“It’s nighttime in Harlem, and beneath a blanket of stars a young man sits down and writes a poem. He is alone. He has no kids of his own. For whom is he writing this lullaby?”
This is a question asked about poet Langston Hughes in Sean Qualls’ latest illustrated title, Lullaby (For a Black Mother). The query appears in the book’s closing note, a way to wrap up the book by providing young readers with essential information about Hughes’ life. To answer the question, it ends with “perhaps he wrote this lullaby as a comfort to the lonely boy he had been.” Indeed, as explained in this closing note, his father moved to Mexico not long after Langston’s birth, and his mother often wasn’t around.
The poem itself, the star of this book, is vividly realized via acrylic, pencil and collage by Qualls with primarily rich blues and purples. Showcasing both night-time and day-time scenes, alternating from deep blues to sunnier, creamier hues, Qualls lets the mother and baby take center stage.
“My little dark baby, / My little earth-thing, / My little love-one, / What shall I sing / For your lullaby?” As she sings of a “necklace of stars” in the night, a “great diamond moon,” and more, Qualls grounds these ethereal spreads with the collaged lacework of the mother’s dress, this woman holding and caressing her child. Qualls puts to use many circles and otherwise rounded shapes, all communicating a feeling of great comfort and warmth, fitting for such a tender lullaby.
I touched base with Qualls to ask about this adaptation, as well as what’s next on his plate.
Was it at all intimidating to illustrate the adaptation of a Langston Hughes poem to the picture book form?
At first, I was excited to illustrate a Langston Hughes poem. I did a sample piece to show the Hughes Estate. Once they approved the project, reality set in, and I realized it would be no easy task.
The truth is, Langston Hughes' writing is so elegant and deceptively simple. He's able to say so much with very little that embellishing his words was much harder than I initially thought.
Can you talk a bit about how you determined layout/composition for these spreads? I like how you alternate between what look like plants on some spreads with the cloud and star spreads. (I also love the color palette.)
I wanted to do something a little different from what I had in the past, stylistically and pallet-wise. After the first sample piece, I did a number of pieces for myself to determine the look and color of the book. I usually refer to my sketchbooks and explore the work of other artists for inspiration. I did a lot of painting and collaging before coming up with something that I really liked.
Ultimately, some new motifs evolved from all of the preliminary images, and I added a bit more collage than usual to the mix. My editor, Samantha McFerrin, and designer, Liz Tardiff, were both really helpful too.
You have illustrated many titles about music or poetry. What draws you to these texts?
[Jonah Winter’s] Dizzy and [Margarita Engle’s] The Poet Slave of Cuba were the first two titles I illustrated whose subjects were a musician or poet. Both of those books got my work noticed and, because of that, have helped to define my career.
At the time, I was just getting started illustrating picture books. Prior to that, I had illustrated two other books on different subject matter. Arthur Levine at Scholastic asked me to illustrate Dizzy, and Reka Simonsen, who was then at Henry Holt, The Poet Slave of Cuba (and, later, [Carole Boston Weatherford’s] Before John was a Jazz Giant). Each of them noticed something in my work that went well with the subjects (lucky for me).
Music has always been a big part of my life and, if I weren't an artist, I'd probably be a musician.
What's next for you?
I'm really psyched to be working on my first picture book as author/illustrator. Also, I'm illustrating two picture books with my wife, Selina Alko.
LULLABY (FOR A BLACK MOTHER). Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Sean Qualls. Published by Harcourt Children’s Books, Boston. Spread used with permission of Sean Qualls.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.