Middle Grade Lunch Break

Middle Grade Writers Read Middle Grade Books

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Katherine Applegate on writing, research, and cows

After years ghost writing and writing the Animorphs series, Katherine Applegate set out to write what she called a “real novel”–what turned out to be Home of the Brave. We were lucky enough to have Katherine visit our group in person to share her wisdom and insight and stories. We’ve collected some highlights from the transcript for you. (Read our craft review of Home of the Brave here.)

On deciding the form for Home of the Brave

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate (Square Fish, 2008)

I looked at middle grade novels, and I thought, “Who do I want to emulate?” I loved the way Karen Hesse wrote at the time. You know that very spare. . . I didn’t know you could write free verse and have it be a novel.

The best writing advice

I think the best writing advice ever got was to take a book you love, and then just copy it. Literally. Type in the words. Feel why the choices were made, having already read it a couple times so you know it. It’s an interesting exercise–try it sometime–because you find yourself asking why every choice was made.

On why ESL and reluctant readers like Home of the Brave

I cannot tell you how many ESL teachers and teachers of reluctant readers have told me that Home of the Brave and The One and Only Ivan were really useful for them. My daughter has dyslexia. She loved to carry “fat books” around–she called them “fat books.” She wouldn’t read them, but she wanted kids to know that she could read them. So I’ve had so many kids say Ivan‘s a fat book. And it’s really tons of white space. That was deliberate because I wanted to reflect his very spare existence. But mostly that’s just how I write. I think some people write symphonies and some people write chamber music.

 

On her inspiration for Home of the Brave

There are so many refugees. I was in Minneapolis at the time [I wrote Home of the Brave], and there were tons of Sudanese refugees–that’s the catalyst for the book. I hated the cold. And these people were coming. You come straight from Africa, and you are dumped into this world. I mean it was 40 below without wind chill one day. How do you do this? How do you adapt? And as somebody who moved around a bit as a kid–my dad worked for IBM, so I was moved, maybe 6 or 7 times–I think I have a certain sympathy for people who have to go through that. But to have to do that and assimilate language and food and customs–and escalators.

Creating a recipe for a book

One thing to do is I take books that I really love and maybe 20, 50, it depends on what I’m doing–sometimes five. I loved Karen Hesse’s free verse but I didn’t know very much about it. Kate DiCamillo’s humor. I take different things, different pieces of each book. And I’ll stack of the books up in front of me. And it’s like a recipe. It’s like I’m taking all these pieces of these books and thinking about–“OK, when I write this I want it to sound a little like that, but a little like that.” And somehow it inspires me. It’s like a tactile reminder: this is what a book sounds like. Other people I’m sure just pull it out of their brains. But I have a really like a sieve for a memory. So it helps me think about what I want a book to look like. My husband laughs at me because I always imagine a new book physically first.

On writing metaphors and “aha” moments

I look through the thesaurus like everybody else. I feel like it should be coming from some internal wellspring, but it’s more like you just sit there and look at words and sometimes sometimes you make a connection. A lot of times it will be later. You come back, you’ll be in the shower, and something will click. You go for a walk, and your brain has taken a hiatus for a while.

On writing child characters

One of the frustrations I have with writing for kids is that–it’s also one of the one of the beauties–you can write anything and fantasy is possible and absolutely anything in your imagination. But their lives are kind of boring and not a whole lot happens. I mean they don’t suffer the crises of conscience, necessarily, that adults do. So sometimes when you’re dealing with an 8 year old, you [get stuck]. When I wrote Crenshaw, it’s this poor kid–he’s hungry, his parents are total flakes, he’s homeless. You know, he’s totally powerless. [In the middle of the process] I asked myself, why did I write this book?!

Kids are often powerless, unless you’re writing a fantasy. So for Kek, there wasn’t a whole lot that could happen, except maybe to try to leave what he was in the middle of.

On the ending of Home of the Brave

I think I tacked it on because I’m a mom and I just couldn’t bear to have it not happen. It was very much a maternal thing. I don’t think I seeded it particularly well. I mean, the possibility was there that she might come back but it was kind of tacked on.  [Editor’s note: our group consensus was that the end felt organic, and group members argued for all the ways it’s connected to the rest of the book.]

On B-story

I think it can be really hard to remember sometimes. [I remember a craft book] talking about the beautiful ways you can make all these different characters intersect. Draw this big diagram and you realize they’re all playing off of a central theme. Sometimes that’s a really good way to look at it. So those B-characters are another way to look at whatever your A-characters are dealing with. I sometimes forget that. I mean [in the process of writing] to me they [might be] sort of peripheral, or I’m using them as chess pieces, but they can actually be a really useful way to make the book resonate and get that second layer, third layer. I’ve tried to think about that more now. When I create these other characters, I go, “Wait a minute!”

And [craft gurus] always say, “Don’t think about theme,” but of course we’re all writing something we care deeply about. I’m sure you heard this the admonition that you should bring your book down to a sentence and tape it on top of your monitor and look at it now and then. It’s kind of useful as a sort of lodestar to remind you, “This is where I’m headed.”

Her lodestar sentence for Home of the Brave

This book was very much for me about the fact that I just I had this tremendous admiration for refugees. And I knew we were in a place where not everybody felt that way. So I just wanted to remind kids how hard it is.

On writing and confidence

I think the more you write the more confident you get. And yet every writer will tell you, every time you go to a new book, you think you can’t do it. And you can’t believe you ever did do it. But I think what happens is you are able to label those experiences. You go, “Oh, this is the part where I”–the first day I’m so excited, and I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. And then three days later you go, “Oh, this is the part where I think I’m insane, you know, and it sucks.” And I think being able to label those parts of the process is reassuring. So I’m a little more confident in that way, but not a whole lot.

On patience and publishing

The right book in the hands of the right editor will happen. But sometimes you just haven’t found the right editor, or the right agent. “No”s are such a part of this business, and having a really thick skin is a big part of this business. And it’s hard because most of us are writers because we’re hypersensitive to begin with. But I just want you to know that it’s part of it, and it’s worth hanging in there because it’s really a really fun job.

You wear sweatpants to work and you have no boss. It’s really good.

On writing in verse

For line breaks, I was trying to think musically, how it sounds. And I do read stuff out loud. It does help, because sometimes you’ll hear something and you’ll stumble. The whole process of where line breaks work and where they don’t is still kind of a mystery to me.

Because Kek was acquiring English it felt like such a natural way to deliver the information. I’ve thought about doing free verse again, and I haven’t really come up with a good rationale for it. I know teachers who say kids love it, and I know teachers who say kids hate it. So I feel like in order to [write in verse] I need a reason to use it.

On research

Research really helps inform so much of what we all do but I love research because it’s a great way to procrastinate. And it’s so much fun.

I did talk to refugees which was helpful, but a lot of them didn’t really recall those early moments. When you’re a kid it’s very hard to articulate that kind of thing.

When I did research for Crenshaw I went to this really cool school in San Diego. It’s one of only one or two in the country that is just for homeless kids. And it was amazing. They had showers and a clothes closet where the kids could come in once a week and just grab clothes, and education for the parents. Every single kid there had the most horrifying story to tell. It was helpful. [That kind of research] puts you where you need to be.

School visits have helped me so much to remind me of, on the one hand, how sweet and naive and young kids are, and on the other hand, how much they’re capable of handling. And I forget that. I lose touch with that, even though I’m a parent. So I highly recommend it. Sometimes I’ll go, and I’ll be amazed at what they’ve understood, and on the other hand they’re so sweet, and they’re so earnest and so “get” books that it’s such an adventure for them. So absolutely do [school visits]. Even if you’re just going and reading, or chatting about the process of writing with them.

Her favorite scene in Home of the Brave

You know I really love the one with Mom!

And I really liked writing the cow because I love animals.

I was living in Chicago, and I rented a cow for two hours [for the promotion of Home of the Brave]. Did you know you could do that? But I went to a local dairy farm and rented a cow. The publisher, Macmillan, thought it would be easier for shy authors to have a pet, so they said, “We want you to talk about your book, and sit with your pet.” So I thought, “I’m going to get me a cow!”

She was like a hundred years old, and my husband filmed it. I gave my little speech, and the cow stood on my foot. And I had no idea how to remove a cow. The entire time I did the speech I was sitting there in agony. But the cow part was fun.

Thank you, Katherine, for such a wonderful conversation!

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Marilyn

    This was a wonderful interview with so much great information–and inspiration. Home of the Brave is one of my favorite books. Thank you, Katherine Applegate and MG Lunch Break!

  2. Thanks for a great interview! It’s interesting to find out about Katherine’s writing process.

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