We’re Going on a Bear Island Hunt: Matthew Cordell Talks Grief and Hope and Bears
At this time in the season we tend to look forward to the new year with great anticipation. But never before, I think, have we wanted so desperately for a year to end. It gives all those upcoming books we’d like to see a special little spice, don’t you think? And one can only feel even happier when the upcoming book is by Caldecott Award winner Matthew Cordell.
Behold the beauty of Bear Island:
A synopsis from the publisher? Don’t mind if I do!
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. And just when she starts to feel better, it’s time for Bear to bed down for the winter.
Once again, Louise believes that life will not be the same. But sometimes, things can change for the better, and on the first warm day of spring, her family welcomes a new member. Here is a lovely, poignant story about loss and healing that will bring comfort to even the youngest readers.
Stand up and cheer fella that he is, Matthew agreed to answer a few of my questions about the book. And, as a special treat, we get to look at some of the interior spreads. Woot!
Betsy Bird: First and foremost, how are you and your family doing right now during the age of COVID-19?
Matthew Cordell: We are hanging in there, thankfully. Keeping a strict quarantine as best as we can. Our kids have been in virtual school all school year and will be so until at least the end of January. I was traveling a lot for work before all of this happened, and things have obviously been silenced in that area. But, thankfully, work has been steady and our loved ones are good and healthy. I hope the same is true for you and yours, Betsy.
BB: Happily, yes. Like you, my kids have been virtual learning all year, though a January return feels like a pipe dream by now. Now BEAR ISLAND looks absolutely wonderful. Can you tell me a little bit about where this book came from?
MC: Thanks so much, Betsy. This book materialized from a couple of different places. In 2016, I lost my Dad after his valiant but horrifying battle with pancreatic cancer. It hit me so hard at the time, needless to say. The grief of such a loss is massive and incomprehensible at first. In time, the size of it slowly dissipates, but it never goes away completely. I think about my Dad everyday. Either through fond memories or simply just wishing he were still here. Processing his loss and also watching the way it has affected my family, it made me want to honor him and the experience of losing him in the way that I know best–through writing and drawing a picture book. So, that was the first point of inspiration. The other thing was, I was drawing a girl and bear in my sketchbook over a period of months that had no story attached. I got to thinking what that bear may have been in these pictures and what he may have meant to this girl. A large, intimidating, growling, but soft and beautiful wild animal felt like the perfect metaphor for grief and loss. So I combined the two and started writing Bear Island. It’s important to note that the loss in Bear Island is the family’s pet dog. I couldn’t do a book about a family losing a parent. It was, I think, just too personal for me and way too heavy to share and read that story to groups of kids.
BB: I can imagine. Along similar lines, as I write to you, we’re in the thick of a tough time that is only going to get tougher as the winter sets in. Loss is loss, no matter how you cut it, whether it’s the loss of getting to see your friends, the loss of your freedom, or losing someone you love. We may feel it to different degrees, but in 2020 we all lost something. How does your book address that?
MC: Oh, absolutely. We are all dealing with loss and grief in a multitude of ways this year. One of the things about children that inspire me the most is their incredible resilience. But 2020 has been tremendously challenging and that resilience has really been put to the test. I see it in my own children too. Being a child stuck at home–or at least physically away from one’s friends and extended family–is something that has been considerably difficult. I think in Bear Island, and generally speaking in life, it’s important to realize and own those problems and emotions and to confront them as best as we know how. In Bear Island, Louise doesn’t always want or need to be with her family to make herself feel better. Sometimes she needs to be alone and some of her biggest leaps forward are done when she goes out alone and onto that island. I think we have to be respectful of whatever space our children might need right now. And allow them to cope however their individual needs see fit. But we must also be supportive and loving and reassuring that this will come to an end, as hard as it might be to believe that right now. Grief, sadness, sickness, isolation… it won’t carry on forever. Some days it seems impossible, but I know it will get better.
BB: I like that. And I remember so clearly the shot in WOLF IN THE SNOW of the mother wolf’s face as she looked straight on at the girl/reader. The cover of this book reminds me of that moment. Can you tell us a little bit about your research of bears and what, ultimately, made you choose this image as the cover?
MC: There is something so soulful and piercing and also terrifying about looking directly into the eyes of a predatorial wild animal. It’s one of the things we are often told not to do, specifically in a situation where an animal might feel threatened. So looking into an animal’s face and eyes like that… it’s a multitude of reactions. That spread in Wolf in the Snow really was a jolt in the story for that same reason. And I wanted that feeling to be front and center on the cover of Bear Island. With Wolf in the Snow, there was loads of research I needed to work through to interpret the behavior of the wolves, and their realistic reactions to the way things might play out in a story with human characters. But Bear Island is a very different story with a more fantastical slant to it. So I didn’t need to do that same type of research. The research for this book was not quite as in-depth but still just as visually based. Getting the bear’s body language and posture right in terms of sadness or exhaustion as opposed to a bear that is feeling angry or defensive. A lot of visual research was necessary to get these bear drawings right.
BB: What is it about bears that inspires so many picture books? Why do we connect to them in the way that we do?
MC: As someone who draws a lot of animals in books, I find that some are much more complex than others, and can be used to convey a variety of emotions and scenarios. Some animals, like a bear, can make us feel warm, fuzzy, sweet, and happy. But a bear can also make us very afraid. It really depends on the context of the story, and how they are drawn. In Bear Island, there is actually a bit of both of those two very different qualities. There’s a closeness between Louise and the bear, but also an understandable fear and respect. I think bears are super appealing in terms of their size and cute faces and very soft-looking fur and general squishiness. You can get a lot of artistic mileage out of that in children’s books. But, realistically speaking, do not run your fingers through a wild bear’s fur.
BB: Sound advice. I like the idea that our quarantine, in the time of this pandemic, is a kind of hibernation and that someday spring will come again. For some of the youngest readers of this book, living in pandemic times could be all that they may clearly remember. What are you looking forward to the most when all this is over?
MC: I really miss museums. Art museums, natural history museums, science museums. My family, we love us a museum. I can’t wait to go back to a museum and absorb the exhibits and be amongst other museum goers and museum-loving families, and listen to the chatter and awe and laughs (and cries) and be completely in love and exhausted at the end of the day. It’s wonderful to be around humans who want to celebrate the best of humanity and who want to understand how to be better humans.
BB: Finally, what’s next for you in the future?
MC: I’ve been very busy with writing and drawing, and that’s one thing that hasn’t changed for me in these pandemic times. After Bear Island, my next collaboration with my pal, Philip Stead, comes out–Follow That Frog, the final book in our Sadie trilogy, will be out in February. I just finished illustrating a picture book biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner, written by Candace Fleming. I’m currently writing and illustrating my first two beginning reader books, about two mice friends named Cornbread and Poppy. I’m writing my next picture book with Macmillan/Feiwel and Friends (publisher of both Wolf in the Snow and Bear Island). And I’m working on a picture book biography about an artistic hero of mine–very early stages with that one. Lots in the works, I’m glad to say.
BB: And we, I should say, are glad to hear. Take care of yourself.
And that special treat I alluded to earlier? Take a gander:
Untold oodles of thanks to the Matthew for being so kind as to answer my questions and to the illustrious Mary Van Akin and the good folks at Feiwel & Friends and Macmillan for this marvelous interview.
Look for Bear Island to hit shelves January 26th.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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