Selina Alko and Sean Qualls are both accomplished picture-book creators: her author-illustrator credits include Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama and B Is for Brooklyn, and his many illustrated books include Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford, which won him a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award. Yet the Brooklyn couple, married for 12 years, had never collaborated on a book project – until now. Alko wrote and they both illustrated The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage; the book recounts the story of interracial couple Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, who married in Washington, D.C., because their marriage was illegal in their native Virginia. They fought their case until it made it to the Supreme Court, whose justices ruled unanimously in their favor. PW spoke to Alko and Qualls, who are also an interracial couple, about their collaboration and the message they hope the book delivers.
How did you learn about the Lovings’ case – and why did you decide to collaborate on a book about it?
Selina Alko: We’ve known their story for a while, and then it was the subject of an HBO documentary several years ago, and was featured in an exhibit at the International Center of Photography here in New York. We’ve both been doing picture books for a long time, and we’re always searching for new ideas and subjects. For years, Sean and I have thought of illustrating a book together, and were waiting for the right story to come along. We felt that the Lovings’ case was very important, and as an interracial couple, we felt a strong personal connection to their story. Illustrating it together seemed like a natural choice.
Sean Qualls: Yes, we’d been looking to collaborate on a project for some time, and when this topic came up it seemed like a perfect fit, and the timing was right.
Selina, how did you go about researching the Lovings’ story?
Alko: I read a number of different books to become as familiar as possible with all the details of their story and case. I took a lot of notes, and spent quite a bit of time in cafés going over the materials, then tried to pare it down. I toyed with different ideas about how to approach the story – whether to write it as a picture book, or write it for a slightly older audience. Ultimately I decided to simplify the story for younger readers.
And once the story was written, how did you work together to create the illustrations?
Qualls: Actually, we like to keep the details of our process private, but first we begin exchanging ideas pass back and forth. Then one of us will expand on an idea, and the other one will expand on that. It’s a continual dialogue until we feel a sketch is done, and then finally agree that the art is finished.
As you worked together for the first time on a picture book, was there anything that surprised you about your spouse’s creative process?
Qualls: Since we’ve been together for 15 years, and spent all that time making art pretty intensely, we are really familiar with one another’s process. I’d say that maybe what was surprising was how easy it was to work together in many ways. At first, some people we know were concerned for us!
Alko: That’s true. We did hear people say, “I could never work with my spouse!” It was challenging at first, not because of our artistic natures as much as the scheduling factor, since the way we work is very different. I am more of a to-do-list, very organized worker. Sean is more spontaneous, so organizing ourselves to work together was one of the initial challenges.
Did you share the Lovings’ story, and the book project, with your own children?
Qualls: Yes, it was summer when we began working on the sketches, and they were well aware of the book. Our son, Isaiah, will soon be 10, and our daughter, Ginger, is about to turn seven, and we’ve done a lot of art with them over the years – they are both really creative.
Alko: Our daughter loves to ask us, “Is there a part of this painting that I can paint?” So we did let her add some touches to the background — maybe a little heart here or there.
Qualls: Isaiah is equally interested, though he tends to be more of the critic. He’ll let us know if something looks awkward, or if he feels that the images of a person are inconsistent. He comes at it from a different angle.
What would you say that you hope your children – and young readers in general –— take away from The Case for Loving?
Alko: I hope they will learn that it’s important to fight for what you believe in and to stand up for yourself, and realize that change doesn’t happen overnight. There are many things wrong with our society, but I’m eternally an optimist, and believe that we can all make small changes that will make a difference. I think it is very important to teach that to our children and to all children.
Qualls: I hope the story teaches kids that it is important to know who you are and to not allow other people tell you who you are. I’m not sure if the Lovings even had a high school education, yet they knew to fight for themselves and didn’t let anyone else tell them what they had to do.
Do you foresee collaborating on another project in the future?
Qualls: Actually, we’re working on the illustrations for another book now for Scholastic – a story about the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, written by Dean Robbins. It has been a lot of fun. For me, it’s exciting to do anything that’s different, and collaborating definitely adds another unique aspect to making picture books. Of course every book is a collaboration, even if you write and illustrate it yourself – you’re always working with your editor and art director.
Alko: Collaborating with Sean, I think I’ve learned a few things from his working process, and I feel my work has changed and grown as a result. Hopefully I’ll be able bring that back into my own work.
It must be gratifying to add the role of artistic partners to your relationship.
Qualls: Yes, it is. One thing worth mentioning is that when Selina and I decided we were going to collaborate on this book, we went to visit Leo and Diane Dillon at their home – a few months before he passed away. That was really powerful. Like us, they don’t really talk about how they work together, but their catalogue of work is so very impressive. It was interesting to get their perspective on the Lovings’ story, since they too were an interracial couple who were married at the time the case was going on. Looking back, I feel as though we went to see them to get their blessing.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Alko. Scholastic/Levine, $18.99 Jan. ISBN: 978-0-545-47853-3