A Mark Twain Picture Book, "Say OH!", and More | SLJ Day of Dialog 2017

Picture book creators Sean Qualls, Selina Alko, Sydney Smith, Philip Stead, Brendan Wenzel, and Hervé Tullet touched on collaboration, a sense of place, and whimsy during a panel.

Left to right: Selina Alko, Sean Qualls, and Sydney Smith. All photos ©Julian Hibbard for School Library Journal

“One thing I like about collaboration and making art is the surprises,” Sean Qualls said of his working process with his wife, fellow illustrator Selina Alko. He and Alko are “never working on the same piece at same time,” he added; they are “always passing it back and forth.” Collaboration, inspiration, and narrative were main themes in The Expansive Picture Book Universe, a panel that was part of SLJ’s 2017 Day of Dialog in New York City on May 30. Qualls and Alko were joined by authors and illustrators Sydney Smith, Philip Stead, Brendan Wenzel, and Hervé Tullet for the event, moderated by Robin Gibson, youth services librarian at the Westerville (OH) Public Library. Qualls and Alko’s Why AM I Me? (Scholastic, Sept. 2017), written by Paige Britt, is the third book that the couple has co-illustrated. Set on a subway full of people who look different from one another, Why AM I Me? is the first work of fiction for the couple, whose other titles include The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage. Why AM I Me?  “conveys the idea that we are all human beings,” said Alko. “It’s a conversation starter; a springboard for big questions.” “The subway is the perfect setting because we so randomly come into contact with a large body of people we might not meet otherwise,” Qualls added. Regarding the illustrators’ working styles and processes, “I tend to be more intuitive. With each book, we have a plan, and we start working with that plan...and it totally disintegrates,” said Qualls, to laughter from the audience.

Left to right: Hervé Tullet, Sydney Smith, Selina Alko, Sean Qualls, Brendan Wenzel, and Philip Stead.

The illustrations in Sydney Smith’s Town Is by the Sea (Groundwood, 2017), written by Joanne Schwartz, depict a boy in the glittering, expansive seascapes surrounding the town where he lives. This contrasts with oppressive images of mine tunnels under the water, where his father toils. “Illustration can say something completely different from the text,” Smith said, noting that he is able to tell stories through pictures that aren’t described in the words. Illustrating someone else’s narrative, he added, can mean “weaving around the text” with his imagery, using “gaps to inject my own voice as an illustrator.” Working on the book, which also won a 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book honor, Smith traveled to coastal Nova Scotia to “get to know what it’s like to stand there, with the ocean in front of you; you feel the history.” “It was like visiting my home again,” added Smith, who grew up in Nova Scotia and, like many, moved to Toronto for more career opportunities.

Philip Stead

It’s “really a piece of oral history—a living document.” That is how writer Philip Stead described his 152-page picture book, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine (Doubleday, Sept. 2017), based on a story that Mark Twain told to his daughters, and illustrated by his wife and frequent collaborator, Erin Stead. Stead crafted the book’s narrative from recently discovered notes that Twain kept about the story, which was discovered by someone who was researching a Mark Twain cookbook. Stead described the story's main character as a king who expels people from his kingdom, is misogynistic, and is “a very bad speller.” After Stead received a copy of Twain’s notes, he retreated alone to a cabin on an island in Michigan until he finished writing the story. Because “I didn't want to be a fan or critic” of Twain, he said, he didn’t read or re-read his books. But he did delve into Twain’s autobiography, as well as a biography written by his 13-year-old daughter, Susy. And the “collaborative” process with Twain? It was like “collaborating with someone who could be very difficult,” he said. Illustrator Brendan Wenzel’s Life (S. & S.; June 27, 2017), written by Cynthia Rylant, is meditation on fundamental aspects of life and being alive, set in an environment populated by Wenzel’s luminous images of wild animals, including gorillas, wolves, and deer. Rylant’s story “explores her thoughts in living in the natural world; finding meaning, and looking to wild places in times of hardship,” said Wenzel, a 2017 Caldecott honoree for They All Saw a Cat (Chronicle, 2016). Wenzel said that he “felt a tremendous sense of responsibility” while figuring out an approach to illustrating Life. Initially, he brought dirt, sticks, and leaves into the studio.” A nature lover and conservation advocate, Wenzel also saw an “opportunity to share his own encounters” while illustrating Life. There’s “always something to love, always something to protect.” Hervé Tullet charmed the crowd, speaking in heavily accented French. “As usual, I don’t know what I'm going to say—all these people [speak] good English; I feel very shy,” he said, referring to his fellow panelists. Describing his forthcoming Say Zoop! (Chronicle, Aug. 2017), Tullet said, “The book begins with the dots,” as did his recent titles, Press Here and Mix It Up! (Chronicle, 2011, 2014). “My book is like a game or installation,” he said of Say Zoop!, which, like those other titles, is interactive. This one involves sounds and words. “I’m interested in languages that bring you to experiences.” Say Zoop! directs readers to “put your finger on the dot and say OH!” But “because ‘OH!’ is not enough to make a book, I brought some other notes—‘AH!’ and ‘WOW!’—represented by other colors." “That’s it,” he said. “It’s very moving to see little children giving their voice [through] reading, even if they don’t know how to read.”

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