Alexandra Penfold is a literary agent and the author of several picture books. Suzanne Kaufman is an author, illustrator, and animator. In 2018, Penfold and Kaufman released their bestselling picture book All Are Welcome, a call for equity and inclusion in the classroom and the world at large. A companion book, Big Feelings, which focuses on navigating emotions, is due out next month. We asked Penfold and Kaufman to interview each other about their process and the inspiration behind their two titles.
Alexandra Penfold: Hey, Suzanne! Can you believe Big Feelings is coming out next week?
Suzanne Kaufman: It doesn’t seem real. So many feelings. Big, big feelings.
Penfold: What are you feeling today?
Kaufman: Excited. Nervous. Grateful. Relieved.
Penfold: Whew. Same here. Well, the folks at PW asked us to talk about our process for this book, but I think to put it in context we need to flashback to our first collaboration, All Are Welcome. Can you talk a little bit about how Welcome came to be?
Kaufman: Like many others, I felt helpless after the travel restrictions announcement in early 2017. My daughters’ school is made up of a wide range of families from all over the world, from many different backgrounds. That night I couldn’t sleep. I decided to do something with the one thing I could freely give, and that was my art. So I stayed up all night and made a poster to welcome all the kids to the school the next morning. It still didn’t feel like enough…. The next day I posted it on social media and it went viral.
Penfold: At the same time I was going through the same kind of feelings. I also live in a wonderful diverse community, in Brooklyn. One night I saw your poster on social media. I was so struck by the sweet smiling faces and how much the kids reminded me of my kids and their friends and their schools and our neighborhood and our community. It was one of the last things I peeked at before going to bed. I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea for a story and wrote the first draft of what would become All Are Welcome.
Kaufman: So many of our real-life friends and family and neighbors are featured in the pages of All Are Welcome. The story felt so personal to us that it’s been humbling to see how teachers and families are using All Are Welcome to start conversations about what it means to be welcoming as a class and as a community.
Penfold: That’s for sure. How did you feel when it came time to work on the companion book?
Kaufman: Definitely excited and a little bit nervous. When I first read your manuscript for Welcome I was bursting with ideas of how to illustrate it. No pressure, right?
Penfold: [laughing] No pressure at all! Can I tell you something?
Kaufman: Of course!
Penfold: I was so nervous to write the first draft of Big Feelings.
Penfold: So nervous. Stare at a blank page for hours nervous. I felt like we really owed it to our readers to make an awesome companion book, but first I had to deliver on the manuscript.
Kaufman: [laughing] No pressure, man. You were totally cool about it.
Penfold: While dying inside. The whole process for Welcome just kind of flowed. Sitting down to write Big Feelings I definitely felt a case of Imposter Syndrome.
Kaufman: Oh my, me too! I didn’t want to let anyone down either. We didn’t want to make a sequel for the sake of making one. I think we referred to this book as our “Empire Strikes Back” book. Probably the best sequel of all time, am I right? We wanted to make an even better book for kids and teachers.
Penfold: Definitely. The initial idea for Big Feelings came from conversations we both had with educator friends and seeing the good work they do encouraging social emotional growth and learning in their students every day. We wanted to create something that would open conversations about how we can work with and through our feelings together and come to a greater understanding.
Kaufman: I thought with all the big feelings kids and teachers [were having] that these feelings would not be so hard to tap into. We always wanted to let [readers] know it was ok to have these feelings and that we were right there with them. Little did we know that creating a book about big feelings would stir up lots of big feelings. Not always the good kind of feelings.
Penfold: That’s for sure. This book was the hardest thing I’ve worked on in nearly 18 years in publishing.
Kaufman: Me too! I tried everything and I mean everything, but I had to throw out the whole book dummy. It didn’t work. Not one page worked. I was at a creative low point. I was lost. I cried. I bingewatched Dawson’s Creek and I even lost my joy to make art.
Penfold: I remember. We’re both such optimists, it was hard to see you so down.
Kaufman: We are lucky to have such a great team at Knopf. When I was running on empty my art director Martha Rago and editor Erin Clarke told me to take a break from the book to take all these big feelings in.
Penfold: You needed that break!
Kaufman: I totally did. I took the summer off to let the book breathe. I got help from friends like Jessixa Bagley and Elizabeth Rose Stanton on my own book A Friend for Ghost. Then I was fortunate to be on the faculty at the SCBWI summer conference in Los Angeles with you.
Penfold: That was such a great conference.
Kaufman: I listened, laughed, and was creatively inspired by friends. My fellow faculty member and dear friend Corinna Luyken told me I needed to embrace the creative mess. So, I finally embraced my big feelings about making this book. I realized it was OK to be sad and to feel lost or even mad while you make a book. In the mess you will find the answers. Corinna was so right. The last night I was invited by my friend to visit Alice and Martin Provensen’s daughter’s house. The house was full of gorgeous original art from their books and a table stacked high with breathtaking dummies. As I looked at the dummies something clicked, and I knew how to solve the book.
Penfold: It was so amazing to see how much that time renewed you and your work.
Kaufman: How did you feel through all of this?
Penfold: Going into this project I didn’t realize how hard it would be to write a story about feelings. We both did a lot of research into emotional intelligence and social emotional learning. It was really important to me to allow space for the reader to come to the story with their own feelings. I didn’t want to tell them how to feel. Through the process of the book I felt every single one of the feelings in the text, especially the part about wanting to quit and give up.
Kaufman: You kept saying “the book is the problem, the book is the answer.” It was sort of Yodalike.
Penfold: [laughing] Yes! Like you I needed to embrace the messiness and the yuckier feelings around doubt and fear and hopelessness to find a way out. It’s vital for children and for all of us, really, to have our feelings seen and acknowledged.
Penfold: Do you remember we actually talked a lot about Star Wars and Yoda throughout the process?
“Do or do not. There is no try.” Yoda
“You must unlearn what you have learned.” More Yoda.
“The greatest teacher, failure is.” Yoda, again.
Penfold: Do you remember we actually talked a lot about Star Wars and Yoda throughout the process?
Kaufman: Like Yoda, I think we held onto certain truths about making this book about feelings.
1. This book about feelings needs to have minimal text, to leave room for the readers’ imagination to fill in what they feel the kids are feeling.
2. Fewer words make it feel like a child is narrating the story.
3. Word choice should feel like a kid’s voice.
4. The refrain should feel like a kid would say it and like an anthem they might sing out loud.
5. The art should show that, no matter what race, religion, physical ability or where you come from, we all have feelings. This is one of the big things we share as humans.
Penfold: And we kept asking these questions over and over again. Even if it was painful for us to start over and scrap something that we really loved, it was always about the reader. Do these new revisions make the book better? Does it read out loud better? Will a kid connect with it better?
Kaufman: Little did we know when we started this project two plus years ago how much our lives would change in 2020 and the very big feelings we’d be having day in and day out as we all adjust to this Covid era. So many families have lost loved ones or jobs and businesses. So many schools are closed. As a parent with two teen daughters, I’ve seen the highs and lows of remote learning and isolation from friends. These are difficult times and we are all forever changed because of them.
Penfold: You’re so right. Even on the “good” days, I can see my kids going through such a range of big feelings, from sadness and disappointment to frustration and doubt and the occasional moments of excitement and joy. I feel all of this, too. Sometimes as a parent it feels like I’m also carrying everyone else’s feelings. Our hope is that Big Feelings gives space for readers to see themselves and understand that their feelings are important, that it’s OK to feel whatever they are feeling, even the hard and sometimes yucky feelings, and that sometimes they may be feeling one big feeling while their friends are feeling something entirely different and that’s OK, too.
Kaufman: Yes. We want all readers to have a sense that no matter what they are feeling, they are seen, they are lovable, and they are loved.
Penfold: Before we wrap, can you give readers a little sneak peak of the two cool production elements of the book?
Kaufman: Definitely! All Are Welcome finishes with a big gatefold spread and Big Feelings has a really fun, change-in-perspective gatefold in the middle. And, like Welcome, the back of the jacket is a poster with different feelings that teachers or families can hang on the wall and use to check in with themselves and how they are feeling and what they can do about that.
Penfold: Very exciting! Thanks so much for being so vulnerable and sharing our process.
Kaufman: Likewise! And a huge thank-you to the educators and parents and readers.
Penfold: Yes! We so appreciate you and we hope that one day you’ll share your wonderful stories with the world.
Big Feelings by Alexandra Penfold, illus. by Suzanne Kaufman. Knopf, $18.99 Mar. 2 ISBN 978-0-525-57974-8