Sean Qualls and Selina Alko are husband and wife picture book creators. Among their collaborations is “The Case for Loving: The Fight For Interracial Marriage,” which received three starred reviews and the Carla Cohen NAIBA Award for Free Speech. Selina and Sean’s most recent co-illustrated book, Two Friends; Susan B. Anthony & Frederick Douglass came out in January. The couple currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with their two children.
Reach Out and Read of Greater New York has chosen Sean Qualls and Selina Alko as their Mills-Tannenbaum Award for Children’s Literacy recipients. The award will be presented at ROR GNY’s annual benefit and gala on May 9th.
We had a chance to have a chat with Sean and Selina about why reading and books are so important and how they have perpetuated a love for reading and books in their own children’s lives.
What was your relationship to reading like growing up?
Selina: I loved reading; my head was always in a book. Richard Scarry was a big favorite and Dr. Suess. I don’t remember being read aloud to very often, but once I started to read on my own, I started eating up everything Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Paula Danziger…
Sean: My relationship was similar, though I do not remember picture books. Whenever we visited the doctor’s office, there were a ton of picture books, books of the 70s and 60s. I was engulfed, especially in the illustrations. I don’t think I was read to a lot either, but then I remembered my mom read the bible. She would move her lips and whisper the words. I mimicked her doing that. Then, in second or third grade, I received an illustrated bible for Christmas. I got really into Greek and Roman mythology, the heroism and the magic of it all. I got lost in detective stories, The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, got into comic books. For me there’s always a strong sense of nostalgia around books from the 60s.
How do you encourage your kids to read?
We still each read to them. Our kids can read on their own, but they love to be read to. It’s part of their ritual. Even when he’s almost asleep, our son asks for a story. It’s a great way to connect, and a great opportunity to seek out great, age-appropriate literature.
Our eight-year-old, Ginger, the more she’s read to the more she’s enthusiastic about reading on her own. She loves Dory Fantasmagory right now. She’s excited about reading the same book over and over.
Our son, Isaiah, 11, always wants a new book. He recently picked up the Action Bible, a biblical comic.
How did you choose books to read to your kids?
We chose books that we wanted them to read. We love The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss. It’s an empowering story. We also love Elephant and Piggie, by Mo Willems.
Sean: We both also love non-fiction. The books we’ve done together and the ones I’ve illustrated are non-fiction…they tell an important story in a readable way.
Selina: We’re very art focused. The books we choose are usually beautiful in some way to us. And, they must have the power of story. That and the beauty of the illustration…
We believe it’s important to have your own library.
How do you choose projects to work on?
When it comes to The Case for Loving, we thought it was an important story to tell and put out there. We wanted to do it in a simple-enough way to make it kid-friendly, knowing the themes were sophisticated. Using child-friendly language, simplifying the story, using symbolism, emphasizing and letting the emotion shine through in the art…that was how we approached it.
Sean: One of the criteria I use to choose projects is I imagine that this is a book already and I’m reading it to a group of kids, if I feel good about sharing it from that perspective, I give much more consideration for illustration.
Selina: My personal connection to the material matters most. I go for more true-life stories that mirror personal stories. B is for Brooklyn — we live in Brooklyn, it’s about our community. I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother is about a blended family.
We are doing what we love: making art, making images, telling stories that we love. But being authors, illustrators and artists, we spend a lot of time alone.
Once that art is collected and is part of a book, it’s always nice to know that those books connect with an audience…that they connect with a child or parent and helps parent and child make a connection with each other.
We are also honored that Sean and Selina were kind enough to also answer our Believe in Books questionnaire in celebration of our upcoming benefit theme.
Which books are among your childhood favorites?
-D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths
-Ezra Jack Keats’ John Henry
-Richard Scarry’s Best World Book Ever
–Judy Blume (Deenie, Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself, Forever), Beverly Cleary (Fifteen) and Paula Danziger (The Cat Ate My Gymsuit)
What are your favorite titles of today?
Lev Grossman The Magicians (currently reading)
Toni Morrison Bluest Eye
The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
What’s your favorite childhood? reading memory — whether of reading to yourself, or of someone who read to you, or something you imagined?
Reading Sam & Ann Books in Elementary School
Reading (and re-reading) Judy Blume books over and over again under the covers late at night.
What was your biggest idea or inspiration that came from reading?
“Art is alchemy”
The real life story of Mildred and Richard Loving, which I turned into the manuscript for THE CASE FOR LOVING.
What is your favorite word?
Collage. I like the word’s symbolism; mixing together of different elements (sort of like my own life: Black + White, Jewish + Christian, Canadian + American etc.,) Plus, I just like the way the word rolls off the tongue.
If you were going to be anything other than a writer/illustrator, what would you be?
A comedian, a musician or producer, an animation director, a book store/record store proprietor, a full-time, stay at home dad
A cafe/art shop proprietor… or, maybe an Actress
Please be part of our celebration at our annual benefit and auction where Sean Qualls and Selina Alko will receive Reach Out and Read of Greater New York’s Mills-Tannenbaum award for Children’s Literacy.