Sophie Blackall was literally half a world away from Seattle when she heard from the Caldecott committee that her picture book Hello Lighthouse (Little, Brown) had been selected as the winner of this year’s Caldecott Medal. She recently finished up a residency working with students in Singapore and was enjoying some downtime with her father and stepmother in Myanmar—14 1/2 hours ahead of Seattle time—before embarking on her journey home to Brooklyn.
“We had stepped out into the vibrant and hectic streets of Yangon in search of some dinner and ordered something called a fermented tea leaf salad, which had just arrived on the table when my phone rang,” Blackall said. “I could not have been more surprised. I think I garbled something about fermented tea leaf salad to the committee, and they were probably wondering if they should reconsider giving the award to me. This is quite a surreal place to begin with, and I’m not entirely sure any of this is real.”
Blackall then made her own call to share the exciting news. “My partner Ed [Schmidt] is a high school English teacher in Manhattan and he had his phone in his classroom, which he doesn’t ever do, just in case, in the very unlikely situation that I might have some news for him on the other side of the world.” Schmidt had prepared his students for a contingency plan letting them know that if his phone rang, class would end early. “I sent him a text,” said Blackall, “and one of the students said ‘Mr. Schmidt, your phone’s buzzing, and he said, ‘Class dismissed.’ So they got an early mark [dismissal] and I got to talk to him, which was amazing.”
One of the most extraordinary things about this sequence of events, Blackall said, is that she and Schmidt have been through it before. Blackall is now one of nine illustrators to win multiple Caldecott Medals, having earned the distinction in 2016 for the book Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick. “When this happened three years ago, I didn’t think it was going to happen,” she said. “It was quite late, and I said to Ed in the kitchen, ‘We are so lucky, I get to make books, which is all I’ve wanted to do, and we get to be together and do this every day. We were counting all our blessings, and the phone rang. And this year, I said to him, essentially exactly the same thing, that I feel as lucky now as I did then. Here we are again, feeling a little too blessed right now; I want to share it with everyone.”
The first time around the Caldecott block, Blackall said that it wasn’t until she had actually received the Medal that it felt real. “Even after that, I was so happy when Javaka Steptoe won the following year, because it felt almost like a paperweight had been put on top of it, that my award couldn’t be rescinded or blown away, that it was weighed down by the person coming behind me.” Asked what it feels like to be a member of the rare multiple winners club, Blackall said, “It’s such an extraordinary, unbelievable honor to be part of that history and that legacy. I was looking at Barbara Cooney’s original artwork last fall at the Kerlan Collection and just marveling at her work and feeling so honored to have a Caldecott book that will be shelved alongside hers. And, of course, she won two as well. If you follow in your hero’s footsteps, there’s nothing better than that.”
Hello Lighthouse grew from Blackall’s passion for her subject. “I have always been fascinated by lighthouses,” she said. “But the moment that made me think I could make a book about them was finding a cutaway print of the Eddystone Lighthouse [located in the U.K.] and it showed all of the round rooms inside the lighthouse with the round furniture and you could see the kitchen and the spiral staircase going up. For the first time ever I imagined what it would be like to live in a lighthouse and I saw the keeper moving up and down through the stages of his life while encircled by time and weather and seasons and change. There’s something incredibly evocative about a vocation like a lighthouse keeper, which doesn’t really exist anymore and yet is so profoundly romantic and compelling.”
Blackall noted that her depiction of a simpler life and times holds great appeal for some readers. “It’s been amazing how many people have said that this is a fantasy for them to escape somewhere,” she said. “I think that is part of why this book struck a chord with adults. In our contemporary lives so many people feel bombarded and that there’s never enough time in the day. I think we yearn for a little quiet remote place to think and dream and live out a sort of simple routine. I think this book does something about that.”
She is especially grateful for the enthusiastic reactions that young readers have had. “What I was not prepared for was how children have responded to it,” she said. “That has been the greatest joy, because if I made a book that I loved and a child didn’t particularly engage with it I would feel that I had failed.” Hello Lighthouse received several starred reviews, and the title landed on PW’s Best Books of 2018 list, among other laudatory year-end lists.
Next up for Blackall is making her way back to Brooklyn and celebrating with her family and with her fellow illustrators. “We have had a tradition in our studio for many years of watching the Caldecott awards together,” she explained. “I share studio space with Brian Floca, among other fantastic children’s bookmakers. Brian won in 2014. It felt very strange not to be with my studio mates this year, so I look forward to celebrating with them.”
In a moment of hindsight, just before our conversation ends, Blackall said that there may have been a sign after all that she would be honored this awards season. “On my way out last night I was given a gift from the sky, shall we say. A bird flew overhead and its dropping landed on my dress. The people near me crossing the street laughed and sort of gestured that it was good luck. It’s as good a sign in Burmese as elsewhere,” she said with a laugh. And so it was.