Sophie Blackall Talks with Roger

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I sternly cautioned my old friend Sophie Blackall that there would be no talking-like-pirates in our conversation about Ahoy!, the two-time Caldecott Medalist’s new picture book about an afternoon of imaginary play engaging a child, a parent, and a very nervous cat on the living room carpet the high seas. But talking with Sophie is itself an exercise in imaginative play, with no need for arrghs or mateys.

Roger Sutton: Where did Ahoy! come from?

Sophie Blackall: Ahoy! began, strangely, with a drawing that I didn’t intend to turn into a book. It was a standalone drawing that I did because the author and illustrator Ruth Chan made me do a horrible draw-off — one of those competitive things where people throw prompts at you, and you have to draw in a minute. They’re torture for illustrators unless you’re someone like Paul Zelinsky. I drew these blobby people; they appeared on the page, and I had no idea how they got there. I posted them on Instagram, and my dear friend Anne Schwartz [publisher of Anne Schwartz Books at Random House] said, “I like these fellows. If you ever want to make a book with them, let me know.”

I had no idea about a book for them; that was not something I was thinking about. Then, in the throes of many, many sleepless nights after Nick, father of my children, died, I was trying to send my mind anywhere that was less dark and sad. I began trying to invent a story for these blobby people, and they kept wanting to be in this story that crossed back and forth between fantasy and reality. It was frustrating because the thing that I loved about them — their blobbiness — didn't have any continuity: they were not tight and detailed the way my drawings usually are. They had this free flowing, unpredictable shape. The very idea of having to draw them again and again and again in any kind of format was an antithesis to their nature. And yet, this was the story they needed to be in.

RS: I was looking at that scene with the lighthouse — when the parent and child on the rug come across the lighthouse. On the next spread, we see another parent, maybe Dad, dressed in red and white stripes, the colors of the lighthouse. It gave me such a chuckle because it’s so offhandedly portrayed. The book in general has this improvised quality to it that echoes the parent and child’s imaginary adventure on the living room rug. I see little jokes pop off the page here and there, and I wondered, when does stuff like that occur to you? How carefully do you plan that? How much of it is improvising along the way, and how much do you know from the beginning?

SB: That is a great question, and this is an annoying answer, but it changes for every book and changes along the way. Some of those things feel fairly clear from the outset, and they end up becoming part of the book. And then there are other things you begin and hope that you're going to find some sort of structure to prop you up and support whatever crazy idea you're pursuing. I did think about how you would set about making a ship with the things in your house. Are those things that most people would have in their house? And what are the most fun variations of those things? And toilet paper is always fun. The second parent as lighthouse came in early on. I abandoned it for a while because I resisted the idea of that second parent who is perhaps not the full-time stay-at-home parent or primary parent.

RS: “Honey, I’m home!”

SB: Exactly. The parent who comes home and is suddenly the fun parent because the parent who's been there all day is boring at that point. Or the other way around: the parent who's been at home is beloved and the other one is chastised for being at work. And yet, these characters needed that homecoming. It's an odyssey of a story, and they had to come home. Home is whoever is there waiting for you.

RS: You can go home again.

SB: I did want it to be the kind of book that kids will return to. That is my goal with every book that I make, to make a book that invites repeat readings and new discoveries and rewards a returning reader. Hopefully, it’s the kind of book that we want to keep when we're growing up because the adventures we had in our minds when we were reading are somehow integrated in the physical pages, and you want to keep it on your shelf when you're old. That’s a handful of books for me. I think that those of us in this industry all have our handful of books that we keep on our shelves forever. I hope that this is that kind of book, and that it is fun to go back and see that the socks become the seagulls.

RS: You’d think that would be the first thing you’d want to evaluate about a picture book: “Can I reread this?” As both a caregiver and a child. Years ago in the 1990s, I interviewed Jane Botham for School Library Journal. She was coordinator of children's services at Milwaukee Public Library, and she talked about the difference between books you need in the library and books you need at home. This was during the big picture-book boom of the late eighties and nineties when lots of very glossy, beautiful, but kind of empty picture books were being sold. Jane said that a lot of those books were great, but they're only great once. They look like gift books, but don't ever give them as gifts because they're going to be forgotten after the child goes through them once.

SB: One of the nicest things to hear is a grownup saying that they’ve taken a book out from the library a dozen times, and now they're buying their own copy to keep at home. I love the fact that books are in libraries, they're getting read by multiple people — the books are going into all these different homes — and then they’re going back on the shelves. They have this life of their own. But then even after those readings, that they want to own a copy is a high compliment. It's a very nice thing.

RS: What is a picture book you can’t let go of?

SB: The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. Do you know this book?

RS: No.

SB: Oh, Roger! It's by DuBose Heywood and Marjorie Flack. It was written in 1939 and is arguably one of the earliest feminist picture books. A little brown country bunny becomes the fifth Easter Bunny. It has this extraordinary defiance; it's a wonderful book. It shows that you can be a mother and have a career; it shows that being an artist is a viable, valid way of spending your days. All those things were profoundly influential to me when I was a kid.

RS: That wouldn't have meant anything to you as a young child, but it's like it predicted the future.

SB: Well, I think it did even then. There are twenty-one little rabbits, and the mother gives them all jobs. She's a single parent, and the only way she can be the Easter Bunny is if she teaches the kids to look after themselves and make them self-sufficient. She gives them all jobs, which keeps the house running. She gives paints and brushes to two of them, and that is as valid a job as putting food on the table. I felt like, Yes! I can do this!

RS: How did you balance having young children and working?

SB: Ah, with great joy and difficulty. I was reminding my twenty-four-year-old son, Eggy, recently about the time I was on an editorial call, and he was ramming my legs under the table in a makeshift cardboard-box car. I was trying to keep my composure and a steady voice. He only drew on my work once. It was a double-page-spread painting that had taken me three days to complete; he found a Sharpie and drew all over it. I was so horrified and exhausted. He was only three, and he was so chastened.

RS: He's never opened a book since.

SB: I know. I'm single handedly responsible for just killing his artistic spirit. Crushing the poor little thing.

RS: I love in Ahoy! that the parent is busy cleaning and trying to vacuum and doesn’t want anything to do with whatever's going on in the corner with the kid and the furniture and the toilet paper. Then the kid says they’ll need a map. And the parent, suddenly interested, says, “Oh, I could draw the map.”

SB: “I could do that.”

RS: A real engagement with the child comes in. It’s not a parent indulging a child’s imaginative play.

SB: That felt very much like when my older child, Olive, would force me to play with them when they were small. I used to take on the roles that would be akin to napping. So, if they wanted to be the doctor, I would willingly be the patient if I could lie down and keep my eyes closed. They could slather me with lotions and bandages. I was fine with that. But if I had to take an active, inventive role, I’d think, Oh, no, don’t make me! I loved it when I was a kid, though. And I still love seeing kids who are that in their heads.

Another part of the inspiration for Ahoy! was watching two kids at a pool in our upstate New York town. They were two sisters, maybe nine and twelve. The twelve-year-old was on that precipice of puberty, on the last edge of childhood. They were playing a survival game in the pool, and it had as many dramatic twists and turns as Homer’s Odyssey. There were mermaids and ogres and sirens — all kinds of things. The girls had secret powers: they could be invisible if they put on their goggles, but only for a minute. There were so many rules, and I was madly eavesdropping and writing it all down. I saw the same sisters a year later, and the older sister was sunbathing, taking selfies on the edge of the pool; the younger sister was still playing, but she was on her own. You could see this trajectory of childhood, with all the poignancy of that imaginative play. I thought, How do we harness that as grownups? For me at least, that's what reading is for. It is to immerse yourself in that other world and use our imaginative powers to color in how people look and what the room looks like, the landscape and everything else. That full immersion when you're reading doesn't happen so much to me anymore in this contemporary life of constant bombardment and interruptions.

RS: Do you still have your illustrators’ commune in Brooklyn? (Not to mention Milkwood, your retreat for the children’s book community in New York State.)

SB: We certainly do.

RS: I’ve wondered how you all create in the same space. You need to ignore one another as much as you need to talk to one another, right?

SB: Brian Floca and I have joked for years that we’ve built our retirement home. Brian, Johnny Marciano, and I have now been in the space together for thirteen years. It's a long time. The number of books that have been made in that studio and the Caldecott announcements that we've all been there for...Doug Salati’s last year for Hot Dog — he's our youngest member, our shining hope for the future. To be there for his celebration and success was wonderful. We were all so invested in Hot Dog from its earliest days.

Having a shared studio like that is not for everyone. Some people say, as you suggested, “I can't imagine being creative and coming up with ideas if other people are in the space with me, I have to be alone.” But we have found a way. We have rules. Nobody plays music there. We don’t take phone calls in the room. I ran home to Zoom with you. We have little signals for “Is it okay to talk right now because I just got this email that I have to share with you all” or “I'm completely stuck on this page turn and I can't tell if this is genius or the worst idea ever.” We are one another's first readers a lot of the time. We're there through every stage of the books. During COVID I made a couple of books away from the studio, and I missed it. I missed having these trusted colleagues to talk through the entire process with. My editors Susan Rich and Anne Schwartz both know that as much as I’m working closely with them on a book, I'm also throwing ideas to the studio. I'll come back and say, “Brian had this idea for the ending, and I think he's right, damn it.” That was the case with Farmhouse. And they all had good ideas for Ahoy! I think that's one of the hardest things with a picture book: to have a satisfying ending that is not heavy-handed, not too saccharine or sentimental. That, as we said before, makes you want to read it again. Leaves some things unanswered.

RS: A note on the copyright page says that this book was created digitally. Have you been doing that a lot?

SB: I have been doing more of that. And one of the things that I’m interested in as I get older is surprising myself. I thought I would be one of the last holdouts to embrace digital media. And if I did embrace it, I would always be slightly embarrassed. Or I wouldn't want to confess to it. But I'm finding ways of using Procreate that allow me to do things I could never do with physical brushes and paints. I will never stop loving the tactile experience of painting by hand and having that finished painting. Like a former studio-mate, Sergio Ruzzier, I collect paper ephemera — I'm a complete sucker for aged paper and discolored paint and watermarks and all those things. Yet, I have completely surprised myself by embracing and thrilling to this uncharted territory. I could have kept making the kinds of books that I was making happily, but it's exciting to be making some slightly different kinds of books.

RS: I noticed when I was reading Ahoy! on my monitor, which is quite big, that I could zoom in and zoom out, and it occurred to me that in creating the illustrations, you have the same powers, which is very different from working on a piece of paper or a piece of canvas, right?

SB: Yes, exactly. And that can be paralyzing.

RS: When do you stop?

SB: Right. My mentor in the digital illustration world is LeUyen Pham. We were at some conference or book festival together, and LeUyen said to me, Brian Floca, and Vera Brosgol, “Give me ten minutes, and I will change your life.” Who could resist that? Even though I’m very happy with my life, I don't really need to change it. She showed us Procreate — at the time this brand-new tool on an iPad. It blew all our minds. At first it enabled me to do things that were extraordinarily time-saving measures; it eliminated scanning and tracing and all of the most tedious parts of the illustration process. I had a hand injury, and it was easier on my hand. Then it turned into something else entirely.

LeUyen should really teach a master class on this. She has two or three rules. One of them is never zoom in beyond print size...which I have not adhered to because I can't resist, but I think she's wise and I think she's right. Another rule is that people shouldn't use this digital kind of drawing unless they've really mastered drawing by hand first.

It sounds like such an old-fashioned, crotchety kind of thing, but I think she's absolutely right. It reminds me of my design teacher back at college, who was an older Scottish woman who made us do all the hand kerning and hand lettering of fonts. We had to learn how to draw Garamond by hand, and we had to know the difference with the serifs. This was in the brand-new early days of Apple, and we thought, Why are we doing this? Look! There’s Apple! And yet she was right. I do have an appreciation for fonts and for typography, and that came from learning how to draw those damn serifs.

RS: You’re still drawing right? It’s not like you’re using AI and saying, Okay, I need some toilet paper and a chair and a rug and a vacuum cleaner. You have to actually draw; you have to compose the pictures. You have to decide what goes where. I would be afraid that I wouldn’t know where to stop. Change the pattern on the shirt or maybe on the shorts?

SB: Different colors, different hairstyles, different hats. There’s something when you’re working by hand, there’s a point where you’ve made a decision and then you stick with that decision. The ability to undo in a digital media is fantastic and alarming because it is infinite.

RS: You like to work on books with other people, but you also like to work alone. You seem at home with both.

SB: Yes, one of the lovely things of being in the stage of life that I like to jokingly call my prime. Having now done however many books that I've lost count — sixty, I think? — I'm thinking about how many books I have left in me — not in a morbid way — but in a kind of I don't want to be the last one at the party. I've got other things that I want to do. If I were to do say, five more books, I want to make them really count. Books that I think need to be in the world, that somebody else couldn’t do, perhaps.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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