Friday, August 4, 2023

Picture Them! Illustrating Picture Book Biographies with Selina Alko

Selina Alko grew up in Canada, like Joni Mitchell. And like Joni, Selina has been a painter since she was a child. She loves mixing materials together to create artwork for her award-winning children’s books. Besides working in her studio, Selina likes to travel, be involved in her community, and spend time with her children. Selina makes her home in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about Selina Alko at, Facebook, and Instagram.

Selina talked about her childhood, how she had always loved reading. She grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, with a Turkish Jewish father who spoke seven languages and taught painting, and a Jewish mother who worked in the family's century-old metal recycling business. She moved to New York city to study art, partly because her family had relatives there.

From early on, Selina was especially interested in the idea of diversity and inclusion, especially because of her own upbringing, and social justice.

One of the subjects Selina was drawn to: Joni Mitchell. Selina has been a fan of Joni Mitchell's since childhood.

"Whatever kind of story you're telling, be passionate and excited about it!" Selina advises. The process takes a long time, she says, so you want to be sure.

For every book project, Selina keeps a sketchbook. Here's the sketchbook she kept for her Joni Mitchell project, full of mixed media; she says this was a great way to brainstorm and inspire.

Selina chose to focus on Joni when she was a child, to make the book more accessible for young readers and provide an entry point. She and her editor ended up also taking out elements like Joni's pregnancy and baby for the same reason; these decisions were made fairly late in the process, Selina says.

Art was created using multimedia, including layers of collage: cut paper, found images, and acrylic paint.

For STARS OF THE NIGHT, Selina was intentional with her use of color (as she is with the rest of her books). In this case, she used different colors to help young readers follow particular children throughout the book. She also used stars as a motif throughout, to surround and support the children in the story.

Selina answered attendee questions at the end of the session. Some of the topics that came up:

Even when creating picture book biographies about sad and difficult topics, says Selina, there are ways to include elements of hope.

Advice for new picture book biography creators: Don't just include facts. Look for a personal connection. Find the emotional heart. Look for elements that kids can relate to, be able to identify with the children in the story.

Build in regular time for PLAY. In addition to your own creative playtime, Selina suggested creating your own retreat with a friend, or check out an organized retreat like Milkwood.


If you want to view this session to hear the full content, along with the rest of the conference, register at Replays of the conferences will be available until September 10th, 2023. See the index to all 2023 SCBWI Summer Conference blog posts.

Also be sure to check out the Faculty Conference Bookshop and the Portfolio Showcase!

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