Sophie Blackall’s many children’s book illustration credits include Annie Barrows’s Ivy + Bean chapter books (Chronicle, 6–9 years), Matthew Olshan’s The Mighty LaLouche (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 5–7 years), and the 2011 Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Honor–winning Pecan Pie Baby written by Jacqueline Woodson (Putnam, 3–6 years; watch their award acceptance here). A book for adults, Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found (Workman), features illustrations inspired by such personal ads as: “Saw you sailing up Jay Street around 4pm on the most glorious golden bike. I think I’m in love.” If any of those “Missed Connection” couples end up connecting, Blackall’s newest picture book, The Baby Tree (Penguin/Paulsen, 3–6 years), might come in handy. Her loose, fanciful illustrations lend humor to a young boy’s interpretations of grown-up dodges to the question: “Where do babies come from?”
1. When the narrator receives “the news” from his parents that he’s going to be a big brother, he has lots of questions, “but the only one that comes out is: Are there any more cocopops?” Were you consciously trying to take the edge off the subject matter with humor, or were you hoping to appeal directly to your audience’s love of sugar cereals?
SB: As a child in 1977, when our parents calmly told us they were getting divorced, my brother’s first question was famously, “Can we have afternoon tea now?” Everyone knows you need to get the urgent matters of cocopops and cookies out of the way before you can focus on the more profound ones of life and death and birth and love.
2. The answers the boy receives are standard-grown-up evasions… which turn out to be partially true! (All except for the stork.) Did you start this project knowing the story would take a circular path or did that happen organically?
SB: Some years ago I read an article in The New Yorker written by Jill Lepore, about sex-ed books for children. After examining funny but outdated books, progressive but heavy-handed books, and books with useful information but awful drawings, she concluded, or at least I fancied she concluded, “Sophie Blackall, will you please attempt a funny, sensible, beautiful book on this subject?” (What she actually wrote was: “it would be nice if it was a good book, even a beautiful book. If that book exists, I haven’t found it.”) So that was the beginning. Around the same time my children, giggling, relayed a Saturday Night Live skit in which Angelina Jolie and Madonna bicker over whose babies have come from the more exotic place, ending with one of them claiming her baby was plucked from a baby tree. The idea of the ludicrous, evasive answers each holding a grain of truth came as I began to write.
3. Did you do any research about what language to use with this age group? For example, in the very helpful appended “Answering the Question Where Do Babies Come From?” page, you suggest parents discuss intercourse as “a man and a woman lie close together,” rather than giving kids the full monty.
SB: I spoke to pediatricians and elementary teachers and other parents, and the one thing that seemed really clear is that children will absorb as much information as is appropriate for them at any given age; the rest will just spill over. A bit later they’re ready for a more sophisticated explanation and so on. This being a picture book, I wanted to keep it as simple and straightforward as possible, but also suggest ways to continue the conversation.
4. Did your own kids ask you about where babies come from? How did you handle it?
SB: My own kids must have asked the question every six months or so when they were little. They would just forget the bits which seemed too miraculous or ridiculous. Because conception really is miraculous and sex is rather ridiculous. Fantastic, but ridiculous. You mean, you put that in there? And take it out again? More than once? Why would anybody do that?
5. Sergio Ruzzier’s Bear and Bee (Hyperion, 3–6 years) and Brian Floca’s Locomotive (Atheneum/Jackson, 8–11 years) make cameo appearances on the boy’s bed — are those books telegraphing some kind of subliminal message?
From the May 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.