Counting sheep takes on comical new meaning in Matthew Cordell’s over-the-top thematic twist on the arrival of not one but a dozen new siblings to young Davy’s family of sheep, qualifying this author/illustrator’s latest title, Another Brother, as a candidate for understatement of the year.
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Not your average little lamb, for years Davy blossomed as the recipient of his parents’ undivided attention, learning to sing and play guitar, knit and shear his own wooly afro. But then the near-overnight addition of 12 new brothers shakes the intimate family dynamic to its core, especially as Davy’s flock of siblings begins to imitate his every move.
Cordell’s signature cartoon-like drawings sweetly capture Davy’s shifting feelings of puzzlement, torment, loneliness and delight, as his brothers gradually outgrow their emulation of him and a little sister arrives as the perfect kindred spirit. We were eager to catch up with this gifted artist to see what inspired his hilarious second effort as an author/illustrator.
You have a brother, right?
Yes, one brother. I dedicated this book to him.
Are you the older?
He’s almost two years older than I.
So how much of your childhood is in this book?
I wanted to write a sibling book of some sort, a book about an only child who has to adapt to a new addition to the family. But I knew that wouldn’t be distinctive enough, and that there had to be a lot more to it.
I had some childhood memories of one of my cousins, who is the oldest of three. It was Thanksgiving dinner and we were all eating, and his youngest brother was mimicking everything that he did. He had the same food on his plate, and he would literally say the say the same things. The older brother would say something like, “I’m done eating,” and the younger brother would say, “I’m done eating,” and the older brother almost didn’t even know that it was going on. It had been happening for so long that he either ignored it or had forgotten it was happening.
It was really funny. Not only was the kid copying him, he’d passed the point of being annoyed by it. Maybe he was even enjoying it so some degree because he wasn’t telling him to stop. It just seemed funny at the time, and I remembered that randomly and thought there was some humor there that’s common. Younger brothers and sisters will copy the one that they look up to, and I thought how can I amplify that so it’s over the top. I figured adding a dozen brothers would make it absurd but not overly absurd.
What was the inspiration for Davy, a sheep who sports a ’fro and wears funky head- and wristbands?
I knew I wanted to make someone really quirky because initially he was an only child, and he was getting all the love and attention. In my mind, being showered with love and affection from interesting parents would make an interesting kid.
The things that he does are sort of odd. He plays the guitar. I really love music, and I thought it would be fun if he played the guitar. I was trying to key up the absurdity. A kid probably wouldn’t play a “tender ballad,” something that would make his parents cry.
But I thought that would be really funny, and then knitting—the sheep reference to the wool. It’s hard to say what directly influenced me in terms of the character, but it developed over time. I knew that I wanted Davy to be very individualistic, and it would be funny to see the unusual things that he does copied.
My favorite illustration is the center spread with all 12 brothers hanging on the high bars with Davy.
Yeah, that’s when the copying is at its peak. I think that’s my favorite, too. Thank you.
The Library of Congress cataloging information for this picture book is amusing, too. The subjects are: 1. Brothers; 2. Imitation; 3. Family life; 4. Sheep. What moved you to tell this with sheep as opposed to rabbits or something?
That’s funny. I didn’t even notice that. First of all, I knew I wanted to draw a fluffy animal, so with sheep you have that wonderful texture. But mostly I was drawn to sheep because when I think of a sheep, I think of a follower, an animal that doesn’t question too much.
And you think, too, of a group, a flock of sheep, and I wanted the reactions of all of the characters to have this kind of look of amazement mixed with fear, like their saucer eyes. I also think of sheep as being almost paranoid. All of those things made me think that the sheep was the perfect animal for this story. Mostly I do animal stories, so I knew I wanted to do animals all along.
What was the most challenging thing for you to depict in this story?
The most challenging thing with every book that I do is color. Something that’s constantly intimidating to me is developing a color palette because it’s difficult. In this book, I was fortunate enough to work with an animal that doesn’t have much color, and I made my backgrounds different shades of gray.
It took me a while to come up with the color for the sheep. I started thinking how could I color the sheep so that it’s not too simple but also that it’s not stripped of color because they are white. And I started this stippling thing with the little dots with the brush; at first it was just one color, and that wasn’t enough.
What I arrived at almost reminds me of pointillist paintings, but also those eye-chart colorblind tests where you bring a bunch of colors together. It took me a while to develop something that I could live with.
If you had to choose, would you rather be remembered as an author or an illustrator?
Oh, definitely as an illustrator. It’s a gift to be given the chance to write books because it’s been a struggle. I’ve always wanted to write and illustrate books of my own on top of illustrating other people’s work, but writing a picture book is incredibly difficult—finding the idea and whittling things down.
A lot of people think picture books are easy to write because the text is so concise, but it’s incredibly difficult to do it right. I do consider myself an author because I’ve been published as an author, but whenever someone asks me what I do, I say I’m a children’s-book illustrator.
Erika Rohrbach spends her days helping international students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and her nights and weekends in northern New Jersey.