Poetry, Race, and Art: A Conversation with Selina Alko, Sean Qualls, and Nina Crews

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

While working on the books Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship and Seeing into Tomorrow: Poems by Richard Wright, I couldn’t help noticing commonalities between the two.

Both are volumes of poetry and both explore race and identity. Yet the books differ as well—Can I Touch Your Hair? is primarily for kids in grades 4 and above and has multiple contributors—it’s co-written by Irene Latham and Charles Waters and co-illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko—and Seeing into Tomorrow could easily be shared with preschoolers on up and was compiled and illustrated by Nina Crews.

Both of these books took multiple years to come into being, and I am delighted that they ended up being released just a month apart. Because, after all, race and identity aren’t things we discuss just once with our children. They’re things we come back to again and again at different ages and in different contexts.

When I found out that Nina Crews and Sean Qualls and Selina Alko know each other, I asked them if they’d be willing to interview each other about the art in their books, and they kindly agreed! Sean was on deadline for a new book, so Selina wrote the questions for Nina.

Questions for Sean Qualls and Selina Alko about Can I Touch Your Hair?

Can I Touch Your Hair? cover

NINA: I’m impressed by how the two of you have merged your styles in this book. Could you talk a bit about your collaborative process?

S&S: This book is our fourth published collaboration (phew!). When we began working together (on The Case for Loving) it was terrifying, we had to figure so many things out like who would do what on each piece of art. But four books in, we have more confidence and our process is much more organic. We usually start by doing small sketches; to get ideas and concepts flowing and then we work on character. It has become a real back and forth where we both work on all parts of the art. I (Selina) used to paint with gouache but since working together with Sean I’ve converted to acrylic, which is much more pliable and better for building layers.

Can I Touch Your Hair? spread

NINA: The poems touch on some weighty issues—living up to parental expectations, the legacy of slavery and police brutality. Is there any poem pairing that was particularly challenging or inspiring for you creatively?

S&S: The poems about police brutality were particularly intense to depict. We decided to just show Charles watching television and Irene being comforted by a parent without being heavy-handed. We’re not sure if this solution works, but we like how the illustrations intersect and connect on the two pages through the words and clouds in the sky.

Can I Touch Your Hair? spread

NINA: I like teardrop shaped collage element that reoccurs in many images. It is sometimes a leaf, an olive branch, a martian antenna, and an exclamation point. How did that idea develop?

S&S: We wanted to include some playful, decorative elements that would serve as symbols of hope and understanding. We began by doing little blooms sprouting from their pencils and shoelaces and these elements sort of took on a life of their own as the book progressed. We wanted the final image to be filled to the brim with Charles and Irene’s newfound connections.

Can I Touch Your Hair? spread

Questions for Nina Crews about Seeing into Tomorrow

Seeing into Tomorrow cover

SELINA: Nina, it’s just beautiful that you chose to illustrate Richard Wright’s haikus in such a lush and natural setting. I think I recognize Prospect Park in a lot of the imagery. Are most of the photographs taken in Brooklyn?

NINA: You have a good eye! Some of the photographs were taken in Brooklyn. Prospect Park is really an extension of my studio and has some wonderful, wild and intimate spaces and grand open spaces. The park is an amazing resource to have close by. Because the images really depended on the right light and the right weather, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to get shots I might use. I also photographed extensively in upstate New York—Bear Mountain and the Hudson Valley.

Seeing into Tomorrow spread

SELINA: I love that you want this to be a book for young brown boys to see themselves in. The scenery is so peaceful, so full of possibility and so open-ended. Why did you choose to portray a variety of boys throughout the pages instead of just one?

NINA: The advantage of working with a collection of poems is that each page can be a separate thought and one character doesn’t need to remain constant throughout. I find this to be very freeing and worked in a similar way in The Neighborhood Mother Goose and Neighborhood Sing-Along. I did not want the illustrations for this book to be read in a linear fashion.

Additionally, you mention “possibility” and “open-endedness.” Both concepts were central to my thinking about Wright and haiku, and how to best honor them with my illustrations. Wright wrote about how individuals can be deeply wounded by denial of possibility (as it is expressed by racial and economic oppression) and about struggle of any individual to be acknowledged as particular and special. I photographed twelve boys who could broadly represent the variety within African American people and portray twelve possibilities.

Seeing into Tomorrow spread

SELINA: There are so many beautiful haiku here. I think my favorite is, “As my delegate,/My shadow imitates me/This first day of spring.” I also like, “Just enough of snow/For a boy’s finger to write/His name on the porch.” Is there a reason for portraying a mitten here instead of a brown boy’s finger writing in the snow?

NINA: The mittened hand follows the organizational logic of the collection. The book begins on a cold winter day and concludes on a warm spring day. In that first poem, the boy is covered up. In the second, the boy is taking off his coat. . . . As we move through the pages the scenes become warmer and greener and the boys are dressed for warm days.

Seeing into Tomorrow spread

Learn more about Can I Touch Your Hair? and Seeing into Tomorrow

Can I Touch Your Hair? is available through lernerbooks.comBarnes & NobleAmazonIndieBound, and all major distributors.

You can read the Can I Touch Your Hair? authors’ and illustrators’ notes here. Plus, read a Q&A with Selina, Charles, and Irene here.

Seeing into Tomorrow is available through lernerbooks.comBarnes & NobleAmazonIndieBound, and all major distributors.

Read Julie Danielson’s interview with Nina Crews for Kirkus Reviews here.

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