Hooray for animal families! I was lucky enough to be paired with Matt Cordell several years ago for our picture book ITSY BITSY BABY MOUSE, a story about a mouse who gets lost. ITSY BITSY is still twirling and whirling; teachers tell me they use the book to teach kids about how to prevent getting lost and what steps to take if they do get lost. Matt’s whimsical illustrations perfectly capture the fright ITSY BITSY feels when he realizes he has twirled too far from home, as well as the joy he feels when he is finally reunited with his parents.
Over the years, I have enjoyed Matt’s many amazing books, and I’m especially fond of WISH. It’s partly because I experienced the devastation of pregnancy loss many years ago before my husband and I had our son – and then there’s this irresistible elephant family, a lyrical text, and an emotion-filled story. Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. Fortunately, life also includes wonderful developments that change our journey forever.
From the book description:
“As an elephant couple embarks on their life together, thoughts of children are far away — at first. But as the desire for a child grows, so do unexpected challenges. And it’s only after thwarted plans and bitter disappointment that their deepest wish miraculously comes true.”
Let’s hear from Matt about the creation of WISH. Plus, everyone who comments will be entered for a chance to win a giveaway of Matt’s brand new book, BEAR ISLAND!
What was your inspiration for creating WISH?
Almost all of my books have been inspired by my family and my experiences as a husband and father to our two kids. WISH came from an especially personal place, as I wanted to go back to the time before my wife, Julie, and I started a family. It was a difficult, disappointing, and heartbreaking period of our lives. We wanted desperately to have children, but it wasn’t happening as planned. We had complications, delays, and even loss.
It took years before we were able to have our daughter, Romy, and those years were some of the most uncertain and alienating years I’ve lived. Not being able to have a baby is a surprising and lonely place to be, when you constantly see other couples having babies and raising children with seemingly no problem at all.
But we came to find out that infertility issues are all too common; it’s just that they aren’t often talked about. So, I wanted to make a picture book about that experience. The experience of waiting and wishing so much for a child to come and the difficulties with that – but also the experience of when it finally does happen and the overwhelming emotions that come with that long-awaited moment.
When I wrote the book, I really hoped that it would find its way into the large community of couples who are currently trying to start a family, or those who had endured a similar journey that Julie and I had, and wanted to share this experience with their little one(s). It’s been incredibly gratifying to see the book embraced by so many couples and families that have found it since it came out in 2015.
Tell us about your approach to this story and the illustrations.
I generally try to write a manuscript before doing anything visual for all of my books. I just find it to be easier and more helpful if I have a more or less complete manuscript to work from before doing any drawing. So, with WISH, I wrote out the story completely straight away. And it came out relatively easily, as it really was such a personal place.
As I write, I do often start to visualize how pictures will take shape, even if I’m not putting anything down on paper at that point. I knew early on that I wanted the characters to be animals. An animal character is one approach for allowing a reader to envision themselves in that role. The idea of elephants came to me very early on. I wanted an animal that is strong, but also sensitive and insightful. Elephants are big and stoic, but they are also brilliant animals.
When it was time to draw the pictures, I wanted them to complement the sparse and poetic text of the story. I wanted the drawings to be loose and organic. I even drew the ink drawings with a bamboo pen instead of a steel nib! (essentially a sharpened piece of bamboo that I dipped into a bottle of ink for drawing) I wanted the art to have similar flow to the text. Lots of white space, loose pen and ink, loose watercolor. But also a bit of magic and sparkle.
You have written and illustrated many successful picture books, including the Caldecott-winning WOLF IN THE SNOW. What are your top tips?
-Write what you’re passionate about, not what you think someone else will be passionate about. I learned early on that it’s best if I rely on my own life and experience to come up with my books and ideas and art. Drawing from the things that make me happy, sad, or inspired will drive better and more authentic work. It’s good to know what is successful and being bought out there, but it can’t be a driving factor in my work. Using that as a starting point has never ended well in my experience.
-Take risks. Look at your own life and think about what makes you interesting and unique. It can only help to make your work stand out as well. Everyone has something, I believe. A lot of books are published every year, and if you can take risks and stand apart in some way that is unusual but authentic, it can only work to your benefit. And picture books need not be a place only for the wholesome, warm, and expected. There is plenty of opportunity and desire for the unexpected.
-Always read and study lots of picture books — past, present, and future. Always study the work of others. Know the history. Know what’s out now. Know what’s on the next lists. Learn from and get to know other creators and their work and work habits. Be informed, and it will only inform your own work and make it better.
What’s new and exciting?
Thankfully, I’m keeping nice and busy these days. On January 26, my latest author/illustrator title, BEAR ISLAND, was released. It’s a book about love and grief and resilience. FOLLOW THAT FROG will be released on February 2. This is the third in a trilogy of books I’ve illustrated with my author/illustrator pal, Philip Stead.
I’m currently working on writing my next picture book and illustrating my first beginning reader books about two mouse friends, Cornbread and Poppy. (Who are not quite as itsy-bitsy as our little ITSY-BITSY BABY MOUSE!) And in spare moments, I’m working on two other potential projects I hope to bring to fruition in coming years. It’s good to be working!
I can’t wait to meet Cornbread and Poppy! Congratulations on all your new books! Sharing an excerpt from the description for BEAR ISLAND:
“Louise and her family are sad over the loss of their beloved dog, Charlie. “Life will not be the same,” Louise says, as she visits a little island that Charlie loved. But on a visit to the island after Charlie’s death, something strange happens: She meets a bear. At first, she’s afraid, but soon she realizes that the bear is sad, too. As Louise visits more often, she realizes that getting over loss takes time…Here is a lovely, poignant story about loss and healing that will bring comfort to even the youngest readers.”
For a chance to win a copy of BEAR ISLAND, leave a comment by February 8.
Thanks for reading & see you next time!