Picture book authors and illustrators don’t typically work together closely on a project – in fact, most of the time they have very little contact at all. But the guest speakers at a recent panel at the New York Public Library are notable exceptions: in fact, not only do they write and illustrate side-by-side, they share household chores and grocery shop together, too. Betsy Bird, youth materials specialist at the New York Public Library, moderated the February 7 discussion, Collaborating Couples, which featured married couples who also work as author-illustrator teams. The speakers were Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney, Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, and Betsy and Ted Lewin.

The panelists reflected on how they first came to collaborate on their books with their respective spouses and both the joys and challenges of doing so. While Qualls and Alko had always had it in mind to collaborate, they felt that it needed to be just the right project. When Alko developed an interest in writing about Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who were imprisoned in 1958 for marrying, it lit a spark. Alko wrote and Qualls illustrated the picture book The Case for Loving, about the pioneering civil rights era couple. Being an interracial couple themselves, they felt that the Loving’s story was “a representation of our lives,” a project they spoke more about in a recent interview with PW.

For the Lewins, they too had often thought about collaborating, but “couldn’t figure out how to combine our artistic styles.” As world travelers, Betsy explained, she and Ted each “get a book” out of their trips. It was after sharing a particularly powerful experience on one of these voyages that it began to make perfect sense that they join forces. In 1997, they had traveled to Uganda and went on a particularly “difficult and physically strenuous” hike at an 8,000-foot altitude to see the mountain gorillas. But on the plane ride home, Betsy struggled to nail down what story she would tell as a result of the Uganda trip; meanwhile, in the seat next to her, Ted was writing furiously – not about the gorillas, though they were amazing – but “about the trek itself,” he said. The Lewins decided that, because “it was such a difficult thing to share,” the Uganda book would be an ideal project to work on together. The result of that collaboration was Gorilla Walk (HarperCollins). They have since gone on to collaborate on many other projects, their most recent being How to Babysit a Leopard: And Other True Stories from Our Travels Across Six Continents, which comes out in June from Roaring Brook’s Neal Porter Books imprint and draws from their many years of travel.

Andrea and Brian Pinkney’s first collaboration was a long time coming. Brian remembered how, on their first dates, he would “have Andrea come over to my place and go on the roof and she’d dress like Harriet Tubman and model for me” (at the time, he was illustrating a book about Tubman). But Andrea was primarily focused on editing during the early years of their marriage – of course, she bubbled over with ideas for Brian until he finally said: “Why don’t you do the books?” She took him up on it. Their first collaboration was Alvin Ailey (Hyperion, 1993), and their most recent is Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song. In her career as an editor (working at S&S, Disney, HMH, and Scholastic), part of Andrea’s job was to “keep the author and illustrator separate.... They don’t go to Starbucks.” And yet, she reflected incredulously: “I am sharing a box of cereal and toothpaste with this guy,” not to mention “children and a whole life.”

While Brian’s studio used to be in the house, they relocated it once they had children – a move that has been hugely beneficial since the couple began collaborating. Andrea doesn’t ever set foot in the studio, because “this man needs to be free to do what he needs to do creatively,” she said. And for the Pinkneys, it is important to maintain a balance between work and the rest of their married lives. That means they don’t talk about their joint projects except at designated times. For them, that’s on Saturdays at their favorite diner in Brooklyn Heights, where the owners know to expect them and the waiter doesn’t need to ask for their order.

Universally, the panelists agreed that maintaining separate creative spaces and allowing ideas to percolate before seeking or giving feedback to their spouse and collaborator is essential both to keeping the peace and assuring a project’s success. The Lewins inhabit their respective offices on different levels of their house, although they are frequently in communication throughout the day. As Betsy explained, a typical conversation will go like this: “Betsy, come up and look at what I’m doing!” Ted will call out. “I was just up there,” she’ll say. “You come down here!”

“I’m the detail man and Ted is more the storyteller,” Betsy noted about their respective roles. The way Ted puts it, Betsy is a kind of alchemist when it comes to translating the notes he takes for a particular book: “I write down stuff and she makes it come out as something readable,” he said.

Saying, “I’m learning a lot!” Alko reflected that collaborating with Qualls definitely required some careful navigation. Just before they began working on the book, Qualls moved his studio out of the house, giving them both the space to embrace the project on their own terms. As Alko and Qualls began to research the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, they felt equally compelled to convey their experience in picture book format. “It was such an important story that resonated with us,” said Alko. Qualls also believes that the book’s theme of “two people coming together” was an inspiration. They may not always collaborate on their books, but, “when the story’s right, we’ll come together,” he said.

The other speakers feel similarly about the call to collaborate. The Pinkneys work on both solo projects and joint projects. In one instance, Brian pitched an idea to Andrea to write but she declined, since it didn’t feel like it was her own. Instead, she encouraged Brian to write it, which he did; the result was Max Found Two Sticks (S&S, 1994). In another case, Brian was geared up to create the illustrations for Andrea’s The Red Pencil (Little, Brown, 2014), but the book’s editor felt that Brian’s work wasn’t the right fit, and they went with illustrator Shane W. Evans instead.

In the case of Martin & Mahalia, the creative process was especially harmonious. Brian, who noted that “each book is different, like a child: some need a little more mothering and others need a little more fathering,” noted that while Andrea wrote the complete manuscript before Brian did the illustrations, she left cues for him in the text that provided some creative direction, while still allowing him freedom to visually interpret her words. The book’s subject matter was also significant for the Pinkneys. “It’s about “the ultimate collaboration,” said Andrea. In the story, Martin Luther King, Jr. reaches out to Mahalia Jackson, seeking the gospel singer’s help in calming a stirred-up crowd gathering for the March on Washington.

One moment in particular demonstrated to Andrea the depth of Martin and Mahalia’s mutual understanding and respect for one another, which she and Brian dramatize in the book. When Martin is first speaking to the crowd, he’s reading from his notes rather than speaking with honest emotion: “Tell them about your dream, Martin!” Mahalia calls out. And at that point, King launches into his “I Have a Dream” speech. That line (“Tell them about your dream!”) is something that she and Brian say to each other sometimes, when a piece of work comes across as lackluster or isn’t quite singing on the page yet.

The Ultimate Collaboration

In closing, Bird asked the authors and artists to offer advice to couples who might be considering collaborating on projects. Ted suggested that it’s not for everyone. “Don’t start collaborating until you know if you are really comfortable with each other,” he said. Betsy Lewin, on the other hand, suggested that maybe couples don’t know if collaboration will work until they try, and that it can be a way for two creative people to discover a great deal more about one another.

Alko and Qualls described working together on The Case For Loving as being a lot like marriage itself: “We’ve all taken vows to collaborate,” Qualls said, adding that it requires mutual respect and letting go of one’s ego. “You learn you can’t control another person... I believe that collaborating really strengthened our marriage,” Alko said. “Glad to hear it,” Qualls responded.

Andrea said that she and Brian live and work by the three C’s: “courtesy, communication, and commitment.” Well … most of the time. “This is all really loving,” said Brian. “But I think there’s another piece here.” He admitted that he has not always been receptive to Andrea’s critiques of his work. In fact, at times it’s made him just plain angry. But he has realized after working together so closely with his wife that when he reacts this way to Andrea’s advice, it’s because “she has seen something in me that I couldn’t see yet.” It’s important, he believes, to have patience with the process as well as patience with each other. Each project is “like a baby in the belly. You can’t take it out at five months to see if it’s ready.”

Now, Andrea and Brian have a particular code they use when one or the other is in the creative zone or needs some time to let a seed germinate. Andrea is “bumblebee” and Brian is “dragonfly.” If Andrea is busy and Brian sends her a text, she’ll respond with “bumblebee.” and vice-versa. But when Saturday rolls around again and they are back at the diner, it’s time to share their progress, communicate, and get on the same page. “We talk it out,” Andrea said. “Nothing goes out of my hands without Brian reading it.”