Two-time Caldecott medal winner Sophie Blackall identified, discussed books that inspired her

September 26, 2019

By Julia Straka, ’21

Sophie Blackall, an Australian children’s book author and illustrator based in Brooklyn, spoke at University of Richmond in February 2019 as part of the SPCS Graduate Education Speaker Series. Blackall has won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for illustration twice; most recently for Hello Lighthouse, which she authored as well. Blackall also illustrated the widely read series Ivy and Bean. However, her work is not limited to books: a poster Blackall created depicting the various personalities found on the New York City subway is featured inside of actual subway cars in the City. 

During her talk, Blackall discussed her decision to become a children’s book illustrator. Blackall’s discovery of Ernest Howell Shepard’s illustrations for Winnie-the-Pooh at the age of seven inspired her to pursue children’s book illustration as a career.

Winnie-the-Pooh has informed Blackall’s work in other ways as well. Blackall illustrated Lindsay Mattick’s book Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear, which narrates the relationship between a World War I soldier and his bear companion who served as the inspiration for the famous children’s book. Blackall won her first Caldecott Medal for her work. 

However, Winnie-the-Pooh was only one of the five books Blackall credited for its significance to her life during the talk. She explained how The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward reminded her it is possible to both be a mom and a successful author, and The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman reminded her that there are two sides to every person. She told the story of how she and her friend, author Oliver Jeffers, realized they were simultaneously working on books with the same concept over lunch. He published his work later as Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth

The last book she talked about, Moby Dick, cultivated her fascination with whales and the sea, which is evident in Hello Lighthouse

Though Moby Dick impacted her work, a print of the Eddystone Lighthouse in the United Kingdom that Blackall had stuffed in a drawer years earlier sparked the idea for Hello Lighthouse. Two years earlier, a friend had advised her “not [to] ignore things that tug at you” when she saw Blackall wrestling with whether or not to buy the print at a flea market.

After rediscovering the print, Blackall did extensive research; she even stayed in a Newfoundland lighthouse for five days. There, she experienced a wide range of weather and water conditions, from big thunderstorms to calm, flat waters and misty, silvery seascapes. However, the lighthouse always stayed the same. This constancy is reflected in her book, where the lighthouse always appears, and always on the left page.

Blackall pointed out other themes in Hello Lighthouse. The action takes place in the round rooms of a lighthouse, adorned with circular rugs and decor, surrounded by chaotic seas, icebergs and whales. When the lighthouse keeper’s wife goes into labor, she paces in a circle. The circles represent the cyclical nature of life. When the keeper gets sick, his wife takes care of him; he then tends to her after she gives birth. Blackall summarized these motifs as contributing to “the comfort of [knowing] things sooner or later come around,” she said. 

At the end of her talk, Blackall asked the audience members to volunteer what books impacted their lives. To those who answered, she offered free copies of either her own books or the books she discussed throughout her lecture.