Some picture books really pack a punch.
Matthew Olshan’s The Mighty Lalouche is one. It tells the eccentric story of a slight (but nimble) postman who is fired from his job in Paris “one hundred and a few-odd years ago,” all thanks to the introduction of electric autocars. Lalouche takes up boxing and meets a host of colorful characters in the ring (Old Shatterhand and the Misanthrope are but two), fighting in the name of “country, mail, and Geneviève,” his pet goldfinch. Fame and victory are sweet, but stationery stores still make him sad. Turns out those autocars are rather disastrous for delivering mail, so Lalouche gets to return to the profession that lights his heart up like the City of Light itself.
Illustrator Sophie Blackall, who traveled to Paris for her research, tries her hand here at 3D artwork (Japanese paper dioramas, or tatebanko), wanting readers, as you’ll see below, to step into the boxing ring. The results are utterly charming. It’s a picture book lover’s delight; Blackall’s indelible images are rife with eye-catching details (pay close attention to the borders used) and patterns, all filtered through her refreshingly mischievous, left-of-center wit. She and Olshan are a great match, and her artwork enriches an already entertaining tale.
I stepped into the ring to ask them a bit about this unusual story.
Matt, I read that this story began when you and Sophie first met and started discussing vintage boxing photographs.
I met Sophie at BookExpo in New York City in 2007. It had been a long, hot, exhausting day at the Javits Convention Center, and then suddenly, at the end of it, like a shimmering mirage, there was this fascinating, supremely talented illustrator! We hit it off, and it wasn’t long before I was scheming to write a story for her to illustrate.
It turns out we shared an interest in early photography. Sophie liked to collect pictures of 19th-century boxers, complete with billowing trunks and outlandish mustaches, posing in front of canvases painted with scenes of the French countryside. As soon as she described one of these pugilistic dandies, a character leaped, fully formed, into my imagination: the mighty Lalouche!
The details surrounding the initial vision, however, were somewhat murky. Who is this plucky little fellow? I wondered. How did he come to be such a brilliant boxer? Who’s the enormous bald man lying on the canvas next to him?
And while we’re at it, what’s with the finch?
Tell me about your research for the story.
I started with that initial vision—tiny French boxer, abundant mustache; turn-of-the-last-century Paris; invincible postman, tender feelings for finch—and began to dig, radiating outward from what I knew to what I didn’t.
I learned, for instance, that in French boxing, or Boxe Francaise, fighters struck with their feet as well as their fists; that the sport favored speed and agility over raw power; and that a small, nimble fighter often defeated a larger opponent.
As soon as it became clear that Lalouche’s first love—after his finch and his mustache, of course—was his job delivering the mail, I read up on the French postal service, or La Poste. In the 1890s, when the story is set, La Poste offered no fewer than eight collections and deliveries—per day—in Paris on weekdays, and a mere five on Sundays and holidays.
In reading about fin-de-siecle Paris, I kept coming across images of amazing electric cars. Electric cars were all the rage back then. For a while, it looked as though there’d be no serious competition from internal combustion engines, which were pathetically weak, unreliable, and stinky. The French loved electric cars. In fact, they coined a new word that captured their magic: “automobile,” as in, “Look, Henri, it drives itself!”
So I imagined the French postal service buying a fleet of these newfangled contraptions and firing a legion of postmen, including Lalouche.
Without a job, how would Lalouche feed his beloved finch—whose name, by the way, was obviously Geneviève?
Once I had that, the rest of the story fell into place.
Sophie, speaking of research, ooh la la, please dish on your work in Paris!
Well, it was horrible as you can imagine, but someone had to do it.
I wandered the streets mostly, taking a gazillion photographs, and then as the day turned pink I would stop at a sidewalk café to draw in my sketchbook and gather my strength with a glass of rosé. Probably the most fun was chatting to the finch enthusiasts at the morning bird market at Notre Dame. It was a test of my vocabulary. In case you ever need to know, finch in French is pinson.
The rest of my research was less romantic, but nonetheless enjoyable; back in Brooklyn I pored over dozens of books of old photographs of Paris and books on the history of boxing.
What were the joys and challenges of working for the first time in tatebanko?
When I began making the first sketches for The Mighty Lalouche, I found the images to be frustratingly two-dimensional. I wanted to feel you could step into Lalouche’s world. I also wanted to try something I’d never done before, and with my usual desire to complicate things, I decided to make the book in tatebanko, Japanese paper dioramas.
I drew, painted, and cut out thousands of tiny pieces of paper to make Parisian streets and boxing-ring crowds and Lalouche’s cozy apartment. Often I sneezed and lost a bunch on my studio floor and had to start all over again. I went through many Band-aids. Once the pieces were assembled into scenes, they were lit and photographed.
Most pictures books take me around four months to complete; The Mighty Lalouche took nearly two years!
Matthew Olshan photographed by Nina Olshan
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.