. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Riding on the Number 5 Bus



For the past couple of weeks, I've been bouncing emails back and forth with Philip and Erin Stead for their author and illustrator discussion series called The Number 5 Bus. It has been a tremendous amount of fun talking about books and art (past and present) and many things that fall in between.

Topics covered include (not limited to):

-unfortunate coincidences in one's plot and another found elsewhere in the world
-John Burningham
-William Steig
-virtual tour of my very messy studio
-nibs and bamboo pens
-watercolor
-previous art lives
-sneak peeks at a couple of my 2015 picture book offerings (WISH, my next author/illustrator, and SPECIAL DELIVERY, a book I illustrated by Phil)
-etc.

I hope you will take a few minutes and check out this piece and other great ones from the series. Ok, you will need more than a few minutes, probably. They are pretty stretched out in comparison to a lot of other content found on the web. Which is also what I love about these discussions. They have a nice ramble-y, not so edited, Richard Linklater-esque vibe to them that I love. I just saw Boyhood yesterday with the missus (so good) and I'm thinking Linklater a lot right now.

Check out my piece on No. 5 Bus right here:

http://numberfivebus.com/2014/03/27/season-1-episode-10-matthew-cordell-coming-soon/

Thanks for having me, Phil and Erin.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

First Grade Dropout

This just in! A set of F+G's for my picture book collaboration with the awesome Audrey Vernick from our friends at Clarion Books. First Grade Dropout! This one will be dropping in on you in July of 2015. Mark your calendars! (Dang, that seems so LONG from now.)


Monday, August 4, 2014

Make Yer Dot

Last year, first time ever, I jumped into this fun idea of making a "dot" as part of the International Dot Day event. Make a mark (or anything that may/may not be dot-like) and see where it takes you. See how a story unravels or another picture, etc. (If you weren't already aware, the idea started from Peter Reynold's lovely picture book The Dot.) These dots we make and share get shared and shared with kids and educators and parents all over and it's this wonderful creative lovefest. Dot Day this year is September 15.

Last year, I came up with this all-kinds-of-heads dot:

And this year, I came up with this red-gray-black-squirrel-ball dot:






As an illustrator, and sometime author, my dots were added to the ongoing blog/website called "celebri-dots" which can be found here. MANY others have done this and for a long list of up-to-date contributors, check that out here.

Take a scroll and click through to find a whole bunch of fun interpretations of dots from days, months, years past. And if you are an author, illustrator, or someone in the public eye, I encourage you to participate too, to get in on the fun and spark a whole bunch of kid imaginations. Here's the page that tells you how to submit. You'll be in touch with and befriend of the sweetest and most positive guys out there, Terry Shay. It's win-win, folks. Make a dot!


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Characters and Radon

This week I've been clearing out the crawl space in our basement so we can have a radon filtration system installed down there. I guess they cover up the crawl space and do whatever else. There was 10 plus years of junk crammed into that crawl space including these massive canvases I was painting back in 1999-2000. By massive, I mean 4' x 6' average. By canvases, I mean 6 or seven of those monsters. I think I only still like one of them. I've decided to remove most of the the canvases from the stretchers and just roll/store the canvases so I don't ever have to move them again and maybe never look at them again either.

Besides radon fun, I've also been knee deep in picture book sketches. I'm working on sketches/art for 3 picture books right now. And I've also been developing a pitch for an author/illustrator idea that I sent to my awesome editor at Disney-Hyperion last week. Fingers crossed for that one!

Enough words, how about some pictures? Here are three character sketches I did for one of the picture books currently underway. (a beautiful text by the lovely Rebecca Kai Dotlich via Boyds Mills Press) I did a handful of completely different looks for this central character. These drawings were from one of my favorites. We went a different way, but I still quite like these drawings as stand-alones. I hope you do too. Radon power!




Monday, July 21, 2014

The Family That Zines Together

A few days ago, my wife, Julie, was explaining to our 5-year-old daughter, Romy, about zines. For those of you who don't know, a zine is a self-made (I would say "self-published," but that sounds too glamorous, in fact) magazine. ("Zine" is "magazine" minus the "maga.") Zines are typically created in/by/for youth culture, typically so in punk rock circles or the like. Zines are typically designed pretty simply or even crudely--perhaps even cut/paste--and are produced in short-ish quantities on a photocopier on standard letter-sized paper. Copies are assembled into a paginated booklet--folded in half, and stapled to bind together. Zines can be about anything at all. Usually they are very personal in nature. Stories or comics about one's self and experiences. Things that person feels passionate about. Music, art, writing, toys, comics, love, etc. Zines were a very big part of Julie's and my teenage and 20-something years. They have since faded away in our own lives, but still hold a very sweet spot in our hearts. (Julie and I actually met each other and fell in love through zines. Long story... remind me tell you some time.)

OK... back to my point. Julie was explaining zines to Romy. Romy was so inspired, she went off to her little nook of creativity and proceeded to make her own zine about something important to her. What else...? Star Wars! She is an early, early student of the written English language, so she tends to spell things out phonetically. I'll translate.

 (Translation: STAR WARS ZINE BY ROMY. The drawing is of the Millenium Falcon with Chewie and Han screeching--word balloons--across the galaxy.)

 (Translation: MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS FROM STAR WARS. Pictured from L to R: Luke Skywalker, Wicket, Princess Leia, and Yoda--who is daydreaming about snacks.)

 (Translation: LOOK OUT ALWAYS FOR and pictured is Emperor Palpatine. Romy's least favorite, most feared and despised Star Wars character.)

(Translation: UH OH SPAGHETTI-O'S. Pictured are Jabba the Hutt and Salacious Crumb.)

How incredibly awesome is this? I am biased and that is fine, but I insist--bias or no--you too must find this awesome.

And yet, it gets better. Romy was finishing up one of her summer camp programs and for a celebratory gift, she asked that her Mama make her a zine to give her the day she finished camp. A zine about something Julie loved, using the same template that Romy herself created. So Julie did a zine about Battlestar Gallactica (the reboot). And it goes like this.





Man, I love these so much! All I can say is, how'd I get so lucky to get these beautiful people as my family?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Let Us Collaborate

Nothing quite so magical as successful collaboration. In this case, my 5-year-old daughter and I sat down to a large piece of paper yesterday and drew together this unicorn stampede.


 For the longest time, it seemed she had very little patience or interest in sitting down to a drawing. (I figured she was--in some rebellious way--rejecting drawing since that's what her old man does.) But lately, she has really stepped it up and is  becoming quite the little draughtsman. (Draughtswoman?) I will have to report back here soon with some of her other recent masterpieces.

Magic!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Best decade (+1) ever!


 This picture was taken waaaay back in 2003. The evening of July 5th, to be exact, in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire. Julie and I had just gotten married and here we are getting hoisted up and trotted around in chairs to song and dance by our strongest of friends and family. We celebrated our 11th anniversary over the weekend with a meal out (lunch not dinner, it's more practical with a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old in the house... at least we thought so), a viewing of our wedding dvd and photo album, and a half dozen donuts. It's been a tremendous 11 years. A much greater journey--with Julie and now our two little ones--than I could ever have dreamed up.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Steve Burns, Blues Clues, and us

Yesterday, I came upon this video. I'm not exactly sure of the context here, but I gather it's part of a storytelling series by something (someone?) called The Moth. The storyteller here is Steve Burns. If you ever watched an episode of Blues Clues--particularly the earlier episodes--it is THAT Steve. Blues Clues was a good deal after my time of being a child watching children's tv, but by the time my daughter was born and of tv age (she's 5 now) she came in on the tail end of Blues Clues and was immediately a huge fan of the show. Pretty much anything she's a huge fan of, Julie and I are huge fans of too. (We'll see how we feel when baby girl discovers pop music.) We loved the insane enthusiasm of Steve. The genuine goofy and sincere sweetness he brought to the show. The bright, vivid animation coupled with good ol' Steve. How he talked directly, gently, kindly to the viewer... Something about the show, and watching it with our daughter who loved it so, just made us feel good. When Steve was replaced and he left the show and Blue--in the plot, it was because he went off to college--I must admit... I got a little misty-eyed. [snif]

Anyhow, back to this video. Julie and I often wondered what happened to our old pal Steve. Well this video, it's a video of Steve Burns today. Or, I think, September of 2010. And in a more grown-up setting, maybe even a comedy club. He's reflecting on what his life was like at the height of Blue's Clues and he gives us a glimpse at why--or partly why--he ultimately bowed out. Something about this guy... I love this video. He seems so humble and true and funny and sincere. He pokes a little bit of fun at himself and the wild enthusiasm of the show, but pays genuine respect to it as well. He talks about what it was like to be famous--or "fameish" as he calls it. And there's a highly absurd anecdote about one of the strange moments fame brought to him. And by the end, I got a little misty-eyed again.

If you are a grown-up (there's some slightly adult-ish humor here, not for young 'uns) who ever enjoyed hanging out with Steve and Blue, and you have 17 minutes to spare, I suggest you watch this clip. Do it for Blue. Do it for you.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Number 5 Bus

Now that I'm back on the blog, there's this other blog/website/conversation that's been going on since that I wanted to talk about. It's called Number 5 Bus, presented by talented author/illustrator husband wife duo, Philip and Erin Stead. They've been conducting these very casual, fun, smart email conversations with various authors and illustrators around the scene and letting them loose on the world via Number 5 Bus. I think the idea is it will be handled like a television show, in that each discussion is considered an episode as part of a larger group of episodes, or "season." One would hope that, should they wish to continue, there'll be more seasons to come when this one finishes out.

 
Erin's drawing from Erin and Phil's A Sick Day For Amos McGee

For a better description of all of this, read the Steads' introduction to the project right here.

The current episode is a great one with Sergio Ruzzier. Sergio's one of my favorite contemporary picture book makers. His art is very much his own. Very recognizable and stylish and a perfect combination of sweet and strange. In this discussion on Number 5 Bus, we get some nuggets about the possibly insulting use of calling someone's work "sophisticated," the distinction or non-distinction between American and European picture books, and some sneaks into Sergio's back-portfolio and future one. A lively and fun conversation.



When you visit, be sure to check out previous episodes with more terrific kid book choices Eric Rohmann, Cece Bell, Rebecca Stead, and Julie Danielson. And check back weekly (more or less) for the next episode's release. It's good stuff!