[Many Calling Caldecott posts this season will begin with the Horn Book Magazine review of the featured book, followed by the post's author's critique.]


by Sophie Blackall; illus. by the author
Primary    Little, Brown    48 pp.    g
9/22    978-0-316-52894-8    $18.99

Blackall brings herself and her artistic process into this (imagined) story of twelve siblings who grow up in a real-life farmhouse that was situated on a property Blackall owns. The text is one long sentence with the cadence of a chant, giving the story a propulsive feeling while the family goes about the many repetitive chores required to keep a large household running in a time before electricity. Blackall’s illustrations are everything here, incorporating wallpaper, fabrics, and other items scavenged from the house melded together with ink, watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil to create vibrantly layered compositions with a tactile quality. Landscape spreads echo the curves and patterns of Virginia Lee Burton’s similarly themed classic The Little House, and interiors are depicted in cross-sections, as if readers are peeking inside a dollhouse. Eventually the children grow up and move away; the house, now empty, deteriorates, and new life — raccoons, a tree, a bear — moves in. Blackall devotes the last few pages to her own discovery and exploration of the dilapidated structure and how she created the art that shapes this story of a place “where twelve children were born and raised...where they’ll live on, now, in this book that you hold, like your stories will, so long as they’re told.” ADRIENNE L. PETTINELLI

From the September/October 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


When I wrote the Calling Caldecott blog post for Sophie Blackall’s If You Come to Earth a while back (January 2021), I asked, “How do you fit the whole world between the covers of a picture book?” I have a similar question for Blackall’s latest book, Farmhouse: “How do you fit a whole farmhouse inside a book?” Because that’s what she does, fit a house and all of its inhabitants inside the book and give the characters life and the volume a tangible, palpable presence. You don’t even have to turn any pages before you feel, literally, what this book is all about. The beautiful cover attracts the eye with Blackall’s signature muted rosy palette, and it attracts your fingers with the textured cover that will make you want to peel back the raised window illustrations to see what’s underneath. But take off the dust jacket and you do see what’s underneath, floor by floor, room by room: an attic, like most attics, full of the remnants of a family’s history; the next floor down with bedrooms and beds with colorful quilts; the main floor features the cozy activity of the family in the parlor; the illustration wraps around the case cover to include the kitchen/dining room full of family activity, from which you can walk right out the open door to the fields.

All of this before the story even begins. The book itself is one long sentence, and you realize that this story is an ode to the life of a house “over a hill, / at the end of a road” and the family with twelve children born and raised there. The early images of the open fields and the straight and trim farmhouse, almost Shaker-like in its simplicity, belie the bustling family life within. Some of the double-page spreads are expanded versions of the case-cover images, pulling readers right into the rooms and the lives of the family. For as big as the farmhouse seems, the rooms are crowded with people!

By story’s end, when all the children have grown up and gone “off to school / or to work on a farm, / or to drive a truck / or train as a nurse, / or study the stars / or have babies themselves,” the house too has grown up and is now graying and slumping and leaning, the front door open to incoming breezes and the parlor host to squirrels, swallows, and moths. So, this is a story of a house and a family and everything that is important in life. Quite an achievement.

Blackall makes the story personal by putting herself into the final pages, walking a path and finding “what remained of the old farmhouse,” and beginning to create this story. Her full-page author’s note and her “About this Book” on the copyright page explain how she actually did put a farmhouse into her book by using “scraps and fragments” of things found in the house — wallpaper, handkerchiefs, newspapers, curtains, and string. The attached link features Sophie Blackall herself showing us how she created the illustrations.

The Caldecott award criteria ask the committee to identify excellence in artistic technique and pictorial interpretation of theme; appropriateness of style to that theme; delineation of plot, theme, characters through the pictures; and excellence of presentation for a child audience. Clearly, Farmhouse is superb on all counts. The best picture books have an effective interplay of illustrations and text, and Farmhouse does that beautifully, the gorgeous illustrations and the poetic one-sentence text together making a whole.

The Caldecott committee is supposed to judge a book on its own merits. They are not supposed to say (or think), “Well, Sophie Blackall has won the Caldecott twice before, let’s let someone else win this year.” This book is such a beautiful example of picture-book making that it absolutely deserves a gold medal.

My young friend Beau spent hours poring over the illustrations in If You Come to Earth; there were so many details to notice on every page. He and his younger sister will surely do the same with Farmhouse, once I give them the copy I have in front of me, signed: “For Beau and Kate — Sophie Blackall 2022.”

Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches eighth grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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