Sophie Blackall is an award-winning illustrator of over 45 books for children, including the New York Times best-selling Ivy and Bean series, the 2016 Caldecott Medal winner, Finding Winnie and the 2019 Caldecott Medal winner, Hello Lighthouse, which she also wrote. She is the four-time recipient of The New York Times Best Illustrated Picture Book Award.
Sophie’s illustrations are internationally beloved and recognizable, from her soft color palette to the whales she hides in each of her books. We’re so excited to have had the opportunity to talk with Sophie about the power of books, the trickiest drawings, and blurring the line between fiction and reality.
Your most enthusiastic fans know about your love for Moby Dick (and look for hidden whales in all your books!). What book(s) did you read as a young child that stuck with you? What about the book made a lasting impression?
The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. Do not be fooled that this is some quaint, vintage, bunny book. Written in 1939 by DuBoise Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack it is possibly the first feminist picture book. We learn in the beginning that there is not one Easter bunny, but five, and they must be the five swiftest, wisest and kindest bunnies in the land. When one rabbit retires, many aspire to take his place, including our heroine, Cottontail. But Cottontail is shouted down because she is a girl, and she is brown. She’s told to “go back to the country and eat a carrot.” Instead she goes and has 21 children, seemingly on her own, and raises them to be kind and responsible and empathetic and resourceful. She assigns them tasks in the running of the house, and here is the bit that gets me. Two of them are given brooms to sweep, two make the beds, two are taught to cook and so on. But to two she gave paints and crayons. Right here, in this picture book, I was shown that making art was as valuable to a community as food and shelter. Heyward and Flack showed me that drawing should be taken seriously. In the end, our little country bunny shows them all, and it’s so satisfying, it gives me goosebumps every time.
What’s your favorite response you’ve received from a child about your work?
I was recently in Maine with Island Readers and Writers, a wonderful non-profit organization that brings authors and illustrators into remote, underserved schools. We talk to children about our books and conduct hands-on creative workshops and show them a glimpse of the great, wide world. But because of the intimate nature of the visits we also get the chance to listen to children, and to hear about their worlds, and their lives and hopes and dreams. And then, at the end of the day when we are all fast friends and loathe to part, we leave each student with a book. One third grade girl accepted hers, thanked me politely, and asked where she should put it. I told her she could take it home.
“But I have to bring it back tomorrow, right?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “You get to keep it.”
“FOREVER???” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Forever.”
“Then,” she said, “I will read it every night for the rest of my life.”
Your book Hello Lighthouse has such a distinct feeling to it, as though the lighthouse itself is not only holding life but is itself alive. You’ve also recently bought a farm in Upstate New York, to breathe new life into and make it a gathering place for authors and artists like yourself. The idea of places as living characters is something writers and illustrators often find themselves exploring; can you talk a little bit about what creating spaces, both in the real world and the picture book one, means to you?
Illustrators are architects and landscapers and clothing designers. We create worlds for our readers to step into, and live there for a time, and return whenever they wish. This is certainly how I felt as a child. I loved Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, I wanted to live in Owl’s house in Winnie-the-Pooh and I dreamed of the house Peter Pan and the lost Boys built for Wendy. As a reader I am also fascinated by the process materials of a beloved book. We get a glimpse into the working mind of the artist or writer. I love to look at hand-written manuscripts and original art. I feel a shiver of excitement if there is a tea stain or a pencil footnote; evidence of the hand at work. Before long before I yearn to see the teacup or the pencil stub. And after that, the chair, the desk, the bed, the house.
I want to stand in the room where Herman Melville wrote and gaze out the window as he did, to see for myself how the snow-dusted Mount Greylock might resemble a monstrous white whale. I want to tramp the hills of Beatrix Potter’s farm, climb the stairs to Anne Frank’s attic, pay respects to the sagging chair that once held Virginia Woolf in its arms.
So that is what I’m doing! I’m writing a book for grownups about the houses of the authors who wrote the books that shaped my life.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, about creating art or otherwise?
One of my favorite writers on writing, Annie Dillard, wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” It’s something I try to remember every day of this too short life.
If you could write and illustrate your version of a classic story, which would you choose?
I would love to take a stab at illustrating Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, but I wouldn’t change a word.
Maurice Sendak famously said he struggled to draw horses. In your opinion, what’s the trickiest thing to draw?
My horses tend to look like dogs, my dogs look like pigs, and don’t get me started on bicycles. Actually this is something I talk about with kids. A friend told me the key to drawing bicycles is to begin with an italic ‘N’…
What can you tell us about your current/next project?
I’ve been working on my latest book for five years! It’s my own fault of course, I have nobody else to blame. It’s an 80pp picture book about everything in the world. It’s called If You Come to Earth and is about a child who writes a letter to a visitor from another planet, explaining the world. If You Come to Earth, Here’s What You Need to Know. It will be out in fall 2020 from Chronicle Books.