July 3, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #76: Sophie Blackall

Sophie Blackall has received many accolades over the course of her career so far, including a Caldecott Honor Award, an Ezra Jack Keats Award, and a Blue Ribbon Picture Book Award, but, in my eyes, no book she has created so far holds a candle to her newest book Hello Lighthouse. It makes me to visit every lighthouse along the coast and shout about the book. With impeccable design and a kind story, this book is quite stunning, and I'm glad to share the conversation I had with Sophie about the book here. Ahoy!

About the book:
Watch the days and seasons pass as the wind blows, the fog rolls in, and icebergs drift by. Outside, there is water all around. Inside, the daily life of a lighthouse keeper and his family unfolds as the keeper boils water for tea, lights the lamp's wick, and writes every detail in his logbook.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Sophie Blackall!

LTPB: Of your many, many books Hello Lighthouse is by far my favorite! It’s so captivating! Why did you choose to write about lighthouses (and the people who live in them)? 

SB: Lighthouses are majestic, romantic, compelling and comforting. As one 3rd grader put it, “They’re like helpful castles in the sea.” Which is my favorite definition EVER.

But the thing I love most about lighthouses is that they’re steeped in stories. Stories of monstrous storms and daring rescues, of orphaned infants, washed up in makeshift cradle boats. Stories of grand spectacles of nature, flocks of flying fish, passing pods of whales, floating cities of icebergs. And of course the stories of the men and women who tended the light. Their resilience, courage and dedication. The lives they lived within the round rooms of a tower. Lives like any others, filled with love and friendship, birth and death, grief and joy.

At a flea market in Brooklyn several years ago, I picked up an old print of the Eddystone lighthouse with a cutaway showing the interior round rooms and spiral staircase, the keeper’s bedroom and kitchen and lantern room. Hello Lighthouse can be traced back to the moment I picked up that print. It was $10. I thought long and hard over it. Then I figured $10 was a reasonable price to pay for an idea. It took six years to turn the idea into a book.

In that time I studied the history of lighthouses and read keepers’ logbooks and memoirs. I visited cliff lights and rock lights and island lights. I climbed their spiral stairs and gazed from lantern room windows. I stayed in a lighthouse on a tiny island off the Northern-most tip of Newfoundland. In the days I was there I saw blood-orange sunsets and galloping storms, brilliant blue skies and rolling fog, smooth silvered waves and a heaving black sea. But the lighthouse was always the same: tall, steadfast, constant, beaming its light out to sea, as though it were saying,
Don’t worry!
I’m still here!
I will always be here!

LTPB: With its very distinct tall and skinny trim size, how did this book challenge the way you illustrate (I notice a lot of aerial views!)? How did you use the gutter and general design of the book to your advantage (like how the lighthouse is always on the left)? 

SB: I wrote the first draft of Hello Lighthouse on the island, and figured out the structure of the book; it would be tall and narrow and the pages would alternate between exterior and interior. Outside everything is in motion – the sea, the weather, the passing of time. Inside too, life rotates and expands within the lighthouse walls, but I knew I wanted the lighthouse to be constant, to literally be fixed in the same place on the left hand page of these alternating spreads. It took me a while to realize the family’s story needed to be told in circles. Circles which begin as small spots and grow to fill the page as the keeper’s life expands with the arrival of his wife and the birth of their child.

The lighthouse keepers’ logs were so important in my research, and I wrote the text to echo their tone. Understated and gently repetitive, containing quiet words to describe full lives. For the same reason, I enclosed the whole book within the log — the endpapers form the pages of the keeper’s journal, scattered with mementos from the sea. 

LTPB: I have to ask you about the design of this book. The orientation, trim size, casewrap, dust jacket, gold foiling, gatefold––every inch of this book is special. How involved were you in adding these details? 

SB: Working with my editor Susan Rich and publisher Little, Brown is always a treat and a true collaboration. They are so receptive to ideas on design. I tell them my hopes and dreams for production and they do their best to make them come true. And I had a lot of hopes and dreams for this book. Unusual trim size. A surprise gatefold. A secret case cover. Vintage gold foil stamping. Hand-lettered type. And they managed them all. Not every production department invites the illustrator in to review and color correct proofs. And to review them again when they came back from the printer. It is quite something to have the whole design team poring over your tiny watercolor waves ensuring that the printed reproduction is as true as can be. Everyone wanted to make a book which was also a beautiful object. 

This photo shows some of production manager Erica Schultz’s markups on the jacket. I am fascinated by her careful process and attention to detail.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book? 

SB: The illustrations were made with Chinese ink and watercolor which is my favorite medium. I discovered the Chinese ink and watercolor combination by accident about ten years ago and have been using it ever since. I paint all the tones in the ink and use washes of watercolor over the top. It has the effect of tinting an old black and white photo. 

I’m a restless sort of person; life is short and I want to try everything. To that end I have done books in pencil, pen and ink, collage and intricate, painted-paper dioramas. Each book provides a different challenge, a puzzle to be solved. What is the book about, at its heart, and how can the medium best tell that story? For this book I looked at sailors’ folk art, drawings of whales and ships in the margins of lighthouse log books, famous paintings of the sea, by Homer and Turner and Hokusai. I looked at how lighthouses have been romanticized through time; I collected early 1900s postcards and trade cards and vintage lighthouse souvenirs from flea markets and eBay. Believe me, you can get lighthouses on everything from cocktail shakers to toilet roll covers. I showed a lot of restraint and stuck to paper ephemera.

LTPB: What are you working on now? 

SB: I am having the best time. I’m working on a picture book called If You Come to Earth, a letter from a child to a visitor from another planet, explaining the world. I did a residency in a wonderful, diverse 2nd grade class at a public elementary school in Brooklyn. I befriended 23 seven- and eight-year-olds and picked their brains every Monday morning for a month. I learned what they love best in the world and what they’re afraid of and what they think is unfair. Their favorite animals and colors and dream houses.

I’m also working on a book for grown ups, in which I am visiting the houses of my favorite (no longer alive) writers. I just spent time at Beatrix Potter’s farm and Jane Austen’s house, and the home of Virginia Woolf. It is part travel writing, part biography, part memoir, with tons of drawings. If I had to work on one book for the rest of my life, this would be it.

And just to make things interesting, I have bought a huge old dairy barn which I am converting into a retreat for artists and writers and readers. A place for us all to gather and walk and talk and write and draw and eat and drink and think. It is in upstate New York and you can find out more about it here: www.milkwoodfarm.org

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why? 

SB: I would be thrilled to bits if any of the following would do me the honor, because their work is filled with warmth, humor, beauty, character, acute observation and tender details: Barbara Cooney, Alice and Martin Provensen, Carson Ellis, Maira Kalman, Julie Morstad, Emily Hughes, Isabelle Arsenault, Beatrice Allemagne.

A million thanks to Sophie for taking time to answer my questions about this exquisite book! Hello Lighthouse published April 10 from Little Brown!

Special thanks to Sophie and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for use of these images! For more insights into how Sophie illustrated this book, check out this super-detailed interview with Jules Danielson on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast!

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