Kathi Appelt’s books contain some of the loveliest language and storytelling I know. I’m delighted to continue the Writing for the Long Haul series with a post from Kathi about what Story asks of us—and what it gives us in turn.
Twenty years later . . . thank you.
My first book was published exactly twenty years ago. Elephants Aloft, illustrated by the wondrous Keith Baker, contained roughly 40 words, most of which were prepositions. So the story was largely told through Mr. Baker’s lush and beautiful art. In a million ways, my role in the project felt minimal.
I don’t think that minimal feel is so very odd for the writers of picture books. The fewer words, the better, right? It took me fifteen more years to write The Underneath, with lots of picture books, poems, short stories and non-fiction coming in between my balloon tossed elephants and the old hound dog who starred in my first novel.
I’d love to say that those fifteen years were just a steady progression from forty-word books to fifty-thousand-word books. I wish it had just been a matter of “growing into my work.” But looking back, I can’t say that I’ve ever truly lost that feeling of minimal. That is, whenever I come face to face with the ancient goddess Story, I still feel small in her presence. Whether I’m writing haiku or a full-fledged novel, Story leans on my shoulder and reminds me of her awesome power. “People go to war over me,” she whispers. And it’s true. For centuries, we’ve fought each other over whose Story is truer than whose Story. We still do.
She’s the one who separates us, after all, from the other animals. She’s the one who demands that we take care with what we say and how we say it. She’s the arbiter of the campfire and the honored guest at the dinner table.
She knows what she wants and she won’t take any less. In short, she’s intimidating, and hard to satisfy. There have been many, many moments in my career when I’ve wanted, more than anything, to let others deal with her cranky highness. I’ve even filled out job applications, so tired I am of trying to please her.
But then, just when I’m sure my writing juices have all dried up and that resurrecting my youthful ability to wait on tables would be a useful skill, Story does something tricky. She reminds me, in her softest voice ever, “be grateful, sister.” And isn’t that what every god wants—a tiny bit of gratitude?
When I’m asked about what keeps me going, there are many parts of the answer: my students, my young readers, the letters that I get from them, the people who nudge and support and listen to me whine, the wonder of a book in its final beautiful form, the real pleasure of holding it in my hands, the sobering realization of how much is required to make such a thing, and how many people are dedicated to its creation. And, at the end of it all, Story standing there, smiling.
Thank you, I say, embarrassed for having forgotten this simple act. And for a sparkling second, nothing in the whole wide world is minimal. And I’m granted another day to do the work I do, to write the tales I write, and to hope like crazy that Story can save us, because as surely as we fight over Story, we can revel in her ability to draw us into a common room. And that right there, is reason enough for keeping my writing candle lit, making sure the cats are fed, and sharpening all my pencils. It’s enough. It’s all that matters. Thank you.
Kathi Appelt is the author of over thirty books for children and young adults. Her debut novel, The Underneath, won a Newbery Honor, the USA PEN Center Award for Children’s Literature, and was a National Book Award finalist. Her next, Keeper, was named a Best Book of the Year by School Library Journal, Horn Book and Kirkus, and her newest, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is due out this July.
Her picture books include Incredible Me, Lady Bird’s Wildflowers, and Oh My Baby, Little One. She’s a faculty member of the Vermont College MFA Program in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults.
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