Sophie Blackall and the Missed Connections of the Mail

This month Random House Children's Books released The Mighty Lalouche, a picture book by Matthew Olshan illustrated by Sophie Blackall. It gets my vote for cutest picture book of the year so far.

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We're skewing a bit younger than Y.A. in this special edition of Y.A. for Grownups. This month Random House Children's Books released The Mighty Lalouche, a picture book by Matthew Olshan illustrated by Sophie Blackall. It gets my vote for cutest picture book of the year so far. In it, Olshan weaves the tale of the humble postman Lalouche, who loses his mail delivery job when the postal service purchases a fleet of electric cars. Jobless and with no way to care for his pet finch, Geneviève, Lalouche takes to the boxing ring, where he has previously unforeseen talents. Olshan wrote the story for Blackall after he found out she collects old pictures of boxers, especially "extremely skinny ones with big billowing boxing trunks." Blackall, in turn, used a nearly forgotten Japanese paper diorama style called tatebanko to provide the illustrations for the book. 

Her technique is different, but the style may seem somehow a little bit familiar. That's because you've surely seen the work of Brooklyn-based Australian artist Blackall before now. Her award-winning illustrations appear in more than 20 children's books, including the totally adorable Ivy and Bean series. She's the artist behind that poster you've probably seen on the New York City subway. She's collaborated with Aldous Huxley, Judith Viorst, Jane Yolen, Meg Rosoff, and others. But the work most adults probably recognize best are her illustrations of Craigslist Missed ConnectionsMissed Connections: Love, Lost & Found was Blackall's first book for adults, published in 2011, a collection of illustrated love stories told in "missed connection" style, done in ink and watercolor. 

While The Mighty Lalouche is a children's book, it's got a quirky "très Brooklyn" (i.e., Paris, pugilists, men with mustaches, pet birds!) feel that's bound to appeal to adults. It's a heart-warming story, too, depicting a lovable underdog who comes out on top, as Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings. And then there's the way that the book sort of turns the tables on Missed Connections, looking at the idea of communication and humanity in a very bricks and mortar fashion. Popova explains, "Underpinning the simple allegory of unlikely triumph is a deeper reflection on our present-day anxieties about whether or not machines — gadgets, robots, algorithms — will replace us."

It's an interesting course for the illustrator to go from examinations of Missed Connections to a story that focuses on old-school letters (and the connections they represent). But it makes sense. As Blackall told me, "The Internet is all about instant gratification, whereas the mail requires patience. On the other hand, making a connection via the Internet, especially a missed connection on a site like Craigslist, is like launching a message in a bottle. The chances of it reaching its intended recipient are slim. Whereas mailing a physical letter supposes a fixed address. So it's the content of the mail which becomes important. There's also something satisfying about the delayed gratification and the enduring nature of paper."

Paper versus web (and how the two can coexist) was reflected charmingly in a contest that followed the book's pub date on May 14. Elizabeth Bird, a children's librarian at the New York Public Library, wrote on her influential kids' book blog Fuse 8, "Share in the comments of this post the BEST package you have ever received in the mail. I’m talking the number one best. Maybe it was a hand tatted doily from your Great-Aunt Gertrude.  Maybe it was a live snail named Larry. Maybe it was a flat-screen color TV from somebody you thought died thirteen years ago. Whatever it might be, I want you to tell me about it. Why? Well, after tell me your story a randomly selected winner will receive a hand-wrapped parcel from Sophie Blackall." 

The stories came pouring in, and the winning entry has been selected by Blackall (though readers are still encouraged to share their stories at Fuse 8, where there are many heartwarming examples). Blackall's winning pick was a story of lost and found love letters from Mary Anne Lloyd, who spent the summer of her junior year in college traveling Europe with her best friend. Her boyfriend broke up with her before she left, and she wrote him letters during her trip, but didn't get one from him, and figured it was really over, to her great disappointment. When they finally spoke after her trip, though, he claimed he'd sent her letters. She didn't know whether to believe him or not until "sometime around December when I was knee deep in art school, a package arrived, addressed to me from Spain. It appears that all his letters had been sent to the wrong address and someone (letter angel) eventually bundled them all up and sent them to my address here in the states. I still have them today….almost 30 years later, right next to our marriage certificate!"

Blackall said, "There's something particularly lovely about the enduring faith in this story. The one-sided stream of postcards and the boyfriend's unsubstantiated claims of reciprocal letters make return of the lost letters all the more rewarding. It's seriously romantic." And like enduring faith, letters have a forever quality as well that's simply not quite there with most of our our digital missives. "My boyfriend once sent me a postcard from a cafe in Manhattan; I was twenty minutes away in Brooklyn," Blackall told me. "We were together during many of the hours it took for the postcard to be sorted and directed and transported and delivered, but when it arrived it was a surprise, and it made me laugh, and unlike text messages, I still have it." 

For an endearing reflection on the past in communion with how we live now, look to The Mighty Lalouche.

Author photo by Barbara Sullivan; art © Sophie Blackall.

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