Haven’t decided whether to attend the 17th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC or not? Well, here’s a reason to sign up today: beloved illustrator Sophie Blackall will be on faculty leading a pre-conference illustration intensive. Now don’t procrastinate any longer, go sign up!
Blackall is a Brooklyn-based Australian artist who has illustrated over thirty books for children, including Ruby’s Wish, Big Red Lollipop, The Baby Tree, A Fine Dessert, Finding Winnie and the New York Times bestselling series, Ivy and Bean. She has won the Ezra Jack Keats Award, the Founder’s Award from the Society of Illustrators, a Horn Book Honor, a Golden Kite Honor and two books have been New York Times Top Ten Picture Books.
I’m pleased to host an interview today with Sophie Blackall:
Don: Sophie, it’s such an honor to interview you here. I’ve been a fan for quite a long time.
Sophie: Thank you, Don, right back at you!
Don: In an earlier blog post, I once joked about the need for an entire section of a bookstore to be dedicated to you and your many books. How many books are you juggling at once now? Can you talk a bit about your process of managing several books at once?
Sophie: Kids always ask how long it took to do the drawings for a book, and often I find myself saying, “A year”, which feels about right. Then I do the math and realize I have done at least two (and up to four) picture books and a chapter book and a bunch of other projects every year for the past 13 years. And THEN I realize that I haven’t had a proper weekend in about 13 years. And then I feel like taking a nap. AND THEN I talk to Dan Santat who once did 13 books in a year. And then I get back to work. All of which is to say I am trying very hard to do fewer books. It’s hard when you are supporting a family and you have college fees on the horizon and you’ve chosen a job which is – as often as not – a labor of love. But if it wasn’t true love, I’d have switched careers long ago.
Don: You’ve illustrated just about every type and genre of book for youth readers. What types of manuscripts attract your attention?
Sophie: I work so far ahead that if I take on a manuscript, I probably won’t start work on it for three years. Recently I’ve been saying no to almost everything (which is terrifying), so that I can close this gap and feel a bit more spontaneous. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s a bit like ordering something off a menu and not being able to eat it for three years. Am I sure I’m still going to feel like steak frites with truffle mayo when the time comes? (probably, but you never know, I may have a vegetarian phase.)
I have been incredibly fortunate to work with some fantastic writers, including Meg Rosoff, Annie Barrows, Judith Viorst, Aldous Huxley, Matthew Olshan. They are all funny and have distinctive voices and they get kids. This last is extremely important.
I also have a secret list of authors I would love to work with. It would be hard to say no to any of them, should I be lucky enough to be offered a manuscript.
Don: Your subway poster is a wonderful work of art, yet it has nothing to do with children’s books. What are some other way’s you’ve used your art in your career?
Sophie: I like to draw for grown ups, which is not really very different from drawing for children except for the subject matter. I have also had the honor and privilege of illustrating projects for UNICEF, the Gates Foundation and Save the Children, which have taken me to Congo and India, Rwanda and Bhutan. My favorite things in the world are children, drawing and travel, and these projects combine all three.
Don: BABY TREE (Nancy Paulsen Books) is a story that you wrote and illustrated. Can you talk about your transformation from illustrator to writer? Fears, goals, self discovery.
Sophie: I credit my editor, Nancy Paulsen with reminding me to write. She asked why I hadn’t written more of my own books, and I said I had a bunch of half-finished stories on my desktop. She gave me an end-of-Summer deadline, promised me lunch, and over sushi in September I delivered THE BABY TREE. I am writing more of my own picture books now. It’s fun to happen upon a story and then throw oneself legitimately into research, and then in the process uncover another story, and another… I think this might be familiar to you! These books usually begin with something I want to draw. And then I read everything I can find on the topic. And because writing is still relatively new, it seems a) easier and b) more fun, than drawing which is HARD. A kid asked me recently if I found drawing relaxing. Ha! Drawing is a stressful, terrifying, frustrating, dreadful past time. Did I say earlier it was one of my favorite things? Yes, well, it’s that too. But painting is the reward for drawing. Painting is pure joy.
Don: I’m thrilled that you will be on faculty at the National SCBWI conference in NYC. Can you tell our readers what to expect from Sophie Blackall at #16NYSCBWI?
Sophie: I’m thrilled to be presenting at the Winter conference, if indeed we have any Winter this year.
The theme is building and sustaining an illustration career. I’ve been doing this for a while, but it hasn’t all been roses. Or picture books. I illustrated a magazine column on stain removal. I painted signs for a supermarket. I did before-and-after liposuction diagrams. Yup.
But throughout these trying times, I thought to myself: I am learning something about illustration with each horrible assignment. It still counts as drawing. I am scraping together my rent with MY ART. And I’m not working in a tollbooth. (Which happens to be my worst case job. Needless to say I’m grateful to the many toll booth workers in the world.)
So, we will be talking about how to make a living doing what you love.
Don: Thank you, Sophie!
Be sure to check out Sophie Blackall’s session, How to Avoid Working In a *_______ (*your worst case occupation here), Making a Living Doing What You Love, on Friday at 9:50 am.