Welcome back to part two of my interview with the wonderful Kathi Appelt! (To read part one, click here.)
BL: Were you surprised by people’s reactions to The Underneath? Surprised by the buzz surrounding your book?
KA: I’m overwhelmed to say the least. I recently got a note from a soldier in Iraq who told me that my book had momentarily taken him far from the field of battle. I was very moved. My favorite reactions, however, are from the children who have written to say that it’s their favorite story, or to tell me what they loved about it.
Recently I visited a fifth grade classroom in New Mexico, and those students really were engaged with the book. They asked wonderful questions and they wanted to talk and talk and talk some more about it. They even asked questions that I didn’t have firm or clear answers to, such as why Gar Face was so mean.
I wish I could say exactly why he was so cruel. Mostly, I wanted to show my young readers that he always had the choice to be better. Even though he had a horrible father, he did have a kind mother. He did not have to turn toward the darkness. Ranger is his alter-ego. He was just as cruelly treated as Gar Face, just as trapped. Gar Face’s trap, he thought, was his appearance; Ranger’s was the chain. Both of them experienced abuse. But only one of them chose to embrace love.
Not everyone survives a harsh situation with grace. It takes a big heart. Children understand this, I think, at a level that us adults often don’t. I often feel that we, as grown ups, spend too much time analyzing a situation, or criticizing it. Children seem to see straight through all that and go to the very center of what is good and true.
I know that some people feel queasy about the violence in the book. It makes me queasy too. And I approached that aspect of the story with great respect. By not diminishing the violence, my goal was to embrace the love that was possible inside of it, and to illuminate it more fully against that backdrop.
When it is very, very dark, a tiny pinhole of light can seem like the radiant sun. Only in great darkness, great sorrow, can great light emerge. That was my intent. And I think that children deserve, in fact, I think they have a right to experience deep feelings.
Most of us are afraid of feeling deeply, of the pain that too often accompanies it. Any of us who have experienced great sorrow or loss or heartbreak, know how much it hurts. And we don’t want anyone, much less our children to feel that immense pain. In fact, as a mother, I know that nothing makes us feel more helpless than those moments when our own children are hurt or sad. How do we typically respond? In the face of a crying child, the first thing we say is, “you’re okay, you’re okay.”
It’s too hard to admit that they’re not okay. Here’s a bawling child—the evidence is there to suggest that he or she is anything but okay. So we try to convince them that they are. I think it’s the same with books. We’re afraid that they’re going to feel sad if they read a sad book. We want them to always be okay. And of course, this isn’t a bad thing. It’s just what is. I’m not calling for child suffering here.
But I have always believed that a book can allow a child, or anyone for that matter, to feel deeply, to tap into our deepest feelings, in a safe way. Grief, sadness, joy, these are human emotions, and to deny our children these experiences is not in anyone’s best interest. What happens then, when we’ve resisted our feelings? Do we ignore them when we see photos of abused prisoners or learn that the neighbor has been drowning kittens? What then? Don’t we need feeling human beings to remind us of our own consciences, our own humanity?
And I also recognize my responsibility as a writer for youngsters, to not abuse or disabuse those emotions. Gratuitous cruelty is simply unacceptable without a context for it, and without that other human yearning—hope.
BL: Does award-season (best of lists, awards, etc.) make you nervous or excited as a writer?
KA: Oh gosh, to be honest, it’s a huge distraction. I think it would be really easy to get completely sucked up by it. I’m grateful that I have another project on my desk that is due in a couple of months, making it hard to concentrate on anything else. Otherwise, I think I’d just be munching down the bon-bons and drinking heavily.
BL: What was your first impression of the cover art?
KA: David did a couple of other takes for the cover, but the one that was chosen, was by far the consensus choice. I love it, to be really honest. I know that some folks feel it misrepresents the tone of the book itself. Here is this light cover on what is thought of as a dark book. But to me, the light of it is further proof that there is more light than darkness out there, not only in the confines of the novel, but in the world at large. The animals, peering out from their safe place, suggest to me that they realize that the world is larger than their small spot beneath the porch, and nothing, not even a chain, or their own fear can deny that. I love it that my three main heroes are looking out, not in, out towards the brightness of day. And I hope that that is where the reader finds himself or herself at the end of the tale—in a larger, lighter place than the dark underneath.
BL: Do you feel the cover is appropriate for the novel?
KA: I absolutely do. The other thing about the cover that I really, really hope comes through is that it serves as an invitation, that it says “here is a book to be read aloud,” to be a shared experience. My feeling is that the family underneath the porch, peering out the way they do, subtly suggests that this is a “gathering.” Come into the circle and read together. Our family invites your family to the campfire.
One of the reasons that I began to write for children was because of the experience I had with my own two sons of reading together. Because I felt first-hand the true magic of it, I wanted that for all children. I truly believe that if every child in the whole world could be read to even for only five minutes a day, every day, that we’d feel a transformational shift in how we operate together. I think the world would change. Think about it. At the end of the day, which book it is doesn’t even matter. In the sharing of it, however, the bigger message to the child is that here is an adult who cares about you, cares enough to stop whatever he or she was doing in order to do something important and worthy, read a book together. One of my former students, Tam Smith, wrote a paper in which she described the experience as “the vibrant triangle,” the triangle being the child, the adult reader, and the text. It’s not a new concept, but the notion of vibrancy is, I think, brilliant. Because that’s what it is. Vibrant. When a child is read to, the rest of the world slips away and all that is left is the story, a story that takes place amidst the beating of hearts. And the triangle can include the classroom just as easily as it can include the living room.
I think that the cover of The Underneath says, “read me out loud.” If it looked darker, or more sinister somehow, I fear that might have been lost.
BL: Can you tell us anything about your current work in progress?
KA: It’s still really raw and drafty, but I’m working on a second novel tentatively called Keeper, which is the name of the main character. It’s set along the Texas coast, a place where I spent a lot of time growing up. My grandmother lived in Galveston and so I have a strong affinity for that area.
BL: Do you have any upcoming releases?
KA: I have a couple of picture books under contract. But I’m not at all certain of their scheduled release dates. Picture books seem to come out of their own accord, in their own time.
BL: How do you find the time—do you find the time—to keep reading?
KA: I do. I read all the time. Although, right now, I confess I feel completely distracted by the election.
BL: Do you have any favorites of the year?
KA: I enjoyed Shift, by Jennifer Bradbury. I thought she did a great job with pacing in that story. It was hard to set it down. In fact, I didn’t set it down. And then a book for adults that I loved was Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. There’s a wonderful apple tree in that book that throws apples at people. What happens when they eat them is for you to discover. It was a great read.
I want to give a heads up to a book that will come out next year by Carol Lynch Williams called The Chosen One. It’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read in years. Set in an extreme fundamentalist enclave somewhere in the desert southwest, it features a fourteen-year old girl who defies the resident prophet and in the process loses everything that she loves most, especially her family. It’s so beautiful and so heartbreaking and so hopeful. An amazing story, by a truly wonderful author.
BL: Who are some of your favorite authors?
KA: When I was a child, my father read a lot of Rudyard Kipling to me, so I have a sweet spot in my heart for him. I also enjoy Mary Oliver, the poet; and I’m a huge fan of Toni Morrison. I read The Song of Solomon way before Oprah did.
As for children’s authors, wow, there are so many whom I admire: Cynthia Rylant, Marion Dane Bauer, Kimberly Willis Holt, Jeanette Ingold, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Tobin Anderson, Lola Schaefer, Uma Krishnaswami, Louis Sachar, Rita Williams Garcia, Norma Fox Mazer, Betsy Partridge, Tim Wynne-Jones, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, gosh where do I end? I think that there is a lot of exciting literature being written for kids today, literature that takes risks, whether it’s in the form, the theme or the topic. And I would add that some of the best non-fiction is being written for kids. Race, by Marc Aronson is a case in point.
In many ways, literature that is being written for kids today is ahead of the curve—we see novels in verse, graphic novels, novels written in mixed-media, media tie-ins, things that are only now showing up in literature for adults.
BL: Have you met any of your favorites?
KA: Among the nicest things about this industry are the acquaintances I’ve made. When I started out writing for children twenty or more years ago, I had no idea that it I would have so many opportunities to travel. And the result of all that traveling has brought me into contact with other authors from all over the world. It’s been amazing.
BL: Who would you most like to have dinner with?
KA: Hmmm . . . right now? Michelle Obama.
But if we’re talking about authors, I’d love to chat with Maurice Sendak. He got so much right with his books, as if he just carries a rather mischievous child inside of him.
BL: Do you have a book or two (or three) that you would recommend that everyone read?
KA: The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling; Octavian Nothing, by Tobin Anderson (I haven’t read the second one yet); and Sister Water, by Nancy Willard. And can I throw in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, by Tom Robbins? I love that book.
BL: What handful of books are must-reads in your opinion?
KA: Well, I’d start with the three I mentioned above, but I’d add Beloved, by Toni Morrison; Shadow Baby, by Alison McGhee; Cracking India, by Bapsi Sidwa; The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie; Holes, by Louis Sachar; In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak; When the Relatives Came, by Cynthia Rylant; George and Martha, by James Marshall; Where the Heart Is, by Billie Jo Letts; Peace Like a River, by Lief Enger; and One-Eyed Cat, by Paula Fox. And also, I think Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell.
BL: If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
KA: Make sure that there was a library in every hoot and holler in the world, stocked with thousands of books and several highly paid librarians in each one of them.
I hope you've enjoyed getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the creation process of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt! I loved, loved, loved getting the chance to interview her! She's an author that I truly admire.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews