Pour yourself a cup of coffee and join me for a chat with rock star Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate as we celebrate the book birthday of Dogtown, The One and Only Ruby, and Odder. You know her from The One and Only Ivan, but also books like Crenshaw, Wishtree, and the Animorphs series, now in a new graphic format designed by Chris Grine.
This lively conversation touches on her latest releases and teases the final book in the One and Only Ivan series, coming in 2024. We discuss animal inspirations, encouraging reluctant readers, and supporting teachers and librarians as they help kids find their own just right books.
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How We Met: Shenandoah University's Rally for Reading
I want to start this post by sharing my Instagram post from Shenandoah University's Rally for Reading in May. Click through the post. Play the video with the sound turned up. I want you to experience the magic and the wonder of that morning at Shenandoah University when 500 kids were bussed in from rural and urban counties to celebrate the joy of reading. Listen to the riotous joy that erupted as the fabulous Mr. Schu egged them on. The noise was so loud my watch warned me I was at rock concert decibel levels -- and this was for BOOKS! Listen to the grace and warmth that is Katherine Applegate -- and pay attention to the story of the little girl crying tears of joy over meeting her favorite author. Books matter. Stories matter. And you are about to meet someone who matters -- to me and to countless children everywhere -- the one and only Katherine Applegate.
How does it feel to be a reading rock star?
Katherine: Well, you know, it wasn't me. It was John Schu. We were there together. And if you have not seen Mr. Schu, who is, like the ultimate book evangelist on stage or with kids in an audience, it is something to behold because he has this manic energy and his love for books just comes shining through. And he's just a remarkable presence in a room, and he has this uncanny ability to look around a room and know just the right book for just the right child. And there were 500-600 kids in that room. It was an absolutely wonderful event, and it was very fun to hear kids screaming about authors and books, because how often does that happen? Should happen more.
Dr. Diane: Well, and I remember you so graciously stayed after to sign books for some of the kids. And there was this one little girl. As I was following her out of the auditorium, she was in tears, and I looked at her, and I said, Are you okay? And she goes, yes, this is my dream come true. It's my best day ever. I get to meet my favorite author. And so I was able to get her over to you, and I watched her face light up as you signed The One and Only Ruby for her. And it was just one of those moments where I thought you connected with the reader in such a powerful way, and that just thrilled me.
Katherine: Well, and it's interesting you were a part of that process, and that's how important teachers and librarians are to this whole process. I think sometimes they forget they're the intermediary, the conduit that gets the books into the hands of the right kids. And it's so important. I mean, without them, we're just words floating in the air. So I'm eternally grateful, especially to librarians lately, because they've been going through a lot in so many ways. Thank you for making that happen.
Note: EDUCATORS AND FAMILIES, check out these amazing educator resources on Katherine's website.
Tell us a little bit about your adventures in learning, how you became Katherine Applegate. Were you always a writer? What led to this?
Katherine: I'm afraid it was a very circuitous path.
Dr. Diane: That's okay. I think they all are.
Katherine: They all are. But I have to admit, mine was perhaps a little more rocky than some in that. And I always confess this to kids right away, I was not much of a reader. And I often point out to them, I happen to have a daughter who has Dyslexia, which of course can make it very challenging, but with great teachers, that's something you can get past and work with. But for me, it was just ho hum. Why would I read a book about a made up person or animal? I found it boring. I found it that it was too hard for me. It was just didn't click. And for me, the gateway drug was Charlotte's Web. For everybody, it's a different book. But I so love kids to remember that there is a book or a series of books or a type of book.
Sometimes it's a matter of genre. For my daughter, graphic novels were the key to her success. She just fell in love with Drama by Raina Telgemeier, and that was it.
So kids need to remember that not everybody is born at age two months and reading in their stroller. Some of us, it takes a while, and I was one of those kids.
So once I got there, I read sporadically. It still took me a while. I'm still, to this day, a very slow reader, but at this point, it's very much about savoring the words. I'll go back and read something, a book, several times or a paragraph a dozen times, just because I love writers who play with rhythm and poetry and the lyricism.
Although I got a degree in English from the University of Texas, where I happened to be living -- my dad was with IBM, so we moved around a lot as a kid -- I still avoided writing for quite some time afterwards and had the usual series of pre-writing jobs. Really bad waitress, really bad plant waterer, really bad typist. You name it, I did it. And only eventually did I go, you know, I’ve got to give it a shot.
Dr. Diane: That's wonderful. And you've been now a published author for 25, 30 years, is that correct?
Katherine: I think that's probably being a little yeah, I was going to say generous in terms of my age. Yeah, I think I started publishing. Well, I did do, there's a lot of ghost writing in my 30s, very nervous about putting my name on anything. And ghostwriting is a great way to learn your craft. You're working on deadlines, something I still struggle with. You're writing for a certain voice. So when I was writing Mickey Mouse, man, I had to sound like Mickey Mouse. When I was writing Sweet Valley, I had to get Jessica sounding just like the evil twin that she was. So there's a lot of that that was really helpful for me.
So I had sort of a very long apprenticeship. I was not one of those overnight sensations. But we don't like those people anyway.
Dr. Diane: Well, you know, it takes time to build your craft, right?
Katherine: Exactly. And to get up the nerve to fail, which I think is so much a part of this for so many writers. And I like to remind kids of that.
Life is about failing again and again and again, every single day, millions of times a day, and that's how we learn.
But I was very much one of those people who had to have it perfect on the page, and that can really slow you down. So you need to be able to let yourself experiment and fail and fail spectacularly.
Dr. Diane: Animorphs is a little bit different than Ivan and some of the other things you've done. Was there part of you that was a reluctant reader, that was writing books to reach other reluctant readers?
Katherine: I wrote that with my husband (Michael Grant), and I very much wanted to get kids into the heads of animals. I wanted them to have that experience. And he said, you know, that's going to be Sci-Fi. And it just sort of evolved. At first, it was very just playful. It was fun, and there were lots of sound effects. And we had our wonderful editor, Tonya Martin and Jean Feiwel, who headed the Scholastic branch at that point, made it possible for us to take some leaps. And as we wrote, it got darker and darker. It became very much sort of a war story. That was not what we intended initially, but then, of course, we didn't think it would run to 50 plus books. So eventually, at the very end, we started using ghostwriters ourselves. But we continued to outline and to edit throughout. And it was a really wonderful experience because that was a time when books came out every single month. Remember that?
And I've had so many kids tell me their most vivid memory was going to the bookstore month after month after month to get that next Animorphs. And I wish we could duplicate that experience because I think that helps reluctant readers to get past those early impediments.
Dr. Diane: Right. And the cover art was part of what drew them in. They came for the cover art and then stayed for the words in the story.
Katherine: Oh, yes, the cover art was amazing. The guy who did most of that was David Mattingly. And it's just become iconic. It's been used in so many parodies. And somebody sent me some beer cans with Animorphs on them the other day. I mean, there's nowhere it hasn't been parodied because it was such a wonderful cover. And it was all due to Dave. He did a wonderful job.
Dr. Diane: And did I see that they're going into graphic format now?
Katherine: They are, and it's very much the work of this wonderful artist who has just taken, usually multiple books at a time and kind of put them together into one. And it's really fun for kids who are iffy about reading but love those visuals. Chris Grine. Really cool. I'm sorry. Chris Grine. And he's really taken the lead on it and done just an amazing job. It's a lot of work. A lot of work.
Let's talk about the new books!
Dr. Diane: You have had a very exciting year. The One and Only Ruby just came out, and you've got another book due out anytime now. Can you tell us a little bit about your new books? Let's start with Ruby. I read that one in a day, and I have to tell you, I laughed and I cried all the way through it.
Katherine: Oh, she's such a fun character. Truly delightful in that she's still very young. And it was very fun to write that almost little girl voice where you're looking at the world a little bit hopefully, and maybe with a bit of naiveté. But she has a very dark backstory, too, as do, unfortunately, many elephants in captivity.
Much of her story is based on a fictional version of the Sheldrick Wildlife Center, which is in Kenya. And they rescue mostly baby elephants who are orphaned. They take them in and they have a caretaker work with them one on one, sleep with them, eat with them, walk with them, teach them everything they need to know in the hopes that they can rejoin a herd down the road. So that was very fun because I love doing research, and every time I've stepped into that group of friends, I've been able to do more research.
The other book I have coming out is with the remarkable author Gennifer Choldenko. Gennifer is the author of Al Capone Does My Shirts, the whole Alcatraz series. And she is remarkable author -- so funny, so in tune with what middle graders want to read.
It turned out that we were neighbors, and we didn't really realize it. She used to walk her dog pretty much on the trails right behind my house. So it turned out we were both consummate dog lovers, and we kind of flirted with the idea of writing something together, and eventually Dogtown was born.
The conceit, which is really fun, is that Dogtown is a shelter for both real dogs and robot dogs. And there's sort of a running competition between the two sets, although, of course, in the end, they do come together and make some lasting friendships. But working with her has just been an absolute joy.
Katherine: Oh, one of the things that makes it so special is the illustrations are by this wonderful guy named Wallace West, and they almost remind me of New Yorker cartoons. They're very whimsical line drawings, really captures the facial expressions. You know, how you look at your dog and you know what they're thinking, and somehow he's magical about putting that onto the page. And it's written in very small chapters, little tiny. I would call it maybe early middle grade to mid, although I think older readers will love it too.
So it's for those reluctant readers out there who are maybe a little intimidated by those bigger books and has so much going on that it just moves very quickly.
Dr. Diane: Oh, that sounds so much fun. I can't wait to read it. So I've noticed that you tend to write with non human characters. There's Wishtree, which is one of my favorite books you wrote. There's, of course, Ivan, there's Crenshaw. You've got your most current group of dogs. What's the appeal of writing with a non human main character?
I think it allows me to look at human beings from an outside perspective in a way that I think is, at least for me, kind of therapeutic. I find our human behavior baffling and sometimes depressing and sometimes just anger making and sometimes just absolutely blissfully wonderful. And so being able to look at it from the outside, I think provides a unique perspective. I started out writing about animals just because I was one of those animal lovers. -- Katherine
Katherine: I worked for a vet in high school. I was absolutely sure I would be a vet and then realized that I was more interested kind of in the psychology than in the biology per se. So that's where I started.
But once I realized the fun you could have being on the outside and looking in, I couldn't resist going back to it again and again.
And Wishtree, it's interesting because you do write yourself into corners when you take a non human perspective. With Wishtree, I got about halfway in and went, you know what, Red can't move and I'm in trouble here. I had to create this menagerie of characters to do some of the heavy lifting. Similarly with Ivan early on, I literally threw the manuscript away and went, there is no way I can write from the POV of a gorilla, who is going to read this? So it's always a process.
I tried, for example, with Odder, which is a recent book, to get as close as I could to keeping the physiology and the facts there. But once you leap into the head of an animal, you're going to be anthropomorphic by definition. So it's always a balancing act.
Did winning the Newbery for Ivan change your life in any way?
Katherine: Oh the Newbery changes everyone's lives and always for the better. The only downside, I think, is perhaps the pressure to perform. And other than that, what happens is a book that might have been remaindered stays in print and that story’s like your child -- you love it and you want to share it with the world -- and the Newbery makes that possible. I'm profoundly aware that to me, it's a little like getting hit by lightning, because every year there are so many gorgeous books. But it was absolutely life changing in myriad ways.
Most importantly, I think it gave me some confidence that I lacked. I went, okay, this is a story that I was about to give up on, and now here it is, and people seem to like it, and that's a pretty wonderful experience. I wish everybody could win a Newbery.
Dr. Diane: Wouldn't that be lovely?
Katherine: It might diminish the effect, but it's such an affirmation, and writers work in such isolation. It's hard being a writer. I mean, believe me, I've had real jobs in my life. I've cleaned toilets and I've done Saturday nights and cocktail bars.
But writing has its own kind of challenges because you are working solo and you're living with a bunch of imaginary beings day in and day out that no one else can see. And it's a very strange occupation in that way.
Dr. Diane: So are there authors or illustrators today that are influencing you? I know Charlotte's Web was that book that got you hooked as you've moved into the field. Are there authors whose work you love, who inspire you? And I know I'm putting you on the spot with that question.
Katherine: Oh, I hate that question, because you start going and you can't stop. I'll tell you, someone I've been reading a lot recently is Jason Reynolds, because I love the energy he can put into any idea. But there's always a lot of poetry there at the same time. And I think that's such a gift to be able to instantly connect with a kid and yet also be having fun with a written word. I love authors who can do that, and there are so many, but I love all kinds of books. I think Dav Pilkey is amazing, and I could read his books 24 hours a day. They just make me smile. And isn't that the most profound gift you can give anybody?
Dr. Diane: So, what are you working on now?
I am working on the last installment of the Ivan books, and that's kind of all I'm allowed to say at this point. I do have a title, and I'm well into the manuscript, and I had no intention of writing this final book. But when the idea came to me, it was so perfect. It brings the narrative art full circle in a way that I think is wonderful.
Katherine:So I mentioned this, in fact, at the Reading Rally, and I said, you're never going to guess who it's about. And the kids are like, no, it's about Mac. No, it's about Snickers. And they're never right. And this one little girl came up to me and she said and she even knew the title, she had it just right. And I was quite amazed. Wow, that kid's going to be a writer someday.
Dr. Diane: Well, I am so excited to know that there's one more chapter in the Ivan books.
Katherine: It's the cover I have on my screen in front of me all day, and it's just delightful. Patricia Castelao, who I've never met after all these years, lives in Portugal and is just an amazing illustrator. And this final cover is so charming. I just fell in love with it the moment I saw it.
Dr. Diane: And when is it going to be out in the world, do we think?
Katherine: We think next year. Lord willing and the creek don't rise.
Dr. Diane: Of course. That's so exciting. So you mentioned that you had to do a lot of research for the Ivan books, that you looked into the elephant preserve. You obviously researched Ivan. What has moved you the most from that research? What has influenced your life from the things that you've learned about the animal world?
Oh, it's just that chasm between us and them. I think it keeps narrowing as people do more research and we understand the way animals perceive the world and the skills and adaptations they have that we never even imagined were possible. I find that absolutely fascinating. -- Katherine
Katherine: I talked about this with some kids the other day. You look at your dog and you're trying to figure out what's going on in his head, and yes, it's usually feed me or walk me, but there's so much more complexity there, and I love trying to parse that out and understand how other species fit into our world and unfortunately, are disappearing from our world. And I think that's so heartbreaking.
But every time I go to schools, I see so many kids who are really engaged in that concern. They're thinking about climate change and they're thinking about how we're losing species en masse, and they want to do something about it. So that always gives me hope.
Dr. Diane: Me, too. I was fortunate enough to go to Antarctica in December with my father, and it completely changed my life in that it made me realize absolutely, without a doubt, what's at stake and what we stand to lose if we don't do something. And I think the more that we can help kids feel that love and that hope and that power to act and to change, the better we are as a society.
Katherine: I've been working a bit with the University of Minnesota, which has a climate lit, children's climate lit focus in their studies. And I love that they're acknowledging that books can play a small part, but a part in getting that change to happen. Because I think when a child reads a story and sees that polar bear on the ice flow, it hits home in a way that nothing else will. And so that's really important. And kids aren't often exposed the way I would love them to be, how many kids get to go to Antarctica?
Dr. Diane: Exactly. And I think that that's so important. And I think you just hit on something that books do.
Books play a role in helping us to understand the world around us in places that we don't get to go ourselves. -- Dr. Diane
I may never get to travel to Africa, I may never get to go to the depths of Asia. But through a book, I develop empathy and I develop compassion, I hope. And I think that that's something that has resonated for me in the books that you've published, is they always help me to come away a little bit better than I was before I started.
Katherine: Wow. That's high praise indeed. There's a quote, and I can't remember who said it, fiction makes immigrants of us all. And I love that because that's exactly right. It takes us someplace else, and it allows us to be other people, which is why the focus on book banning that we've been seeing has been so hugely frustrating to many of us.
Dr Diane: Absolutely.
Building Connections and Fighting Book Banning
Katherine: This is how kids see themselves in the world. This is how we learn about other people by reading beyond ourselves. And the idea that you need to litigate that or to censor books that are going to change the life of a child, it just breaks my heart. I do think we're getting better at fighting back. I'm vastly encouraged by that. I think there was a time there where Moms for Liberty and their ilk were getting all the airtime. They were just sucking all the air out, and it's a dozen people going around and getting books banned en masse all over the country.
And I think we're starting to realize, okay, we fight back with litigation, and we go to every single school board meeting, and we make a ton of noise, and we make sure these people have actually read the books that they're complaining about. -- Katherine
That, I think, is one of the most egregious parts of this whole unfolding drama that I keep thinking is going to end. I really thought a year ago this was going to reach a peak, and maybe we're getting there. Maybe we're on the downhill slide. I don't know.
Dr. Diane: Well, and it feels so driven by fear that you're afraid to see outside of your own little world, and you're depriving yourself of this wonderful kaleidoscope of experiences and people, and I feel sorry for them almost, that that's the limited worldview you're taking, that you're not able to see beyond that fear.
Katherine: You're right. It's all about fear. It really is. And it helps to understand that when you're trying to bridge that gap. I made a decision. I happen to have a trans daughter, and I was so mad at Texas for so many reasons that I decided not to go, to accept an invitation that I'd had to go to Texas, and I wrote a letter and put it on Twitter and made some noise about how frustrated I was. But I don't think in retrospect, it helped in the least.
I think you have to engage. You have to go meet the enemy halfway and talk to them, and if they won't listen, then you have to fight. So I think in the end, as grueling and tedious as that can be, that's the final answer. -- Katherine
Dr. Diane: I think you're right. And I'm finding as I'm traveling the country and working with teachers, that that's part of it, too. Teachers want to do the best that they can for the students that they've got, and they need the support and the backing and the words to work around some of these horrific legislative things that have happened in states. And so trying to help them do their jobs in a climate that's not making it easy for them to do their jobs is huge.
Katherine: There was a wonderful video. I had it pinned on my Twitter feed for a while. I think she was a math teacher in Florida, and she was leaving her job for obvious reasons, because she'd just been pushed to the limit. But she gave this impassioned speech, I think it was before a school board, and said, you know what? I barely have time to teach your kids how to add two and two together. I don't have time to turn them gay. I don't have time to change the way they view the world because I'm trying to teach them math, okay? And it was so powerful and so plaintive. I feel deeply frustrated for librarians and teachers right now because they already have so much to deal with, budget cuts and testing, and now we're adding this to it and just it's heartbreaking.
Dr. Diane: And we ought to be celebrating them because, as we said at the very beginning, they’re the ones who are doing that powerful, transformative work of connecting children to the right book.
Katherine: Exactly. And for that, writers everywhere are beyond grateful.
Dr. Diane: So let's finish on a joyful note. What currently brings you hope and joy in the world?
Katherine: Oh, my. So many things. Of course, my family, my kids just make me laugh, and on a daily basis, just moment to moment, I have to say, animals still bring me a remarkable amount of pleasure. I'm sitting next to a snoring pug at the moment, and she just makes me smile, and that gives me tremendous joy. And I love walking and seeing nature in all its many forms. And I happen to be living in a desert environment right now where it's a bit more challenging, but it's absolutely beautiful. It's just beautiful in a whole different way than I've been used to. So how about you?
Dr. Diane: So the walking in the nature is huge for me. There's a pond nearby, and every night I like to walk to the pond and count the frogs, check out the mama ducks, and see how the babies are growing. Look at the fireflies as they're fluttering around. It's idyllic, and it's stuff that I didn't necessarily appreciate before, and there's so much joy in that. And there's joy in seeing the way that kids embrace the world and embrace each other. I just finished doing a library camp and the idea it was around the library summer theme come together. And so we used picture books as a way to build empathy. And I was connecting it to STEM and STEAM activities as well, and to watch these kids over the course of a week build relationships with each other and take on challenges and help each other. I thought, okay, we're in pretty good hands if we can just let them grow up in a world that's kind and compassionate.
Katherine: Oh, absolutely. That's so very true.
Whenever I feel worried about the world, I find doing a school visit puts me right back in a good place, because there's idealism and energy and optimism that I often lack. And I feel like okay, you're right. If we help these kids along the way, and by the way, maybe let them read a book or two, they're going to be okay.
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Please note that these timestamps are approximate.
[04:16] Katherine's Journey as an Author:
Her circuitous path to becoming a writer and early struggles with reading.
The importance of failing and experimenting in the writing process.
[09:11] Writing for Reluctant Readers:
The Animorphs series
The influence of powerful cover art
[17:47] Writing with Non-Human Characters:
The appeal of writing stories with non-human main characters
How writing from a non-human perspective allows her to explore human behavior from an outsider's view.
[20:01] Impact of Winning the Newbery:
The confidence boost winning provided and why it's important to fail.
[22:08] Authors Who Inspire Katherine Applegate
Jason Reynolds and Dav Pilkey
[25:15] Ivan's Last Installment:
In the works -- a fourth and final book in the Ivan series -- with a tease from Katherine about the main character
[26:21] Research and Animal Behavior:
The research involved in writing about animals and how it deepens our understanding of animal behavior.
The importance of addressing climate change and species loss in kidlit.
[29:30] Books Building Empathy and Compassion:
How books help us understand different cultures and perspectives.
[31:34] Book Banning and Censorship:
Strategies for supporting and preserving diverse literature.
[34:36] Sources of Joy:
Hope in the next generation's idealism, energy, and optimism, especially when guided by educators and authors.