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Ahead of Bay Area Book Festival, Katherine Applegate talks about writing with youth in mind

Katherine Applegate will be at the Bay Area Book Festival in downtown Berkeley on April 28-29. Photo: Courtesy author

This story is brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival.

Children’s literature is powerful: It introduces children to ideas that are often difficult to grasp within their own personal experience alone, and it informs a whole new generation.

Katherine Applegate, the Newbery Award winner and prolific author of children’s and middle-grade literature (such as The One and Only Ivan), has sold millions of books. In advance of her appearance at the Bay Area Book Festival, we sat down with her to discuss her new book, Wishtree, and the craft of writing for younger audiences. Responses have been edited for length.

BABF: What is it about the Bay Area that attracts such a strong literary scene?

Katherine Applegate: It’s just so supportive. My bailiwick is kids and YA, and kid writers are basically overgrown children, so it’s fun! They’re everywhere around here — you can run into Newbery Award winners while walking your dog… When you’re a writer it’s fun to have people to commiserate with (not that there’s much to complain about).


BABF: After reading ‘Wishtree,’ I was definitely wondering why I don’t read more middle grade novels.

KA: When I wrote that, I was thinking the audience would be about third grade. But I’ve had high schools and middle schools and even adults reading it, but I was very much targeting very young elementary audiences, where they’re just starting to encounter bigotry and unkindness. I wanted it to be very simple and accessible, sort of a fable. It was funny because it’s very sweet, but it was written in the throes of the election. As gentle as the book is, it was definitely my answer to the current political situation.

BABF: That’s a great way to put it: your stories are surprisingly gentle. How do you make such tough subject matter so palatable for your audience?

KA: Having kids helps a little bit, but I think school visits are invaluable. And they have these incredible librarians and teachers and media specialists who get these books into kids’ hands in really interesting ways. When I see the kids and I talk to them I’m always reminded that they’re so sweet and kind, but on the other hand they’re really savvy. They’re so much more aware of the dark parts of the world we’re trying to protect them from. When I was writing Wishtree, I was fresh off a recent set of school visits, and it really reminds you what they’re capable of. It’s easy to get into that parental mode where you want to protect and forget that they see it all.

A young reader at a booth at the Bay Area Book Festival, which this year takes place on April 28-29 in downtown Berkeley. Photo: BABF

BABF: It was both surprising and refreshing to see a book for young readers that so directly addresses Islamophobia. How do you choose what issues to tackle in a genre that hasn’t historically always addressed these things?

KA: It’s surprising how many middle grade books and early chapter books touch on complicated topics, which may be a generational or publishing shift that’s happened over the past few decades. Everybody will tell you this: it’s really dangerous to go into writing a children’s book with an agenda because kids can smell it a mile away. It’s always about story first.

BABF: What is your aim when you’re writing, if not to convey a moral message?


KA: First of all, I write because there’s not a lot else I can do — I discovered early on that waitressing wasn’t my strong suit. I also write to make sense of the world. Everything is so chaotic, and when you’re imposing order, it’s incredibly gratifying to me as a writer. And then if a reader at the other end gets something out of it too, that’s even more amazing. It’s a job, but it’s the best job in the world. When you put a book out there, it belongs to a reader, and each reader can do what they need with it.

BABF: How did you decide that your passion was writing for younger audiences?

KA: I’ve done a lot of YA, and adult if you count a few Harlequin romances, but middle grade is so rewarding. The audience is just embracing books, and they’re so enthusiastic. I also really like short books — I lean toward rewriting, so the shorter the better. Some people are symphony writers and some are chamber music writers.

“Finding the right book takes a lot of practice and a lot of time — it’s like finding the right friend.”

BABF: How do you help kids find their passion for reading?

KA: I was not one of those kids reading a book with a flashlight. I have a daughter who has dyslexia, so I understand that for a lot of kids it’s an actual challenge. For me, it was always just kind of boring. One of the few books I clicked with was Charlotte’s Web. I can remember being in a college English class, reading Hemingway and arguing that fiction didn’t matter. I never understood why you would read about fictional people when you could just read articles about actual ones. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how important fiction is and how it can change your view of the world. Finding the right book takes a lot of practice and a lot of time — it’s like finding the right friend.

Katherine Applegate is one of many world-class authors for children and middle-grade readers at this year’s Bay Area Book Festival, which will take place in downtown Berkeley April 28-29. Programming for younger readers includes:


  • Full Hearts and Clever Minds: Meet Some Unforgettable Characters with Tae Keller, author of “The Science of Breakable Things,” and Esta Spalding, who penned “Look out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts.” (Saturday, April 28, 11:45 a.m., Hotel Shattuck Plaza Boiler Room)
  • Shakespeare Pops! with Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, the duo at the helm of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Yes, Shakespeare goes pop-up. (Saturday, April 28, 11:45 a.m., The Marsh Theater)
  • The Transformative Power of Art: Making The Dam Keeper with Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, the makers of the iconic Pixar short film. (Saturday, April 28, 1:30 p.m., Hotel Shattuck Plaza White Cotton Room)
  • Tackling Issues: Katherine Applegate and Jen Petro-Roy on Hard-Hitting Middle Grade Fiction and how fiction can empower kids and make them feel less alone. (Saturday, April 28, 3:15 p.m., The Marsh Theater)
  • Dude! Making a Book Together with Dan Santat and Aaron Reynolds, award-winning authors of a radical new picture book, about collaboration and inspiring you too to create a picture book. (Saturday, April 28, 4:00 p.m., Bay Area Children’s Theater, 2055 Center Street)
  • Jabberwalking with Juan Felipe Herrera, where the whole family can learn from the former poet laureate of the U.S.! (Saturday, April 28, 4:15 p.m., San Francisco Chronicle Stage in the Park)
  • YES to Girls & Science! with “Space Gal” Emily Calandrelli, who inspires young readers to ask questions and lean into their curiosity. (Sunday, April 29, 10 a.m., Hotel Shattuck Plaza Boiler Room)
  • Let Me Tell You a Really Good Story! Both young kids and parents will love this interactive storytime with Katherine Applegate, Arree Chung, Jonathan London, Michael Slack and Todd Parr. (Sunday, April 29, 10:00 a.m. The Marsh Theater)
  • What Makes a Family? Nidhi Chanani, Chris Crutcher, Abdi Nazemian and Mitali Perkins discuss what makes a family (and what makes a family difficult to write) for kids and middle-grade readers. (Sunday, April 29, 11:45 a.m., Hotel Shattuck Plaza Boiler Room)
  • Putting the FUN in Reading! LeUyen Pham, Megan McDonald, Travis Nichols, Judd Winick discuss how they make reading fun for their younger audiences, from spicing a story up with pictures to having your characters (literally) fall from the sky. (Sunday, April 29, 11:45 a.m., The Marsh Theater)
  • Judy Moody & Stink: Megan McDonald will appear for the final show of the play adapted from her books, talk with the audience, and sign books after the show. (Sunday, April 29, 1:30 p.m., Bay Area Children’s Theater, 2055 Center Street)
  • Writing the Truth: Fiction and Non-Fiction Dashka Slater, Anne Nesbet, and Sara Saedi discuss how they incorporate difficult real events into their books for young readers. (Sunday, April 29, 1:30 p.m., Hotel Shattuck Plaza Boiler Room)
  • Dave Eggers Conjures a Fantastical Story for Young Readers but readers of any age will enjoy his talk with a sixth-grade poet activist from Downtown Charter Academy. (Sunday, April 29, 3:15 p.m., Freight & Salvage)
  • Books y Libros: A Talk with Spanish and Bilingual Children’s Books Writers, Illustrators and Publishers. (Sunday, April 29, 3:15 p.m., Showtime Stage)
  • Falling from the Sky: Judd Winick, Creator of Hilo’s World, discusses his series, the craft of storytelling, and the fact that picture books aren’t just for kids! (Sunday, April 29, 4 p.m., Bay Area Children’s Theater, 2055 Center Street)
A young visitor to a previous Bay Area Book Festival. Photo: BABF

In addition to these programs, the Festival presents exciting activities and performances for the whole family at our free outdoor Showtime Stage. There, festival-goers ages two and under can participate in “Hip Hop Tots,” and the family can hear author readings by award-winning children’s authors such as Mac Barnett, see performances by Alphabet Rockers, take beatboxing classes, hear from youth contest winners, witness feats of juggling, and more!

Numerous local and national exhibitors will fill Martin Luther King park and adjacent streets at the FREE outdoor fair, including:

  • 826 Valencia will host writing games, bookmark-making, and more
  • Bay Area Children’s Theatre will host readings and giveaways on Sunday, April 29
  • Booklandia will provide Spanish-language and bilingual books for browsing and purchase
  • Chabot Space & Science Center will guide kids in hands-on science and space exploration activities
  • Habitot Children’s Museum, at the Festival for its 20th Anniversary celebration, will provide hands-on water play, a Monsterbot Maker, and giant block building activities
  • Half Price Books donates thousands of titles for a free book giveaway
  • Hands-On Berkeley specializes in STEAM-centered arts & crafts
  • Hip Hop For Change will inspire the little ones with graffiti art wall, DJ workshop, and a reading space
  • Lawrence Hall of Science will provide Sunprint® paper and dowels and planks to bring out the engineer in everyone
  • LEGOJeep will be there on Sunday, and kids can collaborate to build mesmerizing artwork
  • Writopia Lab will host giant scrabble and writing activities

This story was brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival which takes place April 28-29 in Berkeley. Visit the BABF website for full details.