THE BLUE HOUSE cover reveal and Interview with Phoebe Wahl
Two cover reveals in one week? What am I, crazy? Don’t worry about it, because today’s reveal is quite different from the one you saw on this blog earlier this week. Today I have the infinite pleasure of revealing a cover of a book that I actually have read AND have enjoyed.
Now you may or may not be familiar with the name Phoebe Wahl. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed her picture books Sonya’s Chickens and Backyard Fairies, or her artwork for Paper Mice by Megan Wagner Lloyd. Today, I am happy to announce that Ms. Wahl has a third author/illustrated title on the horizon by the name of The Blue House. Touching on the subject of housing insecurity, it manages to be both homey and realistic. Ms. Wahl was kind enough to speak with me about the title, showng why it’s an important contribution to today’s literary landscape.
Betsy Bird: First off, this book is a beauty from tip to tail. What’s remarkable about it in part is the fact that it exudes this feeling you sometimes get from “classic” picture books. Reading it I felt like I was diving into a new Provensen or an updated version of The Little House. Was that something you were consciously going for with this title or did it just come naturally?
Phoebe Wahl: Thank you so much! It is definitely an honor to be compared to Alice Provensen and Virginia Lee Burton, two of my all-time favorites, I have a tattoo on my arm from Our Friends at Maple Hill Farm! The only place I consciously made a choice to allude to The Little House was on the cover, I kept gravitating towards a design where the house was encircled in some kind of wreath, and it took me a while to realize that echoed the circle on the cover of The Little House, and that’s a similarity I really like, it feels like homage, while maintaining plenty of its own character. Other than that, I think my references to their work emerged unconsciously.
BB: Like the aforementioned The Little House, this is a book about gentrification. Leo and his father are priced out of their neighborhood when their landlord opts to sell the property to developers. I found myself flipping between the front and back endpapers ceaselessly to look at all the details you’d managed to work in. I think there are a lot of kids in Leo’s position in the world, but few books that speak to this topic. What gave you the idea?
PW: It’s based on a true story actually—the Blue House was a real house where my partner and his son lived for years before it was sold for development and torn down in 2017. When we moved in together after it was leveled, we were all grieving the old house in a big way, Theo (real life Leo) especially. I got to see firsthand how destabilizing and deeply heartbreaking the loss of a home can be, it really felt like the death of a person. I grew up very housing secure, so it was my first time experiencing the loss of a place you love in such totality, it being there one day, with all its familiar smells and sounds, and completely gone the next. At the same time as we were creating a new home together, and grieving the old one, I was in a bit of a creative dry spell. I had finished Backyard Fairies a few months before and was convinced I would never have an idea for another children’s book ever again. I was telling a friend of mine about our move, about Peter (my partner) and Theo losing their home, and my friend said something along the lines of “that sounds like a children’s book in itself.”
After I got off the phone with them, I went up to my studio and wrote the entire first draft of the Blue House from start to finish. All I’d needed was a little spark, to ignite the idea, I hadn’t yet considered that my loved ones’ reality was a story that other families could relate to. There are a number of things that are different in the book from reality; I’m not a character, nor is Theo’s mom, who in real life, he lives with half the time. In the book, they move into a house in the same neighborhood where the Blue House was, which wasn’t the case in real life, but the core of the story is the same. When I finished writing it, I sat on it for a while and showed it to Peter and Theo before sending it off to my agent. I really wanted to make sure they were comfortable with my depiction of their story before showing it to anyone outside our family, because it felt like such an intimate depiction of their experience.
BB: There are a lot of elements in this book that I’ve just not seen before. Honestly, I don’t see a lot of books where a kid lives in a rented house. Usually plotlines involving economics are relegated to big cities, not suburbs. And not to harp on those endpapers, but I’ve seen that neighborhood. I may have lived in it. Did you have a specific location in mind when you painted the house and home?
PW: Most of the details of the neighborhood and its development are very close to the reality of the real-life Blue House’s location. Either that, or they’re based on other parts of Bellingham, the small city in western Washington where we live. I don’t heavily reference photos when I work, I like to create landscapes and characters from memories or imaginings of real or familiar places, and only use references when I need really specific guidance (like when I was drawing the not one but THREE excavators in the book). I find this actually captures the feeling of a place or person more accurately than if I would have drawn it directly from a photograph.
I myself grew up only a few blocks away from the real-life location of the Blue House, so the neighborhood scenes aren’t only an homage to a place I loved in my adult life, but my childhood neighborhood as well, and the way it’s changed throughout my lifetime.
BB: Well, that leads nicely into my next question. Are any elements inside the house based on a real place? I kept poring over the details. The mask in Leo’s room. The dad’s record albums. The wallpaper…
PW: Similar to the neighborhood, almost all the objects in the house are kind of… amalgamations of real objects and imaginary ones—not all of them are exactly true to reality, but definitely born from and close to it. The mask, alas, is not real, although we do have a similar mask hanging in our living room now. Things like the records (Black Sabbath and Gordon Lightfoot are Theo’s favorites), lamps, the paper chains, the white shiplap walls are all real. The yellow floral couch was 100% real. I like including both extremely specific, true-to-life mundane elements ( like yogurt containers full of clothespins, bottles of laundry soap, plastic Ikea bags), as well as more whimsical ones born from imagination or memory, I find that’s what creates the most believable home environments. I like creating homes in books that could actually function if you saw them in real life.
Theo (Leo) always checks me when I slip up on something like this—there’s a cozy fort in the book where a blanket is draped between a table and chair. I knew when I finished painting it that the blanket would not have stayed in place on the table without a weight on top of it—a pile of books or shoe is what I would have used when I was a kid. But it was the end of my workday and I was feeling tired and ready to be done, so I didn’t add a weight on top, I thought, “it’s such a tiny detail no one will care.” But the FIRST thing Theo said when I showed him the finished piece the next day was “that blanket would need some books on top to stay in place.”
In my head I felt like a Scooby-Doo villain, all fist shaking and “I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you kids!” But, I grudgingly added the stack of books, and honestly transformed that illustration. It allowed it to function in the world it inhabits. I really appreciate having a kid around in these instances, they don’t let you get away with any shortcuts!
BB: My son’s best friend has long lovely hair, but it’s not common to see a boy with that style in a picture book unless the whole point of the book involves that hair. Thank you for giving Leo locks. Did that just happen or was it a conscious choice?
PW: Theo, who Leo is based on, has long hair in reality, and it’s a very large part of his identity, so it would have felt very wrong to even consider any other style. Especially considering, as you said, that there are so few representations of boys with long hair in children’s books. It was also very fun to draw; it added a lot of dynamism and expression, especially to scenes where he was jumping or dancing around.
Having a few small things, like Leo’s hair, that slightly tilt these characters away from being bread and butter father & son tropes felt very important to me, considering that they’re basically the only two people we see in the entire book, and they’re both thin, white, able-bodied cis males. The long hair, the intimacy of their relationship, seeing a single father as the parent, the fact that they’re renters, not only mirror reality but felt like essential details to set them apart in some small way from representations of men and boys we see illustrated more often, while still remaining true to a story that is mine to tell.
BB: And what are you working on next?
PW: Before I pivoted to working on this book, I was in sketch phase for a story called Little Witch Hazel, which is being published by Tundra Books, who are also co-publishing The Blue House. It got put on hold in favor of wrapping this one up first, so I’ll be headed back into sketches for that project any day now. It’s an 84-page (I know… what have I done…) picture book that’s broken up into four short stories, about a little gnome midwife who helps out creatures and has adventures in the forest. I’m also working on an animated short film adaptation of Thumbelina, called Tulip, with my friend Andrea Love, which we’re making almost entirely out of wool roving and felt. And I’m a surface designer, I own an online and brick & mortar store where I sell my work, so between those things, and teaching illustration occasionally at Western Washington University, my brain often feels like an overflowing Strega Nona pasta pot! I have lots of irons in the fire, but I’m very excited about and grateful for all of them.
Thank you, Phoebe, for talking with me today. And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for . . . the jacket!
Beautiful. You can purchase a copy of The Blue House August 11th (that’s right . . . in the SUMMER!). Many thanks to not only Phoebe but also Katherine Harrison of Knopf for setting this up.
Filed under: Cover Reveal
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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