Illustrator Sophie Blackall, whose many books include Ruby's Wish (for which she won the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award), Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire! and the Ivy and Bean books, is one of the most accomplished artists working in children’s books today. Her latest book is The Mighty Lalouche, written by Matthew Olshan after the first time he met Blackall, when they discussed her love of vintage boxing photographs. Blackall talked to BookPage about her unusual collections and how she created the artwork for The Mighty Lalouche, from assembling the dioramas to cutting out Lalouche’s “splendid mustache.”
We understand that you collect old pictures of boxers. When and how did you begin collecting? What do you find appealing about these photographs?
I collect all sorts of things (too many things!) that I think hold a story of some kind, a story which intrigues me or moves me or makes me laugh. For instance I have a whole shelf of single Victorian children’s shoes. And scrapbooks made by teenage girls in the 1920s. I can’t remember when I saw the first image of a turn-of-the-century boxer, but I loved his striking pose, and his funny mustache and the incongruous, painted pastoral background.
How did you and Matthew Olshan work together in the creation of this book?
Matthew and I began a long, rambling conversation when we met, which covered all sorts of ground including Paris and vintage pugilists. He conjured up a story about a tiny, faithful postman who inadvertently becomes a boxing champion, and sent it to me soon after. I know he worked long and hard on the manuscript, but it seemed effortless from my perspective! His was a flash of genius, whereas I spent over a year on the drawings, making life complicated for myself by using a Japanese paper technique I’d never worked in before.
Does illustrating historical fiction present any special challenges—or opportunities?
I love burrowing deep into historical research, but since I’m always floating in fiction, I feel at liberty to twist things when I need to. I want the visual world I’m creating to feel trustworthy; I pored over dozens of books of photographs of 1900s Paris and vintage boxing memorabilia, but then I moved the Eiffel Tower a little to suit my composition!
Readers used to your two-tone sketches in the Ivy and Bean books may be surprised by the look of the artwork in The Mighty Lalouche. How did you create the wonderful 3-D illustrations?
I found I wanted to jump right into Lalouche’s world, so I decided to create layered dioramas which would give depth to the scenes. I painted first in Chinese ink, the way I always do, then painted the color washes over that, then cut out all the individual elements and assembled the scenes. It was very time consuming, but really, really fun.
Tell us about your drawings of Lalouche himself. What qualities did you want to emphasize in his character?
In case it’s not obvious, I’m very fond of Lalouche! He is dedicated to his work as a postman, and modest in his desires. He wants to care for his pet finch, Geneviève, and deliver mail to the people, and maybe one day have a room with a view. His fame comes quickly and unexpectedly, but he remains steadfast and true. His one vanity is his splendid mustache (which was the most fun to draw, though very fiddly to cut out!).
One of the most dramatic scenes is Lalouche’s fight against the Anaconda. The Anaconda’s exaggerated muscular physique and the muted spectators in the background suggest some of Toulouse Lautrec’s works. Did you have Lautrec in mind when crafting this scene?
Oh, well spotted! I gleaned all sorts of ideas from old boxing posters of the era and photographs and French advertisements. I’m sure I was borrowing from Lautrec along the way.
Have you ever felt like an underdog—like the Mighty Lalouche?
I’m Australian and it’s a national characteristic to celebrate the underdog. It was no stretch to empathize with the Mighty Lalouche!