Interview: Children’s-YA Author Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt is the author of teen titles such as KISSING TENNESSEE AND OTHER STORIES FROM THE STARDUST DANCE and JUST PEOPLE & PAPER/PEN/POEM: A YOUNG WRITER’S WAY TO BEGIN as well as numerous picture books including: OH MY BABY, LITTLE ONE; BAT JAMBOREE and COWBOY DREAMS. Visit her online at This interview was conducted via email in January 2001.

What were the earliest inklings that you would someday become a writer?

The first time I gave serious thought to becoming a writer was early–in the first grade–when my teacher, Mrs. Beall, at Pearl Rucker Elementary School, told me that she really thought I’d be a writer when I grew up. I held that thought from then on. Of course, I tried my hand at other things too. For many years I wanted to be in theater and even have a minor in Theater Arts. But my true love was always writing.

What encouragement helped you along your way?

Kathi Appelt

I have been blessed with a host of people in my life who have always been there for me. Both of my parents made me believe early on that I could do whatever I put my mind to. Then, through the years, I’ve had the great good fortune of studying with wonderful teachers, all of whom challenged me, pushed me, rallied for me. And best of all, I have this terrific husband who has never once let me get in my own way. He’s always believed in me. I’m one lucky gal.

Did you face any early challenges to finding success on this path?

Interestingly, the biggest challenge early on was finding a balance between my family and my writing. When I began writing for kids, thanks to my kids, they were both very young. What I learned to do, and have practiced ever since, was to write in small snatches of time, five minutes here, five minutes there. It’s amazing what you can do with a just a few minutes on your hands.

The other challenge was my own slow-learning in the regard of figuring what a story truly is. So much of my early writing suffered from lack of a real story. Even today, I struggle with the story line. I can cook up wonderful characters and settings, but then what?

What books were among your childhood favorites and why?

I was one of those girls who would read anything that had a horse in it, so BLACK BEAUTY and NATIONAL VELVET, the “Blaze” stories, all the books that Marguerite Henry wrote, those were my favorites. I’m still a horse lover, although I’m now willing to give a book a chance even it doesn’t have a horse in it.

What are your favorite titles today and why?

To be honest, my favorites change from time to time. My most recent favorite would be OPEN HOUSE by Elizabeth Berg. A friend of mine gave it to me for Christmas and I really enjoyed it. There are so many great books out there. This past year the titles that have really spoken to me are THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver and AHAB’S WIFE by Sena Jeter Naslund. I also enjoyed Frank McCourt’s books. However, two books that will always be on my top ten are COME AND GO, MOLLY SNOW by Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, and MISSING MAY by Cynthia Rylant.

How have you seen your writing evolve over the years? What new directions are interesting to you?

I hope that my writing has become more “true.” By that, I constantly work to let my own voice shine through. Calling on voice is in some ways like calling on the muse. It’s a slippery thing, and not a little magical. I think it has to do with passion and whether or not the subject you’re writing about calls to you from somewhere deep, some profound place that means everything to you.

You have served as an SCBWI regional advisor and a teacher to many writers in Central Texas. What inspired you to become a leader in the children’s writing community? What were the rewards and drawbacks of your commitment to others?

Well, honey, as you know, I love being the boss. No, really, I have to say that teaching is something I really love to do. As you know, writing is one of the most solitary professions and sometimes that can get downright claustrophobic.

Teaching gives me a social circle, as well as a sense of “passing it on.” I’ve had the great benefit of being taught by very generous teachers and it seems only right to me to carry that torch. And selfishly, I always feel that I bump up my own learning whenever I teach. Even if I never wrote another word, I would always want to teach.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Three things. First, read everything you can get your hands on. Second, if you intend to write for a child audience, find some kids to be around. And third, write every single day even if it’s only your grocery list.

Where do you turn for instruction and inspiration?

I try to take a class every year of some sort or another. Most universities or colleges offer some sort of writing course. Last fall I took Robert McKee’s “Story Structure” class and that was profound. I’m taking it again as soon as possible. Bruce Coville–one of my great mentors–suggested that I take it, and it was a great suggestion. Even a correspondence course can be very beneficial. I also have a tight circle of friends who write and we try to meet regularly to critique each other’s work. The best thing about that is that it gives us all a deadline, and deadlines can often be a writer’s best friend.

I also get a lot of inspiration from books. A friend gave me a copy of Pam Houston’s memoirs, A LITTLE MORE ABOUT ME, and when I finished I had a burst of writing energy. The same thing happened several years ago when I read Anne Lamotte’s BIRD BY BIRD, and Donald Hall’s LIFE WORK.

For inspiration in “life,” I have a little book that I turn to over and over again, written by one of my teachers. It’s called A SACRED PRIMER by Elizabeth Neeld, and I rely upon it for guidance.

Your writing shows tremendous range in age level, subject matter, and style. Would you describe yourself as a confident writer, always ready to face the next new challenge? Or do you have to psyche yourself up to try different venues?

If by a confident writer you mean someone who “knows” that eventually an idea or story or solution to a problem will show up if I just make myself sit down and work, then yes, I consider myself confident. However, I still maintain a whole stable full of doubts and misgivings, worries, etc. I keep that stable well-fed. And it’s true that I’m way more comfortable in some genre than others, that’s for sure.

I have lots of stories that I want to write that I probably never will because I get in my own way. By that, I mean, I put them off or find something else to take their place, or convince myself that I’m not the one to write those stories. I really want to write a book about my grandmother, but so far I haven’t found a way to “enter” that book and so there it is, still just a dream. Dreams aren’t worth much if they just stay in your head are they?

The story behind JUST PEOPLE & PAPER/PEN/POEM: A YOUNG WRITER’S WAY TO BEGIN is an unusual one. It was your first time working with a small, Texas press, and the result was one of the most successful YA titles of the year in which it was published. Can you tell us about how that book came to be?

That book was a really happy “accident.” The poems came from a correspondence that I had with a group of ninth graders in Lufkin. I met their teacher at a reading teacher’s conference the summer before where I had read a poem during my address.

Afterwards she came up to me and asked for a copy of it. She shared that poem with her students and then had them write to me about it. Well, I was so moved by their comments that I sent them some more poems and they sent their own poems and stories back to me.

By the end of the year all of us had written a lot of material.

But during the process of that exchange, what became overwhelmingly apparent to me was how deeply we all yearn to express ourselves and how lost we all are when it comes time to do it.

The people who own the press, Absey & Co., specialize in books that promote writing from the point of view that writing should be authentic and not contrived. It was a perfect fit. That book continues to sell well and to be one of my personal favorites.

Recently honored BBYA book KISSING TENNESSEE AND OTHER STORIES FROM THE STARDUST DANCE was your first foray into young adult fiction. How did you enjoy the transition for children’s to YA fiction? What were the special challenges in writing for an older audience?

Kissing Tennessee by Kathi AppeltI loved the “transition.” It’s funny, but most of my books are for toddlers, so here I was writing a book for teens.

But what I decided is that toddlers and teens aren’t so very different.

Our toddler years and our teen years are perhaps the most “passionate” times in our whole lives. At no other times do we yearn so much for things like independence, acceptance, responsibility, freedom, justice, all those things.

So, I found myself dipping into the same emotional well for my older audience that I usually do for my younger audience.

The difference is only in intensity — for the teens, I had to press myself to reach harder and deeper only because the situations are closer to the bone.

We’ve seen the toddler who feels passionately about tying his shoe; a teenager has the same passion about getting a driver’s license. Both are intense, but the latter has bigger consequences. The intensity is the same, but the world is larger.

What inspired you to frame KISSING TENNESSEE as a short story collection rather than a novel?

Fear! One of these days I’ll be brave enough to write a novel . . . I hope.

What kind of response has it generated from teen readers?

Right before it was published, I “field-tested” it on a group of seventh graders here in College Station. Their comments were remarkable, frank, and very reassuring. Many of them thanked me for writing “about them.” I can’t think of a better commendation.

You’re the mother of two young adult boys. How has being a parent affected your writing?

Being a parent is both what makes me write and what keeps me from writing. That is the great balancing act that every parent has to figure out. Now that the boys are older, time is not so much an issue as it was when they needed my physical presence more.

Are your sons an inspiration, a distraction, or both?

See above. And yes, they are an inspiration, but mostly in the way that they remind me of my own experiences when I was their age. I’ve tried to use my boys as characters in my stories, but to no avail. It’s always a mistake because I can’t get inside their heads or their hearts not matter how much I want to. In the end, they will have to tell their own stories, without my interpretation.

The bigger gift to them would be to tell my stories, and let them figure out how they’re going to tell theirs. Isn’t that what all of us have to figure out? How to tell our stories? For some of us it shows up as music, for others art, some of us express ourselves through science, math, engineering, dance. Our mission while we’re here is to discover the vehicle that we need for telling our stories. That’s when we tap into the most sacred parts of ourselves.

What advice do you have for parent-authors?

Remember how fast your parenting years fly by. I see mine coming to a fast end with my youngest son almost done with high school, and I can’t believe it. Where did those years go? If I could go back, I’d enjoy them more.

What do you do outside of your writing life?

Read a lot! I also love being entertained–movies, plays, concerts. I like sitting on the front row.

I also do quite a bit of volunteer work. I serve on the Bryan+College Station Advisory Board for the Library system here, as well as the Friends of the Library. Plus, I’m very active in my church. When you work alone, I think it’s important to find some ways in which to serve that aren’t self-serving.

What’s next for your fans?

My first foray into nonfiction. A book called DOWN CUT SHIN CREEK. It’s a photo-essay about a group of librarians in depression-era Kentucky who delivered books by horse or mule up in mountains of Appalachia. It’s illustrated with archival photographs and was a pure joy to write.