She admitted, as she spoke at Shenandoah University’s 33rd Annual Children’s Literature Conference that she regularly elicits a gasp from students at school visits with this admission: “I really, really hated to read.”
But then, she found E.B. White’s children’s classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” which she called her best-friend book. Even so, it still took a while for her to be the kind of reader who needs books “like you need air.” So, she admits to young readers that it may take a while for them to find their best-friend book, or to come under reading’s spell, and they may get there via words presented in a multitude of ways, from books to screenplays, for example.
She remains a slow reader, who savors every word, which she said she thinks may contribute to her choice to write short books for middle-grade readers.
A Reluctant Writer
A reluctant reader, she “was a reluctant writer,” too, she told the crowd of teachers and librarians who filled Stimpson Auditorium at Halpin-Harrison Hall for the conference. Even so, as a writer, she embraces the opportunities sparked by her mistakes. “Writing is nothing but rewriting,” she said. “I love rewriting. It’s the blank page that scares me to death.” She admits that she probably would have been a writer 20 years earlier (she didn’t start her writing career in earnest until her 30s) if a teacher or parent had told her that it was OK to make mistakes.
She began her career as a ghostwriter of “Sweet Valley Twins” and Disney books. She said she was “ghosting so much that I was positively ectoplasmic.” She and her husband then established the popular “Animorphs” series.
Writing With Passion & Anger
As her career progressed, she decided to move out of series work and let her passion, and perhaps a bit of anger, propel her writing. As she lived in Minnesota, she wrote, in free verse, “Home of the Brave,” which tells the story of a refugee child from Sudan living in Minneapolis. She drew from her experience seeing many Lost Boys of Sudan being resettled in Minnesota, a brutally cold place so unlike their home country.
Immigrants later contacted her about the book with appreciation, with one young woman writing, “You wrote my life,” Applegate said. The book also inspired people to help a young man to return to Sudan to search for his lost brother.
“My best writing comes from places of passion,” she said at the conference, which has a theme this year of, “We Are What We Read: Fueled By Books, Connected By Stories, Empowered By Words.”
“At that nexus of anger and imagination, interesting stories can blossom,” she said. Stories can inspire empathy, because, as she said, “What is empathy, but imagining with a heart?”
She wrote her novel, “Crenshaw,” about a family dealing with poverty, because she was angry that one in five children in the U.S. is hungry. After the book’s publication, she said many schools and libraries conducted “Crenshaw” food drives.
She crafted “The One and Only Ivan,” about a gorilla who lived most of his life in a shopping mall, after reading about, and being appalled by, the real-life story of two baby gorillas sent from Africa to America: one of which died, and the other that lived, and was raised almost as a human child, with a human family, until his strength as a silverback gorilla prompted the family to send him to the mall, where he lived for more than two decades. She told the story from the viewpoint of the gorilla, and she owns one of the finger paintings made by the real-life gorilla.
While she was passionate about the book, it wasn’t an easy write. She shared one of the notes she wrote to herself in the process of creating the book: “The problem here is: Am I giving up on Ivan, or not?”
She didn’t give up. The book is now being made into a live-action/CGI film, and she recently visited the film set in London.
“And it happened because I was mad,” she said.
She also chose an unusual narrator for “Wishtree,” which she wrote during the most recent presidential election cycle. The narrator is a red oak tree, a tree on which people place their wishes each May Day. In her book, the word “Leave” is carved on the tree’s trunk, which faces the home of a Muslim family. This book was also inspired by a real-life story, in which a Muslim family in Iowa was left a note, telling them to leave their community.
She said she loves how teachers and librarians have set up wishtrees in response to the book. She often asks for people to leave wishes for themselves, for others, and the world, and she shared a variety of wishes as part of her presentation, adding that everyone wishes “to be understood, to be seen – to be really seen – and to be loved.”
A Conference That’s A Joy
Applegate is one of 16 authors and illustrators to present at this year’s conference, which runs through Friday, June 29. Other presenters are:
- Lois Lowry (Newbery Medal winner for both “ Number the Stars” and “The Giver”)
- Loren Long (author and illustrator of the New York Times-bestselling picture books “Otis and the Tornado,” “Otis and the Puppy,” “An Otis Christmas” and “Otis and the Scarecrow”)
- Matt de la Peña (2016 Newbery Medal winner for his book, “Last Stop on Market Street,” illustrated by Christian Robinson; author of “Love,” illustrated by Loren Long)
- Laurie Ann Thompson (“Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something that Matters”)
- Matt Holm (The Babymouse and Squish graphic novel series; “Sunny Side Up”)
- Ryan Higgins (“Mother Bruce,” “Hotel Bruce,” “Bruce’s Big Move,” “We Don’t Eat Our Classmates!”)
- Mr. Schu (John Schumacher is a blogger, a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University, and the Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs. His blog Watch. Connect. Read., is a resource for the latest book trailers, chats with authors and illustrators and notable news in the children’s literature field)
- Linda Sue Park (recipient of the Newbery Medal for “A Single Shard,” and the bestselling author of “A Long Walk to Water,” which received the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and tells the true story of Salva Dut and his journey as a “Lost Boy” of Sudan)
- Meg Medina (2016 recipient of the Pura Belpré honor medal for her picture book, “Mango, Abuela and Me”)
- Angela Dominquez (“Maria Had a Little Llama,” which received the American Library Association Pura Belpré Illustration Honor; she received her second Pura Belpré Honor for her illustrations in Medina’s “Mango, Abuela, and Me”)
- Jason Reynolds (2018 Newbery Honor Award and Printz Honor Book for “Long Way Down,” multiple Coretta Scott King Book Award honors for “All American Boys,” “ As Brave as You,” and “Long Way Down”)
- Laurie Halse Anderson (winner of the Golden Kite award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the novel, “Speak”)
- Jess Keating (zoologist turned author of the My Life Is a Zoo book series, which includes “How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes are Untied”)
- Tom Angleberger (author of the New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal-bestselling Origami Yoda series)
- Elizabeth Zunon (illustrator of the picture-book biographies, “The Legendary Miss Lena Horne,” “A President from Hawaii” and “My Hands Sing the Blues”)
Applegate, whose talk followed that of Park, and preceded those of de la Peña and Long, on Tuesday, June 26, said that she could see why the conference has such a remarkable reputation. “I can see why you love this conference. It’s just been a joy.”
Applegate’s newest book is “Endling #1: The Last.”
* The conference and its events, including community events, are made possible through the support of the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation.
Photo by Damon Mackin ’18