Review of the Day: Evergreen by Matthew Cordell
Years ago, Kate DiCamillo wrote a Newbery Award winning book by the name of Flora & Ulysses. I was quite fond of that chapter book for young readers (and considering the awards it won, I wasn’t alone). In it, a squirrel is unexpectedly sucked into a vacuum and ends up with some superpowers (like ya do). At the time, I commented how strange it was that we have so few squirrel heroes in our children’s books. Consider how common the little critters are. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid in the country or the city (unless you live in a desert or in Hawaii), you probably know what a squirrel looks like. Aside from sparrows (another oddly infrequent species in our kidlit) can you think of any other animal in nature quite so ubiquitous in the United States of America? All this is to say that we’ve been waiting far too long for a book like Evergreen. A squirrel heroine. An epic adventure. Delicious hints of familiar fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, naturally), and tasty treats. For the anxious child, Evergreen may well be the hero they’ve always needed.
Evergreen is a small squirrel who lives with her mother in a tall oak tree in the Buckthorn Forest. She is also, and I mean this kindly, a bit of a scaredy-cat, so you can imagine her terror when one day her mother tells her that she would like her to deliver some of her special soup to Granny Oak, who has a terrible flu. Terrified, Evergreen sets out and, along the way, encounters several situations where she could either flee in fear or do the right thing. Consistently, Evergreen’s better nature wins out over her worries, and in the course of things she discovers that she’s even having a little bit of fun. But when she returns home, what will her mother have her do next?
Long ago, in another lifetime honestly, I lived in New York City and in 2009 I attended a Macmillan preview of upcoming children’s books. It was presented to the librarians in the NYC area and once in a while they’d bring in an author or illustrator. On this particular occasion they brought in a new guy by the name of Matthew Cordell. His new picture book was called Trouble Gum and involved two piglets and a lotta gum. The book wasn’t a blockbuster but it was pretty funny and Kirkus said it, “Packs plenty of pop”. For my own part, I was intrigued by Cordell’s artistic style. It seemed like what you’d get if you combined the cartoonist George Booth with the work of Quentin Blake. What I didn’t know was that I’d be seeing a lot more of Cordell’s art over the years. Moreover, the man has the ability to shift his style when he has half a mind to do so. That’s partly why his book Wolf in the Snow was so shocking. Here you had his familiar spiky familiarity, but then it was combined with a vastly real and realistically rendered wolf, face to face. Which brings us to the art of Evergreen.
In the same year that Evergreen is being released, Cordell has done art for the middle grade novel Leeva at Last by Sara Pennypacker, and a new installment in his Cornbread & Poppy series (Cornbread and Poppy at the Museum). The first two books are very much in the classic Cordellian style we’ve all grown to know and love. Evergreen, however, looks different from the start. It’s bigger, for one thing, clocking in at a rare eleven inches in height and nine inches in width. Its color palette is distinctly subdued, the natural hues and tones (generally brownish) broken up most distinctly by Evergreen’s red cape. Even so, it’s not a bright red but more of a brownish rose. Most striking, of course, is the style Cordell is employing here. A close observer of nature, he combining his natural inclinations to anthropomorphize his animal protagonists alongside his desire to render some animals as realistically as possible. And having learned a thing or two from the visceral thrill of the wolf’s face staring straight at the viewer in Wolf in the Snow, there’s a similar moment in Evergreen when our heroine and a ungrateful bunny by the name of Briar are set upon by a red-tailed hawk. You hear it before you see it, and with a single turn of the page Cordell fills the spread up with the hawk’s full wingspan and terrifying talons. This shock is echoed later in the book with a bear roaring at full blast, so that I finally came to realize that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an artist quite do what Cordell does with these books. Evergreen is about punctuating storytelling with the shock of reality. It makes for a wonderfully original way to keep (and maintain!) a reader’s attention.
That storytelling, by the way, is a testament to Cordell’s talents. Many is the illustrator who can bring an author’s words to life. Cordell, for his part, proves himself to be talented with his own gentle wordplay when his heart is in a project. Of this book he has said, “I’d written and illustrated picture books that have tackled heavy subjects, like prejudice, sadness, and alienation, even death… But after making a number of such difficult books… I was ready to take a break and go deep into the forest for a good, long yarn, ripe with adventure, surprises, and colorful characters.” And true, this book is distinctly lacking in oppressively serious subject matter, but don’t go believing that just because the story is enjoyable it doesn’t have its own weight and depth. This is a tale about facing, not just one fear, but a series of fears. The delight comes every time Evergreen comes to the realization that she’s truly enjoying her adventures. It helps, I’m sure, that her greatest fear waits in the wings for most of the book, and so she’s able to make it a kind of worst-case-scenario in her head.
I was having a conversation with someone the other day about my favorite kinds of humor and they asked what makes me laugh. After thinking about it, I said that it really depended on the medium. For example, if I’m reading a picture book and it surprises a laugh out of me, I’m going to feel a kind of gratitude towards it, especially if I didn’t know it was funny from the outset. Cordell’s no stranger to humor, but he employs it strategically. There was no way, just looking at the cover of “Evergreen” to know if it has anything funny in it or not. Considering the creator, the odds are good, but I’ve never been a betting woman. My first hint that maybe this was a book for me came about ten pages in. I’d already been enjoying Cordell’s Beatrix Potter-esque method of rendering clothed animals with the musculature of their real life counterparts. Evergreen’s fearful peeping around her mother feels at once as familiar in the behavior of small children as it did the behavior of squirrels. But it was on pages ten and eleven that I was most delighted. On the left-hand page stands Evergreen at her doorway, facing a world that we cannot see yet. All we can see of her expression is her oversized left eye, its vertical pupil staring straight out, like there wasn’t an eyelid in the world that could cover this anxious staring. On the right-hand side of the page is a new character, a bunny named Briar. Something about Briar feels off, and that off-feeling is also very funny. It’s hard to explain but Cordell’s visual humor in this book is remarkable. It goes hand in hand with his verbal jokes, sometimes working in tandem, and sometimes standing alone, individually.
Maybe Evergreen is the squirrel heroine we all need. Thanks to the state of the world today (to say nothing of the 24-hour news cycle) there’s a lot out there to be legitimately anxious about. So for those kids for whom staying inside isn’t just enticing but feels downright necessary, maybe they can take a drop of courage from a little tree rodent that knows the difference between doing the right thing and the easy thing. Gorgeous in writing and art, I won’t sully this review by lofting the words “future classic” in Evergreen’s direction (but I won’t argue if YOU happen to say it instead). Delightful from tip to tail.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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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