Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Sophie Blackall

h1 August 4th, 2008 by jules

Sophie BlackallIf you read our blog regularly, you could probably guess that it would be difficult for me—should someone, say, have a gun to my head, absurdly enough—to name my top-ten favorite illustrators. It’d just be hard to narrow, my friends.

But Sophie Blackall would, without question, be on my list. There is a lightness and a brightness to her work that always makes me smile; at the same time, her Chinese inks and watercolors are capable of either great elegance or supreme goofiness and lots of humor, depending on the story she’s illustrating. For an example of the former, see 2007’s Red Butterfly: How a Princess Smuggled the Secret of Silk Out of China (Candlewick), written by Deborah Noyes, and for an example of the latter, YOU ABSOLUTELY CANNOT MISS this year’s deadpan Jumpy Jack & Googily (Henry Holt), written by Sophie’s bud and frequent picture-book-making partner, Meg Rosoff (not to mention the other picture book titles on which they’ve partnered, which are listed below):

“‘I’m nervous,’ said Jumpy Jack to his best friend, Googily. ‘There could be a monster nearby and I’m scared of monsters.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Googily.”

“‘What if there is a monster under the table?’ said Jumpy Jack. ‘What if there is a monster with long thin feet that jumps out from under the table and frightens me so much I nearly faint?’

‘Ho ho ho,’ said Googily. ‘Now you really have gone too far.'”

* * * * * * *

And then, as if I needed more convincing, I saw Sophie’s 2007 snowflake for Robert’s Cure, “Flying Fox and Three Babies.” It was probably—and this is hard to admit, considering all the amazing snowflakes—my very favorite snowflake of all from ’07. Jennifer at not your mother’s bookclub, who featured this snowflake last year, created her own narrative about “foxtacular elficide” for this snowflake. Hee. And that is the appeal of this particular snowflake to me — the mysterious and unknown and probably pretty wacked-out story that surrounds it.

Needless to say, then, I was pretty happy when Sophie said she’d take the time to do a seven-questions-over-breakfast interview here at 7-Imp. And what, you may wonder, is her breakfast-of-choice while we sit and talk? “I’m Australian, so I have to have good coffee. No offence, but American coffee is more like tea. Mostly I take my coffee to the computer to check email and forget to ever go back and have breakfast, but my favourite thing if I do remember, is sourdough bread, toasted, with berries squashed onto it, sprinkled with sugar.”

Mmm. I approve of that breakfast with much dedication and enthusiasm. While we’re setting the table, let’s get the basics from Sophie…

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Sophie: Illustrator and working on being an author/illustrator. That is to say I have written one story, but it has taken nearly five years for me to get around to illustrating it. I place the blame for this squarely on the slender shoulders of my young son, who the story was written about. He was three at the time and thought it was hilarious, but from four to eight he was utterly mortified and forbade me from doing it. Of course, I didn’t really humour him, it was just that I had other books to do. Now he is nearly nine and thinks it would be really cool to have a book about him. Especially as there isn’t one about his sister. So that’s the book that is currently on my desk. {Ed. Note: Illustration below!}

illustration from ARE YOU AWAKE?

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?


7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Sophie: Chinese ink and watercolour on paper.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Sophie: Brooklyn, New York, although I’m Australian born and bred. I still cling to the “u” in colour.

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Sophie: Chronicle Books, who published Ruby’s Wish, couldn’t decide between three illustrators, so they held what amounted to a bake-off. We were all given the same passage from the manuscript to illustrate, the scene where the grandfather watches the lesson in the garden. I was lucky enough to be chosen, and the only reason I can appear so smug about it is that I happen to know the other two contenders have gone on to do many other brilliant things. In fact, I’m sure they’re really GLAD they didn’t get the job.

I love all the books I’ve done for different reasons, but Ruby’s Wish has a particular life of its own. I have spoken at the UN about this book, and have walked into a school in Gravesend, Brooklyn, where three hundred children all dressed in red were waiting to greet me, and I’ve had girls bring along their scuffed and dog-eared copies for me to sign. All of which is every bit as much about the story as the illustrations, obviously.

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?


7-Imp: If you do school visits, can you tell us what they’re like?

Sophie: Oh they’re really good for my ego. Most days I sit hunched at my squalid desk, trying to draw, squandering hours on eBay and emerging in the afternoon to embarrass my children in the schoolyard. But every now and then I do a School Visit and, after the initial terrifying moments of having all those beady eyes trained on you, it’s FANTASTIC. It’s seriously wonderful to realise that books have a life beyond my studio; that children really do pore over them and eat them up and love them and think about them for a long time afterwards. I have had brilliant letters from second graders, some adoring, “You are the Best Ilstater in the Wold,” “You are veery goo at draling,” and some brutally honest, “I could draw as good as you if I had lessons.” I also once had a marriage proposal from a first-grade boy.

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

Sophie: Oh yes! But I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell. There’s one called Wombat Walkabout for Dutton, written by Carol Shields, which will be out next Spring. {Ed. Note: Illustration below!} This one, for me, was a bit of a love letter to the Australian bush.

Then there’s my book, the first one I’ve written as well as illustrated, Are You Awake?, which is the aforementioned story about my bossy but endearing son. It’s for Henry Holt and will be out in Fall ’09.

Then I have something which is making me squirm and hyperventilate it’s so exciting, but I’m really not allowed to talk about that. I’ll just say it’s one of those manuscripts an illustrator fantasizes about. If she likes crows and eggs and pieces of string, that is. I’ll keep you posted.

* * *

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set, and we’re ready to sit down and talk more specifics over coffee with Sophie. We’ll adjust and make it Six Questions Over Breakfast, since she opted out of the ask-herself-a-question question. Many, many thanks to Sophie for taking the time to chat with 7-Imp!

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Sophie: First step is to read the story. Then as soon as possible I read it to my two children, who are thoughtful and funny and honest. Then, because I am extremely lucky and have projects neatly lined up like cabs in a rank, I usually have to put it away for a year or two, which always makes me feel really guilty for the author’s sake.

When it’s time to begin work, the first thing I do is decide on the trim size. Wombat Walkabout, for instance, became a square book because wombats are such dear, dumpy, squarish animals, it made sense. Are You Awake? began as a standard-sized picture book, but the more I worked on it, the more I realised I wanted it to be smaller and more intimate. It’s funny and fast-paced and I wanted the pages to turn almost like a flip book. So now it’s a tiny 5″ x 6″, which I’ve never done before, and it’s such fun!

If I’m working with my friend Meg Rosoff, we usually squabble good natured-ly for a bit about the characters. It took considerable convincing to get her to agree Jumpy Jack should be a snail. She kept insisting he ought to be a tortoise. Obviously she was completely wrong.

With other more polite authors, there’s less communication as a rule. One way or another though, the first and most important step for me is deciding what the characters look like. People or animals, contemporary or period. All of those decisions are made early on, and can sometimes be paralysing, like standing in front of a destinations board watching cities light up. So many, many choices, it’s sometimes hard to commit.

Then, with heart in mouth and fingers crossed, I show these to my editors and art directors, always half imagining they will demand their advance back and run me out of town. Recently I had to convince my wonderful, amazing, visionary editor and AD at Simon and Schuster to allow me to make the setting for a new book look like a grim Victorian orphanage, and to have some of the children be sea urchins, and others just a puff of smoke. {Ed Note: Sketch below!} Did I mention how amazing they are?

Once the characters are locked in, I draw the whole dummy. I’m one of those angst-ridden, precise illustrators, despite my messy desk. I grip my pencil so tightly I have a callous the size of a gooseberry on my middle finger, and my drawings rarely change much from sketch to final. When the publishers give the dummy the go ahead, it’s time to paint which is the part I love. Stretching a fresh piece of watercolour paper out on the tiny space available on my crowded desk is always exciting.

I use Chinese ink and Schminke watercolors, which come in a very serious looking black tin. Now and then I have to replace individual colours, which involves a special trip to the paint shop, and the man gets out his ladder and pulls down a box and opens another box within that and pulls out a tiny foil wrapped square of cadmium red light, for instance, which costs about a week’s rent but makes me feel like a real, grown-up artist.

Because I live in New York, I hand-deliver deliver most of my books, which is a bit like taking your children to school on the first day. I sit with the parcel on my knees on the subway and reassure it under my breath.

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

Sophie: Well, as you can see, it’s not exactly tidy. In fact only about ten percent of my desk surface is actually usable. The rest of it is covered with teetering piles of junk. Somehow, though, like an archeologist, I know where things are in the layers. Above my desk, I stick pictures on the wall. Some of these I’ve had on every studio wall for the last fifteen years. I collect pictures of the backs of people’s heads, and photographs of the messy studios of geniuses.

I also collect Depression-era dolls and various bits of animals and assemble them into funny, unsettling creatures. At least I think they’re funny. I do this mostly on the floor, so on any given day when I’m meant to be working on Ivy and Bean, say, I might have a deer hoof and a bird wing at my feet. Don’t tell my editor.

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Sophie: As a child, I was utterly devoted to Winnie the Pooh. I still can’t believe how much character Ernest Shepard could inject into so few lines. And Beatrix Potter of course, and the Australian May Gibbs, who invented Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, John Burningham’s Borka and Raymond Briggs’s The Elephant and the Bad Baby were hugely, monumentally influential. Or really, I just loved them, and wanted to literally climb into their pages.

Flowerface4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators — whom you have not yet met — over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Sophie: Maurice Sendak, John Burningham, and Maira Kalman. And I know this is cheating, but I’d turn them all down to have dinner and a walk on the beach with Edward Gorey.

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Sophie: Tom Waits, Tom McRae, Neutral Milk Hotel and MIKA. I do listen to music and also, once the tricky drawing part is done and I’m onto painting, I often listen to audio books. It’s funny how the illustrations become inextricably linked to whatever I’ve been listening to. When I look at Red Butterfly, for instance, I see Moby Dick on every page, which is quite incongruous, seeing as Red Butterfly is set in 5th century China, nowhere near the sea. And Anna Karenina is all over Jumpy Jack & Googily.

6. 7-Imp {pictured here is “Winter Swallow,” Sophie’s 2005 snowflake for Robert’s Snow, just ’cause I love it}: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Sophie: I hide a whale somewhere in every book I illustrate; part of the Moby Dick obsession. I told some kids this at a school visit once, and a little girl came up to me afterwards and said, “I’ve looked and looked, but I can’t find the whale in Ruby’s Wish.” Now I’m not very proud of this, but I told her cheerily, “Oh keep looking!” In fact, there’s no whale in Ruby’s Wish. It was pre-Moby Dick Obsession. Sometimes I lie awake at night picturing that little girl hunched over her book, still staring at every page, wasting away.

The Pivot Questionnaire

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Sophie: “Deosculation.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Sophie: “Veggies.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Sophie: The sea, old gloves, wallpaper swatches, shadows, things found between the pages of books, Moby Dick, fireflies, a fresh piece of paper and a sharp pencil…

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Sophie: Invoicing.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Sophie: “Bugger.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Sophie: My daughter singing.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Sophie: The belch, roar and splatter of someone throwing up.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Sophie: I’d like to have a museum. I’d have a room filled with people’s unfinished craft projects: abandoned knitting, half embroidered cushion covers; and another with things made from human hair; and another with mended things.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Sophie: President of the United States.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Sophie: “You took your time!”

* * * * * * *

First two spreads: Illustrations from JUMPY JACK & GOOGILY by Meg Rosoff, illustration © 2008 by Sophie Blackall. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Ivy and Bean image: Illustration from IVY AND BEAN, BOOK 4: TAKE CARE OF THE BABYSITTER by Annie Barrows, illustration © 2008 by Sophie Blackall. Published by Chronicle Books. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Ruby’s Wish image: Illustration from RUBY’S WISH by Shirin Yim, illustration © 2002 by Sophie Blackall. Published by Chronicle Books. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

38 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Sophie Blackall”

  1. MOBY DICK!!! I knew I loved her, besides her work which makes me go all googly inside. It is one of my all-time favorite books.

    And a hint–I believe she has said yes to a new book of mine.


  2. Ooh, Jane, that will be something to see!

    Dude, those dolls? I’m pretty sure the hooded one is going to show up in my nightmares tonight.

  3. Jane Yolen + Sophie Blackall = Picture Book Swoon

  4. Just saw Ruby’s Wish displayed in my local coffee shop and was transfixed. What an awesome interview.

  5. What a delightful interview. And I’m with eisha — those dolls (photos between #2 and #3) are perverse little wonders. Hmm, I wonder why her son might be so wakeful…? 🙂

    The way she worked Meg Rosoff into the interview was hilarious. This probably doesn’t fit within the 7Questions format, but it seems only fair to take the one question which Ms. Blackall wouldn’t answer, and ask it of Ms. Rosoff instead: What one question would you ask of Sophie Blackall, if you could? (Preferably a question Ms. Rosoff doesn’t already know the answer to!)

  6. Thanks, Nadine!

    I love those dolls. And I showed my four-year-old, who was interested but not traumatized, as far as I know.

    JES, good idea on the questioning. Wish I had thought of that. It’d be fun to interview Meg Rosoff one day anyway, so maybe we can still ask…

  7. Oxygen, I need oxygen! This interview just took my breath away. Imps, I hold you totally responsible for my newfound Sophie obsession. Yes, I loved her work before, but now that I see those strange dolls . . . the illo from Are You Awake? is brilliant!

  8. Jama, you crack me up. You also are such a cheerleader of our interviews that you make my head swell (for just a minute or two, and then my ever-present self-doubt deflates it. Hee.)

    Sophie’s responses made me SO happy. She is an example of someone who makes the interview EASY, what with her interesting answers and interesting self and wonderfully weird dolls and her talent and all the great pictures she sent.

    I’d also like to add that it was nice to have someone answer EACH Pivot question — we haven’t had that in a while. Not that people HAVE to, but it’s just…nice. They’re fun to read, I think. And someone with a sense of humor (I mean, humour) who doesn’t take them all too seriously. (Someone at some point said about the last Pivot question, “I don’t believe in that.” Well, it does say “IF”…please just PLAY AlONG! But I digress.)

    Anyway, thanks…and HAPPY BIRTHDAY AGAIN! If I stop by Alphabet Soup again, may I have another cupcake?

  9. Jumpy Jack & Googily is one of our more recent departmental obsessions here at the library, and Meet Wild Boars is one of my favorite storytime books. (I especially love the way kids react to the last page–HA!)

    I love that story about the little girl looking for the picture of the whale in Ruby’s Wish.

  10. You may have as many cupcakes as you want, Jules, especially after posting such a fabulous interview today :)!

    But yes, I know what you mean about having some dream interviewees — who answer everything and are so charming and witty and interesting and don’t hold back. I guess it’s always a crap shoot to really luck out with someone like that. I’m sure some of my interviewees thought I was just plain silly for asking some questions, but I always feel like I have to try to inch my way in, to sneak under their radar just a little bit — because I really just want to know what makes these people tick.

    Sophie is absolutely amazing — and beautiful to boot! I am so anxious to see Wild Boars Cook. It might totally do me in, though.

  11. What amazing illustrations and such an awesome interview. Thank you 7Imps for once again spotlighting an incredibly talented illustrator/writer I had not known about!
    Wombat Walkabout looks wonderful, as does Are You Awake?
    The dolls are soooo scary and so funny at the same time – it would be great to see them turn up in a story of their own sometime.

    And a very belated but sincere Happy Blog Birthday/Anniversary!

    Now I need to email this interview to many friends!

  12. Oh, how I love her work. And this interview. And the wombats. And the word “bugger.”

  13. OMG!!!! I love her work! Now I have to go through her books to see if I can find a whale….

  14. nice going, mum

  15. Oh God, oh God, the dolls…! I’ll never sleep again.

  16. I want to be invited to that tea party!

    Thanks for sharing so many pages from your portfolio, Sophia. I love the variety you’ve displayed. I’m familiar with Ivy and Bean, and Wombat Walkabout looks adorable. Best wishes with your own stories too!

  17. HI Olive!
    Knew we had something other than squabbling in common, Soph. Bugger’s my favourite too.
    Too tired to think of a new book these days, but will soon.
    As for the whale story, poor poor child. Sadistic tendencies, not as nice as you look. I said it first.

  18. […] enjoyed the interview with Sophie Blackhall over at 7 Imp. Love it that those girls aren’t afraid to do a great, big, juicy LONG interview. Keep […]

  19. […] Sophie Blackall (interviewed August 4), pictured below, on school visits: “Most days I sit hunched at my squalid desk, trying to […]

  20. i know sophie’s son. edward godlee. he’s good friend of mine. Hi eggy!

  21. […] blog “7 Impossible Things before Breakfast” had this wonderful interview w/ […]

  22. […] Correction. Illustrator Sophie Blackall isn’t really going to weigh in this morning on her illustrations for Lisa Wheeler’s […]

  23. […] Aileen Leijten, and I had fourteen illustrators over for a pot luck dinner and p.r. discussion. Sophie Blackall brings the wine, Sergio Ruzzier brings the cheese, and I provide the whiskey. Good […]

  24. […] last week’s Kirkus column, I took a look at the author/illustrator debuts from Sophie Blackall and Lauren Castillo. Both women have illustrated many titles previously, but they’ve recently […]

  25. […] morning, I’m featuring illustrations from two books meant for grown-ups, Sophie Blackall’s Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found (from which the second illustration above comes) and […]

  26. […] Polly Horvath’s Mr. and Mrs. Bunny: Detectives Extraordinaire!, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. (It’s from this post this week.) So, I shall re-post it […]

  27. […] Yesterday, I chatted with author Matthew Olshan and illustrator Sophie Blackall about The Mighty Lalouche, released by Schwartz & Wade this month. That Q&A is here, and […]

  28. […]   Last week at Kirkus, I chatted with author Matthew Olshan and illustrator Sophie Blackall, who recently collaborated on The Mighty Lalouche, released this month by Schwartz & Wade […]

  29. […] at BookPage, my review of Sophie Blackall’s The Baby Tree (Nancy Paulsen Books, May 2014) has been posted. If you wanna read all about it, head […]

  30. […] 3) My girls and I are reading Alice Hoffman’s Nightbird. We are enjoying it, and check out the beautiful cover art from Sophie Blackall: […]

  31. […] it’s a kick that she wasn’t sick for multiple days); the graciousness of Brian Floca, Sophie Blackall, Edward Hemingway, and John Bemelmans Marciano in allowing us to visit their studio; seeing an old […]

  32. […] Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. It’ll be on shelves next month from Little, […]

  33. […] Illustrator website Illustrator biography: Measles & Rubella Initiative Illustrator interview: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Illustrator interview: Publisher’s Weekly Illustrator interview: Juana Martinez […]

  34. […] Over at Kirkus today, I talk to author-illustrator John Bemelmans Marciano, pictured here, about The Witches of Benevento, his new chapter book series illustrated by Sophie Blackall. […]

  35. […] week at Kirkus, I chatted here with John Bemelmans Marciano about his new series, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, The Witches of Benevento. I follow up today with some of Sophie’s art from the […]

  36. […] “‘We’ll see about that. …”(Click to enlarge image)   I’ve got a review over at BookPage (here) of Matthew Olshan’s newest picture book, A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785 (Margaret Ferguson Books/FSG, October 2016), illustrated by Sophie Blackall. […]

  37. […] can’t tell you how nice it’s been to share a studio with Sophie, Johnny, Brian, and Sergio these last several years. It really is like the coolest clubhouse […]

  38. […] — in more ways than one. I really enjoy what she has to say, and it all comes with art from Sophie Blackall, Frank Viva, and Christoph […]

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