Caldecott medalist Sophie Blackall’s latest picture book, Hello Lighthouse evokes gasps of awe from both it’s gorgeous look and feel, to its beautifully written story and message. Savvy readers of Picture Book Builders will note that Suzanne Slade posted earlier about the book, which you can see here .
I wanted to talk about bookmaking with a slant toward illustrating and Sophie was kind and generous enough to thoughtfully answer my questions.
Hi Sophie! You write and illustrate your own books as well as illustrate books written by other authors. Do you prefer one over the other? What are the differences in the two processes?
Here are some different types of picture book relationships as I see them:
1. The Sole Creator
An author illustrates or an artist writes her own book. Sometimes she begins with the story, sometimes she begins with the images.
I tend to begin with a single painting which inspires a story, which gets written and rewritten. When I have a decent draft I begin to sketch the dummy, and sometimes go back to rewrite sentences as the art takes shape. I keep tinkering with the words until the very end. The original painting never makes it into the book, but I always keep it as a reminder of how it all began.
2. The Dead Author
In this case, an illustrator is offered a manuscript by a writer who is no longer living. It might have been discovered in an attic or a bread tin (like posthumous works of Margaret Wise Brown and Herman Melville), or it might be a new edition of a previously published story. This brings both restrictions and freedom: the manuscript is set in stone, but the author also cannot tell you how they want your characters to look.
Some years ago, I illustrated Aldous Huxley’s only book for children, The Crows of Pearblossom. It is weird and wonderful, dark and funny, strange and unsettling. It was a privilege and a challenge, not least because the book had once been illustrated by one of my favorite artists, Barbara Cooney and I wasn’t sure whether I should look at her version, or not look at it. I opted to look at it, and included an homage to Cooney in my own.
3. The Publisher’s Pairing
This is probably the most common relationship. An editor acquires a manuscript and matches it to an illustrator. Sometimes their dream illustrator is unavailable, or uninterested, so they will likely have a few in mind. Sometimes the author will have a say in this. Sometimes they won’t.
Sometimes a new illustrator will be asked to produce sample drawings or character sketches. Sometimes an author will be asked to wait years to see their book in print, to accommodate an established illustrator’s schedule.
Usually these two people have little or no interaction. Once the manuscript is edited, it is handed over to the illustrator and it is her job to bring the words to life. Sometimes an author will wish their character was a fluffy rabbit rather than a hairy wombat. Sometimes the illustrator will wish the author didn’t describe so many of the visual details, or slip in notes that a child character should “resemble [their] best friend’s niece, and btw, here’s a photo.”
I bristle when an author speaks of an artist illustrating “my book”, as though they have hired a decorator. Once a writer hands over their story, they must acknowledge that a picture book is a partnership. The pictures are not ornamentation. They are of equal importance. At the same time, I can empathize with the author who must relinquish their story, who has little control of how it’s visualized.
It is worth noting that a non-fiction picture book has its own complications. There is different research required by both author and illustrator. The artist must assume the writer has done their work and that the information is rock solid. The writer has to hope the illustrator will be meticulously diligent about visual details. Sometimes the writer will assist the illustrator and share research. Sometimes they’re on their own. The picture book relationship calls for enormous trust on both sides.
The editor is crucial in all this. They are the go-between. The editor sees the potential of the manuscript, and where and how to let the words or pictures do the work on each page, to best tell this particular story.
When these two halves combine successfully, it can be magical. The words inspire the drawings, and the drawings add depth and substance and soul and context to the words. Each elevates the other in a perfect union.
4. The Collaboration
Now and then two people work together in partnership, and it can be a beautiful thing. Sometimes the relationship develops after the first book, sometimes they pitch a book together. Either way, the author and illustrator seem to belong together, like A.A. Milne and E. H. Shepard, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett. Sometimes they’re married, like Alice and Martin Provensen or Carson Ellis and Colin Melloy.
I have had the extremely good fortune of working with Annie Barrows on Ivy + Bean, Meg Rosoff on several picture books and John Bemelmans Marciano on the Witches of Benevento. Our books are better for our friendship, our conversations, our knowledge of our characters, our combined research and times spent hashing out ideas. Not to mention how much more fun it is being on the road with a partner in crime.
These days I prefer either collaborating with a writer I trust and admire and enjoy spending time with, or going it alone. Although if a previously undiscovered story by A.A. Milne or Edward Gorey turned up in a bread tin, I probably wouldn’t say no.
You chose to write a picture book where one of the main characters is a place. It doesn’t move, or change. This is a main point of your story, but illustratively this seems quite challenging? Was it? What are some of the things that you did to vary the illustrations and still create exciting page turns?
Two of my all time favorite picture books are The Ox-Cart Man, illustrated by Barbara Cooney, and The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. Both are deceptively simple stories about change and renewal and the passing of time. I had both in the back of my mind when I set about making Hello Lighthouse. I wanted to make a book about a lighthouse, because I love lighthouses, but also for that book to be about life and love and loss and hope… and life. I knew early on that I would alternate spreads between exterior and interior scenes. That the exterior scenes would have the lighthouse as a constant. Steadfast, grounded, built to last forever. It appears in exactly the same spot on the page each time. Around it, storms rage, the fog rolls in and out, icebergs drift by and years pass.
Inside the lighthouse the life of a family unfolds. Daily chores and monotonous routine punctuated with peril and drama, romance and childbirth. The scenes are contained in circles, like the round rooms of a lighthouse. They start out quite small, but as the keeper’s family grows, the circles expand to fill the page.
Not only is the story wonderful, and the artwork stunning, but the physical book itself is gorgeous. How much of the designing of it did you do? I love the way you work the author’s note into the paste down end page and have the whole book look as though it’s nestled inside the Lighthouse journal!
Thank you! It is a joy to work with my editor, Susan Rich (to whom the book is dedicated) and the creative team at Little, Brown. Susan and I worked very closely, talking for hours about all the tiny details, discussing trim size to within a quarter of an inch, agonizing over whether to make the cover image a lighthouse by day or by night, and how fine we could make the gold foil-embossed beams on the jacket. We wanted the book to be a beautiful object, to consider every detail as part of the whole package, from elongated trim size to the surprise case cover.
Have you always had a curiosity, or love of lighthouses?
I have always loved lighthouses. I visited several when I was researching this book, and stayed in one for several days, on Quirpon Island on the Northern tip of Newfoundland. I find lighthouses both compelling and comforting.
I was working on the book during some of the most turbulent times I’ve ever known. It was a great comfort to escape into my painting, to transport myself to a tiny island out at sea.
Recently a child at a school visit asked, “What were your emotions like when you made Hello Lighthouse?” I told him that there were a lot of bad and sad and crummy things happening in the world when I made this book, and that when the world is full of such things, books offer an escape to a different, kinder world. And if we can’t find exactly the world we seek in a book, then we can make our own book and our own world.
What is this Milkwood Farm that I’ve been hearing you talk about?
Well! I’m so glad you asked. Right now, Milkwood Farm is an abandoned dairy farm in upstate New York on 21 beautiful acres of rolling hills and wildflower meadows and meandering streams. But in two years time, it will have been transformed into a place for writers and illustrators to gather and spend time together, writing, drawing, talking, walking, eating, drinking, thinking. You can find out more about the project here! www.milkwoodfarm.org