These Words Matter: Kathi Appelt

I didn’t begin my life dreaming of becoming a writer. No, I began it dreaming of being a cowgirl. I longed to put on my Stetson hat, strap on my chaps, and ride into the sunset atop my trusty steed, which was almost always a palomino.

Together, my pony and I would keep the cattle herded, make sure the bad guys landed in jail, and make sure all the stars were dusted off so that they twinkled like mad in the big, open sky. It was a lusty dream, I tell you, the key and most important element being… horse! I was a girl who couldn’t get enough of them. I even had an invisible horse. Every day we rode the range of our small front yard, and at night I led him into the invisible barn. I fed him invisible oats, and then polished the invisible saddle until it shone.

As my young friend Ness would say, “It had all the things.” The dream, that is. The only problem was that my family lived in a very small house in the middle of very big Houston. Having a horse of my own was never really in the cards (not until much later in my life, and that is a different story).

This not-having-a-real-horse created an ache in me.

It was a tangible missing, something that I wore just beneath my skin. Thank goodness for my grandmother, who did not discount or belittle this big yearning. Instead, she began to supply me with books about horses. Every Christmas, every birthday, Easter, Valentine’s day, etc., she gave me another book about a horse. I read everything Marguerite Henry wrote, all of the Will James books, and Walter Farley. Above all, I treasured Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I still do. These books took the edge off my huge desire for a horse. So, I became a reader-by-dreaming. Turns out I had to read in order to get as close as possible to my heart’s desire.

It wasn’t books about horses that turned me into a writer.

I can’t, in honesty, say that any singular book made me want to write, mainly because there are so many that have influenced me. However, there is one that stands out: Sister Water by Nancy Willard.

In my early thirties, I was already familiar with Willard’s picture books, as well as her poetry. It was no surprise to me that she would write something of such understated beauty. All the elements of fiction that I love—family, magical realism, humor, sorrow, unlikely possibilities—all infused with love.

I can say that I’ve studied it for the way the author wove multiple story lines together, some of which were seemingly unrelated, and then brought them to a brilliant finish. One of my biggest goals as an author is always to make the ending seem inevitable. That is, I want my readers to feel that the ending could not be anything else. It can only be that one inevitable possibility. It may not be the ending we want, but it has to be the ending that is true. Sister Water does that.

It also has the most wondrous of settings: an old museum that has a river running underneath it; a river that sometimes makes itself known clearly, and other times vanishes. The museum itself is filled with unusual objects, each one of which has some sort of significance. Every single thing has a story, and story is the key.

There are many other books in my reading life that have made bigger, sharper, more indelible impacts on me.

However, I can’t say that any of them have given me the same sense of finding the miraculous in odd places that I did in Sister Water. Toward the end of the book, Sam Theopolis (who may or may not be an angel), says this: “We aren’t made of atoms, Ellen. We’re made of stories.”

This has been my mantra as a writer, and as a person, for all these years. I’m grateful to Nancy Willard for reminding me of that. Someday, who knows, I might write that story of me. “Once upon a time, there was a small cowgirl whose horse was invisible. Together, they rounded up all the cattle…”

It could happen.

Kathi Appelt's books have won numerous national and state awards, including the Irma and Simon Black Award, Children's Choice Award, Teacher's Choice Award, and the Oppenheimer Gold Award. Her first novel, The Underneath, was a National Book Award Finalist and a Newbery Honor Book. Her first young adult novel, Angel Thieves, publishes in 2019.

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