When asked how the rest of her day was going to go, just-named Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall responded: “Champagne! And donuts. [There’s] another pot of coffee on, which is good because I never got to finish mine.”
Blackall may have been a bit distracted from her coffee mug on Monday morning as she celebrated her win for Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear (Little, Brown). The book, written by Lindsay Mattick, tells the story of the original bear that inspired A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh series.
Monday had an early start for Blackall, but the phone remained silent. “I was standing in the kitchen,” she said. “I had honestly given up all hope of getting a phone call. Hope that had kind of risen and that I stomped on all weekend, as I’m sure every other illustrator who had a book out in 2015 did.”
But the tenor of the morning changed quickly. “I was making school lunches and I thought, ‘Well, that’s it,’ then I heard about David Bowie. Then I thought it was a gray morning. I had a lovely moment with my partner Ed. He said all the nice things a partner says: that we’re so lucky, no matter what, and that as awards come and go, we still have so much. And as we were saying all these heartwarming things, the phone rings.” Seeing the Boston area code sent Blackall immediately into tears. When she answered the call, the Caldecott committee informed her she had won the medal. “I was laughing and sobbing. I think I was also possibly going to fall over.”
This year, in addition to the praise and accolades that Winnie received, another of her picture books, A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins, came under some criticism for depicting slavery but avoiding the grim realities of the institution. For Blackall, winning the award was an emotional and dramatic climax to the year. “I think just the lead-up to it and with everything that had happened last year,” she said, “I had really resigned myself that I wasn’t going to get this call, let alone the medal.” And now that the call has come, “it feels very surreal in a lovely, lovely way,” she said. “I’m half expecting to wake up and find it was a dream.”
After the call, she hung up “and cried all over again.” She then spoke with her “beloved editor Susan Rich, who is all over this book and every page and every decision.” She wasn’t allowed to speak to Lindsay Mattick, the book’s author, until after the press conference.
From home, Blackall headed to her shared studio space in Brooklyn, where her studio mates have a tradition of watching the ALA Youth Media Awards webcast together. Blackall shares studio space with John Rocco, Brian Floca, John Bemelmans Marciano, Sergio Ruzzier, and Edward Hemingway; the group began their tradition when Rocco won the 2012 Caldecott Honor for Blackout. The only exception to the tradition, she says, was when Floca won the Caldecott in 2014 while Blackall was in Rwanda. “I had hidden a bottle of Champagne in the fridge,” she said. “I got a call from Brian on a hilltop in Rwanda, and I told him, ‘look in the fridge, behind the beans.’ ”
For Blackall, the camaraderie with her studio mates contributes to the joy in sharing their successes. But on Monday morning, it felt like they were dragging their feet in arriving for the webcast. “I was in the studio, texting, ‘where are you?’ and Brian asked, ‘Is there any reason to hurry?’ ” Blackall did her best to keep everyone in the dark, but when Floca finally arrived, “he came with Champagne, and as he put it, ‘deli flowers.’ ” As of the time of PW’s interview, Blackall had not yet spoken with family in her native Australia, but she was looking forward to when they would wake.
Finding Winnie, even before the award, was a cherished project for Blackall. “I was obsessed with Winnie the Pooh as a child,” she said. “It was the first book I bought with my own money. I read it over and over again. My friends and I would play ‘Hundred Acre Woods’ in the garden. I lived and breathed it for most of my childhood.” So when Susan Rich sent her the manuscript, “it felt like everything was leading up to this book. It was the one I’d been waiting for.”
The process of creation was unique for Blackall, too. She called it “a true collaboration” with Rich. “I hadn’t quite worked that way before: figuring out the ways to integrate the telling of the story with the mother and the child, and the Harry and Winnie story,” as well as the story-within-the-story of Winnie and Christopher Robin, but with Rich’s help Blackall felt she’d made the story seamless.
It’s five months until this year’s ALA Annual Conference in Orlando in June, when the awards ceremony will take place, but Blackall will stay plenty busy. Victoria Stapleton, executive director of school and library marketing at Little, Brown, told Blackall “you’re allowed a day off” (“actually, she said I could have all of January,” Blackall admits, “but we know she’s lying”). April will see the next release for Blackall, the launch of a new early chapter book series with Marciano called The Witches of Benevento. “We’ve done the first two, and we’re working on the third one right now,” she said. She’s also at work on another picture book that’s due out from Chronicle in the fall, called The Book of Everything.
But the win will certainly add a new dimension to 2016’s plans. “I was just thinking today, it’s going to be so lovely to spend more time with Finding Winnie,” Blackall said. “When you work the way many of us do, you don’t get time to pause and live with a book for a while.” So she looks forward to having many more opportunities to share Winnie with more young readers. “I’m not at all ready to put it on the shelf.”