Kathi Appelt is the author of over a dozen picture books, as well as two wonderful middle grade novels. Her New York Times best-seller “The Underneath” was a National Book Award finalist and received a Newbery Honor. “Keeper” won Kathy yet more devoted fans, with its haunting story of a young girl convinced her mother is a mermaid.
Now Kathi’s written a rollicking tall tale, “The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp”. Publishing July 23, it’s the story of raccoon brothers Bingo and J’miah, a 12 year old boy named Chap, and the beloved swamp they all fight to save.
Kathi recently stopped by for an interview.
MUF: I’ve long been a fan of your picture books. (Can you say “Bubba & Beau” or “Toddler Two-Step”?) Could you comment on your transition to writing middle grade?
KA: I’m not sure there was a big transition. Even though I’ve always written picture books, I also wrote poetry, and a couple of other books for young adults, including a memoir and a collection of short stories. I love being able to slip back and forth between audiences. However, I confess that it took me a long time to find my way into that middle grade zone. I don’t know why because middle graders seem to have the hugest love for reading of the whole big bunch. I’m glad I finally found my way.
MUF: As a reader, I’m always interested in where an author gets her ideas. As a writer, I’m (all too) aware of how many ideas do not, in fact, pan out as books. Could you say a little about how this process works for you?
KA: I have drawers full of unfinished books, all of which seemed like good ideas at the time. It’s taken me years to figure out that an idea is not the same as a story. What has changed for me is that now, once I get some germ of a story and begin putting the barest scribbles on the page, I really try to figure out what the ending is going to look like. If I can do that, then I can usually find my way there. That’s not to say that the eventual ending won’t change, only that I have to have some idea of where I’m going. Otherwise I’ll just wallow in the deep, mucky middle for eternity. That’s not fun.
MUF: The language in your books is always drop-dead gorgeous! From picture books to novels, they all beg to be read aloud. I know you love music–is there a relationship there?
KA: I think you are the first person to ask me that, and yet you’re so right! Music plays an integral role in my writing. I feel hugely influenced by it. Not only am I inspired by really great lyricists, but I try to pay attention to rhythms and beats, and the ways that they can provide subtext. This is especially important when I’m trying to create a certain tone in a story. I also look for places in my prose where I can take “riffs,” that is, where it feels like I can improvise a bit with the language and with the way that the words are situated on the page. I love that. Thank you for asking.
MUF: Just the title of your new novel is so much fun to say! After two middle grade novels with pretty serious themes, what was it like to write such a funny tall tale?
KA: One morning Cynthia Leitich Smith sent me an email that said, “Write something funny.” At first, I didn’t know what she was talking about. Me? Funny? But after I thought about it some more, I realized that Cynthia was paying attention to me as a friend, and she knew that I needed some light in my life. She was right. And because I respect her so much, I decided to go with it. And what I discovered—or rediscovered—in the process, was how much I truly love to write. This book reminded me of that. And I have Cynthia to thank for it.
MUF: I hear there are some new kittens at your house–six to be exact! Any chance there’s a kitten book on your horizon?
KA: There’s always a chance for a kitten book, but next year, I actually have a dog book on the horizon. It’s a picture book called “Mogie, the Heart of the House,” and it’s about the real live dog who lives at the Ronald McDonald House in Houston. Not a single kitten. Doesn’t it seem like something is wrong with that picture?
MUF: No! It’s no doubt going to be wonderful! Thanks so much for stopping on by, Kathi!
Kathi will give away a copy of her new book plus–are you ready–a free Skype visit to a class, book club, scout troop, or other middle grade group. The visit can be scheduled now or during the coming school year. To be eligible, all you need to do is leave a comment below!