Bright Insider: Little, Brown AD Saho Fujii Chats About “Finding Winnie’s” Big Caldecott Win

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This edition of Bright Group’s The Insider takes a peek inside the art direction of Caldecott Award-winning Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.

Finding Winnie reveals the heartwarming true tale behind the timeless classic Winnie-the-Pooh. Written by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, the book delves into the World War I-era story of Captain Harry Colebourn and Winnie, the young black bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh creator A. A. Milne. The 2016 Caldecott Medal winner, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, was a hit with readers young and old.
Saho Fujii

We spoke with art director Saho Fujii who revealed the meticulous process of how she and editor Susan Rich found the right artist, stayed true to the story’s deeply-personal roots (the author is the great-granddaughter of Captain Harry Colebourn!) and, finally, selected the stunning cover seen in bookstores and libraries. Keep reading below for Saho’s insider take on art directing and invaluable words of wisdom, and join us in congratulating her for receiving the Caldecott today at the 2016 American Library Association conference!


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When editor Susan Rich first received the manuscript for Lindsay Mattick’s Finding Winnie, did she and the LB team immediately know she wanted Sophie Blackall to illustrate the text? Or did it take some back and forth between you to flesh out what Lindsay’s Winnie would look and feel like before approaching illustrators? What did you add to the vision they established when you joined the team and inherited the project from former AD, Patti Ann Harris?

I had to ask Susan to help me answer the first two questions since I was not yet part of Team Winnie when artist options were discussed. She said, “It was a process to find the right artist; someone who could bring the historical details to life, but not feel old-fashioned. We fell in love with Sophie’s style that bridges the feeling of old and new.”

I, too, immediately fell in love with Sophie’s style. There’s an incredible sense of nostalgia in her work, and somehow it feels fresh and contemporary at the same time. I’m so glad that Susan and the team approached Sophie and she said “Yes”! As for the third question, I didn’t have much to add to the interior of the book as it was well underway by the time I inherited the project from my amazing mentor, Patti Ann, and the award-winning designer, Gail Doobinin, who was working on the project as a freelance designer. My contribution was mostly in figuring out the right image for the cover. We had an image which we were quite happy with and we even went with it for the sales materials; however, we kept thinking it could be stronger. So we decided to take a new approach after the sales materials had printed. I had this idea to try a bold graphic pattern mainly inspired by Cole’s diamond pattered blanket Sophie painted in one of the interior spreads. At the time I didn’t know this, but a diamond pattern was also used on the cover of a 1950 edition of Winnie-the-Pooh. It was a total coincidence. Or, I thought it was. Perhaps I subconsciously had that edition in my head while working on the cover…


Once Sophie was on board, where did you take inspiration from when giving her art direction notes? Did you face any unique challenges since Winnie-the-Pooh is already established as a well-loved classic character?

Sophie was an inspiration to me. She is an incredible artist and tireless worker. She was always open to our suggestions and willing to go the extra mile to make every page in the book perfect even under such intense deadline pressure. When I inherited the project, we were moving offices and I just stepped into the roll of Art Director, so there was a lot going on. The most challenging part of the project for me was to keep it on track while making sure that the quality stayed high. I so appreciated how Sophie was burning the midnight oil and did such beautiful work!


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The story Lindsay tells in Finding Winnie is based on her actual family’s history with the real Winnie-the-Pooh, a bear cub named Winnipeg rescued in 1914 by Lindsay’s great-grandfather. Did Lindsay have any voice in the art direction because of her personal ties to the story (providing family photos, artifacts, etc)? In general when working with non-fiction titles, do you have any research rituals you conduct prior to determining how you want the illustrator to proceed?

Again, I had to ask Susan to help me answer the first question as I didn’t know much about it. She said “The backmatter of the book, the primary documents, are mostly taken from Lindsay’s family archives. She has additional wonderful things that didn’t make it into the book, like more photos of Winnie during World War I, and Captain Colebourn’s veterinary tools.” In general when working on non-fiction titles, we send sketches to a fact-checker to ensure that everything is accurate before giving an artist a green light for final art. In case of Finding Winnie, Sophie did extensive and thorough research herself, spending more than a year visiting the archives of the London Zoo, War Museum, traveling the road Harry and Winnie took to the city, etc.


How did the final version of Finding Winnie compare to what you all originally set out to create? How many drafts of the cover did you work on with Sophie before arriving at what would be the Caldecott-winner as we recognize it?

It was definitely a challenge to find the right image for the cover. As the interior of this book came together, we thought the interior was so extraordinary that we wanted the cover to do the same. Sophie must have done hundreds of sketches (literally) and painted at least 4 different versions for the final. She also tried hand lettering and gave us some great options for the type. She is truly amazing! What we really struggled with was the background and type. While we loved the image of Winnie hugging Harry’s boot, we felt the background and type were not quite resolved. The original background was very plain with just a suggestion of the ground. From there, we tried adding grass, sky, branches, a butterfly, hills, soldiers’ tents… We finally tried a graphic pattern and it worked! We thought the diamond pattern was simple yet eye-catching and really helped Winnie and the boot pop.


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In the early stages of working on Finding Winnie, did you have any idea that this was a very special and unique project capable of winning massive praise? Can you describe the excitement your team felt upon hearing the news that Finding Winnie had won the Caldecott?

We all knew this was a very special book and would be treasured for years to come. I mean, Sophie’s work is just MAGNIFICENT. It was incredibly exciting to hear that the book won the Caldecott. Sophie came into the office and we had an in-house toast and we all did a happy dance (well, at least I did!) It was the best way to start off the New Year!


In light of all the love and labor that went into Finding Winnie, and how closely you worked with Sophie, what advice do you have for illustrators when working with art directors?

Making picture books takes time, so it’s very important to build a relationship between you and your art director/designer. If you have questions or you are not sure you’re headed in the right direction, feel free to consult with your art director along the way. If you need rough layouts in addition to galleys, you should ask. Instead of waiting until you finish all the artwork, feel free to send the art in batches and get the art director’s thoughts on them. Many of our artists share their work in progress with us, and I love seeing their progress! Meeting in person always helps as opposed to exchanging ideas via email. Here at Little, Brown, we often invite artists who live in the city to come into the office to discuss ideas, go over the sketches or color correct the proofs with us. I think having an open, honest communication is the key to building a strong relationship, and together we can make great books!