Children’s book artist Matthew Cordell spent several days getting a taste of Hong Kong, from visiting the city’s monkey population to getting caught in a yellow signal rainstorm.
He was in town for the Hong Kong Young Readers Festival, an annual event which invites writers from around the world to share their love of storytelling with local students through workshops and readings.
It’s a wet and gloomy afternoon when we meet Cordell, but the weather doesn’t seem to have given him a bad impression of Hong Kong.
“It’s such a cool blend of culture, food, art, and architecture,” he says of the city. “There’s so much visual inspiration here.”
During his trip, he recorded his experiences with some daily sketches, something he likes to do when he’s back home in Chicago, in the US, too.
“I try to sketch in my sketchbook once a day if I can. I prefer to draw what I’m looking at in real time, but if I can’t, I’ll take a picture on my phone and then draw it when I’m back in my hotel room,” he explains.
Inspired by artists like Quentin Blake, who illustrated Roald Dahl’s books, and William Steig, Cordell has always opted for a loose, fluid style of drawing, using pen and ink and watercolours. Last year, his skill earned him a Caldecott Medal, which recognises the best picture books illustrated by Americans, “Life is not perfect – so I find beauty in things that are imperfect. That’s why I prefer a loose, scratchy style of illustration. I think it’s more exciting for me to make images like that rather than suffering over a realistic drawing. And I think some life is lost when you do that, too.”
Growing up, Cordell always wanted to be an artist, but he never imagined he would end up creating children’s books. That all changed when he met a talented writer – who would also become his wife.
“I never even thought about children’s books until my wife reintroduced them to my life,” he says.
The pair decided to create a book together, and the result, Toby and the Snowflakes, was published. “That was what launched me into the world of children’s books.”
Since that fateful meeting, Cordell’s family – he and his wife have two children – has influenced almost every part of his career.
“A lot of books I’ve written have an emphasis on the dynamics of a family; sometimes it’s the serious things, sometimes it’s the silly things, but I find it’s a nice starting point for me, because my family is the most inspiring thing in my life,” he says.
He adds with a smile, “I sometimes make a joke of the fact that having kids is normally very expensive, but in my case my kids are actually paying me back.”
One of his stories, King Alice was inspired by a playing with his daughter one day.
“We made a book together one day, because she knew that’s what I do. We wrote it and illustrated it. And after the fact, I thought, ‘I should make a book about that experience’.”
In the story, King Alice – as she has declared herself – and her father spend a snowy day having all sorts of indoor adventures, which they then write down. The story encourages readers to never put any limits on their imagination.
“I find that as a storyteller, I can weave in ideas that might be unusual. My daughter never wanted to accept the role of princess or whatever; she wanted to be whichever character was the strongest, even if it was a male character. So I wanted to make a book that spoke to that. Because kids don’t get hung up on ideas of what we’re supposed to do or not, they just like to pretend.”
Cordell hoped to encourage the young people he met during the Festival to see the value of creativity. He’s a firm believer that entering adulthood doesn’t mean leaving behind your childhood passions.
“If the world is only focused on achieving one thing, we’re missing out on so much beauty and success in other areas … being creative, and taking inspiration from things beyond numbers and letters, fills us up in ways that getting good grades cannot,” he says.
“I’m glad I can share my experience with young people: that I grew up drawing but I’m still doing it as an adult, and you can, too.”