Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Sophie Blackall’

16 DECEMBER, 2014

Pecan Pie Baby: A Sweet Children’s Book Celebrating Diversity, Single-Motherhood, and the Vitalizing Gift of Community

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A tender consolation for the disorienting journey of becoming a big sibling.

Half a century ago, Margaret Mead memorably asserted that exposing young children to people who differ from them is essential for teaching them to like or dislike others on the basis of personal character rather than because they belong to a category of people — in other words, for immunizing them against the poison of bigotry. And yet today, only 31 percent of children’s books feature female protagonists (even Jane Austen once told her niece that, in literature, “one does not care for girls until they are grown up”) and a gobsmacking 0.3 percent include characters of color.

How refreshing, then, to come upon Pecan Pie Baby (public library) by writer Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by the always excellent Sophie Blackall — the story of a little girl named Gia and her journey of coming to terms with the disorienting fact that she will soon be a big sister.

The story, told through Gia’s perspective, begins after she has found out that a baby is on the way — how parents tell kids about where babies come from is something Blackall addresses in another illustrated gem, one of the year’s best children’s books — and is already fed up with “talk about the ding-dang baby.” Mama tries to warm her up to this alien newcomer by telling Gia that the baby is constantly craving pecan pie — one of Gia’s own favorite things. But even that peeves little Gia, who scoffs that the baby “is just being a copycat.”

At school, all of her classmates want to know about the baby — “You want a boy or a girl?” — and even come up with a jumping game called “Mama’s Having a Baby.”

When her friend Micaela comes over for one of their regular sleepovers, Gia worries about what will happen to Micaela’s guest bed once the baby arrives.

Man! I was thinking, That ding-dang baby’s going to try to take the place of my sleepover friend.

Even her aunties, when they come over for their weekly Sweet Tea and Toast Party, are “baby-crazy.”

One Saturday, the delivery man brings a giant box and Gia’s uncles set out to put together the baby’s crib as she sits dejected in the corner.

One night, Grandma took us out to a fancy restaurant. She kept fussing over Mama…

“Are you getting enough rest?” Grandma asked. “You know I can take Gia. The baby needs you now.”

I wanted to say, I need Mama now.

Then Mama reached over and rubbed my back. “Me and the baby need Gia with us.”

And even though I didn’t like it when Mama talked about the ding-dang baby, her hand felt nice on my back and I was glad that she needed me.

Even so, Gia continues to reminisce wistfully about the days when she had Mama all to herself.

Now, that baby was going to change everything!

Eventually, at the Thanksgiving dinner table — for aren’t the holidays when family affairs always reach their breaking points? — Gia loses her temper and lets all her vexation loose, screaming at the top of her lungs: “I am so sick of that DING-DANG BABY!”

She is sent to her room, where she sits on her bed with “that teary, choky feeling.”

Even though there were a whole lot of people in my house, I felt real, real, real alone.

When Mama comes upstairs later, they have an assuring talk over a slice of pecan pie. While Gia still fears the loss of “the good old days,” she finds comfort in knowing that she and and she alone will have the privilege to tell “the ding-dang baby” about all those memories.

But perhaps the most emboldening part of the story is the one left unsaid, only subtly implied — Gia’s mom is a single mother, a woman at once independent and with strong ties to her community. There is no father figure anywhere in sight — not even in Gia’s imaginings, suggesting that she doesn’t even have a reference point for fatherhood. Instead, it is Gia’s “uncles” who assemble the baby’s crib, and her “aunties” who come over for the weekly Tea and Toast party, and a diverse mix of family friends who sit around the Thanksgiving table, and Grandma who takes Gia and Mama out to a fancy dinner. They all come in as a collective co-parent — a touching testament to the vitalizing power of community, so very important in our turbulent times and our age of self-inflicted exile into individualism.

Pecan Pie Baby is sweet and wonderful in its entirety, a delightful duet of words and pictures. Complement it with Andrea Beaty’s Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau, the story of a little girl who comes from a very different social stratum but confronts a similar journey of overcoming lonesomeness, then revisit Blackall’s The Baby Tree, one of the year’s best children’s books.

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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 | IndieBound) — 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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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.