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A Discussion With Kathi Appelt
Interview by RoseEtta Stone

Author, poet, teacher, Kathi Appelt is a writer’s writer in the truest sense of the term.  Many of the more than twenty books she’s written for children and teens are award- and honor-winning books.  She’s mentored aspiring writers, teaches writing courses, lectures, and gives writing workshops and seminars.  Kids, parents, writers, and educators find her website compelling.  And then there’s the newsletter she writes and sends out. 

But Kathi’s most endearing quality is modesty.  Taking no credit whatsoever for her own achievements and accomplishments, she attributes her well-deserved literary success to her illustrator, her teachers, her students, her mentees.  To everyone but herself!

"I know there are authors who have been 'paralyzed' by awards, fearing that they’d never write another to top that. I think it happens in any profession—acting, music, computers, science, etc.  Success can create failure."

Let's start with your recently winning Bank Street College of Education's Irma S. and James H. Black Award "for an outstanding picture book chosen by children." Is it that children themselves voted your book the best picture book of 2002-- what distinguishes the Bank Street Award from all the others you've won?

I love it that the kids voted on this award. I know that a panel of adults-- teachers and librarians-- made the initial choices, but in the end it was the kids who made the final selections. 

The truth is, anyone who is writing for kids also has to write for adults. I think of the adults as the "invisible audience" that I have to write through-- as in passing through-- in order to get to my child audience. This invisible audience is composed of editors first, then parents, grandparents, educators, librarians, etc. A successful book works for both audiences. 

In the case of Bank Street, I think one of the things that set them apart is their respect for their students. They know that kids are smarter than we often give them credit for being and that if we give them that due respect they'll usually make great choices.

Did you know that your publisher submitted Bubba and Beau Best Friends to the contest? Or don't publishers tell their authors so as not to hurt them if their book loses?

I did not know that the book was submitted. When it made the first round, I was told it was in the running. Sometimes I request that a book be submitted to a contest, and sometimes they do it without my knowledge.

Once an author wins an award for one of her/his books, do words flow freely when writing subsequent books? Or do you, or do writers in general, find themselves agonizing over each and every word, sentence, and paragraph in an attempt to make all the books they write not only award-worthy, but better than its predecessor? 

I guess what I'm really asking is, which is more nerve-racking-- writing a prize-winning book, which may pressure you into feeling that you now have a more prestigious professional reputation to live up to, and standard to maintain? Or not writing award-winning books? 


In truth, I hadn't even thought of this until you asked. My goal in my work is always to write a worthy story, one that will entertain primarily. I know there are authors who have been "paralyzed" by awards, fearing that they'd never write another to top that. I think it happens in any profession-- acting, music, computers, science, etc. Success can create failure.

For me, the process itself is very gratifying. I enjoy getting up and working. I actually love to work. I think of my writing as my work. A ground-breaking book for me was the poet Donald Hall's LIFE WORK, in which he claims that it's our work that gives our lives meaning. Of course it's not the only thing, but it's way at the top. If we're doing the work we're meant to do, then that's what matters, and I would add that if we're truly doing our heart's work, then life in general works out.

This seems like a long way of saying that I don't worry about awards while I'm working. Once a book is actually published and out in the world, then I'm always hopeful that it will get some recognition and perhaps win something. This past year has been a good one for me in that regard. Not only did Bubba and Beau win the Bank Street Award, but WHERE, WHERE IS SWAMP BEAR?, which was illustrated by Megan Halsey (HarperCollins), won the Texas Institute of Letters Award, and POEMS FROM HOMEROOM (Henry Holt) was named a "Top Ten Book of Poetry" by Booklist Magazine. It would be great if every year brought those kinds of accolades, but that would also be something of a miracle!

The other thing to consider is that I write for a living. So, if an award presented a block, then I'd have to get a day job. I depend upon my writing to earn a living. Right now, my husband and I have two kids in college. That, all by itself, erases writers' block.

Was the award for both you and your illustrator? I ask because I understand that all submissions were judged on the merit of both their text and art. That each had to enhance and complement the other. 

Yes, the award was for both Arthur and I. And truly, BUBBA AND BEAU would not work at all without the art. The text in that book is very sparse and the art not only reflects the text, but actually illuminates it. In the case of this book, I'd say it's the art that makes the whole thing work. 

Arthur is a genius of human expression and he totally captured each of the characters in this book, plus he brought his own sense of humor and wonder to the book, which made it all the better.

Okay, now the big question. The really, really BIG, let-us-in-on-the-secret question: Now that children themselves have nominated your book THE WINNER, what, if anything, has this experience taught you in relation to what children want, like, or expect from a children's picture book? And/or don't want, like or expect in one?

It's interesting that you'd ask this question because I asked the same thing of the librarian who called me to tell me that the book had won. 

When I looked at the other books that were in the final three-- I STINK by the McMullans, and OPPOSOMUNDUS by Coleen Salley and Janet Stevens-- I confess that I was surprised that my book had won. Both of those books are funny, surprising, and extremely kid-friendly. Honestly, I didn't really think that Bubba and Beau would win over those two other choices. 

But when I asked the librarian what is was that she thought had given my book the edge, she replied that it was the beloved blankie.

I knew that the kids making the choices were 3rd and 4th graders, and since Bubba and Beau are basically babies, I really felt that they would be too young for that audience. But the librarian at Bank Street felt that Arthur and I had touched on something sweet. She told me that everyone, regardless of age, could identify with that blankie. And it's true. I've read this book to high schoolers and had them write about a favorite blanket or a stuffed animal or toy and most of them have had something that was important to them.

Plus, she felt that the bond between Bubba and Beau, that kind of unconditional love for each other, also struck a chord with the kids.

As far as what kids don't like in a picture book? I think it's the same as what any reader doesn't like-- to be told what to do or how to think. No one enjoys being preached to. I also think that kids don't necessarily like books in which the all-knowing, all-wise adults save the day. They want characters who solve their own problems. I also think they want characters who will make them laugh. That's what I want, too.

So, to enlighten anyone who's never tried it, but thinks they can write children's books with their eyes closed, it was a combination of all of these complex elements, not just the "blankie," not just unconditional love, that kids found so, excuse my pun, winsome about "BUBBA AND BEAU?" 

If anything, it's the wonderful art. Arthur captured this twosome in all their expressive glory. And honestly, the two of us work very hard at showing a family who is loving, but certainly not perfect, and who care for each other above all else. It's perfectly fine for the folks of Bubbaville to make a mess as long as a hug is on the other end.

Has it been your experience that when a children's picture book is published by a prestigious publishing house, the relationship between writers and illustrators is actually as collaborative an effort as the one that appears to unite you and Arthur?

The truth is, I've never even met Arthur. I've never spoken to him or even corresponded with him. We're scheduled to speak together in September at the Mid-South Booksellers' Meeting, and I'm looking forward to it. 

All of our collaboration has been through our beloved editor, Allyn Johnston, who is an amazing liaison. Arthur and I don't always see eye-to-eye, but Allyn manages to smooth things out and to find the balance between us. Not that we've had huge disagreements-- we haven't. But if we did, it would be Allyn's job to resolve them. 

I've had the good fortune of meeting a few of my illustrators, but that's rare. The closest collaboration I've ever had is with Joy Hein, an artist in San Antonio. She and I are working on a picture book biography of Lady Bird Johnson which will be out in 2005. We did quite a bit of research together, but as far as the art goes, that is Joy's job. And I think our collaboration is really not very common.

For myself, I'm happy not to be involved in the illustration. What I know about art would fill a thimble, maybe. So, it's rare that I could make an intelligent contribution to the illustration. Sometimes I'm called upon by the artist to clear up a question or a technicality in the text, but that's unusual. They're way smarter than me in the art department.

If all writers were also illustrators and all illustrators wrote books for kids there would be no need for this question. But, from some of your answers Kathi, I get the impression that it's the artwork, more than the text itself, that can make or break a children's picture book.

A picture book should be a perfect balance between art and text. After all, the text "drives" the art. That said, picture books are also intended for pre-readers, so it's important that the story can be surmised simply through the art.

Okay, but taken to its perhaps illogical conclusion, this sense that illustration and/or that which can be visually expressed is valued higher, or is of greater significance than the text, makes one wonder if a poorly written book can become the literary hit of the year if it's illustrated by a skillful, accomplished artist?

I would say yes, but I would also say that a great text can also overcome so-so art. Thankfully, that doesn't happen often in either case. Today's children's books are quite extraordinary. Of course, there are always less-than-perfect examples-- all of us can name a few. 

But as an art form itself, which is what I like to think of in regard to picture books, the quality is quite high. A large part of this is due to the group effort that a picture book requires. A picture book is the result of a whole team of people behind the scenes, including not only the author and artist, but the editor, the designer, the assistants, etc. By the time a picture book is actually produced I would guess that no fewer than a dozen people have touched it in some way or another. 

The other thing to consider is people who are in children's publishing. They are extremely devoted to their audience. They want books of the highest quality for their readers-- which of course include their own children and grandchildren. It's not hard to find great picture books. There are a lot of them. I think it's more difficult to find poorly done picture books.

Getting back to your "Bubba" book, another thing you did that was very unique was make your book a chapter book. Chapters are usually found in middle-grade readers. Not in children's picture books. How far off would I be in predicting that inserting chapters in what became an award-winning book will set a precedent in the children's book publishing world, resulting in a 'new' genre inundated with chaptered children's picture books?

I'd love to think of myself as a trend-setter, but I would be less than honest if I took credit for the chapters. The credit in fact belongs to James Marshall and his "George and Martha" books, which were also written in small chapters. 

I think "George and Martha" should be required reading for every child, teenager, grown-up, grandparent, you name it. They're about relationships and about forgiveness. At the same time, they're funny and warm. "Bubba and Beau" are my personal tribute to Marshall.

You also teach writing courses. Where are they taught? Which writing courses do you teach? And how can writers take your courses?

This fall, I'm teaching an undergraduate class in writing for children at Texas A&M University. I'm also a member of the faculty at Vermont College in their MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I'm delighted to be teaching in both programs, but in order to participate in either of those programs, you'd have to enroll. 

For the past ten years I've also taught an intensive workshop during the summer. And I frequently lead workshops for SCBWI. I'm scheduled to lead a retreat in September for the chapter in Indiana. For information, folks can log onto my website where I have a page that lists my schedule. The URL is www.kathiappelt.com

From interviewing Cynthia Leitich Smith I learned that, thorough SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), you were her mentor. Which do you find more gratifying and fulfilling-- teaching writing courses, or mentoring aspiring authors?

Gosh, they're both wonderful. Watching my students find their way and become successful is often more exciting than seeing my own work come to fruition. 

The thing that Cynthia probably didn't tell you is that I've learned as much or more from her than she's learned from me. I adore her, and I shamelessly love it that she gives me credit for her success-- I know she would have found her way without me. But that's the thing about teaching-- you always learn from your students. I'm a better writer for having been a teacher.

In your opinion, what criteria should prospective students of writing courses or mentees look for in instructors? Should they choose those, for example, who've written the most books? Or ones with the greatest percentage of students/mentees who've had books of their own published? 

Like any relationship, the chemistry between a teacher and a student is individual. I studied for years with a professor, Venkatesh Kulkarni, who published only one book in his lifetime. But he was an excellent teacher and I would not be where I am had I not been his student. I try to take at least one course or workshop a year; sometimes the teacher is great, sometimes not. But I always learn something. It's never a waste of time. I've really been lucky too in that I've had a host of excellent teachers.

Would you share with us, Kathi, that wonderful story on your site, about the garage wall your mother made for you and your sisters when you were kids? What a clever mother you had.

She didn't really make the wall, it was just there. I'm fairly certain that she needed to distract us so that she could get some chores done, or maybe she just needed some time to herself? At any rate, she plopped us in front of the garage wall-- inside, not outside-- with a handful of crayons and let us go at it. As we grew, my sisters and I continued to "make our marks" on that wall. It almost became like a diary or journal if you will. You could see our handwriting change as you scanned up the wall. 

I'm convinced that every child should have a wall to draw on. Cave children certainly did. I wish I had a wall of my own sons' drawing, but I didn't remember this part of my childhood until they were past the wall-drawing stage. I can't wait for grandchildren. They'll have a wall. And crayons.

Yet, the wall wasn't the catalyst that jump-started your writing career, correct? At least not your children's books writing career. You began writing them when you read books to your own young sons, didn't you?

Yes, I would never have written for kids if I had not had my own sons. I never even paid much attention to children's books until they came along. Reading times with the boys were like enchanted moments. The books, the closeness, the wonder. It all worked, and when I mentioned this to one of my old professors over lunch one day, she asked why I didn't try writing my own. I had to pause. Why didn't I? The rest is history.

The second book in the "Bubba" series, Bubba and Beau Go Night-Night is now published and on sale. Aside from, or because these books are so adorable, it seems like what you've created is a series that can literally go on forever. Which leads to a number of questions: Did you plan it that way? Where did the inspiration for the characters and books come from? Is this how a series is born? And, would you advise writers to try to create their own series, as a vehicle for becoming popular, successful authors?

I would love for them to go forever. I love writing them. Of course, their longevity partially depends upon Arthur. I hope that he'll continue to love them as much as I do. The third one, BUBBA AND BEAU MEET THE RELATIVES is a work of genius on his part. I personally think it's the best one so far. Arthur has a way of including tiny little details that create a whole world-Bubbaville. In one spread, he's got a jar of "Bubbacue Sauce" sitting on the kitchen counter. It's these small things that make such a huge difference. But besides the details, his art is just genuine. It's not at all pretentious, which I think is what makes it so successful

Did I plan a series? Yes. I saw these characters as "ongoing." Like George and Martha, I felt they were complex enough, despite their seeming simplicity, that I could sustain them through a number of books. At least that's the hope.

The inspiration, besides George and Martha, came from my own sons, from their babyhood. But it also came from my background. I say that the Bubbas are my relatives, and while no one in my family lives in the country, they still have enough Texan in them to be related. And several of them drive trucks.

I do advise authors to write series if they can. It's wonderful to be able to create a whole world, including a place, situations, and characters. Some of my favorite books are series: Betsy Byars' "Golly Sisters"; Rosemary Wells's "Max and Ruby"; Tasha Tudor's "Corgiville." Readers can return to these characters time after time. They can get to know them better than they might in a single book. 

Same with the authors. I feel I know the characters in Bubbaville far better than many of my other characters simply because there are opportunities for them to do something new and experience something different. Each new book is like a visit. Each visit brings something fresh.

One interesting issue you just raised, by inference, was that when a writer and illustrator embark on a series of books together, if and when the illustrator loses interest in continuing the series there, of course, goes the series. Which must be devastating for a writer who, for example, planned a twelve-book series with an illustrator who got tired of the series after the eighth book.

It would depend on how many are under contract, but yes, if one of the parties pooped out, it could be sad for the other.

In your case, your observations, "Of course, their longevity partially depends upon Arthur. I hope that he'll continue to love them as much as I do," tell us that although you and he signed a contract agreeing and committing to both stay the course-- no matter how many books were involved, contracts provide no guarantees that such conflicts of interests won't arise?

We both have three more B&B books under contract, but I think the worst thing that could happen to a book would be if the illustrator really didn't want to do it. My gosh, that would be awful for both the illustrator and the book. I always yearn for the artist to feel as if the book is his or her very own. If they don't take ownership of it, then I think all parties suffer. I certainly don't want any artist to suffer through my books. A contract can always be renegotiated.

Lastly, Kathi, being an as yet unpublished author, I assumed that the only way writers could keep their work fresh, interesting, challenging, and not bore themselves; let alone their readers, to death, was to write individual, unique, original, each-book-stands-on-its-own-merit kind of books-- not series of books. But what you're saying is that writers can challenge themselves in exactly the same ways when writing each individual book in a series of children's books?

Absolutely. One of the charms of creating a series is the opportunity for your characters to grow, to face new situations, to push the author beyond the mundane. 

I love Bubba and Beau. For me, the huge challenge with them is that both of them are pre-lingual. So, here are my two main characters, but neither of them has language. So, I have to figure out how they can "manipulate" the action without putting words or thoughts into their mouths or heads. I was well into my second book when I realized what was going on with them. So, I didn't consciously put myself in that box, but once I realized I was in it, I now look for ways to expand it and to even step outside of it. And I love that.

Having obstacles in our paths is the only way we learn, right?

Visit MyFavoriteBookShop (http://www.MyFavoriteBookShop.com), RoseEtta Stone's new bookshop, featuring children’s books; books of yesteryear, today, and tomorrow; books for reluctant readers; and banned, censored, challenged, and burned books.

Specializing in: locating old, rare, hard to find, sought after, and/or out of print books.


 

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