Transcript from an interview with Katherine Applegate

A childhood menagerie

I’m Katherine Applegate, and I’m the author of many books for young children.

I loved animals growing up. I had extraordinarily tolerant parents fortunately. Big menagerie. Mostly dogs and cats. But at about age 10, I became the first person in East Grand Rapids, Michigan to have gerbils. And they were quite exotic then. And Sandy and Max liked each other, and continued their happy marriage for some time.

And I was inundated with baby gerbils. So I promptly became that girl who sold gerbils to the world. When I got into high school, I worked for a vet for a couple of years, and I really enjoyed that. I actually thought I wanted to be a vet. Fiction seemed really pointless to me. But I gradually came around.

Life-changing books for reluctant readers 

Well when I talk to kids, I always tell them, in fact I opened my presentation today saying, “I have a secret.” I had all the adults cover their ears. They were quite, for the most part helped in that. Usually when I talk to teachers I get about a 50% compliance rate when I ask them to cover their ears. And I say, “I have a secret. And the secret is: I hated to read.” And I often get applause. I sometimes get gasps.

Sometimes I get boos, which is always encouraging. But it’s true. I just wasn’t much of a reader. Now I have a daughter who has dyslexia. And I always point out to kids that’s a whole different thing. And with good teachers and good help you can overcome it. But it my case I just didn’t get the point. I thought it was kinda boring. And for me, there was a book, and I always tell them, “There’s a book out there that’s like your best friend. And when you find it, your life will change.”

And for me that book was Charlotte’s Web. And, of course, that’s always met with lots of “oohs” and “ahhs”. And I tell them that in my opinion it was written just for me. I know that Kate DiCamillo happens to like it, too, but it was not written for her, it was written for me. And that was life-changing. But I was quite old, and even into college I was a slow reader. I still am a slow reader. I think that’s why I write short books.

The One and Only Ivan, for example, has a lot of white space. And when I show that to kids who are reluctant readers, and they see that first page, which is basically two or three lines: “Hello. My name is Ivan. I’m a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks.” And they go, “Wow, that’s the first chapter.” They’re hooked because it means they can read what a lot of kids call them “fat books”. They can read a fat book, and a book with sophisticated content, but they can get through it.

Finding favorite stories for kids with dyslexia

For my daughter with dyslexia, the key was graphic novels. And Raina Telgemeier. Oh, bless that woman. If I ever meet her, I’m going to kiss her on the lips. She wrote Smile, and my daughter read Smile, and everything changed. It was just really a breakthrough moment. Just the other day she was asking me, “Has she written anything else? Why hasn’t she written anything else?” For her it was the perfect melding of art.

She’s very artistic anyway, so for her it was a great way for her to see a story unfold. It’s interesting because for me I have a hard time knowing how to read a graphic novel. I love them, but it doesn’t come as naturally to me as, say, parsing a sentence. So that was great. Some kids with dyslexia use audiobooks very successfully, and that can be a key to success. Picture books are great, too. They tend to be reluctant to read them, but if they’ve got adults and older kids who are comfortable or the content is a little more sophisticated, that’s a really good strategy.

Endling

I was inspired to write Endling when one of my daughters came across the word “endling”, which is not officially in most dictionaries yet. It refers to the last animal or the last member of a species of subspecies. It was a quite a while ago, there was a fascinating article about it. I think it was in the New Yorker, talking about the evolution of the word, but it’s still not being used to often, and when I heard it, I thought, “Wow, that’s so poignant. The very last member of a species. What would that be like?”

And we’re in the middle of what many people call the sixth great extinction, apparently almost exclusively manmade. And we’re losing species and an unprecedented rate, and I wanted to write about it. I wanted to do it though in a way that would free me up to tell an interesting story, and fantasy was the way to do it.

The appeal of series books

Endling is the first book in a trilogy that I have written, and many with my husband, Michael Grant, many series. Some forgettable; some not. Animorphs had roughly 63 books, I think. We had ghostwriters for part of that. And I started out as a ghostwriter myself. I wrote 17 Sweet Valley Twins and I ghosted lots of books for Disney and wrote Little Mermaid, horse books, girls who loved horses, horses who loved girls. You name it, I wrote it.

And I think what was so great about Goosebumps, and Animorphs and Babysitter’s Club, those monthly series, is that a kid got hooked, and then you could go right back and get the next story. And that’s interesting.

But I do think that series really help kids go back to a familiar place, a comfortable place. I do that. Sometimes you just gotta watch a sitcom or go back to a book you’ve read a hundred times before because you need that comfort. So characters evolve in series, but a little more slowly. Things happen a little differently.

Tackling tough topics through fantasy

It’s an interesting question how you approach darker, more complex topics. And sometimes fantasy allows you to do it in a gentle way, in a way that doesn’t scare off readers, and allows you to touch on sometimes very dark topics, but I think in a way that makes it palatable and not too scary. So talking about childhood hunger and homelessness, for example, in Crenshaw using a giant, imaginary cat who eats purple jelly beans was a way to kind of ease kids into this story. And it’s also really fun to write. I mean, you’re just making stuff up. You’re creating entire worlds.

And I mentioned in my Newbery speech, there are always a handful of adults I meet who say, “I will never read an animal fantasy. I just can’t do it.” They find them nauseating or simplistic, and I say, “Man, you haven’t read Charlotte’s Web.” You can go back to that book when you’re 50 and when you’re 80, and there are different things there to read. So it takes some work. It took some research. And you’re always going to be playing a little bit with the facts.

The One and Only Ivan: writing first-person gorilla

The interesting thing about writing first-person gorilla is that you are doing this weird thing where you’re writing — you’re always anthropomorphizing when you write an animal fantasy. And because I love research, and I love the science behind — in my heart I really wish I could grow up to be Jane Goodall, but apparently they have no Starbucks in the jungle, so.

I loved doing the research on Ivan, the actual Ivan, and then on gorillas generally, Western lowland gorillas in particular. But then I realized I’m sitting here creating an animal who is communicating with humans using crayons and who is having fascinating conversations with a dog, and it’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition. I tried to stay as close as I could to how a gorilla might feel, and yet I wanted to give him a personality that was clearly going to have some human elements.

So it’s always a fine line.

Wishtree: a healing intent

Writing from the point of view of a red oak was quite a stretch, and I was very worried about it. With both it’s interesting. Both The One and Only Ivan and Wishtree, about halfway through the books I decided to give up. And I still have this little piece of paper. I show it to kids when I do school visits. And it says: The question is do I give up on Ivan or not? Because I was gonna throw it out. Who was gonna read this book? It’s about a gorilla.

And there’s always that point. I think we all hit the wall when we’re writing, at some point, and you kind of — you’re filled with self-doubt. But with Wishtree, I wanted a nonhuman observer of human behavior. And I wrote Wishtree during the throes of the election. I wrote it quickly. I wrote it ferociously. But I wanted it to be for very, very young readers. I wanted a first or second grader who’s going, “Why are we “othering" entire groups of people? Why are we being so unkind to each other?”

The vitriol. The nastiness. I think of lot of us just felt so overwhelmed by it. So it was very therapeutic. And I wrote it very much thinking, “Okay, I want something a second grade teacher can read to their kids when, say, they have a new Muslim student in class. And I want them to be able to understand the story.” And, in fact, I was in Seattle, and I visited a school that had a hugely diverse population, large Muslim population.

And they had read Wishtree as a one-school read. The reason was because a Muslim mom who had been in the parking lot had been harassed by another parent. And she ran into the office devastated, upset, and one of the mom’s there happened to be reading Wishtree to her young son. And she said, you know what, you should read this book. We should all read this book. And everyone read it: the crossing guards, and the librarian and the administration.

And they had a sort of day of healing afterwards, and of course made a Wishtree, which was lovely. A lot of schools have been doing that. But that to me was such a wonderful story. It’s really heartening as an author to think that your intent actually had an effect.

You know, I think at the end of the day a lot of books for young readers are more sophisticated than an adult book you might find in the adult section of a bookstore. There are many, many kid books that I think adults should read, and would love if they would venture. So, very often, for a book like Wishtree I think the real difference will just be that the cover looks a little different. It’ll be in a different place in the bookstore.

Writing for kids

It’s an interesting question whether authors think about their audiences. And I was talking to some other authors about this recently. My theory is that we do, or at least I do. I’m very conscious of the audience for whom I’m writing. I think school visits have helped me tremendously with that. I’m a parent, but my kids are older now. And I just need a refresher course every so often on what a third or fourth grader is thinking.

Invariably I’m surprised by how incredibly idealistic they are, how kind, how thoughtful. They tolerate no BS. I mean, they’ll tell you if they don’t like a book. Not afraid to critique. And when they love a book, they love a book so much. You are a rock star. It’s life-changing when that happens. So I like to think about those kids. And when I wrote Wishtree, for example, I was very consciously thinking, “I want this small and fable-like.”

And when I wrote The One and Only Ivan, I very much wanted it to be — I wanted the format to be a little bit different so that I could lean toward a little more lyrical prose, hopefully, but I wanted a lot of white space to reflect his experience. So I very much think about it. That might just be because it doesn’t come intuitively for me, but when I’m writing for a picture book audience I have to remind myself what works and what doesn’t. And sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t.

Picture books and the page turn

Oh, yeah. I find everyone thinks they can write a picture book. And, oh man, it’s the hardest by far I think to write for. It’s poetry, but it’s poetry often with an invisible collaborator: your illustrator. And all kinds of new things matter. There needs to be music to the prose because somebody's probably reading it to a child. That page turn matters hugely. Man, they’re tough.

Writers need a sounding board

You know, one of the great things about having a husband who’s also a writer is that you have an in-house sounding board. So you’re having a bad day or you’re stuck on a scene, and oh, man that is really useful. I’ve never been a writer’s group person, but it’s probably because I’ve always had an in-house writer. Michael is so good at plotting. And plotting really, really can frustrate me. So, often, I’ll use him to help me get through those tough corners that I’ve written myself into.

We did a novel called, Eve and Adam together, and we told the publisher, Jean Fiewel, that she would have to have a clause included that covered any marital counseling that we required as a result because we hadn’t worked collaborated in a long time. And, in fact, because we kinda both developed our own styles, and we were writing for different age groups, it was really smooth sailing I think.

Inspiration for Home of the Brave

I wrote Home of the Brave when I was living in Minneapolis, and there was a huge influx of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. And I had a very low tolerance for cold. I love Minneapolis. It’s the best town in the world. If you could pick it up and put it in, say, L.A., it would be perfect.

But I saw these people coming, and I thought, “How are you learning a new language, and a new culture and putting up with 14-foot snowdrifts?” It was miraculous to me. I moved around a lot as a kid. Not that I would in any way equate my experience, but I knew that feeling of being new, and to me, the experience of immigrants who come to this country, and refugees and start from scratch is fascinating, and moving, and just amazingly brave.

So I wanted to write about it. And I did a lot of research. I talked to refugee resettlement people, and all kinds of refugees who had come to that area. And many years later, I had a woman from Sudan who wrote me and said—and it was very simple, she just said, “You wrote my life.” And I thought, “That’s just the highest praise imaginable.”

We need diverse books

I think diversity in books for kids is vital because a child needs to see herself reflected in a story just as much as we need to learn about other people. It’s mirrors and windows, but I think the trend toward more diversity in books, own voices and seeing different cultures represented is fantastic because our country’s changing; our world’s changing, and kids need that.

"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox