Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Selina Alko

h1 April 23rd, 2013 by jules

Photo credit: Isabelle DervauxAuthor/illustrator Selina Alko and I are cyber-meeting this morning for a delicious scone (“like, oh, chocolate cherry or lemon raspberry,” she recommends) and very large coffees, and since we can only cyber-meet (what with me being nearly a thousand miles away near Nashville and her in Brooklyn), we’ll do so in her setting of choice, a lovely light-filled café.

A “very large coffee.” Lots of light. Why, I can whole-heartedly get behind these things.

Selina—who has visited 7-Imp before, but not for a full-fledged interview—is sharing so very much art today that I want to get right to it, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t introduce you to her if, by some chance, you aren’t familiar with her books. As you’ll read below, Selina’s been illustrating picture books for almost ten years now with her brightly-colored, textured gouache and collage artwork — “funky [and] fun” is how Booklist once described her work. About B is for Brooklyn (Henry Holt, 2012), one of her most recent picture book titles, Kirkus wrote that her “[k]aleidoscopic mixed-media pages…are chockablock with vibrant images that fairly burst from the pages.” That could be said for a lot of Selina’s illustrated titles.

If that very large coffee doesn’t wake me up this morning, I know her vivid illustration work will. What are we waiting for? Let’s get to it.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Selina: Author/Illustrator.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Selina: My Subway Ride, My Taxi Ride, Greetings From The 50 States, I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother, Every-Day Dress-Up, B is for Brooklyn, and Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama.

Jules: What is your usual medium?

Selina: I paint with gouache then glue on bits of collage. Sometimes I add colored pencil.

Selina: “[These are] little pieces from a show, called Dime Bags.”

Jules: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Selina: I got my start illustrating early readers (i.e. educational books). It wasn’t very creative or fulfilling, but it was work and it was making pictures. At the beginning of a project, I would receive directions on exactly how many kids should appear on each page in exactly what type of configuration. The children had to represent different cultural backgrounds. I felt like it was good experience in terms of thinking about diversity.

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Another up side to doing this type of work was it clarified for me my desire to create my own stories. Doing picture books offers much more freedom. I am able to do interesting things with compositions and have pushed my ‘style’ to be more unique, more of my own voice.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Selina: I love, live, and stomp in Brooklyn, NY. I even wrote a book about it (B is for Brooklyn)!

“A personal piece about Brooklyn, which was the inspiration for B is for Brooklyn
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Jules: Can you tell me about your road to publication?

Selina: It was my dream to make children’s books since I was a kid growing up in Vancouver, Canada. In my early 20s I moved to New York to study illustration. About ten years ago, a friend passed a manuscript along to me from a small publisher. I read it and fell in love with the subject matter — transportation in my adopted home, New York. I took the project on for little pay as a way to get a published picture book. (It became My Subway Ride.) My editor let me run with my vision, which included using subway maps, collage, and abstract elements. I had so much fun doing the art!

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My Subway Ride got into the Original Art Show at the Society of Illustrators. (Such a thrill for me.) I then got an agent and she encouraged me to follow my original dream of both writing and illustrating —the one I had way back when I was a kid. Almost immediately, she sold the manuscript for my first authored book, I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother [Knopf, 2009].

I’m so pleased that I’ve been writing and illustrating my own books since then.

“I blend from semisweet dark Daddy chocolate bar and
strawberry cream Mama’s milk.”

“Starry night sky and lemon meringue sunshine,
Daddy and Mommy blend a mocha cloud…”

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Selina: and

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Selina: I enjoy doing school visits, because I get to feel the impact my books have on young children in the most immediate way.

I am married to illustrator Sean Qualls (who happens to be African American), and we have two children (who happen to be biracial). Our blended family has inspired my book-making from the get-go and is the direct subject matter of I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother (a big brother-to-be wonders what his new baby sibling will look like). I make sure to include people of different backgrounds in all of my stories. It’s what I see around me in Brooklyn — and was also part of my early training as an educational illustrator.

Because my stories reflect a mix of cultures, students in New York (where I do most of my school visits) seem to really relate. I always begin by talking about how much I loved making art and creating stories when I was a kid, which establishes a fundamental connection. I usually do a PowerPoint slide show about my life and journey to becoming a children’s book author/illustrator.

There is nothing more rewarding for me than the joy that children exhibit when they see themselves reflected in my stories. Their excitement is infectious and fuels me when I am back in my studio.

Selina: “Some of our kids’ art on our walls…”

Selina: “This is a personal painting (large, oil) I did of Sean and me when we first met.”

Selina: “My daughter dressed up in various Halloween costumes, based on dress-up ideas of heroines from my Every-Day Dress-Up book…”

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, can you tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator?

Selina: I do not teach illustration –– yet.

“Mountains of gifts are placed under the tree for eight nights of Hanukkah,
plus Christmas Day. How lucky am I?”

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“Our tree is crowned with one shiny star. And we light eight candles for Hanukkah.
I help Mama hang stockings by the fireplace. Daddy makes latkes to leave on the mantel with milk. Grandma’s recipe is Santa’s favorite treat.”

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“We decorate our home for the holidays. Mama scatters golden gelt under the tree. Daddy hooks candy canes on menorah branches. I paint powder-blue angels and red-nosed reindeer. They fly around our living room with the king and queen.
On ribbons, my decorations hang from the ceiling.”

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“Songs for both Hanukkah and Christmas in hand, we carol to the neighbors about Maccabees and the manger. ‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,’ and ‘Silent Night.’
Mixing music to bright smiles. I sing for both Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama.”

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“Watching snowflakes fall, we wait for family to arrive. Everyone passes under the mistletoe, kissing me, Hanukkah Mama, and Daddy Christmas hello.”
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“Christmas morning, I cannot wait to see what is underneath the tree. With mocha eggnog lattes, Hanukkah Mama and Daddy Christmas soon join me.
Daddy plays mellow holiday jazz. Mama heats up leftover potato pancakes.
We take turns giving each other a final gift.”

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Early dummy images

Spreads and early dummy images from Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama (Knopf, 2012)

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Selina: Sean and I are collaborating on two non-fiction picture books right now. The first one, titled A Case for Loving [see below], I wrote and we will be illustrating together. It is the story of the interracial couple, Mildred and Richard Loving, and their struggle to have their marriage legally recognized by the Supreme Court in Virginia in the 1960s. As you can imagine this subject is close to home for Sean and me. Even though things have greatly improved for interracial couples, the issue still feels poignant with the current fight to legalize same-sex marriage in many states today.

The other book we are illustrating together is called Two Friends. It’s about the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, also two champions of civil rights.

We are in the sketch phase for both of these projects right now.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, we’ve got more coffee, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven(ish) questions over breakfast. I thank Selina again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Selina: First, I like to become very familiar with the subject matter. For example, when doing B is for Brooklyn, I visited as many places in and around Brooklyn as possible. I took pictures; collected references; sketched in cafés; went to parades, museums, parks; read Brooklyn-themed books; etc. Doing the research for this book was almost as much fun as working on the sketches!

(Photos by Isabelle Dervaux)

Once the sketches are complete, I make sure the spreads all fit neatly into the dummy. In this case, I made sure each letter of the alphabet had one major image/word and then a few secondary images/words. I had to plan which spreads would consist of two letters and which letters were important enough to have their own double page spread; “R is for Row Houses” fit nicely next to “S is for Stoops” on one spread, whereas “C is for Coney Island” merited a full two pages.

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Sketches from various titles

When I finally have approval on the drawings from my editor, I gather lots of collage [pieces] — collect ticket stubs, maps, newspapers, etc., to integrate into my paintings. I transfer each image on watercolor paper using a light box and pencil. At this point I’m ready to begin painting — my favorite part of all! I don’t pre-think colors or palettes. I pretty much let the colors come to me once I begin, and I rarely re-do the art. Instead, I may paint over an area until I’m satisfied with how it looks. I use gouache paint and love it when colors are picked up from layers below. I may stray from the sketch by adding new figures and/or bits of collage until I think the spread works well as a whole.

More sketches

I tend to paint the book chronologically and try to keep to a deadline (such as finishing 1 to 2 paintings a week).

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Selina: I have a small studio in the basement of our home. I designed cabinetry (to fit lots of stuff and help keep me organized) in a U-shape. My computer set-up is on one side, and my painting and messy area is on the opposite side. Piles of paperwork, current projects, and inspiration lay on the countertop in between.

I also consider neighborhood cafes an extension of my work space. I do all of my initial brainstorming and manuscript writing in cafés. Even when I’m working on the art for a book, I make at least a daily trip somewhere outside my studio to someplace cozy for coffee, sketching, paper-reading, people-watching, etc.

3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Selina: Richard Scarry –– his animals, objects (always labeled, helped with early reading!), and quirky details fueled my imagination. I took great comfort reading and re-reading his books.

I was also a huge Dr. Seuss fan. I felt a real simpatico with his wacky imagery. I think his books may have helped me make sense of the chaos I felt around me as a child.

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Illustrations and cover from Sheila Keenan’s Greetings From The 50 States (Scholastic, 2008)

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)

Selina: It would be completely intimidating, but Maira Kalman is my first choice. She is probably my main influence as an illustrator. I have been following her work since her early children’s books. I adore her adult work, too, which is really very child-like but in the most sophisticated way. That is what I think I love most about her work, her ability to appeal to both children and adults –– that and the way she uses gouache. Also, I have great admiration for her optimism.

I would also like to meet Lauren Child. She has a wonderful sense of humor, and I love how she uses collage and drawing together, so simple and yet so incredibly well-designed. In her Charlie & Lola books, she is a master at depicting the sibling relationship (rivalry, love, protection, all of it!).

Finally, I wouldn’t mind having a glass of wine with Ian Falconer. Olivia! How he manages to give so much personality to a pig puts me in a state of absolute awe.

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Illustrations and cover from Paul DuBois Jacobs’ and Jennifer Swender’s
My Taxi Ride (Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2006)

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Selina: I usually listen to talk radio (NPR) when I’m working on the art for a book. I find it connects me to the outside world — basically, keeping me in the social and political loop, so-to-speak.

When I do listen to music while painting, I tend to fall back on nostalgic tunes from my youth: The Beatles, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell.

When writing, I prefer the din of a café or the silence of my studio.

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Spreads and cover from Every-Day Dress-Up (Knopf, 2011)

6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Selina: I am tone deaf.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Selina: “Lovely.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Selina: “No.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Selina: Reading, art-viewing, conversation, my children (at times), eating a fine meal and drinking red wine (i.e. date night).

Jules: What turns you off?

Selina: Gum-chewing, video games, cynicism, self-involvement.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Selina: “Shiteous.”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Selina: Crackling of a campfire. (Also works for smell.)

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Selina: Whining.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Selina: Acting.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Selina: Dentistry.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Selina: “Your dad’s been waiting for you — and here he is!”

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Photos of Ms. Alko: Isabelle Dervaux.

All artwork and images are used with permission of Selina Alko.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

5 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Selina Alko”

  1. I can’t wait to see what comes out of A Case for Loving. That project (it’s unabashed connection to her own life and identity), along with her comment that NPR keeps her in the socio-political loop while she’s working on a project, really makes me respect the idea of multiculturalism Mrs. Alko tries to bring to her work. It’s clearly more than lip service.

  2. What a nice wake-up post to pour over while I drink my large cup of coffee.
    I especially love the subway images.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Another awesome post filled with process pictures! Love her work and all of that COLOR! Thanks!

  4. What a delicious interview! Selina’s work is just so juicy with all of its rich color and texture. Fantastic!!!

  5. Lovely interview-getting to know an artist-a bit of her day, her life, her inspiration. Really enjoyed it. Thank you!

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