Australian illustrator Sophie Blackall received the 2016 Caldecott Medal for her expressive artwork in Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear. It's the real-life story of the original bear that inspired A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books, written by the great-grandaughter of the Canadian soldier who cared for the funny little bear.
What was the first thing that went through your head when you found out you had won the Caldecott?
Despite trying to banish any thought of the Caldecott from my mind, it was doggedly there all night. I imagined getting the call, imagined every detail. When I imagine something, it usually ends up in a drawing, not as a reality. I was pretty sure that the very act of imagining it was enough to prevent it coming true. And I’d heard the call usually comes before 6:30am. So by 6:31am, I’d resigned myself that it was not to be. I hopped in the shower. Made my son’s school lunch. Told Ed we could relax. It wasn’t going to happen. We had a lovely sad-happy moment of realizing that Caldecott or no, we were very lucky people indeed. And then the phone rang.
The rest is a blur. I think my legs gave way. I may have sobbed. It’s still utterly surreal that your life can turn around in a span of minutes. The sound of a room of laughing, cheering librarians coming down the wire will stay with me forever.
Who was the one person you couldn’t wait to tell about the award?
Ed was right with me and held me up when I was about to fall over. The next person was my editor, Susan Rich, who already knew, and who feels almost exactly as I do right now. This book has been a joyous collaboration from the start. The story is a true one and comes from author Lindsay Mattick’s family. The drawings come from my hand, but Susan’s editorial genius is on every page. After that I woke my sleepy teenagers, who were sleepily congratulatory. Then I couldn’t wait to tell my studio mates, Brian Floca, Eddie Hemingway, John Bemelmans Marciano and Sergio Ruzzier (who is in Italy right now). We have a tradition of watching the live streaming together with coffee and donuts. I kept them in the dark and when the announcement came . . . it was great.
Do you have a favorite past Caldecott winner?
Other than Brian Floca you mean? I can’t quite believe that my name is now at the end of this list of luminaries. Among them, Virginia Lee Burton. Maurice Sendak. Ezra Jack Keats. Barbara Cooney. The Provensons. O. Zelinsky. Wiesner. Selznick. Pinkney. Stead. Raschka. Klassen. Santat.
“The authors and illustrators who make books for children create a world for us to step into, a world we can visit whenever we like for the rest of our lives.”
What’s the best part of writing books for a younger audience?
My favorite books—the ones I care for deeply, the ones that feel like a profound part of who I am—are the ones I read when I was young. Winnie-the-Pooh. The Wind in the Willows. The Little House. The Snowy Day. The authors and illustrators who make books for children create a world for us to step into, a world we can visit whenever we like for the rest of our lives.
What kind of reaction have you gotten from your readers about this book?
The response to this book has been extraordinary. It’s the true story of a soldier who adopted a bear cub in a spontaneous gesture of tenderness, a gesture which would help inspire some of the most beloved books of all time. It’s about the impact of a single moment, it’s about family and the joy of passing down stories, and it’s about the most remarkable bear. Mostly people cry when I read it. In a good way.
Have you read or listened to past Caldecott acceptance speeches? Are you excited (or worried!) about your own speech?
I am not thinking about this too much yet. If I did I would tie myself in knots for the next six months. Let’s face it: The bar is set very high.
What’s next for you?
Aha! I’m working on a new series with my studio mate, John Bemelmans Marciano, called The Witches of Benevento, which comes out this April, and a picture book with Chronicle which is immense and immensely exciting.
Author photo credit Barbara Sullivan