As a mother, I relish those rare, heart-to-heart conversations I have with my son. And I always tell him the truth. ("Can I have another cookie?" "No...they're all gone." "Did you just say a bad word?" "Definitely not, I said SHIP! I thought I saw a ship.") But I am rather dreading the "birds and bees" convo and am hoping my husband is the lucky one to field this particular query. Or, better yet, I think I'll just let author/illustrator Sophie Blackall handle this one. Her new book The Baby Tree tackles this tricky topic in a way that is factual, age-appropriate and charming.
You may know Blackall best as the illustrator of Missed Connections or everyone's favorite NYC subway poster, but she is also the illustrator of over twenty children's books. She both wrote and illustrated her most recent endeavor, The Baby Tree, a delightful story with charismatic drawings that also happens to be a very useful tool for talking with young children about how babies are made.
Q&A with Sophie Blackall
Where did the idea for this book come from?
Blackall: A few years ago I read an article by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker about sex-ed books for children. After finding funny but outdated books, progressive but heavy-handed books, and books with useful information but awful drawings, she concluded, or at least I fancied she concluded, "Sophie Blackall, will you please attempt a funny, sensible, beautiful book on this subject?" (What she actually wrote was "it would be nice if [a book on this subject] was a good book, even a beautiful book. If that book exists, I haven’t found it.")
So that was the beginning. Around the same time my children, giggling, relayed an SNL skit where Angelina Jolie and Madonna bicker over whose babies have come from the more exotic place, ending with one of them claiming their baby was plucked from a baby tree. The idea of the ludicrous, evasive answers each holding a grain of truth came as I began to write.
Did your own children ask you where babies come from and what kind of answer did you have for them?
Blackall: I think my own kids must have asked the question every six months or so when they were little. They would just forget the bits which seemed too miraculous or ridiculous. (Because conception really is miraculous and sex is rather ridiculous. Fantastic, but ridiculous. You mean, you put that in there? And take it out again? More than once? Why would anybody do that?). They are teenagers now and know EVERYTHING.
Is it easier or harder to illustrate your own vision of a story you wrote than to put pictures to someone else's words?
Blackall: It is easier to illustrate my own stories because the words and pictures form more or less simultaneously in my head. And I only think of stories about things I like to draw; nothing involving cars or suspension bridges or nuclear reactors. I've only recently learned how to draw a bicycle, and only from the side view. But having said that, I love doing historical research. I'm working on two different non-fiction picture books right now, both written by other people, which collectively span four centuries. I'm wallowing in delightful costume research and interior design from various periods. A perfect excuse to visit the V&A in London.
Which illustrators inspire you?
I am incredibly lucky to work in a studio in Brooklyn with four of the best children's book illustrators in the business: Brian Floca
, Edward Hemingway
, John Bemelmans Marciano
and Sergio Ruzzier
. We look over one another's shoulders and run infant ideas past the group and generally share everything from manuscripts to pen nibs.
Other than the boys, my inspiration comes from a vast array of artists such as Alice and Martin Provensen, Eric Ravilious, Carson Ellis, Angela Barrett, Isabelle Arsenault, Maira Kalman, Raymond Briggs, Walter Crane... and from things found in flea markets and other people's attics: Victorian trading cards, Chinese firecracker designs, Indian sweet wrappers, 19th century cabinet cards, Japanese woodblock prints, antique French wallpaper patterns, encyclopedia and botanical drawings, illuminated manuscripts, Victorian valentines...
Which children's books have had the biggest impression on you either as a child or as an adult?
- Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and E. H. Shepard (for its humor and completely original, endearing characters, both written and drawn).
- The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont and Raymond Briggs (for the clever details and unexpected compositions and the best repentant baby drawing ever).
- The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr (pretty much a perfect book).
- The entire Beatrix Potter library (I pored over these watercolors as a child, trying to recreate them)
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (I think this was the first contemporary book I loved; I was an old-fashioned child).
- Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst (I had the thrill of illustrating a new book by Judith Viorst which will be out in the Fall, called And Two Boys Booed...).
- and possibly my all time favorite, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack (which I picked up just the other day and which transported me in a great rush to my childhood.)
What are you working on now?
Blackall: I am working on the aforementioned historical books: one is called A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins and has taken me in my research to a 1700s farmhouse in Dorset and an 1800s plantation in South Carolina and a 1900s row house in Boston, and the other is called Finding Winnie, written by Lindsay Mattick, which is the true story of the black bear cub called Winnie, adopted by a WW1 Canadian veterinarian and left in the care of the London Zoo; a most remarkable bear who became great friends with Christopher Robin and who inspired Winnie the Pooh.
I've also just been visiting schools in Rwanda
to help Save the Children with their International Children's Book Initiative which was an amazing experience.
A friend's 5-year-old recently asked how she got in mommy's belly and was told that Daddy put something inside her mommy that made her begin growing. Her daughter broke it down: "Oh, I understand, mom. They put their love inside and that makes another love." What do you think of this explanation?
Blackall: Children are brilliant. They interpret information in their own way at their own speed. This explanation is a very sweet one, and will probably satisfy this particular child for the time being. Another child will have a million questions about how exactly the baby gets in, and equally importantly, how it gets out, which is why I wanted to end The Baby Tree with a Q&A section to answer these sorts of questions directly and openly and thoughtfully.
(Image credits: Sophie Blackall)