Hello Studio: A Profile of 2019 Caldecott Medal winner Sophie Blackall

On the highest floor of an old factory at the edge of Brooklyn, overlooking the water, is a skylit artists’ studio. This profile is drawn from interviews with the seven children’s book creators who, over the years, have shared that studio with Sophie Blackall.

“Drawn in Brooklyn,” 2010

Photo: Matt Carr.

Sergio Ruzzier: It all started when Sophie and I met because we were both in a children’s book illustrator show at the Brooklyn Public Library…

Brian Floca: …curated by our friend Johnny Marciano.

Johnny Marciano: There were so many people in Brooklyn who were doing such incredible illustration work, from Leo and Diane Dillon and Paul Zelinsky, who had won Caldecotts, to people like Brian Floca and John Rocco, who were putting books out that everyone was noticing.

Brian Floca: Most of us were just hanging art in the show, but Sophie also had a display case to design. She’s a terrific collector and curator of objects, and she’d brought all these objects to arrange.

Johnny Marciano: She had a stuffed penguin wearing a scarf, and she had set up the scarf to look like it was floating in the air.

Brian Floca: You saw her do that and thought, Here’s someone with not just a sense of how to draw and make a book, but a whole way of looking at the world that is her own.


A Studio Is Born

Sergio Ruzzier: After that, I was trying to get the five of us — me, Brian, Johnny, John Rocco, and Sophie — together for brunch, so I started an email conversation. Though we never actually managed to have that brunch!

Brian Floca: Sophie mentioned that she was looking for a studio space, and John Rocco hopped on Craigslist and found this place in Gowanus.

John Rocco: We all fell in love with it. Within about fifteen minutes, we were all sort of plotting out our desk areas and peeing in the corners, so to speak.

Johnny Marciano: Each of us suddenly had four other people to bounce story ideas off of. John Rocco would put up his entire dummy on the wall. Brian, for photo research, would have people dress up so he could take photographs. Sophie would have drawing parties. It was like when you first fall in love and you just have to see each other every single day.

Brian Floca: Trying to make books for a career and for a living, which is not always the same thing, doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. And it’s not always an easy thing to do. So to be around other people with talent and intention and ambition helps you feel like, Yeah, this a thing people do. This is a thing I can try to do. This is a thing I should try to do.

Sophie's corner of the studio. Photo courtesy of Susan Rich.

Sophie at Work

Edward Hemingway: Sophie occupied the corner position, right where the two lines of the L meet. It makes sense to have Sophie in the center, because I would say she is the beating heart of the studio.

Rowboat Watkins: She’s got boxes that are labeled with various things. Letters from kids. She has a huge felted Caldecott Medal that Cece Bell gave Sophie when she won in 2016. She’s got all kinds of little knickknacks that people have given her or that her family has made. She’s got drawings strewn all over the place. And then she just has a simple tilted drafting table against the far wall.

John Rocco: She works like her pants are on fire, just constantly working on something new. And when she’s not working on books, she’s making some sort of art. She is the type of person that has to be creating constantly.

Rowboat Watkins: She seems to live in defiance of the space-time continuum. She’s always doing about nine thousand things at the same time.

Doug Salati: Sophie is really dedicated on all fronts. She not only shows up to make consistently exceptional work, she’s also wonderful about sharing it, whether on social media or in person, going on school visits. She’s a great role model.

Sergio Ruzzier: I remember once I was particularly worried or sad about something, and she left on my desk a little drawing, a little sad character saying, Oh, it’s gonna get better soon, with real melancholic hope. That is the kind of gesture she would do. That’s 100% Sophie.


Hello, Hello Lighthouse

Edward Hemingway: From the first time I met her, she spoke about wanting to do a book about a lighthouse. I think Hello Lighthouse has been in the back of her mind for a really long time.

Sergio Ruzzier: She always had a passion for lighthouses. She’d been collecting images and old postcards and books about lighthouses. While she was working on the research, she would take vacations to go visit lighthouses.

Edward Hemingway: I would come into the studio and see her painting waves. There were millions of waves in that book. The detail of it was incredible.

John Rocco: Holy shit. She discovered a new way of painting water that I’d never seen before. Those shapes that she made in the water — they conveyed not only a beautiful sense of design, but it’s like you could feel those waves.

Rowboat Watkins: A lighthouse is probably the most static, boring, and impossible thing to draw page after page and still make the book feel dynamic. And yet the book feels totally alive. Every page feels completely different. There’s nothing static at all about the experience of reading that book.

John Rocco: It’s great, because that’s what a children’s book should be — right? An exploration of something very simple that lets the reader see it in many different ways.

Sergio Ruzzier: If you look at what’s hidden in her drawings, you see the more intimate side of Sophie. There are a lot of quirky little things here and there.

Brian Floca: It’s a lighthouse as Sophie would outfit and arrange a lighthouse of her own. The needlework whale on the wall, the rug on the floor, the quilt on the bed — when you see them in the book, if you know Sophie, you think, Oh, those are Sophie’s. There’s a unity of vision in the book and in her life.

Rowboat Watkins: Whether it’s the water around the lighthouse or the exquisite arrangement of things on a table, everything has been considered in some way. She really wants the reader’s eye to be delighted and rewarded at every place that it might happen to land on the page. I’m always amazed that she sets up these impossible angles. I mean, she could be doing things just straight on, at a side view, or a bird’s-eye view. But she’ll go at it from some slanted angle that seems to make everything five thousand times more difficult to draw. And yet somehow it all works.

Johnny Marciano: I think in Lighthouse, the hardest thing that she did is with those characters — when you look at the photographs of the lives that they lived, there’s so much distance between our lives and theirs. She’s able to make those people come alive in a way that feels like you could know them, like they could be your neighbors, people you’ve met.

Brian Floca: It’s all done in conversation with questions that we have as children and never outgrow, which we carry with us for our entire lives. Questions of home and family. Is our work meaningful? How do we handle change? There’s a lot going on, on that little island.


The Caldecott Comes Ashore

Sergio Ruzzier: Well, it’s a perfect picture book.

Brian Floca: To me, it was clearly the most beautiful book of last year, and not just because the paintings are beautiful. The way the trim size acknowledges the subject matter, the rhythm of the page-turns, how and where the text is positioned, the awareness of the gutters, the jacket flaps, the case cover, the gilding, the foldout — everything was done with a very high level of intentionality and thoughtfulness.

John Rocco: I saw the book soon after it came out, and I texted Sophie something to the effect of “I don’t want to build your hopes up, but this is going to win the Caldecott.” It was that stunning. I think of Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion & the Mouse — when I first saw that book, I was like, Yeah, done. And I had the same feeling when I saw Sophie’s book.

Doug Salati: I was not in the city when she won, but I was listening to the awards announcement and I was thrilled. I was so excited to come back to the studio, and thought, I’ve got to get her something! I got her a bouquet of flowers, some yellow tulips, and I walked into the studio, and on everyone’s desk was a bouquet of daffodils. So, you know, Sophie wins the Caldecott, and she brings us flowers.

Sophie Blackall is the winner of the 2019 Caldecott Medal for Hello Lighthouse, published by Little, Brown and Company. From the July/August 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2019.

Sergio Ruzzier, Brian Floca, Johnny Marciano, John Rocco, Edward Hemingway, Rowboat Watkins, & Doug Salati, as told to Josh Greenhut
  • Sergio Ruzzier is a writer and illustrator whose The Party and Other Stories [Fox + Chick] was named a 2019 Geisel Honor Book.
  • Brian Floca won the Caldecott Medal in 2014 for Locomotive. A revised and expanded edition of Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 was published in April.
  • Johnny Marciano is the author of The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield and the series Witches of Benevento, both illustrated by Sophie Blackall. His latest series is Klawde: Evil Alien Warlord Cat.
  • John Rocco received a Caldecott Honor in 2012 for Blackout. He illustrated the covers of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.
  • Edward Hemingway joined the studio in 2013, after John Rocco moved to Los Angeles. In addition to writing and illustrating picture books such as Tough Cookie: A Christmas Story, he illustrates Mark Bailey’s drinking guides for adults.
  • Rowboat Watkins joined the studio in June 2018, when Sergio Ruzzier started spending more time in his native Italy. Rowboat’s new book, Most Marshmallows, came out in April.
  • Doug Salati joined the studio last fall, after Edward Hemingway moved to Montana. His second book, Lawrence in the Fall (written by Matthew Farina), was published this spring.
  • Josh Greenhut worked behind the scenes on the Caldecott-winning Finding Winnie and co-wrote Winnie’s Great War with Lindsay Mattick, both illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

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