School Library Journal caught up with Katherine Applegate at BookExpo America 2015 to chat about Crenshaw (Feiwel), releasing in September. It is the author’s first book since her Newbery Medal–winning novel The One and Only Ivan (HarperCollins, 2012).
Your fans are eagerly awaiting the relase of Crenshaw. What can you tell us about it?
I am so in love with this book. It was a labor of love. It was a very long, extended labor, with a long gestation period, but I am thrilled [with] how it turned out.
It is about two different things. It is about a little boy, Jackson, who is going through some really tough economic problems. His family is classic American working poor, working several jobs and not making ends meet. He is a very bright, astute kid who knows that his parents are having trouble, even though they are trying to shield him from it.
In the middle of all this, an old imaginary friend returns. His name is Crenshaw. He spent some time with Jackson when he was five years old. To have Crenshaw return when Jackson is almost 11 is a little unnerving. However, it doesn’t really matter if your friend is imaginary [if] he [is] a good friend.
What can you tell us about the cover design?
Watch video for Katherine Applegate’s response.
Were you inspired by Mary Chase’s 1944 play Harvey, about a man with a friend who is a giant, invisible rabbit? Is this a Harvey for a younger set?
Oh, I wish. No—it is a very different kind of story, but certainly Harvey was part of the inspiration. If you haven’t see the movie or read the play by Mary Chase, [I recommend that you do]. It is absolutely remarkable. It holds up so well.
I loved the idea of a child who has an imaginary friend who comes back when he is much older. I personally never had an imaginary friend. I had stuffed animals and pets, so for me, it was kind of fun to explore.
Hunger is an issue in the story. Tell me about that.
I went into this book after visiting a school for homeless children in San Diego. It focuses only on homeless kids. Their stories stayed with me. I wanted to explore the issue of the working poor in America. So often when you visit a Title 1 school, you see these kids whose parents are struggling. They are so aware—they know about money. It is an issue that we really don’t talk about, [and we don’t talk about] the strain that it places on the family.
In this case, I wanted the family to be an intact, loving family, with parents who are working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Teachers and librarians see families like that all the time. They see kids coming to school hungry. They see kids who don’t know where they’ll be sleeping that night. These kids don’t want to hear about income inequality or hidden hunger. They just want a friend to tell them everything’s going to be ok. For Jackson, that friend just happens to be Crenshaw, a very large, imaginary cat.
I understand that you were under some deadline pressure to finish.
I love your understatement. Deadlines are not the best for me, even under the best of times. It has been a chaotic year. Fortunately I have a patient publishing house. I just kept tweaking. I had to get it right and couldn’t let it go.
How have librarians and teachers supported your career?
Twitter has been has been remarkable [in that regard]. It is a great way, particularly for middle grade authors, to connect with an audience. There are so many teacher and librarians out there. John Schu, Colby Sharp, and their Nerdy Book Club, in particular, and so many other people have been supportive. It has been fantastic. It helps me learned what teachers are looking for.
How has life changed for you since you won the Newbery?
Oh, man, it is like winning the lottery. You need to pinch me every day.
Was it stressful to write a follow-up?
Absolutely. I spoke with other Newbery winners. Many of them had a book in progress. I was not at that point so, it took me longer.
What advice do you have for Kwame Alexander, this year’s Newbery Medal recipient?
We correspond. I told him the exact same thing that Linda Sue Park told me, “get an assistant.” Which I didn’t do.
What’s in store for us after Crenshaw?
I have a trilogy with HarperCollins called “Endling.” I am also developing another book with Feiwel & Friends. Being a children’s author is the best job in the world