Author-illustrator Selina Alko, who has been a fan of Joni Mitchell’s since childhood, has written and illustrated a children’s biography, in picture book format, of the legendary singer-songwriter. On February 25, HarperCollins Children’s Books is releasing Joni: The Lyrical Life of Joni Mitchell, which PW described in its review as a “loose biography” of Mitchell, stating, “Layered mixed-media collages effectively evoke the richly rendered emotional landscapes of Mitchell’s songwriting.”
Joni is a project that Alko, who has written and illustrated four previous picture books, said she thought about doing for the past seven or eight years. “I remember feeling that I was always seeing musical biographies in stores that were of male musicians,” she explained. “My work was already moving into a female empowerment direction and I feel a connection to Joni Mitchell: we’re both from Canada and I grew up with her music.”
A British Columbia native who now lives in Brooklyn, Alko told PW that her love for Mitchell’s music began at a young age. As a child, she attended a “very socialist, very progressive” summer camp at which Mitchell’s music was popular during sing-alongs, especially “The Circle Game,” “Both Sides Now,” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” Listening to Mitchell’s music as an adult, Alko said, takes her back to her youth at camp, “to those summers in that safe space, a place I loved so much.”
As an adult, Alko claimed, she invariably ends up making friends with people who love Mitchell’s music as much as she does, saying, “The people I am most drawn to are always Joni Mitchell fans. It’s because of what she represents, her values.”
Jill Davis, Alko’s editor for Joni, has known of Alko for more than 25 years but this is their first project together. Marietta Zacker of the Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency, who represents the author, introduced the two to discuss Alko’s vision for showcasing Mitchell in a picture book. “Someone must have tipped her off that I am a big Joni Mitchell fan,” Davis said. “Selina was just looking for the right publisher for a very specific subject matter.”
This is not the first time that Davis has edited a children’s biography of a prominent artist: she edited John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth by Elizabeth Partridge, a 2006 Printz Honor book, and Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Julie Morstad, a project that Davis describes as similar to Joni.
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Alko said that she began with the artwork, a mixed-media combination of acrylics, collages, pencil sketches, and ink stamps. She then added text that would draw in even those who had never heard of Mitchell or listened to any of her songs. “There were a lot of word associations,” Alko said. “Jill made the point to me that we are introducing Joni to an entirely new audience, so we can’t assume they know her lyrics. I listened to a lot of folk music and filled my sketchbook up.”
The first few drafts of the songwriter’s biography were very “poetic,” Davis said, with such lines as “Round and round and round again/Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town.” Davis explained that she pushed Alko to add more narrative to the book, “and she pushed back,” advocating for the “lyricism of her original text. We found a balance and wove it all in.”
HarperCollins associate art director Chelsea Donaldson, who designed the book, described the Joni project as “so collaborative from the beginning, with editorial and with Selina, who was telling a story through imagery.” Donaldson said that much of her inspiration in designing Joni came from “Selina’s sketchpad.” She recalls flipping through it and becoming “so inspired. I was thinking, ‘This is what we need to do in the book.’ Those visuals shaped the book.”
The biggest challenge, Davis added, was to “create words about Joni Mitchell that echo her aesthetic.” Mitchell is, Davis noted, not just a singer/songwriter but also a visual artist herself, “and that really comes across in this book.”
“Joni’s childhood was filled with music and art,” Alko added. “I’m not a musician so I used my visual lens to tell her story,” touching upon milestones in Mitchell’s life “by playing off of her more well-known lyrics.”
To better understand Mitchell’s life and times, Alko visited her birthplace and hometown (Fort Macleod, Alberta and North Battleford, Saskatchewan; Mitchell moved to Saskatoon when she was 11 years old), explaining that she considers it “important to connect in a children’s book with the child your subject once was.”
Asked whether she thought young readers would be interested in learning about a 76-year-old musician who’s so much older than even their parents, Davis responded that “children are desperate for this kind of intellectual material and we don’t realize this. Joni Mitchell said once that she sang her sorrow and painted her joy. I think kids can relate.”
Alko, who is cohosting a party with her publisher at the PowerHouse Arena in Brooklyn to celebrate Joni’s release, promises that there will be musicians covering Mitchell’s songs and other folk-music favorites, and that the evening will end with a big group sing-along, reminiscent to Alko of those summers so many years ago spent at camp.
Alko’s next project is an illustrated alphabet book celebrating the people from so many places that comprise the melting pot that is Alko’s adopted country. The book, entitled I Is for Immigrant, will be published by Henry Holt, and is scheduled for a spring 2021 release.
Joni: The Lyrical life of Joni Mitchell by Selina Alko. HarperCollins, February 25 ISBN-10: 0062671294 ISBN-13: 978-0062671295