Sophie Blackall has illustrated over 30 books and won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 2016 for Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. Her latest book, Hello Lighthouse is very special and I predict will win many awards. The story of a lighthouse keeper and his family, this book (also written by Sophie) is almost a search and find that I’m sure children will find something new every time they open the book.
MARMALADE BOOKS (MB): What was it like growing up in Australia?
SOPHIE BLACKALL (SB): I spent a great deal of my childhood in Australia up a tree with a book. My brother was usually in the tree next door, also with a book. We had a brilliantly designed, poorly executed rope, pulley and basket system between trees to exchange books. (We were in our Famous Five period, and fortunately Enid Blyton was prolific enough to keep us fueled.) We only ever read paperback books in trees. For one thing, the book exchange was precarious, and many books went flying down to no man’s land between the branches. Also, my tree was a pink peppercorn and oozed sticky sap. And also, we didn’t always remember to bring our books down with us, and even though this was hot, dry South Australia, it sometimes rained.
On my walk home from school I would pass the butcher shop and ask for some of the paper he used to wrap meat to draw on. He would roll up a few sheets and slice a piece of mortadella into the bargain. (I’ve been fond of butchers ever since.) If I wasn’t lurking about the butcher’s or up a tree, I was at the beach.
MB: What inspired you to move to New York?
SB: To our great surprise, we won green cards in the diversity visa lottery which gave us three months to pack up our lives and move to the US. It was a grand adventure. We had a three year old and an infant and we rented a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, sight unseen. It was full of mice and a rotting mattress, but…it was still a grand adventure.
A lot has changed since then, but New York never fails to sweep me off my feet.
MB: On your Instagram account you recently shared pictures of your literary dream of a trip to England, including the home of Beatrix Potter. Can you tell us more about this trip and the things that excited you the most?
SB: Ahh! I am having the very best imaginable time, researching a book for grown ups about the houses of my favorite writers. One of those writers is Beatrix Potter. I just came back from the Lake District in England, where I stayed at Yew Tree Farm, one of the many farms she owned in the area. After her death she left 15 farms including Yew Tree and Hill Top, which is now a museum, and several thousand acres of land to the National Trust so that the astonishingly beautiful country would be protected for the enjoyment of all. She was an extraordinary woman, an exquisite painter, an inquisitive thinker, a meticulous naturalist, a passionate conservationist and is a hero in the Lake District. She also fell in love, had her heart broken and fell in love again, in the middle of her life. Her first fiancé, who was also her first editor, Norman Warne, died shortly before they could be married. She kept his umbrella and his ring for the rest of her life.
I am having a wonderful time thinking about my favorite books and what they mean to me, then traveling to those authors’ houses to see what I can discover of them there. I am drawing the things they left behind and thinking how our possessions define us.
MB: I’ve read that you hide a whale in each of your books in honour of Moby Dick and in Hello Lighthouse, you can find a whale in almost every illustration. It seems that this new book brings together three things that you really love; lighthouses, whales and the sea. What is it about these things that inspire you?
SB: I grew up by the sea. I first drew with sticks in the sand. I pine for the sea if I’m away too long. As Melville writes, “There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
I picked up Moby Dick when I’d been away from the sea too long. Books have a way of finding you at the right time. And if the time is right, Moby Dick, like New York, can sweep a person off her feet. My obsession with Moby Dick took me to New Bedford and beyond. On a beach in Cape Cod, I picked up a whale rib which now hangs above my bed. Whales began to work their way into my books, hidden mostly. But finally, in Hello Lighthouse they appear, as you say, on almost every page, if only as the weather vane atop the cupola.Lighthouses are both compelling and comforting. I love the contrast between the stormy sea crashing against the tower and the cozy round rooms inside, like curling up with a book on a rainy day.
I was working on Hello Lighthouse during some of the most turbulent times I’ve ever known. It was a great comfort to escape into my painting, to transport myself to a tiny island out at sea.
Recently a child at a school visit asked, “What were your emotions like when you made Hello Lighthouse?” I told him that there were a lot of bad and sad and crummy things happening in the world when I made this book, and that when the world is full of such things, books offer an escape to a different, kinder world. And if we can’t find exactly the world we seek in a book, then we can make our own book and our own world.
MB: The level of detail in your illustrations for Hello Lighthouse is amazing. There is so much to discover here, like finding the whales, the anchors on the wife’s dress, the bunny slippers on the daughter, the details in the cut-a-way of the lighthouse and the gorgeous waves reminiscent of The Great Wave print by Hokusai. Did you have trouble knowing when to stop and did you have more that you wanted to add?
SB: The best books are the ones you don’t want to finish making. But then you get to live with them out in the world. It’s such a pleasure sharing Hello Lighthouse with readers, and getting to visit more lighthouses now the book is out, seems too good to be true.
MB: Are you working on a new project and can you tell us about it?
SB: Like Beatrix Potter, I always have a dozen things going at once, and like Beatrix Potter, I have bought a farm. (Only one, so far.) Right now, Milkwood Farm is an abandoned dairy farm in upstate New York on 21 beautiful acres of rolling hills and wildflower meadows and meandering streams. But in two years time, it will have been transformed into a place for writers and illustrators to gather and spend time together, writing, drawing, talking, walking, eating, drinking, thinking. You can find out more about the project here! www.milkwoodfarm.org
My thanks to Sophie for this interview. I've only scratched the surface of her very interesting adventures in writing and illustrating. It's always such a pleasure to learn more about the talented and inspiring authors and illustrators in the world of children's literature. Pat Oldroyd