Q&A with ‘When Otis Courted Mama’ author Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt photoKathi Appelt is the New York Times best-selling author of more than 40 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.

The following is a complete transcript of Kathi’s interview with Cracking the Cover.

How did “When Otis Courted Mama” come about?

I was working on a different project when I started thinking about my stepfather, George. The more I thought about him, the more I realized that for the most part, stepparents in children’s books typically show up as antagonists. While George wasn’t perfect, he was still a great stepfather. And I know that he’s not the only stepparent out there who did his best. I think parenting is hard, and stepparenting strikes me as being really hard. So, I wanted to write a story that featured a perfectly good stepparent. Not perfect, but perfectly good.

Did you always plan on the book having a Southwest feel?

Yes, I love the American southwest. I think it’s mysterious, but above all it has a wonderful “vocabulary.” The different flora and fauna have a terrific sound to them.

Why tell the story with animals rather than humans?

I chose coyotes specifically because they’re scrappy. They’re not necessarily cute and fluffy. And I think families are rather like coyotes in that they too are probably more scrappy than they are cute and fluffy.

WhenOtisCourtedMama coverDid you write “Otis” with pictures in your mind? If so, how do they compare to the finished product? 

I always have a picture in my mind when I write, but I could never have imagined the wonder of Jill McElmurry’s art. Her renderings of Cardell and the other coyotes, and the way she caught the essence of the desert far exceeded any of my visions.

Why do you write for young people?

A million reasons, really. But mostly I appreciate their curiosity. Everything with young readers is new, so it’s a challenge for me to think of something new to give them. I love that.

Why do you think young people are drawn to your books?

I hope they’re drawn to them because I try to give my audience stories that reflect my respect for them.

How has your writing evolved over time?

That’s a hard question. Sometimes I look back at my work and wonder where it came from. Then I look forward and wonder what there is to say. But then something always shows up and it often surprises me. I never know, really, what a story is going to be until I get it down on the page. It’s always been that way. The mystery is that there is always another story to tell. Thank goodness.

Otis noresizeYou write for a variety of ages, is one easier or do they have their own unique challenges?

I think each age has its own interests and its own wonders. I wouldn’t say that one is more difficult than another. In fact, I’ve always thought that toddlers and teenagers are quite a bit alike. They’re both yearning for independence, they’re both dealing with huge physical and intellectual growth, they’re both prone to big mood swings. So, I’m not convinced that they’re all that different. Then there’s that group right in the middle that is so golden, and so mellow compared to their younger and older siblings. But even they have their unique tendencies.

Do you have a favorite book that you’ve written? Why?

My favorite book is always the one I’m working on because that’s where all my attention and all the heat is at the moment.

What are you working on now?

I never talk about works in progress. But I do have a new novel underway. It has a long way to go.