Hearing authors and illustrators talk about who inspires them, who teaches them, what role models did (or didn’t) exist for them as young readers and artists brings to life just how pivotal connection to other creators can be. The following is an extension of a conversation begun at the Regional Conference in Austin by the invaluable Cynthia Leitich Smith:
The first time I met Kathi Appelt, I was unimpressed with her work. The
book was Elephants Aloft, illustrated by Keith Baker (Harcourt, 1993),
and the text was sparse, limited largely to prepositions.
Standing in a conference signing line, I had glanced briefly at it,
leafing through the pages, with the eye of an adult newcomer to
children’s writing. I remember thinking that anyone could toss a handful
of words together, but the art was adorable. And Kathi herself was
radiant. I could readily understand how children would fall in love her
and transfer that emotion to the books she published.
I was a fool. Later, upon closer study, I came to appreciate the genius
of Elephants Aloft. It was a concept-driven, picture-book story about
ballooning young elephants, about the link between elephants of Asia
and Africa, about the enduring bond of family, about the adventure of
travel, and, along the way, yes, it also taught children about
Kathi, through her model text, taught me about the importance of layers
in a picture book and about getting out of an illustrator’s way. She
underscored that what is not said can and sometimes should communicate
more than any words on the page.
I live in Austin, Texas, and Kathi is based in relatively nearby College
Station. In the late 1990s, when I heard that she would be teaching a
writing workshop at her family’s ranch, I applied with tremendous hope
and trepidation. Most of the other applicants had studied with her
before. They were further along on their writing journeys. I was quite
young, in my twenties, and made every effort in my application to
impress Kathi with my devotion to story and my quasi-relevant
backgrounds in journalism and law.
Upon being invited to join in, I was spinning with joy. From that
weekend, I remember feeling like a writer for the first time, owning it
as a part of my identity and my life’s work. I remember connecting with
a creative community in a new way and becoming more willing to take
risks in raising my voice. I’m sure I learned a lot of more practical
aspects of writing craft as well as art strategies, but it was heart and
courage—nurtured by Kathi, who is a master teacher—that had to come
In the years that followed, we both found ourselves actively publishing.
Kathi was best known for her picture books, though she’d written, say,
narrative nonfiction and short stories for teens, too.
By the mid ‘00s, I had this unshakeable belief that Kathi was also
destined to become one of the pivotal children’s novelists of her
generation. Her voice is infused with lyricism, and she herself is magic
personified. Kathi wasn’t so sure about that.
When I decided to teach a writing workshop of my own, I invited her—on
the condition that she finish a complete novel-length manuscript to
submit for feedback. She didn’t seem to like that idea at first.
Kathi just wanted to sit in, and it took a lot of nerve on my part to
tell my own mentor and teacher that it was an all-or-nothing invitation.
Either she wrote and turned in a manuscript or she was not welcome.
Eventually, Kathi went all in, and the book that came out of the
experience was The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008), which received a Newbery
Honor Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
I don’t know that I taught Kathi anything especially useful about novel
writing over that weekend. But I did believe in her and made a space in
the world to love up her voice when it was time to for her try something
new, just like she had for me several years before.
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The United States Board on Books for Young People
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Building Bridges Through Children's and Young Adult Books
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