29 Aug

Bartography Express: “Something vast and dazzling, something constantly unfolding”


The Q&A for the August edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with author Paige Britt and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. The three of them have collaborated on Why Am I Me? (Scholastic), which is being officially published today.

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a copy of Why Am I Me?, which The New York Times included in this past weekend’s book-review roundup, “You Can’t Teach Kids Empathy, but These Picture Books Inspire It.

Chris: What can you tell me about the inspiration for the book? I think my readers would be interested in knowing how the concept came to you and took shape, Paige, and how you arrived at the specifics of the characters and the setting, Sean and Selina.

Paige: The inspiration for Why Am I Me? came straight out of my own life. When I was four years old, I was like most kids — curious about everything. I was constantly asking questions. What’s this? What’s that? Who are you? Who am I?

The last question was the one closest to my heart … and the most baffling. Who am I?

Sometimes I would look at a person — a boy or girl, a man or woman (it didn’t really matter) — and wonder why I was me and not them. The question was way too big for my little brain. It went round and round inside my head — whyamIme? whyamIme? whyamIme? — until my mind gave up. And in that moment of giving up, everything gave way and I felt that I was part of something BIG — something vast and dazzling, something constantly unfolding. That’s when it dawned on me. Maybe there actually wasn’t a “me” and “you” after all. Maybe there was just us.

Even though I’m grown up now, the question “Why am I me?” is still rattling around in my head. That’s why I wrote the book. To this day, I’ve never come up with an answer, but I do have a hint. The answer is in the asking. Certainty creates labels, but curiosity creates space — space for empathy and connection, for wonder and delight. So … stay curious!

Selina: When Sean and I first read the manuscript for Why Am I Me? we fell in love with the idea of creating a picture book asking life’s biggest questions by our littlest people. Right away we connected with the themes of empathy and wonder. But, we knew it would be a challenge to create a narrative to go along with the simple — yet profound — words.

Our first task was thinking of a setting where a variety of very different people would naturally come together. It took some brainstorming before we came up with the subway, but when we did it was an “Aha!” moment for us. It just felt right.

As Brooklynites we frequently ride into the city along with people from all walks of life. Each subway car can seem almost like a microcosm of the world; so many people from all over coming together (often uncomfortably close to one another) to ride to their destinations in peace.

On the subway platform our protagonists (a biracial African American/Caucasian boy and biracial Asian/Caucasian girl) gaze at each other and simultaneously wonder the same things. The crowded setting is ripe for the two to indulge their curiosities beyond each other, as more and more people join them on their journey home.

At a certain point we decided to have them look beyond their subway car to parks and outdoor concerts, places where we could show even more people mixing together — demonstrating that this is the diverse and beautiful world we live in. We wanted the main characters to look very different from each other initially only to realize by the end, after they have gazed up at the sky and then into each other’s eyes, that essentially they are made from the same “star stuff” and are not so different from one another after all.

Why Am I Me? author Paige Britt (left) and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (right)

Chris: Advance copies of Why Am I Me? have been out in the world for a few months now. Of the early responses to the book, is there one that’s been especially memorable or meaningful to you?

Sean: What I like about the reviews overall is that they each discuss the book as a whole unit, focusing on how both the words and illustrations work together to tell the story. As Selina has already said, we immediately fell in love with Why Am I Me?, and one of the reasons for me was that Paige left plenty of room for the illustrations. Her words created an ideal backdrop for us to imagine and bring to life the characters and world that her words suggest, in a way that is unique and personal to us.

I see the book as one indivisible whole, words and art unified by its universal themes. It makes me happy that reviewers seem to think the same.

Paige: I absolutely agree with Sean! Why Am I Me? has received multiple starred reviews and in each case the reviewer has acknowledged how the words and pictures work together to evoke these universal themes. My favorite early response, however, didn’t come from a reviewer. It came from my 86-year-old aunt with Alzheimer’s disease from Sulphur Springs, Texas.

Chris, you’re from Sulphur Springs, so you know that it’s a small and extremely conservative town in East Texas. My aunt has lived there for 60 years. When I showed her Why Am I Me? she pored over it, commenting on the colors, turning it this way and that to examine the collage, and reading the words out loud. The questions made her laugh and every so often she’d look at me and ask, “What’s the right answer?” I told her to keep on reading.

When she got to the last page and saw the image of the boy and the girl with their faces overlapping, she said, “They each have one eye of their own and one eye shared.” I held my breath and then asked, “Do you have an answer now?” She thought about it a long time and then said, “White people think they are all there is, but they’re not. We need to think about that.” I burst into tears.

This book is about unity and diversity. It’s about that one eye of your own and the one we share. And if an 86-year-old woman with dementia can realize this, then it means the words and pictures are working together on multiple levels. Because, after all, these aren’t lessons of the mind, so much as the heart.