The two authors met for the first time 12 years ago at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It was a frigid night in a dismal dorm and Alison had lost her luggage. Kathi offered to lend her some pajamas and a blanket, which endeared her to Alison instantly. The next morning, the two ate breakfast together at a small table in the cafeteria, and they kept on eating every meal together at that table for years.
It was that first week as friends that Kathi suggested they write an epistolary book together — two sisters writing back and forth. Many years later, Alison sent out a “Poem of the Week” and Kathi sent back a quick note telling her she loved it. “The poem, which Kathi and I both loved, had a small fox in it, a fox that we were entranced by,” Alison told Cracking the Cover. “So we decided then and there to begin our book.”
Their book, “Maybe a Fox,” is the story of two sisters (Sylvie and Jules), a fox cub (Senna), and what happens when one of the sisters disappears forever.
The initial writing process for “Maybe a Fox” began with each author choosing a character — Alison, the fox, and Kathi, Jules.
“We would take turns with our chapters, tossing them back and forth to each other and eventually the story lines began to emerge,” Kathi said. “Once we had a full draft, we spent a long summer weekend together trying to hammer out the details of the plot and the structure of it. … For a long time, what we really had were two stories that moved side-by-side, and it just took awhile to convince those two stories to overlap so that they made a single story.”
“That process was not entirely easy, because we both have such respect for each other’s voice and style as a writer,” Alison said. “Chopping and re-writing the work of someone whose writing you love, as if it’s your own work, was an interesting and initially formidable task.”
Besides melding their work together, Kathi said it took both authors a while to figure out who Jules was. “Initially, she was the older sister and Sylvie was the younger, so the original Jules carried a lot of guilt around for not protecting her younger sister,” Kathi said. “But at some point, we decided that the guilt was getting in the way of the bigger story themes — hope, resilience, wishing — and we decided to switch those roles. But that also meant re-imagining what was motivating Jules. If not guilt, then what? That’s when we gave her the unanswered question that Sylvie left behind.”
“Maybe a Fox” is not a “happy” book, but it is filled with hope. The theme is important for all readers, Kathi said, but also for the intended audience. “Those middle graders are so very vulnerable, and I think they’re also underestimated for what they are capable of. So many kids are carrying heavy burdens, but they are also resilient. We wanted to provide our readers with characters whose hearts are as big as theirs.”
“‘Maybe a Fox’ is a book about heartbreak and loss, but more than that it is about resilience, how we as human beings suffer unimaginable grief and emerge, if not stronger, then deeper,” Alison said. “Hope is essential in literature, I think, no matter the age, because it’s essential in life. I always have thought that hope is harder than despair — you have to talk yourself into it sometimes — but you can’t go on for long without it.”
**Learn more about Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee’s colaboration by reading the full transcript of their interviews with Cracking the Cover.
Kathi Appelt is the New York Times best-selling author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Her picture books include “Oh My Baby, Little One”, illustrated by Jane Dyer, and the Bubba and Beau series, illustrated by Arthur Howard. Her novels for older readers include two National Book Award finalists: “The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp” and “The Underneath,” which was also a Newbery Honor Book. In addition to writing, Kathi is on the faculty in the Masters of Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in College Station, Texas. To learn more, visit Kathi’s website at kathiappelt.com.
Alison McGhee is the New York Times bestselling author of “Someday,” as well as “Firefly Hollow,” “Little Boy,” “So Many Days,” “Bye-Bye Crib,” “Always,” “A Very Brave Witch,” and the Bink and Gollie books. Her other children’s books include “All Rivers Flow to the Sea,” “Countdown to Kindergarten,” and “Snap.” Alison is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize–nominated adult novel “Shadowbaby,” which was also a “Today” show book club selection. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and you can visit her at AlisonMcGhee.com.
© 2016 – 2017, Cracking the Cover. All rights reserved.