Selina Alko is an award-winning writer-illustrator known for her children’s books. She was raised in Vancouver, British Columbia by a Turkish Jewish father who taught painting and a Jewish mother who worked in the family’s metal recycling business.
Growing up, Selina was surrounded by art, books, and a diverse worldview that continues to inspire her work today. Her books include The Case for Loving, B is for Brooklyn, and Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama. Selina is a mother of two and holds “family art nights” to encourage her children’s love of art. When not working on a new project, she enjoys reading, traveling, hiking, and dance-walking.
Hi Selina! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself?
I’m a children’s book author/illustrator originally from Vancouver, Canada now living in Brooklyn, NY. Most of my books tackle themes of social justice, identity, diversity, and inclusion. I am drawn to non-fiction topics and my illustrations are done using mixed media.
Your background in art and literature, as well as your diverse cultural upbringing, seem to greatly influence your work. Can you tell us more about how these experiences shape your writing and illustration process?
My father was from Istanbul, Turkey, and spoke seven different languages. He taught me how to paint and gave me the confidence to pursue my artistic dreams. He was also Jewish and together with my Jewish mother raised me in Vancouver, BC., Canada. I moved to NYC to go to art school and pursue a career as an illustrator. I now have two biracial teenagers. We live in Brooklyn, where I currently write and illustrate children’s books. My unique background and diverse family have shaped each of my projects in one way or another.
Many of your children’s books tackle important social and cultural issues, such as interracial marriage and immigration. How do you approach writing about these topics for a young audience?
I try to pare down the themes to their essence, using child-friendly simple language and symbolic imagery. Like, The Case for Loving, my book about the fight to legalize interracial marriage, concludes with the familiar phrase (altered to fit the story), “And they lived happily (and legally) ever after.” And then, naturally, there are many hearts and butterflies symbolizing love and freedom throughout the artwork.
Can you walk us through your writing routine? Do you have any specific rituals or practices that help you get into a creative mindset?
I like to write outside of my studio in cafes to feed off of the buzz of other human beings. When I’m ready to do the artwork I come back to my studio (at home) where I listen to podcasts and/or music while I work, allowing myself the emotional and physical space to really get into the flow of creating.
Your illustrations often have a bold and colorful aesthetic. How do you use art to enhance the storytelling in your books?
I work in mixed media, using collage and paint. I love color and I love collecting papers with patterns, and funky typography. Creating layers of collage and paint can symbolize different layers of storytelling, and/or layers of identity. This way of working enhances storytelling on many levels.
How do you balance being a mother and a successful author and illustrator?
It is so hard. My career has sometimes felt like my third child, needing constant nurturing and attention. I have often felt like my kids get the short shrift, as it is more pleasurable to make art and the rewards are more immediate. Now that my actual children are older it has become a bit easier to balance it all (they are more independent so I have more time to devote to my career). The problem is, now I am older too.
You have lived in Brooklyn for over 20 years and it seems to play a big role in your work. Can you tell us more about how the city has influenced your writing and illustration?
I love the diversity of Brooklyn, and also the family-friendly neighborhood feeling. My book B is for Brooklyn and captures all of the love and it remains one of my most popular books to date.
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