#793 – Orangutanka: A Story in Poems by Margarita Engle & Renée Kurilla

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orangutanka cover
Orangutanka: A Story in Poems
Written by Margarita Engle
Illustrations by Renée Kurilla
Henry Holt & Company     3/24/2015
32 pages     Ages 4—8

“All the orangutans are ready for a nap in the sleepy depths of the afternoon . . . all except one. This little orangutan wants to dance! A hip-hop, cha-cha-cha dance, full of somersaults and cartwheels. But who will dance with her?

“Written in bold tanka poems, this exuberant ode to orangutans from acclaimed poet Margarita Engle will make readers want to dance, too!” [inside jacket]

In the early morning, the baby orangutan cuddles with its mama in the trees. Mama is still tired but the baby and her sister not so much. Big sister takes off, leaping, swinging, flipping, and smiling as she swoops from branch to branch. The range foresters put out a banquet of fruit for their orangutan charges and the trees shake with the movement of orangutan to fruit.

In the afternoon, the heat rises and the big sister orangutan sneaks off once more. On the forest floor, the orangutan dances. A little hip-hop and a little cha-cha-cha, plus some somersaults make up her repertoire. All the other orangutans are up in their tree nests, asleep, when the rain begins. But then, movement. Grandma joins her granddaughter and they dance. Later, big sister and grandma are back in the treetops. Down below more orangutan dancing occurs . . . by the visiting children.

Tanka is a Japanese five-line poem with a specific syllable count of 5 in the first line, 7 in the second, 5 in the third, and 7 in the fourth and fifth. Engle doesn’t use this traditional arrangement. She uses a “loose line length” of short, long, short, long, long. In a note before the story begins, Engle explains more about tanka poems. Orangutanka reads like a visitors observation log, as she watches the orangutans throughout the day. Each tanka is linked to the next, creating the story of one non-sleepy orangutan who loves to dance. The dancing theme resonates through each spread.


Is too massive
For treetops—
His great weight makes
Low branches waltz slowly.”

One reason I love Orangutanka is the illustration work of Kurilla. Her orangutans are beautiful reddish-orange and brown masses of smiles and contentment. The eyes of each orangutan give the creatures’ additional emotion. I cannot imagine anyone taking in Kurilla’s forest of orangutans and not smiling at the beautiful creatures. The images remind me of the dense monkey filled rainforests of Costa Rico (though orangutans do not inhabit Costa Rico). I had the opportunity to ask the artist a few questions.

I’m always curious how long it takes to illustrate this or that book. So I asked Kurilla how long it took to illustrate Orangutanka, what was the hardest and the easiest, and finally, which of the magnificent spreads is her favorite.

Renée Kurilla: “The process from start to finish was approximately one year!

“Even though they look adorable in videos and pictures, it’s actually extremely difficult to draw orangutans in an appealing, semi-realistic way. I wanted them to look as warm and cuddly in my illustrations as they do in real life. I hope I accomplished that.

“The easiest thing to paint in this book was surprisingly the leaves. I created a Photoshop stamp from some pen and ink drawings and colorized the line on the computer. I had a system down pat for each spread!

ReneeK_Orangutanka_4“It’s so hard to choose! One of my favorite elements, which is difficult to see when flipping pages, is the color change throughout. The book takes place through the course of one day from morning to evening, with a rain storm in between. I put a lot of thought into the color storyboards before I started on final illustrations.

“However, I suppose I am particularly fond of the page where the children are dancing, because they go from being spectators to participating! I had a lot of fun practicing the dance moves in my studio to get them just right.  🙂 “


Engle, in her note to readers, encourages children to dance like the orangutans. If the creation of the illustrations can cause the artist to dance, chances are good readers will stand up and cha-cha-cha along with the orangutans.

I am so curious about illustrators. How do they get motivated to create? So I asked Kurilla, “How do you get yourself in the mood; into the right (creative), half of your brain?”

Renée Kurilla: “There is one general rule I follow; make sure every image comes from the heart. The process of finding the heart is what makes each project I work on unique. I always look for ways to relate to the stories I illustrate.


“When I started working on Orangutanka, there was already so much heart infused in the text. I had to find my own personal connection. Margarita sent some photos from her trip to the Borneo rainforest to inspire me, which was amazing! Also, in her manuscript, she included links to learn more about orangutans. I visited every single one!

“I spent a lot of time on the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation website, learning about the individual orangutans that had been rescued from tragic circumstances. I’m not sure many folks know how endangered they are. It is very sad, but what the rescue teams do is awe-inspiring and pulled at my heart strings. I started drawing the orangutans listed on the adoption page and soon was able to develop the look of the family in Orangutanka.”

Continuing with my curiosity, I asked Kurilla, “What inspired you to illustrate children’s books?”

Renée Kurilla: “I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and found the answer only when I tapped into the 5 year old version of myself. I grew up reading picture books and watching cartoons and the Muppets on TV. When I discovered there were human beings behind the creation of characters I loved, I wanted nothing else more than to be a part of that world. Today, I just really enjoy being an adult-kid and want to inspire children to pursue the arts and know that it is ok to do so! We continue to need more colorful, light, quirky ideas in our world.”

For those kids who do pursue the arts, I asked Kurilla, “Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?

Renée Kurilla: “A student recently asked me this question and I told her: Try not to be jealous of your friends when they succeed, be happy for them because your time will come too! You may even be offered a job by a friend one day, you never know. Friends are so important in our business, I would be nowhere without mine!”


I think friends are important for most everything we do. If it were not for friends, Kid Lit Reviews would not exist. If not for friends, the orangutans might not exist. Orangutans are on the endangered list and near extinction. Most that survive are doing so in wildlife sanctuaries and rescues. Engle explains it is the logging and the deforestation for (mostly), farming that is destroying the orangutans’ (and other animals’) habitats. Orangutanka has several resources for those interested in knowing more about orangutans and their plight.

I love asking writers and artist questions. I got to wondering what I don’t think to ask. So I asked Kurilla, “What have you always wanted someone to ask you, but no one has?”

Renée Kurilla: “Hmmm…you know, I’ve always wanted someone to ask me what I do when I’m not drawing! Is that boring?”

Actually, it’s interesting. What do you do when not drawing?

Renée Kurilla: “When I’m not drawing, I’m taking care of my cat (Timmy) and my hedgehog (Lemon). I also like to bake pies and am perfecting my lattice pie crust skills. I love board games, especially the ones with a ton of little pieces; I always lose but that’s ok! I also love needle-felting, I recently felted a pretty amazing looking cheeseburger. I’ll be posting a picture of it on instagram soon.

Lemon (© 2015 Renée Kurilla)

(© 2015 Renée Kurilla)

I had one last question—a standard question—to ask Kurilla. What are you working now?”

Renée Kurilla: “I wrapped up so many fantastic projects this year! In Spring of 2016, a series I illustrated called Bel the Weather Girl will debut from Minneapolis author / meteorologist Belinda Jensen (Lerner). I also recently completed 180 black and white illustrations for a middle grade series called The Owls of Blossom Wood, written by Catherine Coe (Scholastic UK). The Owls series debuted in Fall 2015 and the next three books will launch in Spring 2016.

“Currently, I have some little projects in the works including some books I’m writing, my first illustrated spread in Highlights magazine, a new online shop on Society6, and even some feature film animation. While I can’t go into much detail about anything yet, I’m hoping you’ll be able to see lots more work from me in the future.

“I do feel like even though I’ve been busy, things are now rather quiet for me over here. I’m gearing up for some new ventures!”


A big orangutan thanks to Renée Kurilla for answering my curiosity with her wonderful answers.

Orangutanka is a fun, beautiful, emotional, poetic, and important story for the orangutans. Kids will enjoy the story of a day in a Borneo forest and of big sister and grandma dancing in the rain together. They will love the pencil and ink illustrations, digitally colored in rain forest browns, greens, reddish-orange, and pale blues. The opportunity to learn more about the tanka—traditional and modern—and about orangutans, makes Orangutanka a good book for teachers of English and science.

The Orangutanka orangutans are beautiful and humorous, which will appeal to kids, especially those that love animals. Engle’s energetic poetry and her concern for these beautiful creatures combined with Kurilla’s dynamic illustrations will appeal to both readers and award committees. If this were April—Poetry Month—Orangutanka: A Story in Poems would be my top pick.

ORANGUTANKA: A STORY IN POEMS. Text copyright © 2015 by Margarita Engle. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Renée Kurilla. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Henry Holt & Company, New York, NY.

Purchase Orangutanka: A Story in Poems at AmazonBook DepositoryIndieBound BooksApple iBooksHenry Holt.

Find Orangutanka: A Story in Poems on Goodreads HERE.

Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation: http://orangutan.or.id/
Orangutan Coonservancy:  http://www.orangutan.com/
Orangutan Outreach: https://redapes.org/

Meet the author, Margarita Engle, at her website:  http://www.margaritaengle.com/
Meet the illustrator, Renée Kurilla, at her website:  http://kurillastration.com/
Twitter          @reneekurilla
Find more books at the Henry Holt & Company website:  http://henryholt.tumblr.com/
Twitter          @HenryHolt

2015 Cybils Award Nominee
School Library Journal Starred Review
New York Public Notable Book 2015

Also by Margarita Engle
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings (Edel Rodriguez, illustrator)
The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist (Aliona Bereghici, illustrator)
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music (Rafael López, illustrator)
.      . —and many more

Also by Renée Kurilla
Berkley, the Terrible Sleeper (Mitchell Sharmat, author)
The Owls of Blossom Wood (Catherine Coe, author)
My Family, Your Family (Lisa Bullard)
.       . —and many more

Copyright © 2015 by Sue Morris/Kid Lit Reviews. All Rights Reserved

Full Disclosure: Orangutanka: A Story in Poems by Margarita Engle & Renée Kurilla, and received from Henry Holt & Company, is in exchange NOT for a positive review, but for an HONEST review. The opinions expressed are my own and no one else’s. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

ORANGUTANKA: A STORY IN POEMS by Margarita Engle. Illustrations © 2015 by Renée Kurilla. Used by permission of Henry Holt & Company.



LAST DAY! $50 Gift Certificate Holiday Giveaway Enter here:   Mudpuppy Holiday Giveaway 

One thought on “#793 – Orangutanka: A Story in Poems by Margarita Engle & Renée Kurilla

  1. I’ve been hearing about this book for quite a while now and it’s SO nice to finally get to see so much of it. Renee’s work is brilliant…and Lemon is adorable! 🙂


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