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In The Harry Potter Era, An American Fantasy

We are familiar with the worlds of English boarding school houses and castles and fairies but true American fantasy, fantasy that is built on the land of this country, is hard to come by. That is, until you meet Kathi Appelt.
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American fantasy is not a genre we think about too often. Sure, we are familiar with the worlds of English boarding school houses and castles and fairies but true American fantasy, fantasy that is built on the land of this country, is hard to come by. That is, until you meet Newberry honoree and National Book Award finalist, Kathi Appelt. I had the great honor of sitting down with her this past week to talk about her books, writing for children, and the everyday magic of this country.

Both The Underneath and Keeper are fantasies but they are also deeply rooted in America. Just when we think we're in some faraway land you remind us--nope, still Texas!

That's actually a big part of what I want to do and what I am interested in and I'm giving a lecture on American fantasy this week, so the timing could not be more appropriate! You know a lot of my students want to write fantasy and they tend to fall back on the traditional terms--castle, fairy, etc. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that but it does take us out of America. What I'm interested in is the notion of how you create fantasy using an American ethos.

A lot of the fantasy we read and hear is centered on a "chosen one," which stems from the notion of a divine life. If there is a chosen one there must be a chooser, whereas here in the United States we are chosen by the people. A chosen one doesn't really work for us, it's not a part of our narrative heritage.

That is so interesting, I've never thought about it that way. What is our magic, then?

Oddly enough we are much more willing to buy into black magic than white magic. American history is founded on black magic--witch trials, the headless horseman. It's white magic we have trouble with.

We do have superheros. They are chosen, it's true, but none of them have any compulsion to be the key. They are always helpers and they're never trying to position themselves in a place of power. Our magic really comes from the land itself. The American outdoors.

There is a quiet intensity to your writing and a kind of---almost practical magic. Can you talk about the way you build the world of your books?

The moments that I feel the most imbued with a sense of awe are always the moments when I am outdoors. I can't help but feel a certain sense of wonder- I become almost filled with it. There is a thiness to these moments- the line between reality and wonder is very thin and it's there that I try to capture this connection. It's really about paying attention, I think.

We're used to using our land in America. Our landscape is very accessible. Parks are open to the public. There is no elite outdoors. We also often see our natural resources as something to harvest. This is a part of our heritage, certainly, but for me the trick is not to see the land as something to use, but something to listen to. I try to listen.

Speaking of listening, you are also a professor. I'm curious, how does the MFA program on writing for children differ from that of the adult?

On the craft level, writing for children is not so different from writing for adults. You still have to have a story that moves forward. You still have to have the tools of the trade down. The difference arises in the knowledge of who you're writing for. This isn't necessary true of writing for adults. There isn't so much emphasis on audience there but in children's you really have to pay attention to the reader. We work hard to provide a story that is appropriate, that reflects the sensibilities and interests of a child's world.

I think that's very true. At it's best, writing is a dialogue. It's one of the things I love about children's, the fact that this dialogue is really there from the get-go, from the start of writing.

Yes, I agree. You know we underestimate children and the people who work with them. I swear so often I tell people I am a children's author and it's like they want to pat me on the head--aw, isn't that sweet. We do this to teachers, too. But you know stories are important. Telling stories and having them received is so important. That dialogue is everything. I tell my students all the time that what separates us as human beings is our ability to hold stories. Our narrative history. There is so much power in that. Storytelling is our human industry. We have to honor that.

You've had some wonderful success in your career. How did The National Book award nomination and Newberry nomination change things for you?

These two big awards were wonderful. I wish this for all my writer friends. Honestly all my writer friends and all my students, I wish this for them. It was a real affirmation for me. These honors just felt like such a wonderful acknowledgement after a long career. I suppose I'm busy but I've always been busy! They did make me feel some magic, I'll admit. It was kind of like being enchanted for a little while.

While all of us may not be winning Newberry awards in the near future, it's nice to know it's not so hard to feel enchanted. All you have to do, really, is pick up one of Ms. Appelt's books.

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