Hello Lighthouse – Sophie Blackall, Little, Brown and Company, 2018
I wasn’t sure what I could add to the praise for this outstanding book. Recently, The New York Times ran an article about the retirement of a lighthouse keeper on Long Island. Although the subject of that story never lived in the Montauk Lighthouse with a family, and Sophie Blackall’s fictional lighthouse is home to parents and a child, both the book and the article described a kind of modest conviction about their special homes. Blackall’s book, of course, is different from the article, in that it is crowded with visual beauty, from the beginning endpapers reproducing a journal, to the back ones full of background information and mussel shells on a hook!
The book is engrossing and stunning. Blackall is both author and illustrator. She also credits editor Susan Rich, designers David Caplan and Nicole Brown, production supervisor Erika Schwartz, and production editor Jen Graham. I want to mention them here, since the experience of reading the book owes so much to the orchestration of different talents. Here are just a few of the highlights of the experience that they have created. The lighthouse itself is sometimes engulfed in fog, a pale figure against a light grey background. In other pictures, Blackall pays homage to Japanese artists of the ukiyo-e genre, with massive waves approaching the building.
The cross section of the interior, viewed from outside, reduces the lighthouse to the scale of a dollhouse; the room on each floor becomes narrower, leading to the light at the top. In fact, the scale of the lighthouse constantly alternates from relatively large to miniature. We watch the lighthouse keeper not only controlling the lamp, but writing in his logbook, and even sewing:
“Throughout the night, he winds the clockwork
that keeps the lamp in motion.
During the day, he gives the round rooms a fresh
coat of sea-green paint.
He writes in the logbook and threads his needle
and listens to the gathering wind.”
The poetry of the text is as evocative as the pictures.
This lighthouse is inhabited by people, and they are as important as the geography and technology of the story. When the lighthouse keeper becomes ill, we see his wife care for him by his bedside, and watch her descending the very long spiral staircase to bring him whatever he needs. When she gives birth, her husband supports her through labor, which seeming like it will never end, is illustrated in a circle. She walks in slightly different positions, he boils water on the stove, he holds her to offer comfort. On the next two pages we see her, exhausted and smiling under a colorful quilt. The lighthouse keeper holds the baby on his lap while recording the event in his logbook.
Technology changes, and the family moves on. Unlike Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne, there is no compromise and no looking back.
“They pack their belongings
into the boat
and wave farewell
to the gulls.
Beyond the breakers, they all look up,
The ambitious nature of this book may be missed because it develops and concludes so naturally. Children will enjoy the story of the lighthouse, its keeper, and his family. Adults will marvel.