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The Audacious Choice of Sophie Blackall: Profile of 2016 Caldecott Medal Winner Sophie Blackall

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Sophie Blackall. Photo: Barbara Sullivan.

In 1914, Lindsay Mattick’s great-grandfather Captain Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian traveling across Canada on his way to serve in the Great War, stopped at a train station and decided to buy a baby black bear from a trapper on the platform.

That was a rather audacious thing to do.

As it turns out, literature for children wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for Harry’s decision. The cub was by all accounts extremely charming. She enjoyed sweets, and was sweet in her demeanor. Harry named her Winnie after his hometown of Winnipeg. He took her across the ocean on a warship. She became the mascot of his brigade. And when it was time to go to the Front, he deposited her at the London Zoo, where Winnie enchanted a young Christopher Robin and inspired his father A. A. Milne’s beloved fictional bear, Winnie-the-Pooh.

What would have happened if Harry Colebourn hadn’t been moved to buy that bear cub? If he’d named her Geraldine? If he’d never brought her across the ocean? If he hadn’t taken her to the zoo?

Every story is one of chances taken — choices both measured and impetuous, wise and daring, grand and minute. To me, great nonfiction is especially thrilling when it shows us what almost wasn’t.

The way things turn out only appears as if the outcome were inevitable all along. It’s true in life, and it’s true in art.

As an editor, I delight in, struggle with, and marvel at the progression of choices that is the making of a book. It all starts when something wonderful and untamed touches your heart, the way the cub touched Harry’s, and against all odds you pursue it and nurture it, bit by bit, day by day, choice by choice, in the hopes of creating a book that will touch the hearts of others and find its own place in history.

What a rare and joyous privilege it was, then, to work with someone with as much flair for making inspired decisions as Sophie Blackall.

*   *   *

mattick_finding winnieIn 2000, Sophie left Sydney, Australia, for America. She didn’t bring a bear cub with her, but she did have a three-year-old and a baby in tow. She was setting out for a land on the other side of the globe where she didn’t know a soul, with little more than an encouraging note from The New Yorker, a pre-arranged furnished apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and the safety net of a return flight six months into an unknown future. That was a rather audacious thing to do.

The “furnished” part of the advertised apartment turned out to be an exaggeration. Living off rice and beans, running the brownish water until it ran clear, she got by. And then she got a break: a multi-week illustration assignment from The New York Times. For a series about food, illustrating — of all things — caviar.

So she made another audacious choice: Sophie kissed her return tickets goodbye. She stayed in Brooklyn. It paid off. Her work for the Times led to a contract for her first children’s book, Ruby’s Wish.

What followed would be more opportunities, more books and projects, more decisions made. Sophie accepted an invitation from UNICEF to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo, traveling to remote villages, creating art for a vaccination campaign. She went farther, in rickety vehicles over treacherous mountain roads, to crowded classrooms in Rwanda and nearly empty ones in Bhutan, as part of a literacy initiative with Save the Children. She contributed to a project for the Gates Foundation — The Art of Saving a Life — which landed her at a dinner in Berlin, seated between the president of Tanzania and Anthony Lake, the head of UNICEF. Her decisions brought Sophie and her art to ever-more-unexpected places, touching hearts, making history.

All those choices paved the way to the day in 2013 when I decided to send an illustrator I admired an email out of the blue.

I’m smitten by Sophie’s work. Her picture books! She can make a rat look adorable. She can give personality to a shoe. And oh, those Ivy + Bean books, beloved and true. I fell head over heels for Sophie’s glorious Missed Connections project, in which she transformed the seeds of Craigslist’s forlorn love listings into delightful, fully imagined scenarios: Floral Print Jacket on the L…can I buy you a drink? — Buffalo Plaid Jacket. And the poster she created for the New York City Subway’s Arts for Transit program has such depth of humanity, it will sustain you through an extended transit delay at the end of a long day.

Sophie Blackall's poster for the New York City Subway's Arts for Transit program.

Sophie Blackall’s poster for the New York City Subway’s Arts for Transit program.

I emailed Sophie on May 20, 2013, spending a good deal of time trying to get my note just right. I wanted her to see the magic that I saw in a thrilling true story of audacious chances taken, hoping she’d take one, too. This was a story close to my heart: Winnipeg is also my hometown, where the city’s connection to the famous bear is in the air we breathe. Finding Winnie had already taken on an air of inevitability, like a book I was meant to publish. I wanted her to see what I could already see: the art coming to life in her hand.

Four days later, I received Sophie’s reply.

Dear Susan,

Thank you so much for sending me this story…I had promised myself I wasn’t going to take on any new manuscripts, but this is something I would love to work on. I lived Winnie-the-Pooh when I was young (I spent most of my time up a tree with my bear), and it was E. H. Shepard who made me want to be an illustrator in the first place. And then this weekend in a secondhand bookshop I picked up Christopher Milne’s biography and everything felt sort of right.

I am taking the liberty of copying my agent, Nancy Gallt. Do you know one another?

Thanks again for thinking of me for Finding Winnie.

Warmly,

Sophie

It seemed truer than ever: this book was waiting for us to make it.

*    *    *

Our work began. Together we examined original Milne books, comic strips by Windsor McCay, Ravilious’s watercolor landscapes of British countryside, beautiful picture book art by the Provensens, and images from author Lindsay Mattick’s family archives. We considered the available maps of the London Zoo: the one from 1913 was more accurate, but the one from slightly earlier was more charming. We tried one way to visually splice the two story threads — Lindsay and her son’s with Harry and Winnie’s — and then another. And another. We had many really brilliant ideas, and then we threw a lot of them away. We’d sleep on it. We’d talk more in the morning. And then we’d email some more. It was a joyous collaboration and one where it was easy to lose track of how things came to fruition.

Sophie plunged herself into the details — ships, signal flags, uniforms, tents. Her research revealed that the route Harry and Winnie would have taken to the London Zoo would have gone right by Stonehenge, and there it is, on that beautiful double-page spread. She traveled to London to look at the terraces where Winnie lived, and to read the archives. She was given access to the Daily Occurrences, the zookeeper’s log. On December 9, 1914, in carefully lettered script, just opposite the record of the unfortunate passing of a diamond dove, there it was: the arrival of an Ursus americanus, care of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, Canadian Contingent.

Choices and chances. Madcap leaps and sudden discoveries.

Decisions and decisions and decisions.

*    *    *

Which brings us to fifteen committee members, the Caldecott committee, sitting together in a room, deciding which book was going to be recognized with the medal that maps the modern history of our art. Making their own big choice.

Here was a group of extraordinary book experts whose work it was to notice all those decisions that went into the book’s making: the owl on Cole’s bookshelf who is drowsy when we first spot him at the beginning, and asleep when he appears at the end. The way the front endpaper starts the story in the Canadian woodland where Winnie’s story begins. The page sequence that moves Harry and the reader east by train to the orchestrated page-turn that reveals a bear on the platform. Every nod Sophie made to the work of Shepard and Milne. Every surprising true detail she uncovered. Every glint in Winnie’s eye. Every intimate close-up, every sweeping panorama. This was a book shaped by so many decisions — what an honor to think of them all so closely considered.

And what an audacious, wonderful choice they made.

Sophie Blackall is the winner of the 2016 Caldecott Medal for Finding Winnie, written by Lindsay Mattick (Little, Brown). Read Sophie Blackall’s 2016 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech. From the July/August 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2016.

Susan Rich About Susan Rich

Susan Rich, editor-at-large with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, is the editor of Finding Winnie and a number of other books, including those by Lemony Snicket, Frank Viva, Maira Kalman, and Jon Klassen. A long time ago, when she was completing her master’s degree in children’s literature at Simmons College, she worked as an intern at The Horn Book Magazine.

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Comments

  1. Ruth Sola Mendes says:

    This article has me eager to “Find Winnie.” As a mother and a grandmother, I gave my youngsters every Winnie the Poof book I could get my hands on. When I found a charming gingham dress with an embroidered Eeyor on the bodice, I was couldn’t wait to see it on my granddaughter. The saddest day was when she outgrew it. But she never outgrew Winnie. Neither have I. Thank you, Ms. Rich, for your delightful introduction to Sophie.

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