Kate DiCamillo and Sophie Blackall are two of the most decorated children’s book creators working today, so their first collaboration qualifies as a major event. The Beatryce Prophecy is an illustrated fantasy tale about a girl, a goat and the power of the written word, and DiCamillo’s and Blackall’s many fans are going to adore it. BookPage spoke with the author and the illustrator about the surprises and joys of working together for the first time.
Kate, you’ve said that you wrote this story by “following the goat and the girl.” Can you introduce us to Beatryce and Answelica? Did this story begin with them?
Kate DiCamillo: Beatryce is a girl who can read and write in a time and place when it is against the law for a girl to do either. And Answelica is the hardheaded, large-souled goat who becomes Beatryce’s friend and protector.
OK, that’s the introductions—now, on to the thornier question of where the story began. I’ve gone back through my notebooks, and all I can find is a few words right before I started to write: monk, moon, goat.
Two of those words became central to the book. Which is to say, I started with the goat, and she led me to the rest of the story—a story that was a complete surprise and wonder to me.
You began writing it in 2009, then you put it away for almost a decade, only to rediscover it while cleaning out a closet. Do you remember why you initially put it away? How do you think the years between impacted the book?
DiCamillo: I don’t know why I put it away. I can’t find any notes about that. My guess is that I wanted a story that was lighter, funnier (my mother had passed away at the beginning of the year), and I had this story about a squirrel and a vacuum cleaner and poetry that seemed funny to me.
When I did unearth the early draft of Beatryce, it had been so long that I was able to read it as something that I didn’t write—and that helped me see that there was something there, a story that needed to be told. Does that make sense?
As to how the years in between impacted it—I guess just that. There was this sense of urgency. As if the story had been waiting, as if Answelica and Beatryce had been waiting. They needed me to tell their story.
And all the closets (and drawers and file cabinets) have been cleaned now!
You’ve dedicated The Beatryce Prophecy to your mother. Beatryce’s mother, Aslyn, plays a critical role in the novel, instilling strength, courage and a love of books and stories in her daughter. Are there connections between your mother and Beatryce’s mother?
DiCamillo: It wasn’t until the book was done that I started to think about my mother’s impact on me as a writer, but most importantly as a reader. I struggled to learn to read. Phonics didn’t make sense to me. And I was so desperate to read. I remember crying to my mother in first grade about how I didn’t understand phonics. And she said something like, “Oh, for the love of Pete, don’t get so upset. You’re smart. We’ll just work around it.” And then she made me flash cards. A word on each flash card. And she had me memorize the words. And that worked for me.
Word by word, my mother gave me the world. She taught me to become myself.
This isn’t the first of your novels to function as an ode to reading, writing and storytelling. Why do you return to these themes?
DiCamillo: I feel like I became my true self when I learned how to read. I felt, then, as if anything was possible. I still feel that way about books and stories. They let us be ourselves, discover who we are and who we can become. I guess I keep returning to this thematically because I can’t get over the wonder and gift of books, stories, the written word.
I think readers love your willingness to ask big questions and to explore big ideas and emotions. “Who could understand the world?” and “How much could a heart hold?” are two of the questions posed by The Beatryce Prophecy. What does it feel like when you’re writing and a question like that comes out?
DiCamillo: What does it feel like? It feels like a cry from my 8-year-old heart. I remember doing an event in Boston and a boy raised his hand and said something like, “Why do you pose all these philosophical questions in books for kids?” And I said, “Because kids are the ones who are brave enough to ask those questions. When you’re an adult, you stop asking, you stop wondering.”
Did you always envision The Beatryce Prophecy as an illustrated novel? How did Sophie come to be involved with the book?
DiCamillo: I knew as I was working on it that it had to have (at least) illuminated letters. And when I was done writing, I asked my agent and Candlewick, my publisher, “Is there any way that Sophie Blackall could illustrate this?” And miracle of miracles, it happened. Sophie said yes.
Sophie Blackall: In Iate 2019, I received an email from Chris Paul, the creative director at Candlewick Press, with Kate’s manuscript for The Beatryce Prophecy attached, along with an outline of the publishing plan for the book. It mentioned a special slipcase edition. The words slipcase edition are hypnotic to an illustrator. But even without the slipcase, I would have said yes on the spot.
Sophie, you were probably one of the first people to read The Beatryce Prophecy ever, in the whole world. What did you think the first time you read it?
Blackall: When the email with the manuscript arrived, I was about to step out the door, on my way to somewhere or other. I read the first page. I put down my bag, took off my coat, canceled the something or other and, with goosebumps on my arms, read The Beatryce Prophecy from beginning to end. I felt a rush of gratitude for these characters. I felt I already knew them like dear friends. The honor of being one of the earliest readers is not lost on me, but I have also been impatient to share this book with the world. Keeping it a secret was almost too much to bear.
Authors usually don’t communicate directly with illustrators. Sometimes they don’t even meet each other! But you emailed back and forth as Sophie worked on the illustrations during the pandemic. What was this correspondence like?
Blackall: I can’t remember who emailed first. I know I was bursting to talk to Kate. I tried to be restrained, but my messages tumbled out, all essentially thanking her for this gift. The gift of a story that brought me solace and comfort and joy during an otherwise uncertain and worrying time. The gift of Beatryce and Answelica, Brother Edik and Jack Dory and Cannoc. The gift of beautiful things to draw: a mermaid and a wolf, seahorses and bees, meadows and moons.
DiCamillo: I had already written the text and Sophie was working on the illustrations during the pandemic, and technically (as you say) we shouldn’t have communicated directly, but we already knew each other. Every once in a while, when my editor sent a new piece of Sophie’s art, I couldn’t resist emailing her directly and saying, “This art, this art. What a gift in such a dark time. You are drawing my heart.”
And things like that.
You both realized, independently of each other, that you were thinking about Joan of Arc as you developed Beatryce’s character and appearance. What impact did this historical figure have on Beatryce?
DiCamillo: I was working on Beatryce’s story when I took a trip to Washington, D.C. I was in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and I walked into a room with this huge Joan of Arc triptych (“The Adoration of Joan of Arc” by J. William Fosdick), and it just kind of . . . undid me. I took a picture of it and kept the art nearby. It just felt like the story to me, like Beatryce.
Blackall: I think the image of Joan of Arc popped into my head at the moment when Brother Edik cuts Beatryce’s hair. Beatryce, like Joan of Arc, is a girl who defies expectations. Like Joan, she is determined, brave and resourceful. Like Joan, she carries hope in her heart and faith that “we shall all, in the end, be led to where we belong. We shall all, in the end, find our way home.”
Sophie, what other things did you research as you worked on these illustrations? How did that research find its way into your work?
Blackall: I worked closely with the creative director, Chris Paul, who had a detailed vision for the way the book would look, inspired by wallpaper, textile and type patterns of the designer William Morris, who in turn was inspired by medieval paintings and illuminated manuscripts. This was another gift, because after reading the manuscript I found myself strolling through museums and poring over books on Morris and medieval manuscripts, making involuntary sounds of delight, and so we were very much on the same page.
Can you tell us about the nuts and bolts of illustrating the book?
Blackall: Considering we were hundreds of miles apart and in the midst of a pandemic, Chris and I worked very closely on the art direction for this book. It is a beautiful object and we considered every fraction of every inch of every page. There are stories within stories, which gave us many creative opportunities. Ordinarily I work with Chinese ink and pencil and watercolor, but because we were all sheltering in place and I wasn’t sure about sending physical art, I decided to work digitally. The beauty of this was that once I had found what the characters looked like, I could direct them in a scene as though they were actors in a film. I would find myself talking to Jack Dory, for instance, asking him to lift his chin a little. Raise his arm. Look a little more pleased with himself. And I could move the images around and experiment with scale and perspective far more efficiently than if I was using pencil on paper.
I have to ask about goats. Kate, there are a number of prominent animal characters across your body of work, from Ulysses the squirrel to Despereaux the mouse and Winn-Dixie the dog. Was Answelica always a goat? Did you know much about goats before beginning to work on the book? Did you spend time with goats as you worked on it?
DiCamillo: Ha! I wish that I could spend some time with goats. I didn’t. I haven’t. But this character of Answelica arrived so clearly, so emphatically, that it really was just a matter of following along behind her. I did spend quite a bit of time gazing at goat eyes in various books. They’re spectacular, those eyes, and I’ve always been fascinated by them.
Blackall: I hold a special affection for Answelica. When I was 10, I had a goat. Her name was Josephine and her ears were like velvet. I had to give her away when we moved (we moved a lot), but the Josephine year was a good one. All children should have a goat year.
Kate, what do you love most about Sophie’s illustrations in the book? Do you have a favorite illustration in the book?
DiCamillo: There’s a two-page spread of Beatryce being spirited away and a story in the sky above her (like a constellation) that literally makes my heart skip a beat.
Every piece of art that Sophie did is so heartfelt, luminous. It’s a gift to me and to the reader.
Sophie, what do you love most about Kate’s storytelling in the book? Do you have a favorite passage you could share with us?
Blackall: E.B. White once said, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting [their] time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.”
Kate DiCamillo writes up. Her sentences, which are full of beautifully arranged, interesting and even challenging words, are honest, fearless and clear.
As for a favorite passage, I might choose a different one tomorrow, but right now I am going to give you one that arrives quite early on. Brother Edik has discovered Beatryce, sick and lost, guarded by a fearsome goat. He tells the goat, Answelica, his plan to care for the child, which gives us a sense of the transformative relationship between the three. The way he feels at the end of the passage is how I felt while reading this book.
Brother Edik bent and gathered her in his arms. Her skin was hot to the touch. She was burning with fever.
“She is very sick,” Brother Edik said to the goat who was staring up at him. “The first thing we must attempt to do is to bring the fever down. And we must wash her. We must remove the dirt and blood. She has come from some war, I suppose. Do you not think it so?”
“Lord help me,” thought Brother Edik, “I am conferring with a goat.”
He walked out of the barn and into the light of day carrying the child. The frost had melted. The world no longer shone, but it was very bright.
Answelica was at his heels.
He turned and looked back at her. He saw that the goat’s eyes were gentle, full of concern.
Strange world! Impossible world!
Brother Edik felt his heart, light within him, almost as if it were filled with air.
At one point, Beatryce tells Brother Edik, “Stories have joy and surprises in them.” What surprises did you encounter as you worked on this book? What joys?
Blackall: While making the drawings for the book, I was so immersed in illuminating the world of Beatryce’s story that there were times I would look up and not remember making the lines on the page. It was as if the images appeared fully formed. When I wrote to Kate about this phenomenon, she reported something similar as she was writing The Beatryce Prophecy. As though this story and its characters already existed. That’s magic right there.
DiCamillo: The surprise for me was discovering (when I was done) how much my mother’s spirit is in these pages.
The joy? The joy was in getting to do it—getting to tell the story—and then to watch Sophie tell the story again in art. Talk about joy.
Author photo of Kate DiCamillo courtesy of Catherine Smith Photography.