Author Archives: kathiappelt

The Watermelon in the Room

How much difference does a watermelon make? There I was, watching the live stream of the National Book Awards last month, when Jackie Woodson’s beautiful and haunting memoir in verse Brown Girl Dreaming was chosen as this year’s winner in the Young People’s Literature category.

            Jackie, her face as radiant as the sun, gave her thanks. Such a moment! A hallelujah moment. A moment dashed by Daniel Handler’s foot, which he stuck directly into his mouth by trying to make a joke about Jackie being allergic to watermelon. “Think about that,” he said.

“WHAT!?!”

Of course, by now this is old news, and Handler compensated (somewhat) by tendering a series of apologies and also by making a major donation to the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Jackie, too, in her ongoing graciousness wrote a provocative op-ed in the New York Times, addressing the issue.

All of this to-do over a watermelon!

But it’s so much bigger than that, isn’t it? So much more. For Jackie and so many African Americans, a watermelon is representative of repression and racism and ridicule. Images of slaves and later share croppers bent over in the blazing heat of the deep South, harvesting the heaviest of all melons, cutting the rope-like vines and hoisting them into the back of a wagon or a pick up truck, isn’t the same at all as the image I grew up with.

For me, a watermelon signaled the beginning of summer, of family reunions, of bare feet and neighborhood baseball. It was a harbinger of long days and no homework, of firefly evenings and Coca-Cola chilled in big bucket of ice, a church key tied to the handle with a cotton string.

My grandmother was an expert at thumping watermelons. With her thumb, she tapped the hard green rind and listened for it to make just the right kind of echo before she purchased it. I never acquired this talent, and I sometimes wonder if she did it just to mystify my cousins and me.

A watermelon was for my grandfather to smack with the side of his fist and burst open with a resounding craaack! It was for seed-spitting and sticky fingers and juice so sweet it made us pucker at the first bite. It was for picnics and backyard barbecues and church luncheons. It was for me one of my earliest picture books: Watermelon Day.

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      And it makes me ask the question: what do we do with all of this? In so many ways, mine and Jackie’s lives were similar. Like her and her siblings, my sisters and I were often left in the care of grandparents. We both had fathers who loved us, but didn’t raise us, who were absent for long stretches. Both of our mothers moved us from one place to another, always seeking something better. Better jobs. Better housing. Better husbands. All of these shared samenesses. And yet, there is still the watermelon.

Right there.

In the room.

The thing is, neither of us can deny our own histories. I can’t change her experience and she can’t change mine. But when Mr. Handler made his remark, I understood at a deep level what had just happened. I grew up, after all, in the segregated American south of the 1950’s and 60’s. I have my racist ancestors, not all of whom are that long gone. If I’m being honest, I have to check my white privilege, knowing that there are absolutely ways of knowing that I can’t know, not fully anyways. I wish it were different. I wish that we were so far along in our shared history that Mr. Handler’s remark could actually be considered funny. He’s a funny guy. But we’re not there yet.

What I do know is that we can change, we must change, especially for our children, we have to change. And the only way I know to do that is to share our stories without making fun of them. For that, we need to make the room bigger, which is the work of We Need Diverse Books. It’s a start. Just like the scholarship that Barry Goldblatt has established in honor of Angela Johnson at VCFA is a start.

The thing is, I want to keep the watermelon in the room, not in spite of what it represents but because of what it represents. I want to eat a cold slice of it in honor of my cousins and our mystifying grandmother. And at the same time, I want to take a bite out of all the sorrow and antagonism that it holds for my black sisters, so that we don’t forget. And then, I want to plant some seeds from it, to grow a whole patch of new and old stories, some of which may be sour and hard to swallow, but some of which will be sweet and juicy. All those important stories. I want us together to grow stories that all of us can smack our fists against and crack open both truths and untruths, so that all girls, and boys too, no matter their color can be dreaming.

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Tweenland

So, I’m in that place I call Tweenland, and I’m not talking about that genre of children’s literature that is broadly written for kids in their “tweens.” Nope, rather I’m in that place between projects, somewhere on the other side of Donesville but not quite near enough to Drafthaven.

Drafthaven is the realm where all of my inadequacies rise to the surface. My friend and fellow author, Jeanette Ingold, once told me that every time she starts a new novel, she feels as though she has to learn all over again how to write one. This, from a woman who has written several highly-acclaimed novels, a craftswoman of the highest sort. It’s hard for me to imagine that Jeanette, with all her acumen, has to relearn anything. But Jeanette is also canny, and she wouldn’t say that just to provide comfort.

No, I think what she meant for me to see was that each and every story has its own sensibility and its own requirements, not only of the research and the prose style and all those other things, but it also has its own requirements of the author herself.

The Underneath, for example required me to to figure out how to finish, to see a project all the way through to the end. Keeper required me to be honest about the difference between anger and heartbreak, and to choose the latter over the former. True Blue Scouts needed for me to remember joy, joy in the writing, joy in the story, joy all around. When I think of each of those books, I can see that I had to learn about all of those things, and more, in the process of bringing each book to the page.

But Tweenland is so cozy. I like it here. It’s a great place to be lazy and catch up on reading and watch sitcoms and stare. Staring is good. But it’s also like that place in Pinnochio where its all fun all the time . . . that is, until it’s not fun. Eventually, it gets boring. I’ve got to get out of here!

But I keep getting stuck by the question: what is it that I need to learn in order to start the book I want to write? It’s hard because until I actually put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, there is no way of knowing. I’m caught in my own circular argument. Like Jeanette said, I’ll have to learn how to write this new book, and I’ll have to do it as I go. And it might make me feel really, really dumb, and I might not make it all the way to the end, and what if I get stuck, and what if it doesn’t make sense and what if nobody likes it and then nobody likes me? Ack!

Tweenland is better!
There’s chocolate.
Sudoku puzzles.
Cats who don’t care whether I ever write another word or not!
Double ack!

What I do know, for certain, is that the project that is waiting for me has something to teach me, and that until I begin I won’t know what that is. In fact, I may not know until after I’m finished. That is highly likely. What I also know, but hate to admit, is that staying in Tweenland is a trap. If I get too comfortable here, I’m likely to stay forever. And then what? Will the world be lesser without one more Kathi Appelt book? Of course not. But will I be lesser?

Again, I don’t know. And that’s one of the wonders of creating a story—encountering all of the “I don’t knows,” maybe especially the one that is meant only for the author herself.

Drafthaven calls, with all its crazy sinkholes and roadblocks. I need to go there. Yep. It’s time to put my boat in the water and leave Tweenland, at least for the time being. And what do you know? There’s a boat right there for you too. Grab a paddle. I’ll meet you on the other side. I bet Jeanette will be there too.

              

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Picture Book(s) on the Subway

            A few weeks ago, Ken and I were all dressed up and heading to a party in the middle of Manhattan.  The occasion was my agent’s fifteenth anniversary party and I had in tow a picture book, Mitchell Goes Bowling, by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Tony Fucile, that I wanted to get signed by the author. 

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I knew she would be at the party, and I had every intention of getting her to sign it.  (Confession:  I will haul a book thousands of miles in order to get a signature).

            At any rate, our stop was a ways off, so I decided to show the book to Ken while we rolled along the tracks. 

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            Our car was crowded and noisy, but that was okay.  I was only sharing it with Ken, who sat right next to me.  That is, I thought I was only sharing it with Ken.  At one point I stopped to show him a particular illustration that just made me laugh, but while we were pausing on that page, the young man on the other side of Ken said, “Hey, keep reading!” 

            Then another person chimed in with, “Don’t stop!”  I looked up, and all of the people in our end of the car were staring at me and smiling.  Without even knowing it, the book had drawn in at least a dozen people.  I didn’t need any more prompting.  I held the book up and read the last few pages. 

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          As I closed the book, everyone started clapping. Of course they did!  It’s a book that merits applause. 

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            I have had so many happy reading experiences in my life, and many of them have occurred while traveling, from all the books I read to my kids as we drove down the road, to the many books that I’ve read on airplanes, but that one on the subway made my heart sing. 

            Here we were, strangers, each of us wrapped up in our own worlds, each of us going our own ways, and each of us in the presence of that most wondrous of all literary accomplishments, a picture book, and in this case, a book that calls for a “steaming hot potato dance.”

            As we rolled to our stop, Ken and I waved to our fellow readers.  We had shared such a small moment, but also such a happy moment.  There are many glories in a picture book.  There is the wonderful economy of text.  There is the highly satisfying experience of the perfect match of text to art. There is the art itself.  But most important is the glory that comes from sharing it. Voice, as it turns out, is a most essential ingredient, turning a book into that fundamentally human enterprise–story.

            The members of our small subway cadre will likely never meet again in our lifetimes, but we will always be part of each others’ lives now because we did something together that people have been doing since the dawn of time—we took a story, we took the art of it, we put it all together, we went along for the ride.

            And that, my brothers and sisters, is what it’s all about.     

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                     Have any of you ever had an unusual picture book reading experience?  Tell us about it, why don’t you!

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Some Blackbird’s Wing

Feeding off of Leda’s post, lately I’ve also been thinking a lot about landscape and the various ways that it situates itself in our lives, and thus in our stories.  Almost all of my work has been set in the lands in which I either grew up or in which spent a considerable bit of time.

But at the moment, I’m working on a story that takes place far away from my hot, humid coastal plains, in a wintry, blizzardy sort of rocky land cut through by a swift and freezing river, and it’s gotten me just a bit rattled.  What do I know about ice and snow?  It’s not that I haven’t experienced it; rather, it’s that I don’t really know it at a visceral level, the kind of knowing that comes from winter after long winter of persistent cold.

What I’ve discovered is that the writing has made me homesick, and I find myself craving my natural habitat even though I’ve never left.

Does this even make sense?  Maybe?  I doubt it.

Anyways, one person who brings me back home every time is singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith.  Whenever I’m yearning for my beautiful Gulf Coast, I listen to her song, “Gulf Coast Highway,” and I’m there again, right there.

So, I’m sharing her with you, and at the same time sharing this bit of space on earth that I love so well.  Enjoy!

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by | September 13, 2013 · 1:00 am

Looking for Hemingway

Recently my husband and I were fortunate enough to join a group of fellow pilgrims on a journey to Cuba.  We were tracking down Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts.

We stayed at the Ambos Mundos, the hotel where Hemingway lived for seven years.

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Here’s a view of the lobby:

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On the fifth floor, the corner room where Hemingway lived has been preserved as a museum.  To me, his desk and typewriter seem almost like sacred objects.

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We spent one morning at his beautiful house, Finca Vigia, which means “Outlook Farm.”  It’s situated on a hill that looks into Havana, just on the edge of the village of San Francisco de Paula.  On the side of the house, he built this wonderful tree house studio.

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And here’s the interior.  I think I could write just fine in this room, don’t you?

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Meanwhile, in the main house, even the bathroom is set up for a reader/writer.  Notice the cats’ trophies on the shelves above the toilet.  Rumor has it that at one time, he lived with 64 cats.  And, of course, Hemingway had his own trophies too.

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As part of my preparation for this trip, I read Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson, so I was especially happy to see Pilar, even if she was in dry dock.

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From there, we went to Cojimar, a small port, with a square that is dedicated to Papa.

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If you stood right beside him, this is what you’d see . . .

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What a wonder it is to think that a literary figure has become a national hero!  An American at that!  It makes me think that great art can transcend differences and give us all something to hang onto.

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Yep, it does.

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From the Heart’s Land

I have a fairy book-daughter.  Her name is Laura and she lives with her family in Indiana.  The heartland.  And that’s appropriate because Laura is at the very center of my heart.

Kathi with Laura

Kathi with Laura

I first discovered Laura several years ago when one of my faculty mates, Rita Williams Garcia, told me about a young girl who had started a blog, “Laura’s Life.”  Like her mother before her, Laura had made a decision that she was going to read every one of the Newbery Award books, plus the Honor books, and then write about each one on her blog.  Soon enough, she finished most of those Newbery books and branched out into current titles.

Laura with her mom, Rylin.

Laura with her mom, Rylin.

Laura is a discerning reader, the kind every author dreams of.  She wrestles with books, reads between the lines, sets aside the ones that don’t speak to her, loves up the ones that do. If ever there was a reason to write for children and young adults, Laura is that reason. In fact, there have been several moments in the middle of writing a story when I’ve stopped and wondered, “what would Laura say about this?”

But last fall, I noticed that her blog entries had become fewer and farther between.  Laura was quiet.  Too quiet.  If you go to her site, you’ll read that she has mitochondrial disorder, a condition that sometimes catches up with her.  Last fall it took over.  Laura was fading.  And there seemed to be no answers, no solutions.

How in the world do we consider a loss like Laura?  I couldn’t even contemplate it.  There had to be something the world could do.  At least, that is, the world that Laura had become such an integral part of—children’s books. So, with the permission of her mother Rylin, I sent out an e-mail message to several fellow children’s authors and illustrators and invited them to send Laura an autographed book.  Within days books began to arrive.  They flew in from every state in the nation, from Canada, from Australia, from everywhere.

The message was forwarded, and more books were signed and dropped into the mail.  Then the inimitable Betsy Bird—a fairy book-mother if there ever was one– posted the letter on her School Library Journal website, A Fuse 8 Production, and more books found their way, each one personally autographed, along with cards and notes, all filled with good wishes.  Imagine it!  Books and books and books.  Wishes and wishes and wishes.  More than a hundred books winged their ways into Laura’s hands.  Katherine Applegate even sent her a stuffed gorilla to go along with a copy of The One and Only Ivan. 

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Laura got better.  I know that modern medicine deserves recognition, not to mention the love and support of Laura’s immediate and extended family and friends.  But I believe that those books, with their attendant wishes, played a role.  After all, haven’t every one of us, at some time or another, been saved by a book?  By a wish?

What Laura doesn’t know, and what I want you to know, is that this simple act by the members of the fairy book-tribe also saved me.  Last fall brought with it my own host of health issues, along with a heartbreaking disagreement among members of my family, all balled up with the increasing frailty of my mother-in-law.  As it turns out, need is never a one-way street.

So, this past weekend, I finally got to meet mom and daughter and to have dinner with them.  Let’s just say that love-beams were copiously exuded.  And then, much to my surprise, I received my most important medal!

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I promise to wear this wherever I go. I will wear it on behalf of all fairy book-people, not only the ones of you who sent books to this full-of-life girl who loves them so, but to all of you storytellers and artists and editors and agents and publishers and bookstore owners and librarians and teachers, all of you who participate in the wonderful making and distributing of children’s books.  I will also wear it in honor of our readers. What is our purpose without them? It reminds me that we can, each of us, live in the land of our hearts. We can, when all is said and done, save each other.  We can.

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My Oscar Dream

I wish I took more time to watch movies. I confess, I haven’t seen but a couple of the nominees for this year’s Oscar fest, but I’m going to be heartbroken if “Beasts of the Southern Wild” doesn’t scoop everything it’s nominated for.

If you haven’t seen it, see it.

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