Ten years ago. It doesn’t seem that long. At the time I had spent a good portion of my adult life thinking about my desire to write for kids. The problem was I didn’t know how to get started. A dear librarian friend sent me off on the right foot in the summer of 2008. She said if I was serious then I needed to read juvenile fiction.
I was already doing this, reading to students almost every day for 10-15 minutes. My at home reading was mostly books for adults, but that changed and I never looked back. I walked out of school on a sunny June day with a box of books the librarian had just received. Included were the first four Percy Jackson novels, Gordon Korman’s Swindle, and Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath. There were more, but these were the ones I remember the most.
It’s fitting that Kathi joins me today to answer a few questions about her Newbery Honor book, The Underneath, and the momentous occasion of the ten year anniversary of its release. I was fortunate to read the book again last month and was reminded of its magic and emotions in every chapter. Enjoy my interview with Kathi and be sure to check out the awesome giveaway at the end.
Welcome Kathi and congratulations on THE UNDERNEATH’s tenth anniversary. What’s been your greatest joy concerning the reception of the book this past decade? Any misgivings?
Without question, my greatest joy has been the hundreds of letters I’ve received from students from all over the world. I love hearing from my readers. Even when they have disagreements about the book, they’re always thoughtful. I love that.
Misgivings? I think every author has misgivings. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read from the book, and half-way through my reading I’ve thought, “why did I use that word?” There’s one page that has “squirrel” on it something like three times. Ouch. That’s a minor issue.
When I have misgivings is when I hear that someone is using this book in a first or second grade class. That feels too young to me. I know that kids are way more capable of reading hard things than we give them credit for, but there are also so many wonderful books that are just right for that younger set, sad books, funny books.
Once in a while I get a note from a parent who has a seven year old, and they’ve read the book together and had a great experience. That strikes me as wonderful. To have a one-on-one setting like that. It gives the child a safe place to experience a range of emotions, including fear. But I also once had a parent get very angry with me when she began reading the book to her four-year old. Thankfully, the age range is clearly printed on the book (and of course, not all kids fit into age ranges when it comes to what they’re ready for). But four seemed pretty darned young.
Has the audience changed since the release and would today’s middle grader’s react any differently to the story than ones from 2008?
I actually do feel like the audience has changed. I think that kids are more sophisticated, more savvy, more “in the world.” I think their exposure to electronic media makes them this way. My worry is that maybe they’re growing up too fast, maybe they’re missing some things. At the same time, it’s amazing to me to see what kids are capable of.
What themes in the story still resonate today for young readers?
To me, the primary theme of this book is to choose love. No matter how rough things get, we can all make choices that lead us into the light. I think that theme is timeless—at least I hope so.
Below is the new trailer for the book. How did this come about?
The very first trailer that we made for this book was actually made out of a Power Point Presentation. My talented son Cooper put some music to it, and my web designer helped post it. So much has changed technologically since then. Now, my still talented son Cooper is married to the also talented Laurel Kathleen, and they’ve begun a book trailer business called Botra Productions. When I came to them with the idea for a new trailer, they jumped right on it. They do beautiful work, and of course I can say that because I’m the Big Mama.
There are plenty of unpublished authors out there who would love to be celebrating a ten-year book anniversary. I know one of your tips for new authors is to write all the time. What other advice can you give for those in the trenches?
You know, so much advice is repeated so often that at a certain level it feels cliché. But if it wasn’t true, I guess it wouldn’t be cliché. One of the best things I do for myself is this: I find a class or a workshop or a weekend retreat every year, and I sign up for it. Sometimes, I get halfway through it, and wonder why, why did I subject myself to this. But then . . . I hear something new, I see some new way of looking at a problem, I get a fresh idea. So, just because I’m a professional does not mean that learning has to stop. So, I would say that it’s really important to stay on the learning wagon.
And my very favorite motto is this: Write like your fingers are on fire.
In other words, write so much and write so fast that when you’re done, you have to blow on them to cool them off. Because the thing is, we tend to get out of our own way when write quickly. Once we’ve got a draft of something, that’s the time to slow things down, to be deliberative and thoughtful. But in that early stage of creation, just go. Go, I say!
If you could interview yourself, what’s one question you’ve always wanted to be asked? (You can answer it, too!)
Hmmm… Kathi, do you want to go see the Grand Canyon?
Why yes, yes I do.
Thanks for your time, Kathi. Enjoy your anniversary!
Thank you so very much! Let me know if you have any further questions.
Kathi Appelt is the New York Times best-selling author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Her first novel, The Underneath, was a National Book Award Finalist and a Newbery Honor Book. It also received the PEN USA Award. Her other novels include The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, a National Book Award finalist, and Maybe a Fox, one of the Bank Street Books Best Children’s Books of the Year. In addition to writing, Ms. Appelt is on the faculty in the Masters of Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in College Station, Texas. To learn more, and to find curriculum materials and activity pages, visit her website at kathiappelt.com.
Fifteen lucky winners will receive an autographed paperback copy of The Underneath. In addition, one Grand Prize winner will win a classroom set of 20 copies of the book PLUS a 30-40 minute Skype visit for her/his school, classroom, or library with award-winning author Kathi Appelt. Enter here!