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Feeding young minds

Katherine Applegate 

Feeding young minds

Her bestselling young adult series, Animorphs, has sold 40 million copies and has been translated into 21 languages. She's the author of over 150 books; one recent fall she had three books in the USA Today Top 200 Best-Selling Books.

Katherine Applegate and her husband, Michael Reynolds moved to Chapel Hill last year with their two children. "We moved here because the weather was better than Chicago, the real estate was cheaper and because we found a school we liked for our kids in Durham," she says.

Growing up in Michigan, Applegate, whose high school job was cleaning cages for a local veterinarian, was the first child in her town to raise gerbils.

Applegate says she gets lots of mail from kids who want to be writers, and she advises them honestly, "It turns out that in order to become a writer, you actually have to start writing. I went through a series of jobs, typing--badly, waiting tables--also badly. I'd always known I'd be a writer someday." She wrote her first story when she was 11, about a wild boar from South America, named Alice, and tells her fans: "Let your imagination go wild."

Animorphs, stories about five children with the power to morph into any animal they chose and who turned into animals to save the world from invading aliens, was an instant hit following the series debut in June of 1996. Nickelodeon adapted the stories to a live-action TV show, airing it in the United States, Latin America and Australia.

The first book in the series, The Invasion, just went into its 28th printing; local libraries and bookmobiles keep them stocked; and middle school ESOL classes make sure kids can easily find the Spanish version. Applegate followed the success of Animorphs with two more popular series, Everworld and Remnants.

E. B. White's Charlotte's Web was a childhood favorite of hers and she notes that now, as a writer, White still sets the standard. Asked which of her own books was her favorite, she quickly replies, "I have found that I end up feeling the most affection for the ones that gave me the most trouble."

In the midst of the very Chicago-like weather, Katherine and I bounced emails back and forth last month. We were both desperate for a few more good cups of coffee and fewer school closing announcements.

THE INDEPENDENT: You and your husband write and create as a team. How did Animorphs come to be?

KATHERINE APPLEGATE: Yes, we do. It's kind of like a two-person juggling act, passing the bowling pins back and forth. Michael and I were walking morosely around our apartment complex in Sarasota, Fla., crunching roaches underfoot, dodging alligators and whining about the fact that none of our young adult series had taken off. I wanted to give up on series or at least go to middle readers. I said I'd like to do something that really put readers into the heads of animals--an unsentimental view of animals. Michael said: 'That's a good idea. We'll need a science fiction action plot structure'.

The heavens opened, a ray of light bathed us in glory, and a Scholastic editor spoke to us in an awe-inspiring voice saying, 'Verily, I am well pleased. Thou shalt sit at the right hand of R.L. Stine, and upon thy left shall be Ann Martin.' [Scholastic's biggest young-adult writers]

Your Scholastic publicist told me you published 73 different titles. How did you keep coming up with plots and characters?

Ideas come from wherever ideas come from. I don't know where. Usually with Animorphs it was simple: What are those nasty Yeerks up to now? How do you stop them? As for research, yes, we did some research: lots of books about animal behavior and lots of Star Trek reruns.

The fun part of writing is having the ideas. That's about three percent of the process. The other 97 percent is putting words on paper. We had 14 Animorphs due each year. That's a lot of typing, let alone writing.

The Everworld series was a lot harder to write because the conflict kept changing, and the books were so long. Also, after we got a starred review from Publishers Weekly for the launch book of Everworld, we felt like, jeez, we better actually try to write well.

Was the writer credit "K. A." your idea?

Actually, as I recall, Scholastic wanted something sort of gender neutral, but we wanted to keep the "Applegate" name because I had some track record in books already under that name. We've used around a dozen different pseudonyms in all, including Beth Kincaid, Pat Pollari, Katherine Michaels, A.R. Plumb and C. Archer.

Do you share your stories and ideas with your children?

Jake was just being born are we were writing book 11, or so. Juju, of course, just arrived a few months ago, special delivery from China. But Michael is currently reading an Animorphs book to Jake, who is now six and way too young for Animorphs.

As a parent of two young children, are you finding time to write?

It's very tough to write with young kids underfoot. Virginia Woolf was right. A room of one's own is invaluable. I have an office in Durham I escape to while the kids are in school, and it's a wonderful luxury.

How do you feel about children's literature these days?

Kid lit was completely reorganized by J. K. Rowling and the success of Harry Potter. Suddenly you could sell an 800-page book to kids. It was a very liberating thing. It opened up new possibilities. Kid lit is an exciting place these days.

What advice do you have for an aspiring author?

My advice for an author, aspiring or otherwise: read. Then read some more. And when you're done with that, read some more. One additional caveat for children's writers: Don't condescend. You're writing for the toughest audience around, and the most enthusiastic.

I know you're an Apple loyalist. How fervent?

Mac versus PC? Mac, no question. When you write on tight deadlines, computer glitches take on a whole new level of annoyance. Sorry, Mr. Gates, but I'm a true believer. EndBlock

Contributing Writer John Valentine can be reached at ajcg@acpub.duke.edu

Excerpt: Animorphs #4

"The Message," final chapter

It was a couple of days later. After we had recovered. After I had made sure that Ax was safe in the fields of our farm, away from curious eyes.

I waited till dark, and changed again into the seagull morph.

I flew out of my barn and through the night to The Gardens.

It was closed and empty, aside from a few scattered security guards. They would have stopped me if I had tried to enter normally. But no one was looking out for seagulls.

I landed near the dolphin tank and became human again. There were no lights on and just a sliver of moon, but I could hear the dolphins swimming. One came over to me, curious about why a human would be hanging around at night.

"Hi," I said. "Sorry, I don't have any food for you."

Then I climbed up on the side of the tank. I let myself go, slipping into the cool water.

Three of the dolphins came over to take a closer look. This was definitely something unusual. Some strange human was getting in the pool. This was a new game.

I began to morph.

This definitely got their attention. All six dolphins swam around, looking up at me, sideways at me, back at me as they passed.

And slowly I became one of them.

It was a dumb thing to do, really. I knew it was dumb. But it felt like something I had to do.

I wanted to show them what I had done. I wanted their permission to become one of them. I wanted some way to tell them. . . everything.

But you know, once I was in that dolphin body again, it was hard to remember all my solemn worries. It was hard to remember why I had come.

Hard to remember fear and worry and guilt.

One of them gave me a nudge, dived, then shot toward the surface. She exploded into the air and fell back, as silent and smooth as an arrow.

They were asking me to play.

They were asking me to dance with them.

And so I did.

  • Feeding young minds

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