Picture book creator puts heart on page

    Photo by Teri Genovese

    Music. Theology. Organic vegetable gardening. Construction. Farming. Kenneth Kraegel has pursued all these enterprises, and all have played a part in what has become his permanent career as a picture book writer and illustrator.

    Settled in the basement studio of his Grand Rapids home, Kraegel meticulously adds detail after detail, color upon color to the gorgeous illustrations that populate the children’s books he also writes. His newest book is “Mushroom Lullaby,” published by Candlewick Press and releasing in October.

    “I like this book because mushrooms are an uncharacteristic subject for a bedtime book,” Kraegel said. “It starts out talking about mushrooms in different places, then moves to a mushroom for you. Readers

    can enter a fantasy bedtime world, then decrescendo into sleep.”

    He admits to not knowing where the idea came from for the newest book, just that
    it came and he began writing the story bit by bit, then sketching his ideas for each page. “This is the messy period when I don’t really know where it’s going. I work on it every day for a couple of hours until I’m tired. The next day I look at it again and find the problems. I do that every day. If I keep messing around with it long enough,
    I come up with something that works,” Kraegel said.

    Once he had the rough sketches done and the story written, he sent what he calls a “book dummy” to his editor. And once he got the official approval, the real work of illustrating “Mushroom Lullaby” began.

    Illustration process

    Kraegel creates detailed sketches of each page in pencil. He puts each sketch on his homemade light box and puts watercolor paper over that, drawing again in pencil in case he wants to tweak any details on the watercolor paper. The final step before beginning to paint is going over the pencil lines in pen.

    “I start painting in light layers, watching as the colors gradually come together. I paint multiple layers to get the coloring just right,” he said, adding that each illustration takes 10 days to two weeks to complete.

    Kraegel’s first book, “King Arthur’s Very Great Grandson,” came out in 2012 with Candlewick Press and received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. The reviewer said, “debut author Kraegel proves he’s a force to be reckoned with” and “he has a Monty Pythonesque sense of language, humor, pacing, and character.”

    Since then, Kraegel has written “The Song of Delphine” (2015), “Wild Honey from
    the Moon” (2019) for early readers, “Green Pants” (2020) and the board book “This

    Is a Book of Shapes” (2020). He’s drawn everything from dragons to emus, giraffes to snails, knights to small boys to little bears. And mushrooms, of course.

    Change of plans
    Picture books weren’t Kraegel’s first plan. As an adolescent he wanted to play the guitar in a rock band, but soon realized that making music wasn’t easy. What was easy was listening to music and drawing. He built an easel and starting painting in oils and writing stories.

    But he went to Wheaton College to study theology. Then his interest in organic vegetable gardening developed when in Uganda for his new wife Irene’s dissertation research. They moved to Wisconsin for his internship on an organic vegetable farm. Then a move to the state of Wyoming

    for her internship while he worked in construction. Indiana and a little vegetable farm. A farm in Ohio.

    “I finally realized that what I really wanted to do was picture books. I started taking it seriously, going to conferences and creating more stories,” Kraegel said.

    The family, which added son Milo, settled in Grand Rapids in 2008 when Irene Kraegel got a job at Calvin University. She is director of the Center for Counseling and Wellness. Kenneth Kraegel divides his time between writing and illustrating picture books and tutoring children with reading disabilities such as dyslexia.

    “I had too much creative time, but being out there interacting with people has been kind of freeing,” he said. “I was spending too much time coming up with something; now I sit down and get to work. I’m excited to get into my studio and use that time efficiently.”

    Kraegel hasn’t given up music. He listens to everything from classic rock to alternative, from classical to folk to international music. He and his family love to hike and backpack, with favorite spots in Michigan including the Porcupine Mountains, Pictured Rocks and North Manitou Island.

    He’s constantly evolving his work and his process. “With earlier books I wanted to know how the story would finish. Now I have an outline, but I see how it goes from start to finish. The story evolves over time,” he said. “If I make one picture, that sparks another idea and I make that picture. The process has become really fun. It’s exciting to see something evolving like a plant coming up, coming into itself.”

    Kraegel continues to make picture books. He’s got several more in the works and always is jotting down ideas for more.

    “Picture books are the books we read most. We read favorite novels maybe once every five years, but picture books are read all the time. Kids and adults scrutinize the illustrations. It’s like entering into someone else’s imagination,” he said.

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