SBBT Interview: Sean Qualls
With the plethora of talented young illustrators out there, few strike a fancy as readily as Sean Qualls. From his picture books to the novels he illustrates, Qualls’ style is impossible to confuse with any other artist. He also happens to be a heckuva nice guy and consented to my prying prods.
Fuse #8: So you’re undoubtedly one of the finest artists living today and you do this great mix of fiction and picture book. In a case like The Poet Slave of Cuba (written by Margarita Engle) how did you come across the project? Did you come up with the number of illustrations in the book? And how was it to illustrate a book that graphic and violent?
Sean Qualls: POET SLAVE OF CUBA was my third book offer. At the time, I was working on two other projects (THE BABY ON THE WAY and POWERFUL WORDS) but didn’t have any published books – just published work for magazines. I received a call from Reka Simenson at Henry Holt asking if I would be interested in illustrating POET SLAVE and I almost said no because I had a part-time job in addition to my illustration work. Reka had seen my work in a sourcebook which is a kind of like a yellow pages of illustrators. She convinced me to read the manuscript before making a decision. Once I read the first page I was sold. I really connected with Juan Manzano’s story and his desire to be an artist.
Depicting the graphic content of the story was not an issue for me. Manzano’s poetry was fueled by the hope of freedom and the pain of being a slave. I felt the only way to be honest in telling his story was to show the circumstances of his life even if somewhat graphic and violent.
Fuse #8: You seem to show a bit of a preference for jazz legends. There was Dizzy (by Jonah Winter) and now you have Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Story of John Coltrane by Carol Boston Weatherford. Do you just accidentally fall into these projects or are they something you shoot for?
Sean Qualls: I’ve always been inspired by music; jazz and all other kinds. Searching for new music is one of my favorite pastimes. When I first started listening to jazz, “A Love Supreme” from John Coltrane was one of the first albums I bought. His version of “My Favorite Things” I think, is one of the greatest songs ever! I also love the music of the musicians that were in his band like Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner and his wife Alice. Plus, Dizzy Gillespie is one of the greatest real life characters ever. So while I never aimed to illustrate biographies of jazz legends I love doing it!
Fuse #8: All right. Here’s the question everyone hates to receive. What are you working on right now?
Sean Qualls: Currently, I’m illustrating a story of a young Ella Fitzgerald for Candlewick written by Roxane Orgill. Also, I’ve just begun working on sketches for 2 other books but I prefer not to mention them until they are farther along.
Fuse #8: Follow-up question that everyone hates to receive: What would you LIKE to be working on at some point?
Sean Qualls: At some point, I would like to be doing more of my own work whether it is writing and illustrating for children/teens, or adults and also doing painting for myself.
Fuse #8: Would you ever concern crossing over to the realm of graphic novels? Or, if not, is there another kind of literature you’ve been thinking about playing with?
Sean Qualls: A few years back when I was trying to break into the illustration I wanted to do graphic novels. Dave Mckean and Bill Sienkiewicz were big influences for me at the time. I thought doing illustrations for magazines and illustrating other people’s text for picture books would be my day job and I would do my own graphic novels on the side – little did I know. I’m still really interested in doing graphic novels; however, my picture book work keeps me really busy and I’m also concerned that my story ideas may be too obscure and will not find an audience.
For other interviews of the day, be sure to check out these loverly lads and ladies:
Ben Towle at Chasing Ray
Susane Colasanti at Bildungsroman
Robin Brande at Hip Writer Mama
Susan Beth Pfeffer at The YA YA YAs
Jennifer Lynn Barnes at Writing and Ruminating
Debby Garfinkle at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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