Sophie Blackall Illustration

Drawings and Snippets and Breaking News, (but more snippets than breaking news).

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Bologna Painting

Eighty percent of our studio went to Bologna last week for the international Children's Book Fair. Sergio Ruzzier's work was selected for the Illustrators' Exhibition, and I had several pieces from The Mighty Lalouche in an exhibition of Sports in Children's Book at the Museo Civico Archeologico. I have been meaning to go for years; when publishing people talk about Bologna they go all misty-eyed... mostly, I think, remembering the food.
It was a heady few days. 1200 exhibitors from 75 countries showcased thousands and thousands of children's books; enough to make your head explode. Tiny books and enormous books; paper mechanics and production qualities to make you weep. The sheer volume made me feel simultaneously inspired and exhausted. But mostly inspired.
And then there was the city itself: pyramids of purple artichokes and clusters of mediaeval churches, trailing wisteria and parading graduates wearing laurel wreaths, waving bottles of prosecco and their dissertations. Yesterday, before getting back to real work, I made a rainy, jetlaggy Bologna painting.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Kids. Hats.

On my walk to the studio each morning I pass two middle, five elementary and three pre-schools, and cross paths with about a hundred kids. On a day like today, which is aspiring to reach 25 degrees, most of those kids are wearing hats. And of those hats, an astounding number have eyes, ears, horns, fur, beaks and teeth. I passed these three along Third Street. One was talking a mile a minute, one was conspicuously dragging heels, and one was standing stock still, despite the best efforts of a cajoling parent.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Visiting schools in Rwanda

I am back home in Brooklyn, after my brief but intense time in Rwanda, Land of a Thousand Hills. It has taken a bit of time to digest all that I saw there, not to mention the home-brewed banana beer which had, shall we say, a lasting effect.
To back track: I was visiting Rwanda as a guest of Save the Children, UK, to learn about their International Children's Book Initiative, and to produce some illustrations for them on my return. The Rwandan Children's Book Initiative is introducing books into schools where few, if any exist. They have designed sweet little wooden cupboards to hold the classroom library, and will provide mats for children to sit on while they read. They are encouraging local writers and artists and publishers to create books, and are holding workshops to help them get started.

I grew up surrounded by books. Every spare moment of my childhood was spent up a tree, reading. My father is a publisher, and I too have chosen a career making books. It's impossible to imagine my life without them. And therefore thrilling to be involved in this project which allows children to hold their first book and open the pages to new world.

My first few days were spent in Burera, up near the Ugandan border, visiting schools.
 This school was at the foot of a volcano, home to Dian Fossey's gorillas in the mist.
This is a typical classroom...
...which can get pretty crowded when everyone is present.
Girls wear blue and boys wear beige in government schools. 
And they have uniformly cropped hair.
This is one of the stocked book cupboards provided by Save the Children.

and children...
have embraced them enthusiastically.

 I took a stack of books to share, books with lots of pictures and few words, and universal-ish themes. (Thank you for your suggestions!) 

Here I am reading Sergio Ruzzier's Bear and Bee.

Teachers had left lovely ghosty drawings on blackboards.

But paper was scarce and pens and pencils even scarcer. 
I had packed accordingly: few clothes, lots and lots of art supplies.
I was itching to draw with the kids.

And so we did.

Class sizes were huge, often 60 or more kids and there was not a whole lot of room to spread out, or surfaces on which to draw, but we didn't care.

These guys at desks, I set up with a letter or number to illustrate.

We found some wall space for this bunch.

These girls and boys took to the floor...

And I moved outside with this lot.
 Others came to join in.
We were concentrating so hard, we almost didn't notice the scene growing behind us...

Back inside everyone was still busy, and I realized something incredible.

The world over...
Whether kids have drawn for years or are holding a marker for the first time...
Girls will draw girls and boys will draw cars.



 They also drew animals...

 And houses.

And they used every inch of the paper.

Some were very proud of their work.

Some were a bit shy.

But most of us were giddy with joy.

Rwanda’s brutal history lies just beneath the surface. Twenty years ago in April, an estimated 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, men women and children, were brutally murdered.
These are some of the thousands of children who died.

 I can’t stop dwelling on details of the massacre. And I find myself going back to read more and more about those six bloody weeks, trying to make sense of it... and failing. And then I seek out this photograph from the last day in Burera. And feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to spend a few hours with these children, and hope that they will live long, happy lives without fear.

And also, perhaps, lives filled with books.

Friday, January 24, 2014


Tomorrow I am heading to Rwanda for a week. I am very excited to be working with Save the Children UK on their International Children's Book Initiative; the idea is 'More children reading, more and better books’. I have been thinking abstractly about this trip for months now, but as I begin packing it is suddenly, dauntingly real. I'm going to be visiting schools around the country, madly drawing and taking photographs, to help produce a guide for teachers on how to use books in the classroom. The Rwandan Children's Book Initiative proposes to provide schools with books and shelves to put them on, and even mats to create reading corners. But from what I understand, few schools have books right now. If they're anything like the schools we visited in the Congo, there will be a blackboard and benches and not much else. I am hoping to draw and read with these kids, and I'm suddenly overwhelmed by the idea of introducing them to their first picture books. Or watching as they make their first marks on paper. I'm not sure how much English they'll speak, or French. And I don't speak any Kinyarwanda. I'm leaning towards books light on text, heavy on animals. I'm leaving tomorrow so I've left it a bit late to canvas your response, but I'd still love to know what books you would all suggest.
I have assembled a pile on the floor of everything I want to take, a pile about ten times the size of my suitcase. A growing pile of books, sketchpads, packets and packets of pencils, tubes of watercolors, brushes, crayons. And a diminishing pile of clothes. I can't bear the thought that I'll be one pencil short.
Classroom in the DRC, 2012

A Fine Dessert - Part 7

You may be forgiven for thinking I've not done a lick of work on A Fine Dessert since November, but in fact I've been drawing and painting so hard I haven't had a moment to mention it.
The research process is all but finished, the sketches have been made, the dummy has been submitted to the editors, I was summoned in for questioning, and I've just been given the green light to paint; one of the best moments of this whole picture book-making process.
In each of the four centuries in this book, (for those of you just joining me, I'm working on A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins), the dessert is served after dinner and I decided to set up the scene the same way. I wanted to make the most of the differences between the families: differences in culture and economic status and gender roles and racial equality, not to mention clothing and furniture design. It made sense to put them in the same setting; four equally shaped spaces.
Here are some of the stages of a sketch, in this case, a scene in a family dining room in Boston in 1910. 

Here are some of my bits of inspiration:

I found this "inexpensive dining room" in a furniture catalog from the turn of the century. You can see I've willy-nilly lifted the light fixture, the mirror and the wallpaper.

And I chose this walnut dining setting for my Boston family, which reminds me of chain-of-hearts, which my mother always used to grow.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Fine Dessert - Part 6, A Completely Justifiable Research Trip to England

Not that I really need to justify a trip to England, but I really, truly had things to do there that couldn't be done on the internet, like visiting the archives of the London Zoo (for another book, more on that to come) and to do an Ivy and Bean Day event at the wonderful bookshop, Ottie and the Bea in South East London. But while I was there, visiting family in Somerset, A Fine Dessert was never far from my mind. Call me obsessed; you wouldn't be the first.
My cousin and his wife live in a ridiculously picturesque hamlet in Somerset. I'm not going to tell you what it's called because you'll all want to go there and the hamlet dwellers would be mad.
They live next door to this excellent pig called Blossom...
And down the lane from this fairytale Medieval roundhouse built by their friend the local thatcher...
...who also makes cider.
 It was harvest time at the local cider mill...
 ...which was momentarily distracting...
...but I was looking for blackberries.
The lanes were dripping with them...
...and just dripping, generally.
 But in the evenings they turned golden.
The blackberries were smaller and firmer than their American counterparts (I draw no cultural observations here)...
...and the fool we made came out a deep purple, almost tarmac color. But was equally delicious.
There were more thatched farmhouses than you could poke a stick at.

 And we visited Montacute which has a wobbly hedge...
And through the wobbly hedge, is an ice house.

 In A Fine Dessert, in 1710 the farmer's wife and her daughter made the blackberry fool, then Emily Jenkins writes, "They carried the mixture to an ice pit in the hillside. It chilled near sheets of winter ice, packed with reeds and straw." I have been reading everything I can find about ice pits and ice houses and the making of iced desserts in the 18th century. This ice house was constructed in a similar way to a stone well. I couldn't quite imagine where the dish of blackberry fool would be placed to chill. I'm wondering whether perhaps they would have transported small chunks of the ice back to the kitchen instead. Emily suggested I write to Lynne Olver, the expert food historian at the Food Timeline, and I'm holding my breath for her response. In the meantime I drew a sketch of them carrying the mixture to the icepit in the hill, because it would make a nice image, and a perfect excuse to paint the English sky. But we'll see what Ms Olver says.
 ps The one tree hill I used in the drawing is part of the cider mill. Click below to visit their website.