of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Rising Star - Sean Qualls
It's a little unusual for an illustrator to have two books on our Blue Ribbons list; it's a particularly surprising achievement for an illustrator in only his second year of publishing and with a mere four books to his credit, three of which we reviewed. That's not so much a rise as a meteoric ascension, but it's fairly earned with serious craftsmanship and original style.
Qualls first came to the Bulletin's attention with his art for Karen English's The Baby on the Way, the story of a grandmother's sharing with her young grandson the family tale of her own birth. The palette is coolly distant, with an emphasis on dusty teals and black accents, with coral-shaded browns spicing up the colors; those tones are contemporarily high profile in the design world but their flavor of remove cunningly cues the period nature of the tale. Yet the portraiture is sufficiently eloquent to give immediacy to the proceedings, especially with the artist's particular gift at body language (arms spread wide for expansive emphasis or welcome are a recurrent and lovely motif). His work for Engle's The Poet Slave of Cuba, his next Bulletin-reviewed title and the first of the two Blue Ribbons, appears in black and white; while his portraiture displays his familiar style, he also demonstrates an ability to create dramatic graphics, mute still lives of iconic items from the text, and spare yet symbolically charged vignettes from life. In Jonah Winter's Dizzy, his other Blue Ribbon book this year, he splashes his vision across double-page spreads as he depicts the life of jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, adding warmer undertones to his blues and browns, letting his muted colors burst into a glow when the music catches fire; the square geometric shapes of the urban landscape play against the organic shapes of concretized music and the round-headed angels who attend the musician as he sends his brassy song into the world.
The artist tends to work with acrylic paints, touching them with dark pencil and layering with collage that's sometimes crisp and close-cropped, delimiting figure edges, and sometimes adding subtle tracery to backgrounds. The pencil and collage combination occasionally suggests Brian Karas or Douglas Florian, yet Qualls takes his tools to a different and very textural location. The acrylic brushstrokes accumulate, model, and mottle with an almost fresco-esque look at times, with textured depths working in playful tension with the flat perspectives and mosaic quality of the collage. His palette is sophisticated in its taste for gray-touched shades, making young audiences feel like they're included in something special, but the warmer accents are all the more dramatic as a consequence, and he draws faces with youthful and inviting tenderness. His subjects so far have tended to be historical, with his modernity of line adding an enlivening immediacy to the material.
It's been a great start, Mr. Qualls; we look forward to your future.
óDeborah Stevenson, Editor