Some 100 children’s book professionals received an unusual package in the mail this month – a piece of art handmade by award-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall.
In the package was a copy of The Mighty Lalouche, written by Matthew Olshan and illustrated by Blackall, about a diminutive Parisian postman at the turn of the 20th century who loses his job and becomes a pugilist to support his dear pet finch Genevieve. It also included a bookplate handmade by the artist, and a letter she wrote – “Bonjour!” – introducing the book.
The entire parcel was designed to look like something Lalouche himself might have delivered, wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string – there was no tape in 19th-century Paris – fastened with sealing wax and decorated with images of finches and French stamps. It was sent to select booksellers, educators, and media contacts.
“I just adore getting things in the mail and sending things in the mail, and it is crazy but we just don’t do that that much anymore,” Blackall told PW from her Brooklyn studio. “I just thought, here is a nice opportunity to make something fun and celebrate the art of sent postage.”
Blackall, who won the 2003 Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award for Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges and who illustrates Annie Barrows’s Ivy and Bean series, said that while she routinely researches her projects, The Mighty Lalouche took her deeper into history than any of her 20 other books for children. She pored over depictions of French postmen’s uniforms and 19th-century Parisian street lamps and architecture, and even traveled to Paris (“Oh, the hardship,” she said) to interview finch enthusiasts and walk the streets Lalouche might have walked.
“Whatever the world I am creating, I want it to feel credible,” she said. “I want kids who are looking at it to feel comfortable with it. They don’t have to know it is historically accurate, but I think there needs to be something authentic about it that they can trust.”
She was aided in this research by Olshan, whom she met by chance in 2007 at BEA. The book came out of their shared interest in early photography and Blackall’s specific interest in collecting photos of early boxers – men she describes as having big shorts, even bigger mustaches, and “funny little booties.”
“Sophie is a very rare creature in that her paintings are magical and full of feeling and beauty, but they are also deeply researched and thought through,” Olshan said. “She has mastered making something look easy but also mastered the back end and it’s all in one beautiful package.”
For The Mighty Lalouche, Blackall employed a Japanese technique called tatebanko in which paper shapes and pictures are cut out and arranged in dioramas, which are then photographed. It took her two years to complete the art for the book.
Meanwhile, Blackall and Olshan are working on another title under contract to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for 2014. And Blackall continues to collect things that she hopes, someday, will lead to stories – single children’s shoes, faded telegrams, and more old photos.
“There are no shortage of stories,” she said. “Just not quite enough time to turn them into books.”
The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan, illus. by Sophie Blackall. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-375-86225-0