Meet the Author and Illustrator: Selina Alko

One of the best things about our jobs here at Behind the Book is getting to meet and speak with the authors behind the stories that we love. We think you feel the same way, so we’re profiling some of our amazing partners. We hope you’ll follow along to learn more about the people we get to work with.

First up is Selina Alko, author of several acclaimed books including: The Case for Loving, I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother, Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama, and B is forBrooklyn.

Her books are colorful, optimistic and purposeful, dealing often with themes of inclusion and diversity. The Case for Loving has been a huge hit here at Behind the Book, with at least five different programs based on the book last school year.

The Case for Loving details the story of Loving vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that ultimately led to the landmark decision to legalize interracial marriage. The book received three starred reviews and honors including The NAIBA Carla Cohen Award for Free Speech. Together with her husband, illustrator Sean Qualls, Alko has impressively managed to introduce young kids to issues relating to human rights and the Supreme Court. It was the couple’s first collaborative project.

Selina currently lives in Brooklyn with Sean and their two children, and most recently celebrated the publication of Why Am I Me? – a book by Paige Britt that she and Sean collaborated to illustrate.

Behind the Book: How did you initially get involved with Behind the Book?

Selina: I think it was about four or five years ago that I did my first visit using my book B is for Brooklyn with kindergarteners. I was thrilled at the opportunity to be in the classroom setting with authentic Brooklyn kids learning their letters and using my book to help them connect to their neighborhood.

BtB: What does it mean to you to be able to interact with young readers and help them develop a love for reading and writing?

Selina: It keeps it REAL. It is so important for me to get out of my insular world (my studio, where I write and paint alone) to interact with young readers. It also helps me feel more balanced and keeps me in touch with how kids think and act.

BtB: Were you always a reader/writer? Was there a particular person or book that inspired you to love reading/writing?

Selina: Yes, I’ve always been an avid reader and storyteller. I consumed everything Judy Blume in my tween years, and adored Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss in my picture book days.

BtB: What advice would you give to our young student writers as they work their way to a published piece?

Selina: Write what is closest to your heart. What do you care about? What excites you? What makes you feel sad?

BtB: Do you have any interesting or unique hobbies?

Selina: My favorite food is cheese.

Also, I like to do a thing called “Dance Walk”… it’s when I listen to music (on headphones) while both dancing and walking the loop of Prospect Park usually (but not always) with a pack of other dance walkers.

Selina signing a copy of her book for a happy student!

BtB: What’s your favorite book/short story that you’ve written and why?

Selina: It’s hard to choose, but The Case for Loving has a special place in my heart. The book tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, who were arrested for being in an interracial marriage in Virginia in 1958. I enjoyed learning all of the details of their journey to eventual victory in their 1967 landmark Supreme Court win, forever changing marriage laws and helping to pave the way for people like me and my husband to marry (I am white, he is black). Plus, Loving vs Virginia is the most perfectly named Supreme Court Case EVER.

BtB: What authors inspire you and why?

Selina: Jacqueline Woodson and Matt de la Pena…for their economy of words, the truths they tell and the topics they write about.

BtB: How do you narrow down what you’re going to write about? Do you always know before you start or do you figure it out along the way?

Selina: I figure it out along the way. I may chose a topic and how it evolves depends upon what I learn in the research process.

BtB: Do you have any kind of writing process?

Selina: Well, I finally got a laptop so now I can take my writing outside of my studio. I used to write in a cafe on paper with pencil and then transcribe back in my studio.

BtB: What are you working on now?

Selina: I am working on a biography of the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell which I’m really excited about! Did you know she overcame polio as a child and taught herself to play guitar?

BtB: I know you illustrated The Case for Loving with your husband—what was it like to get to do that?

Selina: Since it was our first collaboration (we’ve just completed our fourth) it was a bit tricky to figure out the logistics. But once we got our system down, it was really nice to have help solving creative problems. We got to the point of being able to finish each other’s sentences (visually)–so to speak.

Our thanks to Selina and to guest blogger Sarah Jane Weill for giving us this insight!

Selina with a whole class of students at PS 4.