By Traci Sorell
When Mama leaves her young penguin Kipling, he knows she’ll return home soon—yet he still can’t help but miss her.
After all, Pillow Mama won’t read, Picture Mama won’t laugh, and Snow Mama is too cold to cuddle.
But then Kipling receives a special delivery from Mama, including a note that reads:
My love for you stretches across the wide ocean,
through day and night,
from earth to sky
and back again.
And Kipling knows that no matter where Mama is, he is loved. Soon, Mama comes home, and Kipling ends the day where he belongs—right in her arms.
Jeanette’s story about young Kipling, a penguin in the Antarctic, missing his mama away at work features a beautiful color palette of red, blue, and gray that immediately drew my eye to the illustrations.
One of the other aspects I appreciated and she talks about in our interview below is that Kipling stays home with a caregiver which could be anyone – the other parent, a grandparent, older sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, or babysitter.
Many children have this experience when a parent is away working, so I appreciated that portrayal in addition to the deep longing Kipling has to be in Mama’s arms again.
Jeanette, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?
I started out studying painting, and then illustration. I was sending out postcards, trying to get noticed in this highly competitive industry, when a wonderful thing happened.
My father told me that he had run into my eighth grade English teacher and told her that I was doing illustration and that she had asked him to convey to me a message. The message, delivered with her intonation, was: “Don’t forget that You. Are. A. Writer. Too.”
Teachers really do change lives. I am grateful that Mert Smits changed mine more than once. She was absolutely right, and I got serious about learning the craft of writing picture books. Three years later, here I am.
|Interior illustration from Love, Mama|
What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?
Love, Mama is fiction with anthropomorphic animal characters, but I rooted the story in science.
I researched the location and spoke with Antarctic scientists about the animals that migrate in the Southern Ocean, the types of boats that are used in the sea ice, and what souvenirs are available in Antarctic gift shops. I used a lot of reference photos to create the fictional island that Kipling lives on. I wanted to create the sense that Kipling lives in a real, but alternate Antarctic.
If you type “do penguins have” into Google, you will discover that many other people struggle with the existential question of “do penguins have knees?”
When designing an anthropomorphic character, there is always a tension between the animal elements and the human elements. It’s a challenge to combine those in a way that is cute and appealing, instead of falling into the “uncanny valley” of psychologically disturbing not-humanness.
The most difficult part of drawing the cuddly penguins in Love, Mama was figuring out how they sat on a sofa. (Penguins do have knees, but you can’t see them, because they are hidden by their belly flaps. Real penguins would not be able to sit on a sofa. This is my public service announcement for science.)
|Jeanette at Book Launch party|
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
My book has been released out in the world for two days, and the best part has been seeing photos of kids all over the country enjoying Love, Mama. So much love!
The runner-up best moment was when my agent Emily Mitchell sent me an email telling me that not only had she sold my book, she had sold it to Connie Hsu. I wouldn’t say that Connie was my dream editor, because it hadn’t occurred to me to dream that big. I felt like Cinderella, except visited by the fairy godmother for introverts.
What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?
I queried my agent because her bio made me laugh. Seriously, its funny, go look at it.
(Traci – Jeanette and I actually have the same agent and I couldn’t agree more.)
What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators or author-illustrators?
In art school I was taught to draw from the masters, which is the best way to really get inside someone else’s visual thinking. So, I read a lot of recently published picture books. I choose a few to analyze more deeply, and type them out and/or sketch from them.
|Interior illustration from Love, Mama|
As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?
There are so few picture books in which my children can see their two-mom family mirrored that aren’t books explicitly about family structure. I wanted to write a book about family which the family structure was not the point of the book, but was also not locked into a mother, father, and child. I wanted to leave space for children who live with a grandparent or a single parent or who have same-sex parents to read their own family into the book.
Love, Mama is focused on the relationship between mother and child, and the ability of love to transcend distance. But the toddler-like main character felt too young to leave home alone, so I needed to create another adult without shifting the focus of the story or closing the space I had created.
I solved this by creating another adult penguin with no identifying characteristics, who is never mentioned in the text.
Some children will assume Blank Slate is a babysitter, others will map a parent or grandparent onto that penguin. (I have already witnessed a debate between kindergartners about Blank Slate’s true identity!)
Whatever the reader brings to the story, the focus remains on the deep emotions of missing a parent when she is gone, even if someone else is home with you.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of Love, Mama, “The artwork works with the spare text to keep the focus on how Kipling is feeling; readers are sure to empathize. This will provide both reassurance to children missing their own loved ones and ideas for staying connected.”
Jeanette Bradley has been an urban planner, an apprentice pastry chef, and the artist-in-residence for a traveling art museum on a train. Her debut picture book contains no cities, pastries, or trains, but was made with lots of love.
She currently lives in Rhode Island with her wife and kids. To see more of her art, follow her on Instagram @jea_bradley.
Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on September 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures. In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.
Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.
Enter to win your own copy of Love, Mama!
No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on March 14, 2018 and 12:00 AM on Mar. 28, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about Mar. 28, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.