Kathi Appelt is a wildly-creative and rightly-celebrated author of books for young readers. Whether delighting with her picture books or challenging with her chapter books, she enlivens each story with a unique spirit, a humane perspective that is at once a joyful surprise and a familiar friend. Her latest, Angel Thieves, deserves a wider conversation, a closer look, an open heart.
Appelt came in to the world in a hurry, born in the front seat of her parents' car!, in Fayetteville, North Carolina; however, she has lived most of her life in Texas, and her home town of Houston features strongly in her storytelling. In the biographical note on her website, she describes being allowed as a child to draw on an unfinished wall of the family garage. Using this image, she encourages her readers, young and old, to write their stories on whatever wall they have available, reminding them that "writing is really a way of seeing."
In this interview, Appelt shares her way of seeing with us. For that, and for all her wonderful stories, I am grateful.
SBW: In the author’s note to Angel Thieves, you write,
I’ll never be the sweet believer that is Soleil, but I do believe in love as the key to restoring the darkness that can be so pervasive. I do believe in gathering in circles, sharing our stories, and learning to see one another for who we truly are -- messy, conflicted, angry, smart, joyful, driven, funny creatures, who have the capacity for being lamps in the world.
Would you be willing to talk more about that love and gathering, especially as it pertains to young people?
KA: I want to remind us that as humans, we are absolutely built for stories. Our capacity for story is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. So far as we know, we’re the only ones who tell them. There are a couple of things to note about that. First, it means that our stories are, in many ways, what make us most human, and second, they’re the most sacred thing about us, right? What we hold as most true is found in our great holy texts—the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Vita, etc. So, our stories have a lot of power—for both good and bad. Thousands of years after those stories were written, we’re still judging each other, still celebrating and condemning each other, over the stories that are found in those volumes.
The thing is, we too often forget the great power that sharing our stories has for bringing us together. That’s the inherent gift of Story, to give us spaces for getting inside of each other’s lives, for fully seeing each other at a fundamentally human level.
SBW: What do you see as the obstacles facing us - what is keeping us from gathering in circles and seeing one another?
KA: I think that social media draws us apart to a certain extent. But I also feel that there is so much division going on now in our greater society that it’s creating a lot of walls. And not just the one at our southern border. We have a very divided country right now, and I think it’s making us fearful of even being together. Whole families have been split apart by it all, which makes our gatherings even more important. Until we can sit down together and tell stories, I feel like we’re doomed. I also believe that kids today are super busy; their lives feel jam-packed, which also makes it difficult to gather. So, huge divides and busy schedules—a recipe for exclusion.
SBW: What is it about a book, in your opinion, that helps that seeing happen?
KA: A book, on its own, is a safe place. A reader can fall into it and discover a new perspective without feeling compelled to justify it. It’s like—look, this makes me think in a different way, and I can accept that or not. But regardless of which way a reader decides to go, they’ve still seen something that is new or different, so the scope is widened, at least a little. You don’t have to explain to the book why you agree or not with its premise. It makes no difference to the book. But it might make a difference to you simply because you read it. See what I mean? I love that.
SBW: What did it mean to you to open Angel Thieves with an invitation to prayer, especially since (on your blog and elsewhere) you have said you are not a particularly religious person?
KA: To me, praying is a more ancient practice than religion. I’m not a theologian, of course, so I can’t say that with certainty. But I believe that each statement of gratitude, each call for help, each invocation of wonder, is the same as a prayer, largely because each of those things creates a connection to something larger than oneself. So, it made sense to me to try to invoke a connection between the story and the reader right from the start.
There’s an old Steven Fromholz song that I have loved forever, and the chorus goes: “Blue lines on white linen is all that I write you… and I pray they will find you…and I hope they delight you, too. Blue lines on white linen is all that I write you… how I wish I was with you tonight.”
This song is as close to my mantra as anything I know. So, I pray that my story finds you, and I hope it delights you too.
SBW: Though you had previously written numerous picture books, The Underneath was your first novel, and it is wonderful. It was honored with recognitions galore, appropriately so! What was it like being launched into the spotlight with your first novel?
KA: I felt like the world’s luckiest person.
SBW: Obviously animals are important to you and your writing. Why do you think they make such good conduits for stories?
KA: Animal characters allow us to see the world from completely different angles. Even if I went swimming in the lake, my view of it as I swam would be completely different than the view of the beaver or the fish or the egret. My use/need of the lake would also be different from theirs.
At the same time, animals can represent our own longings and actions in a way that is translatable to our human dilemma. For example, when I initially wrote the character of Zorra, the notion of putting kids in cages, separated from their parents, their homes, was something that seemed like vestiges of a distant past. Surely not in my country! But then, here is my ocelot. Far from home. Separated from any form of life aside from what she can see beyond the bars of her cage. And by the end, it’s clear that only love can actually save her. But who does the saving? The thief! So, my hope is that we can overcome our differences, our assumptions, our judgments in ways that allow us to see the things that may be right underneath our noses. Animal characters give us that opportunity. They show us how to be better creatures, as Sy Montgomery might say.
SBW: Some might argue that your books are dark, and it’s true that the layers of pain present in these stories are real and difficult. How do you respond when critics claim you should not include so much “bad” stuff in books for young readers?
KA: Joy and Fear are the great twins, right? One can’t exist without the other and vice versa. So, for true joy to show up, fear has to play its role. One of the things I appreciate most about Kelly Gallagher’s work is his invocation of “emotional rehearsals.” The idea is that there is safety in the pages of a book, so a young reader can experience sadness while reading, and then, when the inevitable moment of sadness occurs in real life, that child knows what they’re dealing with. They’ve “rehearsed” it. I also feel like we underestimate our kids—they’re far more sophisticated than we give them credit for and are capable of handling darkness when confronted with it. I also hope that if a child isn’t ready for a book like The Underneath, they’ll put it aside and return to it when they are.
When I was small, I loved to spend the night with my grandmother. And she loved to watch The Twilight Zone. That show always scared the living daylights out of me. So I made a point of falling asleep on the sofa just as it was coming on. That way, I didn’t have to see it. I think kids do that with books too. True confession—I still don’t watch scary shows. I can scare myself just fine without assistance.
SBW: In Angel Thieves, the Bayou gets to be an actual character, and it is a fascinating stroke. How else do you manage to make setting as alive and real to readers?
KA: The landscape has so much to tell us. I rely upon it to provide a frame for the story. As soon as I know my setting, I am also privy to the flora and fauna. A setting that has a bear in it is going to have a different affect than a setting without a bear. A landscape that is arid and hot is going to have different requirements than one that is damp all the time. So, the landscape offers shape to a story. It also provides texture and sound. So, I can use elements like assonance to help mirror the sounds of, say, a tumbling river or a quiet snowscape. As well, most settings have their own histories, which gives a story some depth. The Bayou in Angel Thieves serves as a witness of sorts. She’s the one continuing voice that transcends the timelines. She’s been there all along, and she knows what she sees. That said, of course, she’s unreliable, just as anything in nature is, including human beings. So yes, I rely upon the setting to give my characters a way of being in their world that they wouldn’t if they lived some other place.
SBW: Can you imagine writing a story where the characters are rich and nuanced but exist in a nowhere place?
KA: Yes, actually. Kekla Magoon’s most recent book, Light it Up, which is a sequel to her How it Went Down, is intentionally written as if it could happen anywhere. She deliberately made the setting nondescript, so that we feel that the occurrences in the story are not impinged upon by territories or histories. In so doing, the gravity she creates is profound. We’re left feeling that there are no borders to what is happening, and that a zip code is not going to save us. We can only save each other. By not creating a specific place, she puts us directly into the action, directly into the space, of the story. So, what happens? The lack of place is the place.
SBW: Along the way, you’ve continued to create lovely and thoughtful picture books as well. How is the collaboration process between writer and illustrator for you? (PS: I loved Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers).
KA: I usually don’t have much say in the illustration. Miss Lady Bird was a rare exception because the artist, Joy Fisher Hein, and I have known each other for something like thirty years. So, that was a really wonderful experience. The best thing about being a picture book author is seeing the art as it comes in. I’m in awe of the ways that the artists bring the stories to life, and they often illuminate something I didn’t actually see in the writing of it.
And now the requisite SBW top ten:
Who are your heroes?
Librarians. Teachers. Protestors. Journalists. Reporters.
Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first?
Oh boy, that feels like a chicken and egg question. I don’t think I can separate one from the other.
Who/what are you reading these days?
What’s a book that stood out to you in the last year or so?
A book that I can’t get out of my head is Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds. Whew!
What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?
I live with a musician and both of our sons are musicians, so I’m exposed to a lot of music. But I’m particularly keen on female artists—Kat Edmondson, Taylor Swift, Patti Griffin…. TV-wise, I enjoy an array of things. I love watching “The Voice,” and I also like “Schitts Creek.” I think my tastes are a little eclectic, actually. I especially enjoy live performances—concerts, plays, lectures.
What is one important lesson you got from your parents (or upbringing, more generally)?
Watch your alcohol consumption.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A cowgirl. I loved horses and anything to do with them. And even though I grew up right smack in the middle of big Houston, they were my heart’s delight. Alas. It wasn’t to be. But I still love horses. As Alice Walker would say, “they make the landscape more beautiful.”
What constitutes a really good day for you?
Lately, it’s a day when my knees don’t hurt. But also, a day when I talk to one or both of my sweet sons, or my beautiful daughter-in-law. I love a day that allows me to take a nice, long walk (see knees above). A good day for me involves at least a page or two of writing. But honestly, I’m longing for a day when I don’t feel bereft over our political situation. Remember when we didn’t think about the president, and what crazy thing he might tweet, on a daily basis? I want one of those days.
What is one thing you are afraid of?
Snakes, and also that Donald Trump is going to be re-elected.
What is one thing you hope for?
World peace. And also, that Donald Trump is not going to be re-elected.
***Thank you, Kathi, for your willingness to share your humor, your wisdom, and your irrepressible spirit with me and with each of your readers. ***