Sophie Blackall Illustration

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Making of Finding Winnie - Part 4

The story of Finding Winnie takes place in the context of WW1. Winnie, named for Winnipeg, became the mascot of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade, and by all accounts she provided entertainment, distraction, comfort and solace to the troops, many of whom were very young and far from home. This illustration of Winnie posing with the soldiers was inspired by a photograph from the author, Lindsay Mattick's family archives. Harry is in the second row, second from left, seated.

Growing up in Australia, we learned about the Great War from an Australian perspective. Egypt and Gallipoli and ANZAC biscuits. (My own great uncle, Lancelot Blackall, below, served with the Light Horse Brigade.)
So it was interesting to delve into Canadian history. I read about soldiers' kits, Ross Rifles, MacAdam Shield-Shovels, and their doomed boots. Ross Rifles were long and heavy, performed poorly in damp conditions and would often jam after first firing, making it impossible to reload. As the name suggests, the MacAdam Shield-Shovel was designed to be a multi-purpose shield and shovel. Unfortunately it weighed over five pounds which made it difficult to carry, the shovel’s blade was incapable of stopping the penetration of gunfire even from the smallest of enemy calibre arms, and the fact that it contained a large sight-hole made it almost useless for shoveling. As for the boots, they were made with pressed cardboard soles, which rapidly disintegrated in the mud.
This image of Harry's regiment marching in the incessant rain on the Salisbury Plain mirrors the composition of his departure earlier in the book. The First World War was all about hordes of young men, embarking on journeys with uncertain destinations.
 We don't see anything of the actual War in Finding Winnie, but in the illustrations I wanted to allude to the devastation it caused. We all know the iconic photographs of soldiers leaving for war, hanging from train carriages, waving hats, reaching out for a last grasp of a wife's hand.

 I set up this scene with Harry's departure from Winnipeg...
...and echoed it with his return. The families are the same ones, four years later. We see the survivors and the gaps where men – or limbs – were lost.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Making of Finding Winnie - Part 3

 When my not-yet editor Susan Rich first sent me Lindsay Mattick's manuscript for Finding Winnie, she described it as "full of wonderful things to bring to life; a sea of white tents at the army barracks, a parade of ships crossing the ocean in 1914, The London Zoo..."
From the very beginning I was excited to paint the parade of ships. 
"Nobody had ever tried to float so many people and animals across the Atlantic Ocean before. 
Thirty ships sailed together, carrying about 36,000 men, and about 7,500 horses... 
and about one bear named Winnie."
I sketched the image above, which was how I imagined the parade. I read that Harry and Winnie had been on board the S.S. Manitou, one of the many merchant ships escorted by warships in formation across the Atlantic Ocean. 
It was pretty easy to find an image of the S.S. Manitou.

I could have just made up the other ships, but I thought, there are people who are serious about ships, and they will know I just made them up. So I went looking for  reference photographs of the convoy. This was the only one I could find. It was war, after all, and the Canadian army didn't want the enemy to know they were coming, so people probably weren't encouraged to take snapshots.
 And it's a pretty striking photograph, but it didn't tell me much about what the individual ships looked like. Then I found this painting by Lieutenant Commander Norman Wilkinson,
called Canada's Answer, which gave me a few more clues.
Then I found a very helpful website with an archive of primary documents from the Great War ( and found a list of all the ships and the order in which they sailed. I drew lines radiating from the S.S. Manitou and did image searches for those ships in lines, trying to get one whole set. It was a bit like bingo.
They sailed at sunset, so a red sky made sense, but it was also meant to suggest the war they were sailing towards. From the painting above I saw some ships were flying signal flags. I read (more than I ever imagined I might) about signal flags from my studio mate Brian Floca's extensive library, and just so you know, I tucked a secret message into that string of flags.
Do you notice anything else in this picture? The Canadian flag? The book had gone off to the printer and at the very last moment somebody noticed that the flag was the maple leaf. Which was designed in 1965. This convoy took place in 1914. Oops. Thank goodness we were able to fix it in the nick of time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Making of Finding Winnie - Part 2

 Illustrating Finding Winnie took over a year. The very last thing I did was the cover. Sometimes covers come easily, sometimes it's a torturous process. This one, while not exactly torturous, was a little elusive.

 This was my first sketch, but I wasn't really thinking where the title would go.
Followed by about 87 color sketches, until I hit on Winnie holding onto Harry's boot. But the background didn't feel quite right. Nor did the type. We were down to the wire, the book had to go to print. We sent out the f&gs (folded and gathered proofs) with a placeholder cover, the one on the lower right.
We took a collective deep breath, and went back to the drawing board. And then Saho Fuji, the art director, came up with the yellow diamonds in a flash of inspiration.
Partly inspired by Cole's bedspread...
Partly by this old edition of Winnie the Pooh...
And possibly, from deep in our collective memory, this WW1 poster I found in the very early research stages.
We always knew we wanted to show Harry and Winnie on the front and Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh on the back.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the case cover, the surprise under the jacket.
When I saw this photo of WW1 soldiers...
It rang a bell!
And so, my tribute to E.H. Shepard.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Depicting Slavery in A Fine Dessert

It has come to my attention that some readers of A Fine Dessert have found the depiction of slavery troubling.

Every reader is entitled to their response and I don't expect to say anything which will change those concerns. I would, however, like to explain the choices I made so that a newcomer to the book might not be deterred from reading it and so that they may come to their own conclusion.

Here are some of the objections I read in the comments section of the Horn Book blog, Calling Caldecott.

"Based on the illustrations, there are too many implications that should make us as adults squirm about what we might be telling children about slavery:
1) That slave families were intact and allowed to stay together.
2) Based on the smiling faces of the young girl…that being enslaved is fun and or pleasurable.
3) That to disobey as a slave was [a] fun… moment of whimsy rather than a dangerous act that could provoke severe and painful physical punishment"

1) At the risk of sounding exactly as the writer of one comment predicted, ("But we included something hard! But I researched slavery!”), evidence shows that many mothers were able to keep their children nearby, usually because it suited the plantation owners to increase their workforce. Historian Michael Tadman estimated that one third of enslaved children in the Southern States experienced family separation, which suggests that two thirds did not. Jennifer Hallam writes, in Slavery and the Making of America, “The bond between an enslaved mother and daughter was the least likely to be disturbed through sale.” This does not imply that those relationships were not constantly under threat. But it seemed reasonable that we might show a mother and daughter working together. I believe the author, Emily Jenkins came to the same conclusion. There is no father to be seen.
By showing an enslaved mother and daughter together, it is certainly a more positive portrayal of slavery than showing them wrenched apart. But it is not inaccurate. And the book is about different families making blackberry fool over four centuries.

2) I thought long and hard about these smiles.
In the first scene, the mother and girl are picking blackberries. I imagined this as a rare moment where they were engaged in a task together, out of doors, away from the house and supervision, where the mother is talking to her child. It is a tender moment, but the mother is not smiling. The girl has a gentle smile. She is, in this moment, not unhappy. I believe oppressed people throughout history have found solace and even joy in small moments.
click to enlarge

The second smile comes as the girl completes her task of whipping the cream. It’s hard work, which we see in the middle frame, and the smile was intended to convey pride in completing the task. She looks up to someone, presumably her mother, as if to say, “I did it!”

click to enlarge

In the next spread, the girl smiles timidly as she enjoys licking the spoon, but looks fearful as she descends the basement stairs.

click to enlarge

The dinner table scene is set up to show the deep injustice of the situation. The people who worked so hard over the dessert don’t get to eat it. A very small enslaved child pulls a cord to fan the white family throughout the duration of the dinner. The enslaved mother and daughter are somber and downcast. This scene seems to really strike a chord with young readers.
I have shown isolated moments of their day which may appear pleasurable, but I don’t think I have made slavery out to seem pleasurable or fun. As another commenter wrote, “Why shouldn’t a child and her mother, no matter where they are in the world or what their circumstances, share love and a smile in the course of their day? No matter how trying, inhumane or unacceptable the circumstances. Love is the most triumphant of emotions, bringing us through unspeakable trials and ordeals.”

click to enlarge

 3) The act of having to hide in the cupboard to lick the scrapings from the bowl is the thing children have responded to most viscerally. They are horrified at how unfair it is. There is nothing whimsical about hiding in the cupboard. It conveys a complete lack of freedom.

Emily Jenkins says in her author’s note: “This story includes characters who are slaves, even though there is by no means space to explore the topic of slavery fully. I wanted to represent American life in 1810 without ignoring that part of our history. I wrote about people finding joy in craftsmanship and dessert even within lives of great hardship and injustice – because finding that joy shows something powerful about the human spirit. Slavery is a difficult truth. At the end of the book, children can see a hopeful, inclusive community.” I would add that this is a book for young children. It introduces issues of slavery in the context of a wider history. It is not intended to be the only story children will read. It does not fully depict the horrors of slavery, but I don't think such a depiction would be appropriate for this particular age group.

The way we look at pictures is incredibly complicated. I cannot ensure my images will be read the way I intended, I can only approach each illustration with as much research, thoughtfulness, empathy and imagination as I can muster.
Reading the negative comments, I wonder whether the only way to avoid offense would have been to leave slavery out altogether, but sharing this book in school visits has been an extraordinary experience and the positive responses from teachers and librarians and parents have been overwhelming. I learn from every book I make, and from discussions like these. I hope A Fine Dessert continues to engage readers and encourage rewarding, thought provoking discussions between children and their grown ups.

This blog has been edited to add the following:

It seems that very few people commenting on the issue of slavery in A Fine Dessert have read the actual book. The section which takes place in 1810 is part of a whole, which explores the history of women in the kitchen and the development of food technology amongst other things. A Fine Dessert culminates in 2010 with the scene of a joyous, diverse, inclusive community feast. I urge you to read the whole book. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

And the Winners are...

Congratulations to the following schools, which will each receive a set of ten picture books!
AB Combs Elementary, Raleigh NC
Arcadia Local Schools, Arcadia OH
Aurora School, Oakland CA
Chamberlin School South, Burlington VT
Community Academy of Philadelphia, Philadelphia PA
Eagle Cliffs Elementary, Billings MT
East street Elementary School, Ludlow MA
Emiliano Zapata Academy, Chicago IL
Fred A. Toomer Elementary, Atlanta GA
George C. Weimer Elementary, Saint Bans, WV
Mackintosh Academy, Boulder, CO
Mt. Kisco Elementary School, Mt. Kisco, NY
Prince Edward County Elementary School, Farmville VA
P.S. 63, New York City NY
Scroggins Elementary School, Houston TX
Stephens Elementary, School, Rowlett TX
Walker Upper Elementary School, Charlottesville VA
West Birdville Elementary School, Fort Worth TX
West Mound Elementary School, Columbus OH
West Middle School, Grand Blanc, MI 

Thank you to all who bid, all who entered, all who tweeted and reposted and lent their support to this endeavor. In particular, Susannah Richards, John Schu, Donalyn Miller, Schwartz & Wade, Greenlight Bookstore, Emily Jenkins, my studio mates, John Bemelmans Marciano, Brian Floca, Edward Hemingway and Sergio Ruzzier, and Galatea, who made an excellent hatstand.

Winning librarians, we will work to gather your books and ship them out in the next two weeks.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

This Drawing Could Be Yours to Keep!

Help me turn this drawing into picture books for schools!

A few weeks ago I visited the Eric Carle Museum at story time. I read A Fine Dessert and did a painting demonstration, (which was pretty much an ode to frisket, the masking film which allows you to leave areas white when you do a watercolor wash.) Afterwards, signing books, a librarian leaned in close and sighing, said, “I adore this book. I wish I could buy it for my school, but we have no budget for new books this year.”

Sadly this was a refrain I heard all Summer. (And yes, it occurred to me that they might be trying to find a polite excuse to avoid buying my books, but it was a general concern!) Librarians in public schools across the country are lamenting budget cuts. Which is a particular shame considering this is being called a golden year for picture books.

I looked at the painting I made at the Carle, and thought, Maybe there’s a way of turning this drawing into a pile of new picture books. Because while there’s nothing as comforting as curling up with an old favorite, there’s something about starting a new school year with a stack of fresh ones. So here’s the plan:

I have listed the painting on eBay. The auction is live and runs until September 22nd. I am hoping it will go for a significant amount, enough to buy at least six sets of ten 2015 picture books.
Which ten books, you ask? Well this was hard, because there are SO many good ones. I consulted librarians and educators I trust and admire, (special thank you to Susannah Richards!) and was inspired by Donalyn Miller and Mr.Schu’s #pb10for10 lists. Here are ten new picture books I wish every kid had access to:

Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, illus. by Sydney Smith
Wolfie by Ame Dyckman, illus. by Zachariah OHora
Yard Sale by Eve Bunting, illus. by Lauren Castillo
Rude Cakes by Rowboat Watkins
Swan by Laurel Snyder, illus. by Julie Morstad
A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins, illus. by Sophie Blackall
Toys Meet Snow by Emily Jenkins, ills. by Paul O Zelinsky
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illus. by Christian Robinson
Two Mice by Sergio Ruzzier
Float by Daniel Miyares

I have reached out to my local independent bookstore Greenlight, who have generously agreed to ship the books to the schools.
So now I just need
a) People to bid on the drawing. Click here!
b) Librarians and teachers to enter the draw. (Which you can do by leaving your name and the name and location of your school in the comments below. Only US schools, I’m afraid.)
c)  You to help spread the word!

It’s a small idea, but if it works, it’ll make me happy. (And if it does work, maybe I can do this regularly!)

Thank you so much for your help!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Finding Winnie - Part One

When I was a college student we were always being asked to show our process. We were encouraged to submit our doodles and sketch books and research which contributed towards our final grade. Problem was, I didn't doodle. I never kept a sketch book. I hated spending time gathering reference materials. I just wanted to get on with it. I was rather gung ho back then. So, the night before an assignment was due, I would scramble to retroactively produce convincing notes and scribbles and thumbnails. I'm a better person now. I floss more often than just before a dental visit. I pay estimated tax most quarters. I keep a sketchbook and I do lots and lots of research.
I have had a such a lovely response from teachers and librarians about the blog posts describing the making of the illustrations for A Fine Dessert, (THANK YOU!) that I've decided to do the same thing with my new book Finding Winnie, which comes out on October 20th. Seeing as the book is finished, printed, bound and sitting right now in boxes in a warehouse, these posts will show the process retroactively. But I swear it's all real!
Finding Winnie is the true story of the real bear that inspired Winnie the Pooh. It's written by Lindsay Mattick and published by Little, Brown and I can't wait to tell you about it. Stay tuned!

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Fine Dessert - Part 8

A Fine Dessert is out in the world and I've been so happy to hear about families making blackberry fool together and about teachers constructing exciting lessons – which end with dessert. I've had great fun helping kids whip cream with a whole variety of vintage whisks and Skyping with a class in Texas who had rented a museum-in-a-truck with period kitchen gadgets and clothing so they could immerse themselves in each of the centuries. There are some wonderfully inspired teachers and librarians out there. Case in point.
And if you've followed my posts about researching and illustrating this book, you know I went to some lengths to get it right. So you will imagine how I've been feeling a tad crestfallen ever since reading this really lovely, thoughtful blogpost, which gently points out the following:
"If I had to be absolutely nit-picky, the one qualm I have is at the end, when the modern family in San Diego is enjoying the dessert outside. One of the kids is chasing a firefly and, if I'm not mistaken, fireflies are very rare west of Kansas (and those that do make Southern California its habitat aren't luminescent as adults). But that's hardly enough distraction to take away from the book."
As I said to Yucaree, the author of the blog, in the last spread of the book where the dessert is shared by family, friends and neighbors, I wanted to emphasize and celebrate all the subtle social shifts which have occurred throughout the centuries. I wanted to bring the feast outside under the stars, and to have diverse friends surrounding the table. And I wanted to hark back to the slave boy in 1810 whose role it was to fan the diners, by showing a corresponding boy in 2010 – happy and free in the moment, being a child. And coming from Australia, where we don't have fireflies, I find them so magical and delightful and it seemed like just the thing.

It didn't occur to me that they don't exist in California.
Hanging my head in shame, I confessed this to my ever supportive studio mates. At 3:30pm every second Monday, we share anachronisms and anomalies, typos and tears. Not really, but we may as well. Enter my hero, Sergio Ruzzier!
A little internet sleuthing and Sergio has come up with evidence of at least one firefly spotted in California in May in 2010.And there's video footage on youtube of fireflies in CA. Rare but not impossible.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Censorship and The Baby Tree

It has come to my attention that some elementary school libraries have removed their copies of The Baby Tree from shelves out of concern that the information about where babies come from is inappropriate for children to read on their own.
I believe that if a child is old enough to read The Baby Tree on his or her own, and curious enough to continue to read beyond the end of the story to the back matter – which contains answers to further questions about where babies come from – then that child has a right to the information. There is nothing salacious or untrue in the book, and the answers to the most common questions children ask about reproduction are given in a simple and straightforward way.
As the author Ellis W. Whiting wrote in the introduction to his 1933 book, The Story of Life (designed to be read to children of four or five and for older children to read themselves), “It is important that the first picture of sex knowledge which passes through the ‘lens’ into the child mind is a correct one” and if the correct information is not available, that picture will be readily supplied from another source, “the half-informed, misled playmate.”
The story of The Baby Tree is essentially a child’s quest for information. I believe children who are eager to read about their world should be rewarded with honest, thoughtful books.