Talking With Talented Children’s Book Author-Illustrator Couple Behind ‘The Case For Loving’

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It must have been 20 years ago (or more) that I learned about Civil Rights activist Mildred Loving, her husband Richard and the couple’s landmark Supreme Court case — Loving v. Virginiathat defeated the state’s ban on interracial marriage.

The couple’s surname — the perfect counter to all the hate and intolerance they faced — naturally stayed with me. And so during Black History Month, when I read about a new children’s book coming out called The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage, I was immediately intrigued.

The Case For Loving |book cover

Then the stars lined up the next month, the day before my birthday, when I went to the Brooklyn Museum to check out the fantastic Kehinde Wiley exhibit with some friends. Guess who was there, in the gift shop, signing copies of their new book?

Selina Alko and Sean Qualls, the husband and wife team who wrote and illustrated The Case for Loving. 

Of course I made my way over to introduce myself and compliment them on their fine accomplishment! And of course I asked if they’d be down to do an interview with MMM. (That’s how I do for you. Because you know you’re my boo — all of you.)

A quick bit about the talented duo:

Selina Alko was born in Vancouver, Canada, but has lived and worked as an illustrator in New York City for over 20 years. Selina began her children’s book career by illustrating the dynamic New York City-themed children’s books My Subway Ride and My Taxi Ride. She is also the author/illustrator of B is for Brooklyn, Every-Day Dress-Up and Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama.

Sean Qualls has illustrated many highly acclaimed children’s books including Emmanuel’s Dream (The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah) (2015) by Laurie Thompson, Giant Steps to Change the World by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee, Lullaby by Langston Hughes, and Before John Was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford, which was named a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book. Sean also created the art for Dizzy by Jonah Winter, which received five starred reviews, and Freedom Song by Sally M. Walker.

Selina and Sean currently live in Brooklyn, NY, with and their two children.

In addition to being sweet, these two are pretty damn smart. Read the Q&A with Q&A and see for yourselves! [WAIT! Did I just coin something? Q&A with Q(ualls) & A(lko)??! King me, people. King me!]

Selina and Sean | Ms. Mary Mack

Q. How did you end up writing this book? What drew you to the story and to telling it this way?

Selina Alko: The Lovings’ story has been on our radar since we got married 12 years ago. I toyed with the idea of telling it for older kids (possibly as historical fiction), but settled on doing the simpler picture book format with the idea that this important love story can (and should!) be told to young kids. The challenge was telling it in a simple and fairly digestible way.

Q: Sean, what brought you to children’s book illustration? You’re obviously a huge talent, but was there something about the art form that really appealed to you?

Sean Qualls: When I was first starting out in illustration, I took whatever jobs came my way. I illustrated a lot of stories for magazines. I was unsure where my work fit.
As I did more self-promotion , children’s book publishers started asking to see my portfolio. About a year or so after I was offered my first picture book, I was offered 2 or 3 more. Although I did not set out to illustrate picture books, looking back it makes total sense — my work is more narrative than conceptual and I’m very interested in conveying emotions through my art.

Q: Selina, similar question — what was it about children’s books that drew you in?

SA: Rather than just doing one-off illustrations for editorial jobs, I like having a big project — like a 32- or 40-page picture book — to create a whole world of images in. I also like the idea that picture books are long-lasting and the stories and art can really live on in the imaginations of young children.

Q: How was it working together on this book? Was “division of labor” set out early and you just stayed in your respective lanes? And — not meaning to start trouble here — but did one of you have “veto” power that the other didn’t? Or did you agree to come to all decisions together, consensus across the board?

SA: I like that metaphor of staying in our respective lanes! If only it were that simple … But fortunately, we have separate studios so we did stay in separate spaces while we created, and also fortunately, we have great respect for each other’s decisions. So usually it worked out pretty well to trade off with the art — especially if one of us was stuck on something and needed help.

SQ: Initially, we did have a plan to divide the labor. More often, though, one of us would work on a piece until we got stuck or the other one wanted to work on it. Sometimes it was just a matter of who was more available. We’d have meetings to determine if each piece was going in the right direction, and if not, what needed to be changed. Ultimately, several pieces were cut apart and reassembled. That was fun!

Q: Selina, as a fellow Canadian (yeah!), I’m curious to know if you think your Canadian perspective influences your work as a writer? Did you notice a shift in how race and “the Other” is handled as you moved from a mosaic (Canada) to the melting pot (the States)?

SA: This is a great question, one I haven’t been asked and so I really appreciate it. I grew up in Vancouver, BC, where it was very white and I knew nothing of America’s complicated racial history. My Jewish family raised me to be very open, and I feel that I moved to New York with rose-colored glasses and a perhaps somewhat naive attitude toward race. Living here (for over 20 years now) has been totally eye-opening for me in terms of race, and then marrying Sean even more so! I have learned a lot about African-American history because of Sean, and how racial identity has shaped his entire life and still does so on a daily basis. My Canadian perspective helps keep me optimistic and hopeful (which I think are good things!), but I think I have become more realistic now too. All of these qualities can’t help but permeate my writing and my world view.

Q: If you could boil it down to one message, what do you hope the book says to parents and children?

SA: Change is possible.

SQ: It’s important to stay true to your values.

Q: Screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) said that on his new TV show, American Crime, he had “one of the most reflective writing staffs probably working in Hollywood.” He said reflective instead of diverse because he said, “diversity is something we tried to achieve in the ’70s. Right now, organizations need to be in reality, not in diversity.” I really liked “reflective,” because that’s what we’re talking about when we’re pushing this important issue of media representation when it comes to our children of color. These kids need to see themselves represented, reflected in the stories they’re taking in. It’s imperative.

When you set out to tell stories for children, how much does “diversity” weigh on your mind? Is it deliberate or more a case of telling a story from your life experience and worldview, so it will automatically be diverse?

SA: Excellent point. For me, the characters I create and the way I write is partially deliberate (to reflect my own new family), but also in the hopes of reflecting more of an ideal world of integration. I think our neighborhood here in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is fairly diverse (or reflective), but America at large needs to do better.

SQ: This is such a hot topic and I’m really happy that it’s being so widely discussed. I’ve given the subject a lot of thought. I believe diversity for diversity’s sake is okay, I applaud it when it happens. It’s my opinion that everyone is a creator and should create work that reflects them and their reality. Don’t wait for someone else to validate your life in their art. All too often we think validation has to come from outside of ourselves.

Q: What’s your reaction to the criticism that the NYTimes Sunday Book Review voiced in its otherwise favorable review of the book, saying that the “language of colorblindness is at odds with a story about race”?

SA: That criticism was important because it opened my eyes to how I was describing color in Mildred and Richard’s relationship. I may have been projecting some of my own Canadian attitudes about race onto their courtship. I have since worked on a revision of that passage, which will be in a reprint of the book coming out soon. I continue to learn about the complications and subtleties of racial identity and remain open to criticism and feedback as a writer.

SQ: I appreciate what the reviewer had to say. Her criticism makes the mostly enthusiastic review more authentic in my mind.

Q: Have your children seen this book? And if so, what was their reaction?

SA: Yes, they helped us work on it along the way. I think the Lovings story and our art are so much a part of their lives already that it’s hard to see if it phases them at all.

Q:  Has you son or daughter shown an early interest in drawing — outside of the usual kid level?

SA: Yes, especially our 9-year-old son. He has always had a phenomenal imagination and meticulous drawing ability.

SQ: Both of our kids love to draw. Our son is almost 10. He sometimes accompanies me to art and craft fairs and sells his drawing alongside me.

Q: As writers and artists, we don’t like to let the steam out from the pot we’re cooking. But can you share a little bit about what you’re each working on next, so we can keep an eye out?

SA: We illustrated another book together on the coattails of THE CASE FOR LOVING called TWO FRIENDS. It’s about the little known friendship between Susan B Anthony and Frederick Douglass. It was super fun to delve into a totally different historical period, and for me to learn even more about American history. Illustrating non-fiction is a constant learning process; one that I just love!

SQ: We just finished work on TWO FRIENDS. Also, I’m working on my first picture book as author and illustrator. It’s about how Africans brought their music with them when they came to America and how the music and the people nourished one another.

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So, guess what time it is? At this point, do I really even have to say? Because I think you already know thisssss. Yup. It’s GIVEAWAY TIME! That’s right; one lucky MMM reader will win a copy of Selina and Sean’s lovely book, The Case For Loving, totally gratis. All you have to do is leave a comment below about a children’s book that remains a fave for you. Maybe it’s a book that made you laugh or cry or feel seen and heard — whatever the impact, speak on it here.

The winner will be announced next week! And stay tuned to MMM for a couple more giveaways coming very soon.

2 Comments
  • 1
    Georgette Gilmore says:

    More More More Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams holds a special place in my heart. It was one of the first books I read to my daughters who are biracial. It shows the affection and love between toddlers and their parents/caregivers, grandparents in a beautiful multicultural way.

    • 1.1
      Ms. Mary Mack says:

      That sounds beautiful. Definitely going to check that one out. Thanks, Georgette!