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by Angela Kunkel

In January 2017, I participated in Storystorm for the first time. While I’ve wanted to be a writer pretty much since childhood, perfectionism always got in the way. I rarely, if ever, finished a story because it wouldn’t do exactly what I wanted it to on the first attempt. So, when I heard about thirty days of generating ideas-only? Especially when I had limited time and brain space as a working parent? Sign. Me. Up.

Storystorm was the first time I tried a sustained, daily practice of cultivating ideas without judging them, and without trying to turn each idea into a perfectly polished piece. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was doing more with less. Building this habit was helping me shake off the grip of ol’ perfectionism. I jotted ideas down each morning, didn’t love any of them in particular, January ended and I felt pretty good about it.

And then.

A month later.

The video.

A brief segue (it will come back around, I promise): In 2017, I was living and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico at a dual-language school where the student body was (and is) 98% Latinx and 100% free/reduced lunch. Much of my job as a school librarian was outreach: outreach to reluctant readers. Outreach to students who didn’t see themselves in books. Outreach to families who might be hesitant to use public services (like libraries) due to immigration status, or the fear of incurring library fines they couldn’t afford to pay. I talked to students and teachers and families about books day in and day out, and I absolutely loved my job.

And, in my off hours, colleagues and friends, who knew how much I loved my job, often shared library-related articles and memes on Facebook.

So. Back to the video.

It’s February 2017. I just completed my first Storystorm. And one of those feel-good videos about a library popped in my feed.

It was a quick, upbeat story about José Alberto Gutiérrez, a garbage collector in Bogotá, Colombia who discovered a single discarded book on his route, only to build a collection that became an entire library for the children of his neighborhood. This is especially important because, in a city of ten million, Bogotá has only 19 public libraries. And Jose’s barrio had none.

It was a viral video, yes. And it was on Facebook, which I spend entirely too much time on and has tons of problematic content, yes. And it was probably going to be the next repeatedly-shared library-themed post on social media and yeah, I’ve seen it, Aunt Karen (just kidding, don’t have an Aunt Karen).

But still. Something hummed.

It was my newly-honed ability to recognize the seed of an idea.

The idea would not be quiet. I watched the video repeatedly. And my inner perfectionist was really annoying me and I told her I did not have the time, because I’d just spent a solid month of generating ideas, thankyouverymuch.

I returned to the video yet again. In the faces of José’s young friends, in their excitement to browse a library and hold up books of their own, I saw my students. It was an idea I loved because it was a flash of recognition.

So, I put the perfectionist in time out and drafted a beginning-to-end story in my composition book, sitting in Starbucks and frantically scribbling in a stolen 30 minutes before I saw those same students at work.

Some things were clear from the video and from that very first draft—the Spanish interspersed throughout the text, the child and adult characters both named José, the circular ending—I made those choices right away, and they remain in the book.

However, it’s important to note that defining my personal connection to the idea gave me not only the confidence to write that first draft, but the stamina to continue revising it. As 2017 progressed, I researched Jose’s library, seeking out news articles and videos in both English and Spanish. I shared multiple drafts with critique partners, benefited from professional feedback at a conference, and made several rounds of sketch dummies to get the pacing right. Finally, José read a Spanish translation of the manuscript in the summer of 2017 and gave the project his blessing. And, like José’s single book, my single idea had become this:

And then, thanks to illustrator Paola Escobar’s talented hand, it became this:

If I can leave you with any advice, Storystormers, it’s this: Get those ideas down without wondering what will become of them. It’s the habit, not the single idea, that will set you on a creative journey you can’t even anticipate. You can find inspiration in the least likely or most mundane of places—recognize it means to you and your ideal reader. That is what can take something from viral to vibrant, no matter how many times it has been viewed (in the case of that original video, 8.3 million times).

You can view the original video here.


Angela Burke Kunkel is the author of the forthcoming DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT, illustrated by Paola Escobar and published by Random House/Schwartz and Wade. Look for both English and Spanish editions in September 2020!

In addition to writing, Angela is a current 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, two guinea pigs, and one rapidly-growing bearded dragon (really, it’s rather alarming). Right now, she’s just trying to get through another Vermont winter by knitting an enormous blanket and baking sourdough bread.

You can subscribe to Angela’s author newsletter here. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram @angkunkel, or check out her website at angelakunkel.com.


Angela is giving one prize winner a choice between a picture book critique or a copy of DIGGING once it is released in September.

Leave one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Good luck!

 

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HarperCollins
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