SHANNON ANDERSON INTERVIEWS KELLY RICE SCHMITT AUTHOR OF I SHIP: A CONTAINER SHIP'S COLOSSAL…
AN INTERVIEW WITH
(Abrams Appleseed; $16.99, Ages 3 to 6)
Packed Snow / Moon glow
Wind-blown / All alone
Penguin Journey is a picture book about the incredible lengths to which emperor penguins go for their young ones. Angela Burke Kunkel’s lyrical text and Catherine Odell’s gorgeous illustrations detail the penguins’ amazing journey, and an author’s note and bibliography provide added context.
Colleen Paeff: Congratulations on the upcoming release of your second book. Penguin Journey will be out in just under a week on October 26. Does it feel any different to have a book coming out once you’ve already experienced it?
Angela Burke Kunkel: Thank you so much! I don’t think it feels very different, no. Each book is its own journey (not to use the title as a pun), and I’ve really enjoyed the process for each one. So it’s equally exciting this time around.
CP: I love the sparse rhyming language in this book. Did it start out that way or were you using spare, beautiful language right from the start?
ABK: It was always intended to be a spare, low-word count story, but the tone definitely changed through revision! Originally, it didn’t rhyme, the language wasn’t as lyrical, and it relied heavily on a refrain. I’m indebted to my editor, Meredith Mundy at ABRAMS Appleseed, for making these suggestions when she requested a revise and resubmit. They really resonated with me and helped guide the book into how it reads now.
CP: I love Catherine Odell’s illustrations—especially the nighttime spreads with the northern lights and the starry skies. They’re so soft and beautiful! Did you give any notes on illustrations in the manuscript? And what did you think when you saw the final art?
ABK: Interestingly enough, Meredith requested that I include art notes with my revision because the text was so spare. I think this throws a lot of picture book writers, who often hear that we should not include any art notes. I’m not sure how many of the notes Cat Odell actually ended up seeing through the process, but it was another tool that helped me communicate the overall story effectively at the time I submitted it.
I’m in awe of Cat’s artwork. She captured the bonds between penguins so beautifully and created such a soft, comforting feel for young readers. And the skies! Just from the stars to the Northern lights and the sunrise. It really takes you on a journey through Antarctica.
CP: What do you hope young readers take away from Penguin Journey?
ABK: Two things, really—first, I hope that this book is one of those bedtime books that families curl up with, that helps a parent feel connected to their child during those read-aloud moments, and where the child just feels immersed in the quiet tone of the book and that feeling of connection. Secondly, I hope that this book instills a love of wildlife even in the youngest readers. As mentioned in the author’s note, penguins have been severely impacted by climate change, and I hope that families will respond to the great lengths penguins go to to raise their young and be motivated to join efforts to protect the species.
CP: I hope so, too. Your debut picture book, Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library he Built, was incredibly well-received. It appeared on a number of “Best of 2021” lists and it won the 2021 Américas Book Award. You must have been thrilled to receive so much recognition for all your hard work. Was there one particular honor that really stands out?
ABK: This is a really tough question to answer because I hope that each one is a different opportunity to reach readers! I’m incredibly grateful for all of the recognition that the book has received—including Paola Escobar’s incredible illustrations and the careful guidance of our editor, Ann Kelley—and I’m glad that José’s work resonates with readers. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a virtual panel through CLASP and the Library of Congress with other Américas Awards recipients Aida Salazar, Yamile Saied Méndez, and Raúl the Third, and that was a tremendous honor and a pretty surreal moment.
CP: That sounds incredible! Penguin Journey and Digging for Words are both nonfiction, but the styles are very different. Would you say one style comes more naturally than the other for you?
ABK: I would say both books had their joys and their challenges. I do think that despite differences in length and subject matter, Digging for Words and Penguin Journey both have lyrical language, which is a style I’m drawn to. I’ll also add that I found writing in rhyme very challenging, particularly for nonfiction—you have to be accurate and still consider rhyme at the same time, which created two sets of limitations to work within.
CP: That does sound exceptionally challenging. You work as a school librarian. Was it being around all those books that inspired you to start writing for children or was it something else?
ABK: I definitely think that working as a school librarian is a complementary career! I actually work with adolescents, but try to use picture books when and where I can (and get teens and other adults to buy in). Really it was having children of my own that led me to transitioning from the classroom to librarianship and to writing picture books. In addition to rediscovering old favorites, like Madeline, and Where the Wild Things Are and Miss Rumphius, my kids and I made weekly trips to the library. And suddenly, I was not only revisiting classics I thought I had outgrown and appreciating them with new eyes, but I was reading stacks and stacks of more recently published picture books that were charming, or funny, or feminist, or lyrical, or political, or subversive . . . you get the idea. I found I enjoyed picture books as much as my kids did—if not more!— and really wanted to try my hand at writing them.
CP: How do you manage to squeeze in writing time between work and family? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks?
ABK: I was about to say I wish I had some favorite productivity hacks, because I could definitely use some help, but then I remembered there are two I use regularly and really like. The first is that I gave up bullet journaling (I was spending too much time making it pretty) and now use a Passion Planner. The layout helps me juggle home, day job and writing to-dos all in one place. It’s helpful to have tasks and goals laid out in one notebook rather than separate ones because I tend to forget about what’s not right in front of me.
I also recently started using a Pomodoro app (I use Focus Keeper) to get started on those tasks I’m dreading or just sort of unmotivated to do at the moment. Once I set the timer and get in the groove, 25 minutes goes by quickly and it’s easier to stay in that zone and continue working.
CP: I will definitely be trying those! Is there anything else I should have asked?
ABK: You should have asked me about my new hobby that I picked up during the pandemic: birdwatching! I started to keep a “life list,” or log of all the species I’ve spotted at the start of the pandemic, and I’m trying my hand at bird photography now. It’s snow goose migration season in Vermont, which is just a gorgeous sight.
CP: That sounds like an excellent hobby! What’s next for you?
ABK: My next book with illustrator Claire Keane, Make Way, comes out in spring 2023. It’s a dual picture book biography that parallels Robert McCloskey’s creation of Make Way for Ducklings and the work of Nancy Schön, who created the famous duck sculptures for the Boston Public Garden. It was a challenging structure to work within, but so satisfying when it came together—I loved researching both McCloskey and Schön’s artistic process(es), and I can’t wait to see how Claire Keane represents their stories in her own artwork.
CP: I can’t wait to read it!
Angela Burke Kunkel is a picture book author, school librarian, and former English Language Arts teacher. After soaking up the sun in the Southwest for a number of years, she now lives in Vermont with her family, two dogs, one guinea pig, and one rapidly-growing bearded dragon (really, it’s rather alarming). Her debut, DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT, received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and has been recognized on multiple book lists. Her second book, PENGUIN JOURNEY, will be published October 26th and has already received a starred review from Kirkus. She has two more nonfiction picture books forthcoming, in 2023 and 2024.
PREORDER PENGUIN JOURNEY HERE
BUY ANGELA’S OTHER BOOKS HERE
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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (available August 31, 2021, from Margaret K. McElderry Books) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books).