Angela Kunkel '00 on Writing for Curious Kids
What made you choose to pursue your degree (English/Education) at Simmons?
When I originally started at Simmons, I thought I was going to be a pre-law or psychology major, but neither of those lasted very long. English didn’t surprise anybody, since I’ve always loved reading and writing. In my sophomore year I took an introductory class in education, Inclusive Teaching Strategies with [now Professor Emerita] Kathleen Dunn. As part of the course, students had observation hours at Boston area schools, and I was assigned to the Mary Curley School in Jamaica Plain. I loved it, and did all of my pre-practicum hours at Curley.
Since then, I spent many years as an English Language Arts teacher in middle and high school in Massachusetts and in New Mexico. Then I made the transition to school librarian, which is what I’m doing now at a school in Vermont, grades 7-12.
Tell us about your books.
My debut picture book, Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built, is based on a true story about José Alberto Gutiérrez, a garbage collector in Bogotá, Colombia. Bogotá is the largest city in Colombia, with ten million people but only 19 public libraries. There were no libraries in José’s neighborhood, so he started collecting books on his garbage route. He eventually created a library and opened it to the children in his neighborhood.
I found José’s story on Facebook — it was a 2 minute video about the library that he started. José’s story first resonated with me as a librarian. I was already trying to write picture books, so I reached out to José and told him about the project before it was acquired. The story went through multiple drafts until it was good enough; then, with the help of a friend, I had it translated into Spanish so that José could read it, to make sure I had his approval. He’s traveling all over Colombia, and I hope this book will help share his story and help him continue his work. We’re still friends on social media and keep in touch!
What drew you to picture books?
In high school, I really liked poetry. Later, once I had my own kids, we would go to the library regularly. I found a lot of contemporary picture books that felt a lot like poetry, and had really beautiful artwork. I wanted to write, but I had the challenges of young kids and working full time. I figured I could get to know the format of picture books really well, and find time to write and revise multiple times. It’s not that I thought writing picture books was easy, but you have such limited space to tell the story in a poetic way. It helped me to work within that limited scope.
I have two picture books scheduled to come out that I’m really excited about. My third book, Make Way: The Story of Robert McCloskey, Nancy Schön, and Some Very Famous Ducklings (Random House Studio, 2023), tells the story of the author/illustrator of Make Way for Ducklings, and of sculptor Nancy Schön who commemorated McCloskey’s story with bronze ducklings in Boston’s Public Garden. It involved a lot of research, and I had to figure out the best way to tell those two parallel stories, even though they take place at different times. Claire Keane’s illustrations are definitely a nod to McCloskey’s style.
Following that, World More Beautiful (Random House Studio, 2024) is a picture book biography of another author/illustrator Barbara Cooney, about how her life and travels impacted her artwork. I hadn’t intended to write nonfiction picture books; I just get curious about things and what to know more. That’s what’s exciting to me about writing for kids, because they get curious and want to know more.
What do you find most rewarding about writing picture books?
Library story times! I get to meet kids and read to kids. Also, picture books are a collaboration. I do all this research and writing, then hand it over to someone else to do the artwork. The moment I get to see the artwork is always my favorite part. And I’ve worked with amazing illustrators, I feel so lucky! Paola Escobar is from Colombia, she illustrated Digging for Words. My second book, Penguin Journey, was illustrated by Catherine Odell. Their styles are very different, and to see how the art pairs with my story is fun and interesting.
How did your studies at Simmons prepare you/inspire you for this work?
Simmons got me out there, asking questions. During my first year at Simmons, we had a Multicultural Connections class, and every week there was a guest speaker. We read their writing before they spoke, and had a chance to ask questions. Those opportunities to talk and interact with people whose work you are curious about was really valuable, and it was good professional practice for the real world.
For more about Angela Kunkel’s books, visit https://www.angelakunkel.com/.
Author photo by Mei Lin Barral.