The Daily Heller: For Sophie Blackall, It’s the Simple Things

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Sophie Blackall is an award-winning illustrator of over 50 books for children, including the New York Times bestselling Ivy and Bean series, the 2016 Caldecott Medal–winning Finding Winnie and the 2019 Caldecott Medal–winning Hello Lighthouse, which she also wrote. Blackall is the four-time recipient of The New York Times Best Illustrated Picture Book Award, and has worked with UNICEF and Save the Children UK on global health and literacy initiatives. Originally from Australia, she now splits her time between Brooklyn and the Catskill Mountains, where she is building a retreat for the children’s book community called Milkwood Farm. Her recent book, Things to Look Forward to (Chronicle), is a compilation of the simple things that she (and probably more of us) happily anticipates. I talked with her about notions of optimism and joys of anticipation.

This is a very soothing book (Zen-like, I suppose). What triggered the idea? Did COVID play a role?
I am generally a “glass half-full” kind of person, but in September 2020 I found myself struggling with anxiety about the pandemic, the state of the world, aging parents I might never see again … and then the father of my children died, suddenly, on the other side of the world, and that was just too many things. Trying to pull myself together under a long, hot shower after a long, sleepless night, I began to make a list of Things to Look Forward to. I made drawings to go with the list, and began to post one a day on Instagram. The response was overwhelming. It turned out lots of people were struggling to find anything hopeful, and together we shared tiny pleasures and minor miracles until they grew into something we could collectively embrace. A way forward, minute by minute, step by step.

A Hot Shower.

When working on a book that has such a meditative underpinning, was there any stress in doing the work?
Making Things to Look Forward to was an exercise in avoiding stress. The pandemic is stressful, the news is stressful, worrying about the world is stressful. Not to mention mundane things like alternate-side parking or getting a mammogram. No, making this book was soothing and cathartic and communal.

What are your five most satisfying activities? And why?
Collecting, foraging, harvesting, gleaning, eavesdropping. All versions of the same thing: gathering things I find interesting. I love overhearing the conversations of small children and old people. I love flea markets and yard sales, imagining the stories of things that have changed hands over the years. I am extremely content sorting through pebbles on a beach. I will spend happy hours in Asian supermarkets swooning over packaging design and peculiar (to me) canned goods, and was delighted to find a vending machine in Milan that dispensed sugar, bandaids, cigarettes, playing cards and black hair dye. For all your nocturnal emergencies.

Receiving a Letter.

Did you have to struggle to find as many examples as you did? Or did it come as easily as it looks? Are there any that you left out? One of my happiest moments is when a book I’ve worked on comes in the mail.
I could easily make a second book of things. I could make a dozen books! I wanted the list to be as universal as possible, so I eliminated a bunch. For instance, I look forward to seeing what people leave out on their stoops as I walk to my Brooklyn studio each morning. I look forward to finding something left by a previous reader between the pages of an old book. I look forward to eavesdropping on street corners as kids tumble off the school bus and regale their grownup with events of the day. I look forward to a glass of wine, spring’s frog chorus, cross-hatching the first mango of the season. That’s the beauty of cataloguing delights. Each one is a stepping stone to another.

What was your goal for the book, and have you achieved it?
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” I suppose my first goal is a selfish one: to spend my hours and days making books. To try to process all the beauty and anguish in a given day and pour it into words and pictures. It’s a survival mechanism, of course, one shared by most artists. When my books find an audience—when the very thing that brings me solace and joy brings solace and joy to others, as well—then that’s very rewarding. 

A New Word.