Today I get to share a picture book with you about penguins (and who doesn’t love penguins?).
Angela Kunkel has visited my blog once before for her fantastic picture book debut last year. And here we are a year later with another picture book to celebrate! She lives in Vermont with her family, two dogs, two guinea pigs, and one rapidly-growing bearded dragon (really, it’s rather alarming). She also currently works as a school librarian and is a former English Language Arts teacher. You can learn more about her at her website.
PENGUIN JOURNEY is her second non-fiction picture book and I’m as equally stunned by this one. Her first picture book left such an impression on me that I knew she was a writer to look out for. Her second picture book has sealed the deal. While the first book took a little story and created a magical take on it, this one is sheer poetry. Literally! It takes nonfiction matter about emperor penguins and turns it into a lyrical journey. It’s breath taking! This is definitely one you won’t want to miss.
Welcome back Angela!
Me: This is your second non fiction picture book published about a year after your debut. How did you manage to get two great books published so closely together? Can you tell us about your journey to this book?
Angela: Well, debuts are interesting because no one really knows how long you’ve been working on a book behind the scenes, and I think these two books seem a lot closer together than they actually are. I started working on Digging for Words, my debut, in early 2017 and it was published in 2020. For folks like me who are authors but not illustrators, there can be quite a bit of time between when your final manuscript is accepted and the illustrator is working. The oft-repeated advice from other authors is that you should always be working on that next book in the meantime. So in between rounds of revision and edits on Digging, I was still trying to aim for a picture book draft a month (thank you, 12×12 Challenge).
I wrote the first draft of what would eventually become PENGUIN JOURNEY in the summer of 2018, but the first draft was very, very different from what you’ll see in the published book. I didn’t set out to write a second nonfiction picture book, actually. The first draft was entitled “Waddle Waddle,” which I thought was just a cute little refrain that would run throughout the book. I had to make a lot of cuts while working on Digging, and PENGUIN JOURNEY started as an exercise, really— just playing with the idea of trying to write a complete story, beginning-to-end, in under 100 words the first time. This lone little penguin and the phrase “Waddle Waddle” popped into my head, and “Waddle Waddle” is the manuscript that originally went on submission.
Meredith Mundy at Abrams Appleseed turned it down at first, but then wrote to ask if I would consider revising and resubmitting a more lyrical manuscript, written in rhyme. She included some suggested opening lines, which I am incredibly grateful for, because it helped me to understand what she was envisioning, and they really resonated with me as well. Also, I had never even attempted a rhyming manuscript before, so the request was a bit intimidating, but one that I could not pass up!
Me: Wow! That’s an interesting twist! I loved “March of the Penguins” when it came out in 2005 and I couldn’t help but think of it as I read your book. Was it that movie that inspired you? Or what was it that made you want to write a picture book about emperor penguins?
Angela: Funnily enough, I hadn’t seen March of the Penguins since its release, although I loved it at the time. As I noted, I was really playing with the challenge of writing a story in under 100 words, and a penguin waddling along just happened to pop into my mind.
However, Meredith’s suggestion of a lyrical, rhyming text with more factual elements meant I had to go back, do more research, and really get the arc right— and that meant watching (and re-watching) March of the Penguins again, along with gathering other sources. I think the harsh beauty of the landscape that’s captured in the film is definitely reflected in Cat Odell’s beautiful illustrations, and I hope it’s reflected in the spareness of the text as well.
Me: It really is! This book is so different from your first. Your ability to break this story down into such simple phrases is astonishing. It’s beautiful poetry! Was that your intent? Are you also a poet, as well as librarian and children’s book writer?
Angela: Thank you! That means a lot to me, because I really labored over those couplets. There were times our entire family was gathered around the kitchen table, just tossing around potential rhymes. The revision process for this book was so different (as well as the subject matter), because I knew that we wanted to keep the spare feeling and low word count and was working within limited parameters. One thing that really helped was sketching a dummy of what would potentially be happening on each page, and then generating word lists and possible rhymes.
I’d never written a rhyming picture book manuscript before, but I’m definitely drawn to more lyrical writing, in both picture books and novels. I write poetry (very) occasionally, but I do think that reading and writing poetry is complementary to writing picture books.
Me: I absolutely agree. And this is a writing style that works incredibly well for the subject matter. What made you decide to approach the nonfiction material in this book in this lyrical way?
Angela: I think what Meredith was able to see, when she requested an R&R, is how well a spare text could work to convey the frozen Antarctic landscape. Her suggestion is do away with the “waddle waddle” refrain and heighten the lyrical potential of the piece just clicked, and I could see it in the illustrations even though I wasn’t the artist, if that makes sense.
Me: It does. I’ve seen several books about penguins, but never one written quite like this. Was it like this from the first draft? How many revisions did it undergo?
Angela: Well, as I mentioned above, the manuscript underwent some pretty significant changes. Really the only thing that stayed the same throughout was the effort we put into keeping the word count low. Once the manuscript was revised and acquired, it went through a few (maybe two?) additional revisions, where we were really making sure that the rhymes were as natural— and factually correct— as they could be. But the bulk of the effort was the changes put in during the revise and resubmit request— that’s when the entire manuscript was really overhauled.
Which was a great lesson, in terms of being a writer. It helped me to realize that new approaches can bring a piece of writing even further along, even if you think it’s already complete. The rhyme and lyrical nature of the revision just worked so much better for the subject matter, and now I sort of cringe when I think of that “waddle waddle” refrain.
Me: The illustrations by Catherine Odell are gorgeous. The colors in the sky alone are absolutely stunning! Were there any illustration surprises for you? Do you have any favorite illustrations?
Angela: Cat’s skies, right?! Aren’t they absolutely incredible? I think her watercolors just captured the Antarctic landscape so beautifully. I have to say that my favorite illustration is probably the sunrise scene with the whole penguin colony and all of the chicks. It’s just so soft and lovely and the page turn leading up to that scene really captures what I hoped the story would feel like in that moment.
In terms of surprises, I always think the whole collaborative process is just sort of one fun surprise unfolding over time. It’s always amazing to see how an artist can interpret an author’s words— there’s a point where, at least for me, I can no longer separate my words from the images the illustrator has created, and I just think that speaks to the amazing power of what picture books can do.
Me: I love that scene too. How much research did you need to do in order to write this book? What was one of your favorite facts that you learned about emperor penguins?
Angela: In the earliest “Waddle Waddle” stages, I actually didn’t do a lot of research, because I was just thinking of it as a writing exercise rather than a nonfiction piece. It wasn’t until Meredith’s R&R request that I knew I needed to do more research to make the revision really work. My son’s first grade class was also doing a unit on penguins at the time, and the more he learned and the more enthusiastic he became, the more clear it was to me why it was important to treat this as seriously as any other work of nonfiction. All of this required me to go back and align the arc of the story with what actually happens in nature— which meant watching documentaries, reading lots of print resources, and also reviewing websites from scientists in the field.
I think one of my favorite discoveries about penguins— which was not included in the book, for reasons that will hopefully be obvious— is that while penguin chicks are adorable, and mature Emperor penguins are (in my opinion) very regal looking, they have an extremely awkward adolescent phase just like everybody else! They actually go through this molting phase where they’re just overgrown and no longer fluffy but this dull brown and they’re just . . . sort of so hideous that it’s comical.
LOL! I love that. Thank you for stopping by my blog again Angela.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to track down a copy of this book, I highly recommend it. The text is so sparse and delicate and yet dazzlingly lyrical you will want to read it and re-read it multiple times. The illustrations are so soft and yet lush they will leave you yearning for more. I can guarantee this is a book you will not want to miss.