Sophie Blackall on Crushin’ on Aldous Huxley,
Mother Goose’s Sis, and Why Some Crows
Need to Keep a Packed Suitcase Under Their Beds

h1 March 16th, 2011 by jules

Well. Correction. Illustrator Sophie Blackall isn’t really going to weigh in this evening on her illustrations for Lisa Wheeler’s Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children, a peek into the brat-bustin’ life of Mother Goose’s hard-nosed sister (Atheneum, March 2011), because she really came over to talk about her illustrations for Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom (Abrams, March 2011). I bet you she’s being modest about having two titles out at once and perhaps doesn’t want it to look like she’s taking over the blog today, but you see, I’m fine with her taking over the blog today. And so it is I who will throw in some spreads from Spinster Goose as well, since it makes me inordinately happy to see an illustrator such as Blackall at work on that book. That is to say I very much like her stylized, detailed, offbeat, sometimes irreverent, always emotionally resonant artwork. In fact, she was also the perfect choice for Crows, since Sophie’s not afraid to work some darkness into her work as well. As Publishers Weekly wrote, this is a picture book for kids who don’t mind a bit of that. (“Blackall…pictures a lovely gnarled tree as the prolific {Crow} family’s residence, yet her unnerving watercolors of the glassy-eyed crows reinforce the story’s sinister elements,” they wrote.) With a title like Spinster Goose, you can probably already see that both books embrace their inner darkness.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a bit about each book. And then what I’ve got here for you this evening—before I share a few spreads from Spinster Goose—is a visit with Sophie (some after-dinner coffee cups are filled) to hear all about The Crows of Pearblossom, as well as the wonderful new blog she’s doing, involving her art work and her father’s true-life adventure stories (which I previously mentioned here at 7-Imp).

The Crows of Pearblossom (not surprisingly, this is “no cheery animal fable,” wrote Publishers Weekly) is the only story written for children by British critic, novelist, and essayist Aldous Huxley. Written in 1944 as a gift for his niece (who provides a note at the book’s close), it was originally published in 1967, which Sophie addresses below. She also discusses the many factors that went into the rendering of Mr. Crow (not exactly a Sensitive New Age Guy, that one) and Mrs. Crow, given we live in more politically-correct times, and I find it all rather fascinating. Spinster Goose is a collection of rhymes by Lisa Wheeler, giving us a peek into the life of Mother Goose’s sister, who runs a school designed for troublemakers of all kinds. This is a wink-wink, very droll, and quite twisted take on rhymes most of us have known and loved since baby-hood. This is a world in which Baa Baa Black Sheep loves to curse and swear, Little Miss Muffet sits on her tuffet and eats chalk, and Georgie Porgie is a bully. (“Georgie Porgie / puddin’ and pie. / Pushed first-graders, / made them cry…”) “Blackall’s watercolor-and-ink illustrations,” writes Kirkus, “are fascinatingly delicate in line and color as they convey all the funny, delicious ghastliness of necks bending in woe, cheeks paling in nausea and this whole mob of unbiddable, hybrid Struwwelpeter/Gorey kids.”

They had me at Struwwelpeter.

I’m turning the table over to Sophie, while I get our biscotti. Enjoy.

* * * * * * *

About three years ago, I had one of those show-stopping emails land in my inbox. Susan Van Metre, then Editorial Director (now Senior VP and Publisher) at Abrams, had acquired Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom, the only children’s book he ever wrote. It’s a funny, dark, charming, witty and wise story about two crows, several eggs, a snake, an owl and a cottonwood tree. Susan had seen Meet Wild Boars

…and this illustration for a UK edition of The Wind in the Willows and thought I might be up for the task.

She wrote, “I have a manuscript that is very much a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity.”

Now, Australians tend to play things down, especially achievements. You might have heard our Olympic swimmers after they’ve broken a world record: “Oh yeah, no, yeah, it wasn’t too bad, mate.” I hadn’t actually achieved anything yet, except be on the receiving end of a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity, but I had no qualms about shouting it across the ocean. My father, an Englishman, is even better at downplaying than most Australians, but when I told him I was illustrating Crows of Pearblossom, I could have sworn I heard his voice catch in his throat. In other words, it was awfully exciting.

The Crows of Pearblossom was written for Olivia de Haulleville, Aldous Huxley’s niece, as a Christmas gift in 1944. It was published as a young reader in 1967, after Huxley’s death, with illustrations by Barbara Cooney {pictured left}. Quite apart from being a big fan of her work, she looks like someone I’d like to know. (She passed away in 2000.)

Aldous Huxley also looked like someone I wanted to know. In fact, I had a huge crush on him as a teenager and kept this postcard of him on my wall:

I couldn’t decide whether to look at this first edition of Crows or not. If I did, I was worried I’d be overly influenced. If I didn’t, I feared I might accidentally come up with identical compositions. I decided to look. Ms. Cooney’s illustrations are wonderful, filled with character and hilarious details. She set the bar high, and I’m sorry I never met her.

You can see I tried to pay tribute here and there to her illustrations, especially on the cover.

The second dilemma I faced was how to deal with the “old-fashioned” tone (I’m being kind) Mr. Crow uses with Mrs. Crow throughout the story. Mr. Crow, Assistant Manager at the Palmdale drug store, accuses his wife of overeating and being of doubtful intelligence. She’s not all that nice to him either, but still.

“What’s the matter, Amelia?” he said. “You look quite ill. You haven’t been overeating again, have you?”

“How can you be so coarse and unfeeling?” Mrs. Crow burst out. “Here am I, working myself to the bone for you; when I’m not working, laying a fresh egg every single day—except Sundays, of course, and public holidays—two hundred and ninety-seven eggs a year, and not a single chick hatched out. And all you can do is ask if I’ve been overeating. And when I think of that dreadful snake, I go all of a tremble.”

“Snake?” said Mr. Crow. “What snake?”

I decided to make her tower over him. She is robust and sleek. He is diminutive and scrappy. I don’t know… this made me laugh. I also packed her a suitcase and tucked it under the bed, just in case.

“When at last she was able to explain what had happened, Mr. Crow shook his head. ‘This is serious,’ he said. ‘This is the sort of thing that
somebody will have to do something about.'”

I had a very good time researching crows and snakes and owls — and slipped details of this research into the pictures. The story revolves around the old rattlesnake, who lives in the bottom of the cottonwood tree and who punctually, at half past three, crawls out of his hole, climbs the tree, and eats Mrs. Crow’s freshly-laid egg, while she is out grocery shopping. I learned that crows are, in real life, the greatest thieves of other birds’ eggs, so I popped a dozen eggs into her shopping basket.

“When Mrs. Crow came back from the store where she went every afternoon to buy her groceries, she would find the nest empty. ‘What can have happened to my darling little egg?’ she would say as she hunted high and low. But she never found it;
so after tea she laid another one.”

You can also learn a lot about the snake by examining his bedroom. Not all of it is savory.

I don’t want to spoil the story, but let’s just say the Snake gets his comeuppance in the end, and Mrs. Crow successfully hatches four families of seventeen baby crows each. I wanted the spread of the tree and the flock of crows to be a glorious finale, so I borrowed the last image from Gone with the Wind.

“Since that time Mrs. Crow has successfully hatched out four families of seventeen children each. And she uses the snake as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows’ diapers.”

My father, as it happens, once met Aldous Huxley. This story and others are the basis of a blog project the two of us have begun, Drawn from My Father’s Adventures. I am putting pictures to his anecdotes of Cold War Germany and English boarding school and traveling to China during the Cultural Revolution and playing chess in Siberia and all sorts of other things. This is him, at age four, in a Mickey Mouse gas mask.

So yeah, um, no, yeah, this has been fun. Thanks for having me. ‘Ooroo, mate.

* * * * * * *

Many thanks to Sophie for visiting. As promised, here is a sneak-peek into Spinster Goose. You can click on each spread to super-size it and see it up close. Enjoy.

“There are many naughty children / far beyond my expertise. / I tried my best to help them / but the problems would not cease. / So . . . / I sent them to my sister. / Her school is well designed / to deal with uncouth urchins / who have manners unrefined…”

“Lucy Locket / lost her pocket— / lost her homework, too. /
Lost her best friend at the park, / her sister at the zoo…”

* * * * * * *

THE CROWS OF PEARBLOSSOM. Copyright © 1967 by Aldous Huxley. Illustration © 2011 by Sophie Blackall. Published by Abrams, New York. All rights reserved.

SPINSTER GOOSE: TWISTED RHYMES FOR NAUGHTY CHILDREN. Copyright © 2011 by Lisa Wheeler. Illustration © 2011 by Sophie Blackall. Published by Atheneum, New York. All rights reserved.

All other images used with permission of Sophie Blackall.

12 comments to “Sophie Blackall on Crushin’ on Aldous Huxley,
Mother Goose’s Sis, and Why Some Crows
Need to Keep a Packed Suitcase Under Their Beds”

  1. Okay, first???? How delighted am I that the word SPINSTER is being given an injection of new life? It’s such an evocative, really horrible word, and used in this way it’s just hilarious and …perfect.

    And I ADORE that the crow is READY TO LEAVE at a moment’s notice, eggs and all.

    And A. Huxley was a hottie.

    What a fun interview. Yeah, um, no, yeah, this has been great.

  2. Sophie, this is absolutely lovely! Magic, I can’t wait to buy it. Thank you for lifting my day.

  3. Your illustrations are Amazing!! Great Interview! I can’t wait to buy the book either!

  4. I love it. I will have to get these books for my children and my students. I can’t wait to read them. The snake’s teeth in the glass is an extra nice touch.

  5. Sort of unrelated to these lovely drawings, but for lovers of crows:

  6. brilliant sophie [and thanks jules]!

    both books look splendid and i can’t wait to get my hands on them!

  7. I love seeing how Sophie pays tribute – yet succeeds in making her own – the Aldous Huxley crows. Brilliant!

  8. Jules, I soooo much loved this article, I LOVE Sophie Blackall’s artwork, in fact I love it so much that I bought some prints and the first thing I see when I wake up is the two of them. When I saw she was to illustrate Huxley I could hardly refrain from taking the plane and fly to the US to get my copy (well, not just because of the book to be honest!!).

  9. Thanks, all. By all means, Cris, let me know if you still don’t have a copy, and I’m ever-so happy to purchase one and send it to you! For real. If I don’t hear back from you, I’ll email you about it. It’d be my pleasure.

  10. Big Blackall fan here. (It so happens I was talking about her to a new friend at the Illinois Reading Cnference this weekend.) And big Barbara Cooney fan,too.

    Lucky me, I have books with each of these redoubtable ladies. Sophie is finishing up our book right now.

    Ooroo, indeed. Whatever it means!


  11. GREAT bones in these two books! I’m looking forward to turning the actual pages.
    It’s very nice to see Barbara Cooney pop up here too. She’s only one of the most amazing and fabulous illustrators of all time. No doubt, a great teacher (present or passed on).

  12. Have GOT to get me a copy of The Crows – I LOVE the little secrets Sophie told us (like how Mrs Crow buys eggs) and I’m dying to get my hands on a copy to see more.

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