Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Sophie Blackall’

14 MAY, 2014

Where Do Babies Come From? A Sweet and Honest Primer on How Reproduction Works by Illustrator Sophie Blackall

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How to answer the question that stumps every grownup.

Children’s questions have way of being so simple that they spill into the philosophical. And yet one particular question kids ask stumps grown-ups more than any other, hurling us into a cesspool of self-doubt as we struggle for an answer that is neither too age-inappropriate nor so obviously fanciful that it fails to get the young inquisitor off our back: “Where do babies come from?” Thankfully, Australian-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall, who has given us such treasures as her visual love stories based on Craigslist missed connections and her illustrations for Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, addresses that dreaded question with equal parts warmth, wisdom, and wit in The Baby Tree (public library) — an elegantly age-appropriate explanation of how reproduction works that neither talks down to children’s inherent intelligence nor boggles them with overly clinical dry science.

Instead, Blackall tells the imaginative tale of a little boy whose parents inform him one day that a new baby is coming.

I have a hundred questions in my head, but the only one that comes out is Are there any more cocopops? And because Mom and Dad are all happy about the baby coming, they let me have a second helping of cocopops and I make sure it’s a big one.

But once the little boy is able to get his real question out — Where do babies come from? — his parents are already out the door, running late for work. So he sets out to pose it to all the other grownup and growner-than-himself people in his life.

Right before dropping him off at school, his teenage babysitter (named after Blackall’s own daughter, Olive) tells him that babies come from the baby tree, which grows from a seed you plant.

At school, his teacher says they come from the hospital, then anxiously hurries to occupy the class with washing the paintbrushes.

His grandfather says a stork carries the baby in a bundle at night and drops it off for the parents to find on their doorstep in the morning.

Roberto the mailman says babies come from eggs, but “he doesn’t know where to get the eggs.”

Finally, confused by the wildly different explanations, the little boy asks his parents for a clear answer, and they give him a simple, sensitive, biologically accurate yet warmly conscientious answer about how reproduction works:

From inside their mom, says Mom.
They start off really tiny, says Dad.

Almost too small to see, says Mom.
They begin with a seed from their dad…
Which gets planted in an egg inside their mom…

The baby grows in there for nine months…

Until it runs out of room…
And it’s ready to be born. Sometimes at home…
But usually in the hospital.

The little boy is delighted to realize that everyone was right after all — Olive was right about the seed, Roberto about the egg, and his teacher about the hospital — except his grandpa:

I’m going to have to tell Grandpa where babies really come from.

At the end of the story, Blackall offers equally simple, succinct, and affectionately accurate answers to other questions about babies that little kids might be pondering, from how the seed gets from the dad into the mom to how adopted babies come about to what happens in families with two moms or two dads.

All in all, The Baby Tree is perfect in every imaginable way, so evidently the loving work of someone who understands both the curiosities of childhood and the perplexities of parenting. With her tender illustrations and thoughtful blend of fiction and nonfiction, Blackall offers a gentle and honest answer to a question that continues to stump grownups — but no longer has to.

Complement with Blackall’s wonderful The Mighty Lalouche and peek inside her singular mind through her fantastic conversation with Debbie Millman.

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26 JULY, 2013

Gorgeous Vintage and Modern Illustrations from Aldous Huxley’s Only Children’s Book

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A brave old world of beautiful art and subtle undertones of misogyny.

At Christmas time in 1944, more than a decade after the resounding success of Brave New World Aldous Huxley (July, 26 1894–November 22, 1963) penned his one and only children’s book, The Crows of Pearblossom (public library) — the story of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, whose eggs never hatch because the Rattlesnake living at the base of their tree keeps eating them. After the 297th eaten egg, the hopeful parents set out to kill the snake and enlist the help of their friend, Mr. Owl, who bakes mud into two stone eggs and paints them to resemble the Crows’ eggs. Upon eating them, the Rattlesnake is in so much pain that he beings to thrash about, tying himself in knots around the branches. Mrs. Crow goes merrily on to hatch “four families of 17 children each,” using the snake “as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows’ diapers.”

Like Gertrude Stein’s alphabet book To Do, Sylvia Plath’s children’s verses The Bed Book, and William Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree (also his only book for wee ones), it never saw light of day in Huxley’s lifetime but was published posthumously, in 1967, with stunning black-white-and-green illustrations by Barbara Cooney.

And just when you think it couldn’t get any more delightful, it did: In 2001, the inimitable Sophie Blackall — whose illustrated missed connections will melt even the stoniest of hearts — brought her soft, dimensional visual magic to a new edition of The Crows of Pearblossom (public library), which you might recall from this omnibus of little-known children’s books by famous “adult” authors and which outcharmed even Cooney’s hopelessly charming original artwork:

In this excerpt from Debbie Millman’s altogether fantastic interview with the artist, Blackall discusses the challenges of handling the misogynistic undertones of Huxley’s narrative, something particularly worrisome given its audience is children, and the very delightful visual “Easter egg” (pun possibly intended) she hid in the book:

Though the original edition is sadly out of print and only findable in the pre-loved books market, the Blackall edition is unspeakably wonderful and a sublime addition to other little-known children’s gems by literary icons like Mark Twain, James Joyce (twice), Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes.

Cooney images via My Vintage Book Collection

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14 MAY, 2013

The Mighty Lalouche: A Heartening Underdog Story Illustrated by the Great Sophie Blackall

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What Parisian boxing from the early 1900s has to do with contemporary technoparanoia about robots replacing us.

The more you win, the more you win, the science of the “winner effect” tells us. The same interplay of biochemistry, psychology and performance thus also holds true of the opposite — but perhaps this is why we love a good underdog story, those unlikely tales of assumed “losers” beating the odds to triumph as “winners.” Stories like this are fundamental to our cultural mythology of ambition and anything-is-possible aspiration, and they speak most powerfully to our young and hopeful selves, to our inner underdogs, to the child who dreams of defeating her bully in blazing glory.

That ever-alluring parable is at the heart of The Mighty Lalouche (public library), written by Matthew Olshan, who famously reimagined Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with an all-girl cast of characters, and illustrated by the inimitable Sophie Blackall, one of the most extraordinary book artists working today, who has previously given us such gems as her drawings of Craigslist missed connections and Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book. It tells the heartening story of a humble and lithe early-twentieth-century French postman named Lalouche, his profound affection for his pet finch Geneviève, and his surprising success in the era’s favorite sport of la boxe française, or French boxing.

One day, at the height of Parisians’ infatuation with the novelty of electric cars, Lalouche’s boss at the post office informs him that a new electric autocar is replacing all walking postmen, who are too slow by comparison. Desperate to provide for himself and Geneviève, Lalouche sees a flyer offering cash to any sparring partners willing to fight the champions at the Bastille Boxing Club. Though Lalouche is small and “rather bony,” his hands are nimble and strong from handling weighty packages, and his feet are fast from racing up apartment stairs in his deliveries — so he signs up.

One should never underestimate a man who loves his finch.

Thanks to his agility and love for the birdie, to everyone’s astonishment, he goes on to defeat each of the champions in turn — even the formidable Anaconda, “the biggest, baddest beast the city has ever seen,” infamous for his deadly sleeper hold. But when the postal service chief realizes the autocar is just a gimmick good for nothing and asks whether Lalouche is willing to take his job back, the tiny champ gladly agrees, for his heart is in the joy he brings people as their mail arrives.

Underpinning the simple allegory of unlikely triumph is a deeper reflection on our present-day anxieties about whether or not machines — gadgets, robots, algorithms — will replace us. The story gently assuring us that the most quintessential of human qualities and capacities — courage, integrity, love — will always remain ours and ours alone.

But what makes the book particularly exceptional are the curious archival images uncovered in the research, presented here exclusively alongside the soulful and expressive illustrations Blackall reincarnated them into:

Boxer trading cards, 1895

Boxer pose, 1911

Boxer pose II, early 1900s

Three boxers, early 1900s

Complement The Mighty Lalouche, relentlessly delightful and endearing in its entirety, with an essential reading list celebrating Children’s Book Week and this unmissable interview with Blackall, in which she discusses her brilliant Missed Connections project, the secrets of subversive storytelling, her famous NYC subway art, and working with optimism.

Images courtesy Schwartz & Wade

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