the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog


Posted by Sarah Johnson on Thu, Mar 05, 2015 @ 04:03 AM

Today we celebrate TWO new picture books by Kathi Appelt: When Otis Courted MaMa and Counting Crows. Both received a star from Kirkus Reviews!

Kathi is the New York Times best-selling author of over 40 books for children and young adults.  She lives in College Station, TX with her husband Ken and five gifted and talented cats. She also teaches on the faculty of VCFA. 

Counting Crows CoverOne, two, three crows in a tree.  Crows in red sweaters, nest and caw, gather snacks, and dodge a kitty’s paw.  How many crows take to the sky? Count all the crows and watch them fly!  Open and look to see just how this counting book is the cat’s meow.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

When it comes to the crows, I have to confess that I’m fascinated by crows.  And I do admire the name of the band, Counting Crows.  For years, I carried around this idea of a picture book that featured a set of crows who counted things.  They were “counting crows.”  Not multiplying crows or dividing crows, simply counting crows.  But it took me forever to figure what they were counting, and it took me longer to figure out the rhythm of the counting.  So, I had the idea in my head for probably ten years before I finally figured it out.  After that, it only took me a few days to put it together.  And of course, then came the revisions.  Ack!

When Otis Courted Mama cover

Apart from sticker burs and sand fleas, Cardell’s life is mostly wonderful.  He knows he’s loved through and through by his perfectly good mama and his perfectly good daddy.  They live in different parts of the desert, but that’s okay—Cardell is mostly used to it.  Then Otis comes calling, and Cardell feels a GRRR form in his throat.  Otis can’t make jalapeño flapjacks or play Zig-the-Zag anything like Cardell’s daddy.  And Cardell waits for Mama to say “Adios Otis.”  But what will happen if she doesn’t?

What was the spark that ignited this book?

When it came to OTIS, I had a terrific, funny and very kind stepfather.  One day, while I was working on my memoir, MY FATHER’S SUMMERS, and thinking about my father, it occurred to me that in children’s literature, the role of stepparent is usually that of the antagonist. And yet, in real life, there are a lot of very good stepparents who are doing a great job of it, and who are making a difference in the lives of their stepchildren. But they don’t show up much in our stories.  I thought it was time for some other character besides Cinderella’s hideous stepmother to make an appearance.  And I used my own stepfather George as a role model for Otis.


Screen Shot 2015 03 05 at 9.32.58 AM

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

I loved writing the character of Cardell in WHEN OTIS COURTED MAMA because he reminded me of myself after my parents divorced.  He very much wants his mama to be happy, but he’s worried about his own happiness too.  Can he share his mother?  Otis has to win him over, and it’s not easy for either of them.


What authors do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?

I love Cynthia Rylant for her everything.  For plot, it’s hard to beat Louis Sachar.  I think that HOLES is about as perfect as a book can be in that regard.  For character, it’s hard to beat Rita Williams-Garcia.  

What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

I try hard to make sure that my characters are acting.  I actually love it when they’re sitting on their hands doing a lot of woolgathering.  Why?  That’s what I like to do. But that usually doesn’t work out for readers.  We want characters who are moving—either forwards or backwards, doesn’t matter so long as they’re going somewhere and doing something.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing? 

Feral hogs.  I needed to know a few things about them for my book THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

The community of excellence that is VCFA has changed who I am as both a person and a writer.  

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

Listening to Alan Cumyn sing “Hallelujah."

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Do it. 

What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus?

That insulated boots are best for the winter.

Counting Crows graphic

Thanks for joining us today, Kathi.

Connect with Kathi on Facebook at

You can also visit her at her website:


Topics: 2015 release, picture book, Kathi Appelt, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, HMH Books For Young Readers, Kirkus Star

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