“Sometimes, we have to let one story end so another can begin,” award-winning author and illustrator Sophie Blackall told her audience during a book talk and signing at the University of Richmond.
Blackall is a two-time recipient of the Caldecott Medal, which is considered one of the nation’s most distinguished children's literature honors. She spoke on Wednesday evening in the Tyler Haynes Commons.
The School of Professional and Continuing Studies sponsored the event as part of its Graduate Education Speaker Series.
Blackall, a native Australian, is one of nine illustrators to get the award multiple times since its creation in 1938, according to a UR press release. Her first medal came in 2016 for her illustrations for Lindsay Mattick’s book “Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.”
In 2019, Blackall followed up her work on “Winnie” with “Hello Lighthouse,” a story about the daily life of a lighthouse keeper that she both wrote and illustrated. Both books won Caldecott Medals and reached No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list.
Blackall first fell in love with books as a six-year-old girl hanging out in her mother’s antiques shop after school, she said. One day, she became so bored that she began reading one of the books her mother kept as antique props: A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.”
“It was extraordinary,” she said. “It didn’t feel like A.A. Milne was writing to a child -- it felt like he was writing to me.”
Blackall said Ernest Shepard’s illustrations in Milne’s book had inspired her to work toward one day illustrating children’s books of her own.
“He managed to convey so much character in so few lines,” she said. “I traced those drawings over and over, trying to figure this out, and I thought, ‘Maybe one day, I might do this, too.’”
Blackall said she felt as if things had come full circle when she got the opportunity to illustrate “Finding Winnie,” the story of how the real-life bear cub that would one day inspire Milne to create the character Winnie the Pooh ended up in the London Zoo.
A Canadian liuetenant purchased the real-life Winnie as a cub when he was en route to England to serve in World War I. When the soldier and his regiment were moved to France, Winnie stayed behind at the London Zoo. She became so beloved that the lieutenant, Harry Colebourn, eventually donated her to the zoo. Years later, Milne’s son Christopher Robin named his teddy bear after Winnie, which became the inspiration for the character.
Blackall said Colebourn’s choice to leave Winnie behind with the zoo represented the lieutenant letting one story end so another, that of Christopher Robin, could begin.
“It’s one of the profound things in life,” she said. “It’s when we move past, it’s when we grieve the loss of a loved one, it’s when we simply grow up.”
Much as “Winnie the Pooh” inspired her work on “Finding Winnie,” Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” served as Blackall's inspiration for “Hello Lighthouse,” she said.
“I can’t live without books,” she said. She said her own positive childhood experiences with reading inspired her to work with charities such as UNICEF and Save The Children to promote literacy programs around the world.
Junior Callie Anderson said she had enjoyed hearing Blackall’s background story.
“I think it’s really interesting to hear background, what inspires them and where they get ideas from,” Anderson, an education minor, said. “Children’s literature is such a huge part of learning and growing. It’s so, so important to make sure it’s engaging for them, and the pictures are such a huge part of it.”
The next entry in the SPCS speaker series, titled “Finding Strengths Through Learning Stories,” will consist of a panel discussion highlighting the work of Lisa Donovan, an adjunct assistant professor in the education department. The event is scheduled for April 11.
Contact writer Riley Blake at firstname.lastname@example.org.