Selina Alko is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book biography Joni: The Lyrical Life of Joni Mitchell. Her other books include The Case for Loving. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: Why did you decide to write and illustrate a picture book about Joni Mitchell?
A: When I wrote The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage, I discovered how much I enjoyed the research aspect of doing a nonfiction picture book.
Joni Mitchell was on my radar after reading Girls Like Us and learning all about her fascinating Canadian childhood.
The fact that she overcome polio when she was just 10 years old was the “aha” moment for me. This incident was the key to what could make her life story compelling for young readers.
Also, I am Canadian, like Joni, and although I am not a singer/songwriter I share a passion for painting, like Joni too. My connections to her felt quite natural and gave me a few entry points to learn more about her life.
Q: How did you research Joni Mitchell's life, and did you learn anything especially surprising?
A: I read biographies (Reckless Daughter by David Yaffe and Joni Mitchell; Her Life in Words and Art by Malka Marom), print pieces, and, of course, I listened to her music obsessively. Her lyrics contain many allusions to understanding aspects of her fascinating life.
For example, her song "Little Green" is about the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was pregnant at 19. In the end, I decided not to put this episode in the book as my editor and I felt it was too complicated (and unnecessary) to explain to kids. I do allude to that time in her life though when she "turns her feelings into songs" writing the lyrics to "Little Green."
Q: Did you focus on the pictures first or the text first, or did you work on them simultaneously?
A: I wrote the story first and then I filled a notebook with very loose painterly sketches that were more “impressionistic.”
My sketchbook was very personal, with pages dedicated to her iconic lyrics and heartfelt emotions–- basically, I painted and collaged my own reactions to her music.
Once my manuscript was at a good enough place (after many, many revisions!), I worked on a dummy. Then, of course, the dummy went through many, many revisions as well. It was basically a back-and-forth between words and art for several years there.
Q: Do you have some favorite Joni Mitchell songs?
A: There are a few classics which were formative to me growing up-- songs that sparked my writing of this book: "Circle Game," "Big Yellow Taxi," and "Both Sides Now." These are some of the songs I listened to at the Jewish socialist summer camp I went to on an island in British Columbia, Canada.
Joni's songs (and folk music, in general) helped shape my interest in social justice and the types of books I am drawn to making for children.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on an alphabet book about immigration. The beauty of diversity is something I feel very passionate about. It is probably because my Jewish family came from Eastern Europe and Turkey to make a life in Canada, where I grew up, and also because I immigrated to the United States from Canada to pursue my dream of being an artist when I was a young adult. Immigration runs in my bones.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I have another book coming out soon, One Golden Rule at School: A Counting Book, and, it is just that–– a counting book! The classroom is a diverse and fun place where preschoolers count from one to ten, and back down again, throughout the day.
I guess this is a big year for me with two books out! Gee, I hope people are still buying books these days... In any case, at least there's more time to read right now.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb