CAROL GORDON EKSTER: Angela, I absolutely loved your first book, Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built Illustrated by Paola Escobar. You are obviously drawn to nonfiction and picture books. Can you tell us about that and your journey to becoming a children’s author?
Angela Kunkel: Thank you so much! I think DIGGING FOR WORDS was the happy convergence of a lot of personal passions— kids, libraries, and making sure all kids have access to books. When I first saw the video that inspired DIGGING, I was working as a school librarian in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Often, I’d encounter students who were afraid to use the library because of fines, or talk with families who were hesitant to use public services (like libraries) because of immigration status.
I found myself thinking a lot about how adults emphasize the importance of reading, but often fail to consider the barriers others can face in accessing books. Don José was able to meet a need in his own community in such a straightforward and effective way, and I hope that his story inspires others to address the issue of book deserts in their own communities.
As for my journey to becoming a children’s author, I’d describe it as circuitous but not unusual. As an adult, I’ve always worked in “author-adjacent” fields, first as an English/Language Arts teacher and then as a school librarian. At the same time that I was making the transition from classroom teacher to school librarian, my own children were very small, and we’d take weekly trips to the library. Reading picture books with them was really the beginning of my writing career. My children gave me a renewed appreciation for the form, and that encouraged me to try writing in earnest. I joined professional organizations like SCBWI and met regularly with a local critique group. DIGGING is not the manuscript I began querying with, but it is the manuscript that landed me my agent, and it sold in a relatively short amount of time. I’m incredibly fortunate that Ann Kelley at Schwartz & Wade had a very clear vision for the manuscript— Ann had illustrator Paola Escobar in mind from the very beginning, and I can’t even imagine the book existing without Paola’s beautiful art.
CGE: Your second book, Penguin Journey, illustrated by Catherine Odell, releases October 26. Can you tell us the story behind this title?
AK: Well, the title PENGUIN JOURNEY definitely evolved along with the book! The early version of this manuscript was entitled, believe it or not, Waddle Waddle, with the same words used as a refrain throughout. In fact, my agent and I still jokingly call the book “waddle waddle,” because the phrase really sticks in your brain and is just fun to say.
When I received a revise and resubmit request from Meredith Mundy at Abrams Appleseed, she asked me to stick with the basic concept of the story, but reconsider the cutesy refrain. I also worked a lot on heightening the imagery through more lyrical language, and making sure that the arc accurately captured the long, arduous migration Emperor penguins face, even though I wanted the book to keep its very low word count. Rather than “waddle waddle,” the first lines of PENGUIN JOURNEY became “Packed snow. Moon glow. Windblown. All alone.”
This spare language, and the book’s focus on all that Emperor penguins endure in order to raise a chick, necessitated a new title–hence PENGUIN JOURNEY.
CGE: Do you have a support system for critiques and community? What does that look like and how has it affected your writing?
AK: I’m very fortunate to have both an in-person critique group as well as friends who I can regularly exchange work with over email. Although COVID has presented some challenges, our in-person critique group usually meets once a month. We do a general group check-in and then a deep dive into one person’s work. Online exchanges are less regular, but it helps to know that I have people I can call on when I need another set of eyes on a project–and they know I’ll do the same for them.
Regular critiques have been an essential part of growing as a writer–not just receiving critiques, but giving them! Slowing down and looking at work, carefully and deliberately, whether mine or someone else’s, is invaluable in terms of learning the craft.
I also think critiques have helped me learned to help me trust my gut and my own voice as a writer. There have been times where I’ve received feedback, consistently and from more than one critique partner, that I’ve ultimately disregarded. Sometimes that’s an agonizing decision, but those moments have pushed me to define what I want my work to look and feel like. Ultimately, I’m the only person responsible for that.
CGE: Can you share some highs and lows of your career so far?
AK: I definitely experience a high from the process itself. I’ve been lucky to work with wonderful editors and to be paired with such talented illustrators on my first two books. I love the process of revision and the back-and-forth of the editorial process, and I love getting a peek at first sketches and cover art. I’m in awe of how an editor can strengthen a manuscript and what an illustrator brings to the text. Seeing work go from an idea to a rough draft to a polished manuscript to an object–a beautiful book–is not a feeling I think I’ll ever get tired of.
One of the heartbreaks, particularly in writing nonfiction, is seeing someone else’s book on the same topic announced–especially when I am in the midst of research but not far enough along to have sold the book yet. Sometimes it works out, and there is room in the market for more than one title on the same topic. Those “competing” works can even complement each other really well! At other times, it’s meant letting go of projects that are really close to my heart, and that’s hard. I worry about “sunk cost” and time lost. But I do believe that the process of researching and writing those manuscripts, even if they don’t ultimately become books, has helped me grow as a writer.
CGE: What is the most important advice you can offer creatives new to the #kidlit business?
AK: For me, a major part of my writing journey has been letting go of perfectionism and recognizing that if I really want to write, it requires me to be gentle with myself. If I don’t get much down on the page for a couple of days (or weeks), it’s counterproductive to beat myself up about it. Self-acceptance goes a long way towards helping me move forward and into the next project.
Related to the question you asked earlier, I think it’s so important for folks to surround themselves with a community of fellow creatives. Having others to cheer you on–and equally important, getting to cheer them on–takes what could be a lonely slog and makes it a shared, joyful experience. I’m eternally grateful for my critique partners, my debut group the Soaring 20s (could there have been a weirder debut year?), and even people I only interact with online but who consistently inspire me. Find people who help you stay engaged with your craft in a positive, healthy way.
CGE: What does the future hold for Angela Kunkel?
AK: I’m so excited for what’s next! My third book with illustrator Claire Keane, MAKE WAY, will be published by Random House Studio in 2023. It’s a dual picture book biography that tells the story behind Robert McCloskey’s creation of Make Way for Ducklings and the work of Nancy Schön, the sculptor who re-imagined McCloskey’s ducks for the Boston Public Garden.
I also have another forthcoming picture book with New England roots, but I can’t talk about that one just quite yet. Needless to say, it’s a story that I’ve found inspiration in since I was very young, and I can’t wait to share more once it’s time.
Thank you so much for having me, Writers’ Rumpus!
CGE: It is our pleasure, Angela! We can’t wait to see all the beautiful books you bring into the world.
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. You can connect with Angela here: Twitter, Instagram, Website, Goodreads
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