Sophie Blackall: Drawing the World ‘Round
Children’s author and illustrator Sophie Blackall creates honest stories for curious children the world over. She’s learned that stepping into other people’s lives requires not just courage, but humility.
Sophie Blackall is an award-winning illustrator whose art has appeared in over thirty children’s books, including Big Red Lollipop, a New York Times top ten picture book for 2010, which she also wrote.
Born in Australia in 1970, Blackall moved to the United States in 2000 after she and her family won a green card lottery.
Blackall has collaborated with many notable authors, including Judith Viorst, Jane Yolen, and Meg Rosoff. Her Ivy and Bean series with writer Annie Barrows has over one million copies in print. Blackall received the prestigious Caldecott Medal for picture books twice, for Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear (2015) by Lindsay Mattick and for her own children’s book Hello Lighthouse (2018).
Her 2011 work for adults, Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found, illustrated anonymous messages posted online by lovelorn strangers. The same year, she published a picture book version of Aldous Huxley’s children’s story The Crows of Pearblossom.
Sophie Blackall steals from children but in a nice, literary sort of way. In exchange, she reflects back at them, the big grown-up world.
Sophie Blackall: I don’t want to just make books and hope that children like that. I make books for children and if grown-ups like them as well, then that’s great. So I depend heavily on stealing as much as I possibly can from children.
Blackall creates worlds where children’s innate curiosity comes to face with grown-up honesty.
Blackall: I’ve always had the policy of answering any question any child will ask me, whether they’re mine or someone else’s honestly. And I think, “Well if they’re asking me, they’re asking me because they want an answer. And who am I to not give it to them?” But I’ve given them the truth, and what’s wrong with that?
Born in Australia in 1970, Sophie Blackall spent much of her childhood reading in trees near the sea. She was always up for a good seafaring tale and imagined her own voyages at an early age. She decided to become a children’s book illustrator at the wise old age of seven, after reading Winnie the Pooh. Nearly 40 years later and half a world away, in a call back to her childhood, Blackall would win the prestigious Caldecott Medal, a sort of Pulitzer Prize for picture books, for her illustrations in Lindsay Mattick’s, Finding Winnie.
Though later in life, a stroke of bad luck would cause her a debilitating injury, curiosity, and an inner need to seek and see the world, drove Blackall to a game of chance in 2000. After winning a visa lottery, she transplanted her young family to Brooklyn, a daring move for someone with no job. But she did have a degree in design and a portfolio full of pictures, and an unquenchable sense of curiosity about how other people lived.
Blackall: There’s not a door that I don’t want to open and look into, which also gets me into trouble sometimes. That’s somebody’s house, you can’t just walk in there. But I want to know what’s happening behind all the doors and I want to know what’s happening inside people’s heads. And I wanna talk to strangers and I think kids are like that.
Blackall walked through what would become her own door, a rundown rental in Brooklyn, where over the next 20 years, she would write and illustrated more than 30 books. She won a second Caldecott Medal in 2019, for, Hello Lighthouse, which she both wrote and illustrated.
Blackall: When I was starting out, I was so grateful to have any books sent my way and the opportunity to illustrate anybody’s story. But then I began to realize I could write my own. And then it was, “Oh, I could think of the thing that I want to draw and then find the story that goes with it.” And that was both exhilarating and paralyzing. So now I’ve calmed down a little bit and the stories that come to me are tied to things that I want to draw. But they become stories that I can’t not tell in some way.
She hit upon one such story on the New York subway, a good place for eavesdropping. She heard a little boy ask his mother a question that Blackall has often been asked. The subway car immediately came to attention.
Blackall: He turned to his mother and said, “Where did she get that baby?” Essentially, where do babies come from? And you could see the mother froze. She’s like, “I have to answer this in public.” Of course, we’re all like, “Oh great, yeah.” And she said, “Well, from the baby tree.” I thought, “No, she’s actually, she’s going with the baby tree.” But then I thought, “Oh, she’s not alone. There are many people who just don’t quite wanna have that conversation on public transport, or, yet, they don’t wanna have it yet.” And so I wrote a book.
The Baby Tree was a clever and age-appropriate book. In it, Blackall reveals the basics of reproduction, naming both the male and female reproductive organs. Her editors feared she was crossing a line.
Blackall: Well, what else are we gonna call them? That’s what they’re called. So my concession was to put them at the back of the book in boring, small writing. So a kid who really wants to find that out and who can read themselves, really probably deserves to know at that point, anyway, they can go ahead and find it. I think children are capable of digesting an awful lot more than we give them credit for, in their own way, at their own time. But I think they’re open to hearing it and they’ll take what they want and need from that.
Blackall’s own understanding of the childhood experience took a profound turn in 2012. At the request of UNICEF, she traveled to Africa and India for the Measles & Rubella Initiative, a global partnership committed to vaccinating children. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 140,000 people die each year around the world from these deadly diseases. Blackall made the trip so she could craft posters and educational literature for the initiative. It turned out to be much more than a work trip.
Blackall: Though, I thought measles was, if you’re in a country where you don’t get vaccinated, you maybe get some spots and a fever and you can stay home. And in the 50s, there were measles parties. It felt like this sort of this childhood disease. But here was real evidence of the heartbreak and the loss. It was going to a village and being greeted by the chief and his wife two days after they’d lost their two-year-old to measles. They knew we were coming, they had planned a celebration, but instead the whole village was in mourning because he had carried his daughter on foot to the nearest clinic, which was two days walk away and they didn’t get there in time. And to watch this entire village in the mourning, it was something I’ll never forget.
Sophie Blackall was acutely aware of being an outsider as she witnessed such an intimate and significant moment within the village. And she’s conscious that every time she steps into other people’s lives, it is an honor for which she must be worthy.
Blackall: I’m with my white, privileged, Australian lens, I’m going to draw you and then show you back to yourselves. And I just hope that your trust is deserved. That these drawings I’m gonna make of your village and your community, that you feel that they’re true.
So, Blackall has always tried to immerse herself in the community she visits, to become privy to moments of joy as well as resilience. And, she has come to discover that children the world over, share much in common.
Blackall: There’s something about spending time with kids in a village, in the middle of a jungle in Congo, and in a crowded little corner of a village in India, where they’re playing the same game. They call it different things. And what my kids in a school in Brooklyn played and they called it traffic light but they didn’t call it traffic light in the village in Congo. But it’s, you know the way you run and then somebody says “Stop.” So, seeing kids play this all over the world is again just one of 1,000 things that reminded me that there’s so much similarity in the way that human beings make their way through the world. And there’s a vast disparity in where, how much access children have to food and clean water and safe homes and all of those things. But children’s curiosity feels quite universal.
Blackall traveled to Bhutan with the humanitarian organization Save the Children to help promote literacy. After trekking up a Himalayan mountain path, she met a small group of students in a tiny one-room schoolhouse. The kids drew pictures for her, and she showed them books. It was then that it dawned on Blackall that her body of work might be missing something.
Blackall: I thought, “I have a book about a lighthouse, I have a book about the bear that inspired Winnie the Pooh, neither of those books are at all useful to you.” Children who have never seen the sea, who have never seen a bear, who certainly don’t know anything about Winnie the Pooh. So I want a book that might be about all of us and the planet we share.
As a result, If You Come to Earth, is a child’s letter to a visitor from another planet explaining the world. It shows that earth is wide and diverse and it asks us to take care of one another, as well as our planet.
Blackall: It feels like I was the lucky one to visit all of these places and meet these kids. I think about them in some way or form every single day and they’ve certainly affected my work and the way I see things.
Blackall wrote the book in one sitting, but it was seven years in the making. The illustrations reflect real people and families that she has met on her travels. And when she sat down to draw, Blackall approached her work more thoughtfully and with greater humility.
Blackall: I wanted to avoid making up people and there are so many people to see, so I just started keeping a little list of, “Oh, there’s a family over there. There, I’m gonna put them in the family page.” It was really to honor the people that I was seeing. And if I’m gonna show a whole lot of different families, then who am I to presume, to make up these families, let me put real families in there.
(Excerpt from If You Come to Earth)
If you come to earth, here’s what you need to know. We live in all kinds of places, in all kinds of homes, and in all kinds of families. Each of us is different, but all of us are amazing. And together we share this one beautiful planet.
Blackall has long known that running with kids can be hazardous. This fact was made real for her several years ago when she badly injured her hand while chasing kids towards a camp pig roast.
Blackall: And it was this kind of mass exodus of—every child wanted to see this pig being buried and they were in pajamas and there was just something kind of Lord of the Flies about the whole thing, that I ran with them ’cause I just wanted to see this spectacle of them seeing the pig and all that that promised. And I went flying over a rock ’cause it was dusk and I didn’t see it and I fell on my hand.
But after years of physical therapy, her hand has not healed properly. Soon, she will have to stop drawing altogether. She’s facing her new reality with characteristic curiosity and optimism.
Blackall: I think about people whose work changes because of something out of their control. And there’s always something interesting in that metamorphosis.
When one door closes…
Blackall: I’ve been teaching myself how to make a dry stone wall. And so kind of doing big physical things with large lumpy objects. We have this farmhouse in upstate New York that we’re turning into a retreat for writers and artists. I like the idea of using a bigger brush. Maybe I’ll write more.
In Sophie Blackall’s world, there are many doors still to open. Her curiosity about the world and her hunger to explore it will surely lead Sophie Blackall into whole new realms of discovery. And when she gets there, she will no doubt find unique ways to share them with us.