Sean Qualls: Inspired to go for feeling

Sean Qualls is an award-winning, Brooklyn-based, children’s book illustrator, author and artist. In addition to his fine art painting, he has illustrated number of highly acclaimed books for children.

His most recent titles include Grandad Mandela, Emmanuel’s Dream:The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, Why Am I Me? (co-illustrated with Selina Alko) and The Case for Loving:The Fight for Interracial Marriage (also co-illustrated with Selina Alko).

I only met him once at an event in Brooklyn, but I’ve been a longtime fan of his work and was excited when he agreed to do this interview for M is for Movement.

INNOSANTO NAGARA: First of all, I love your work. The textures and tone being always just right shows your experience. But I read you’d dropped out of formal art school—so like many of my favorite illustrators, your training is clearly not purely formal. Can you share a bit of your background and your journey as an artist? 

SEAN QUALLS: I grew up in a tiny, little town in South Jersey in the 70’s and 80’s and was always intrigued and mesmerized by the creative process. My mother and grandmother painted ceramics, sewed and did latch hook rugs. In elementary school, I was always drawing with friends so when it came time to go to college art was the only thing I was interested in pursuing. I moved to Brooklyn almost by accident because my high school art teacher insisted that I minor in art ed and Pratt was the only school in NYC that offered that as a minor. Although, by the time, in Brooklyn, I dropped the idea of becoming a teacher and decided to major in illustration and fine art. Several semesters in, I fell behind on my tuition so I left school hoping to make enough money from my job at the Brooklyn Museum until I was able to get back in school, well that never happened. Instead, I began to use the museum’s collection to further my art education as well as the Brooklyn Public Library’s archives. In the late 90’s I discovered outsider and folk artists and was inspired to go for feeling in my work rather than an academic approach. I already had a portfolio and had been promoting my work as an illustrator, mostly in hopes of illustrating magazine stories and adult book jackets, when I met my wife, Selina, in ’99. We helped each other market our work but I was still unable to make a living just doing art until I was offered to illustrate several picture books in the early 2000’s. As it turned out, children’s books were a better fit for me than illustrating magazine stories. My first few books were The Baby on the Way (FSG), Powerful Words (Scholastic) and Dizzy (Scholastic). When I was offered Dizzy (my third book), I left my day job to pursue art full-time.

IN: Many of your books tackle subjects like race, culture, and perhaps gender. How much of that is because you yourself are actively engaged in activism around those issues? Or do you feel the issues came to you?

SQ: In order to do them justice, it’s important to feel connected to my subjects. One of the benefits of coming into picture books through the back door, so to speak, was that the art I used for self-promotion was personal so when editors offered me books, they were closely connected to the work that I was already doing or was interested in doing.

IN:  Many authors don’t like to be labeled “political” because it implies the agenda supersedes the literary quality of their work. But I’ve found for visual artists and illustrators, the “political” label is maybe less of a stigma—though many would still refer to themselves differently. How do you define your work in relation to any social justice perspective you bring to the table?

SQ: My work is more about psychology than politics. My books often deal with race and identity because they are important to me. My fine artwork also deals with race and identity but it also questions the nature of history and how history and mythology intersect. Ultimately, my objective in both mediums is to help people reshape the way they see themselves by understanding that our self-perception is created unconsciously by the stories we’re told and tell ourselves.

IN: I know we’re not supposed to have favorites amongst our children. But which book (or books) of yours are the closest to your heart? Maybe that haven’t gotten the attention you think they deserve?

SQ: No favorites, but one that I feel has been overlooked is Phillis’s Big Test.

IN:  Shout outs. What children’s books not your own do you feel everyone should know about? Any other authors or illustrators you’d like to see us interview for M is for Movement?

SQ: One of my all-time favorite illustrators that a lot of people don’t know is is Evaline Ness.

IN:  What’s current for you? What’s next?

SQ: My latest book, Grandad Mandela, comes out at the end of this month. It’s a collaboration with Nelson Mandela’s daughter, Zindzi, and her two grandchildren, about her father’s life and hers growing up with him in prison. It’s also in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday which is July 18th this year.

I’m also working on my very first book as author and illustrator called The Music, The People which is about my personal experience of music being an animating force applied culturally to the African-American experience.


Grandad Mandela 

By Ambassador Zindzi MandelaZazi And Ziwelene MandelaSean Qualls (Illustrator)

Lincoln Children’s Books, 9781786031365, 40pp.

Publication Date: June 28, 2018


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