The Story Seeds Podcast

Bonus Q&A: Betsy Bird Interviews Katherine Applegate

Episode Summary

In our bonus interview episode of The Story Seeds Podcast, host Betsy Bird chats with Newbery Award-winning Katherine Applegate (author of the newly published eco-fable Willodeen) after her starring appearance in Episode 11 “A Nose that Knows.” Listen for a behind the scenes look at Katherine’s collaboration with nine-year old Jocelyn on her real-life inspired story idea about a dog who helps a girl with cancer (and the story that grew out of it, “Two Girls, One With Four Paws".) The episode concludes with a fun rapid fire Q&A with Katherine on everything from why she writes to the grossest thing she has ever eaten! This bonus episode is brought to you by Macmillan Children’s Publishing.

Episode Notes

Listen along as host Betsy Bird and Newbery Award-winning Katherine Applegate have a fun and heartwarming conversation about what it was like working with 9 year old Jocelyn in a special presentation of The Story Seeds Podcast which raises awareness of childhood cancer. 

In the interview, Betsy and Katherine:

This episode is also available on YouTube. Subscribe here

Additional Information

Books mentioned in this episode: the Animorphs series by Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant. Willodeen, the Endling series, and The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

Calls to Action

Visit to download a companion printable activity kit for this episode. You can also order a copy of our NYTimes Wirecutter-approved Imagination Lab activity book! Follow us on Instagram @storyseedspod, on Twitter @litsafarimedia, and on Facebook @literarysafari

Show credits

The Story Seeds Podcast is Literary Safari production, created and executive produced by Sandhya Nankani. This episode was produced by her and Anjali Sakhrani. Scoring, mixing, and sound design by Ultraviolet Audio. Hosted by Betsy Bird. Music by Andrew VanWyngarden, Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/musician and co-founder of MGMT. This episode is sponsored by Macmillan Children's Publishing. 

Special thanks to Joseph Tisdall for post-production support.

Episode Transcription


Betsy: [00:00] Hi everyone, welcome to this special bonus episode of The Story Seeds Podcast brought to you by Macmillan Children's Publishing. 

Betsy: [00:10] Today we're going to talk to Newbery Award Winning author Katherine Applegate about why she wanted to be a part of Story Seeds and take a behind the scenes look at her awesome collaboration with nine year old Jocelyn.

Betsy: [00:28] We’re also going to talk about her love of animals (she's practically the Jane Goodall of children's books), find out what her favorite books were when she was Jocelyn's age, and play a rapid fire game at the end of the episode.

Betsy: [00:42] Let's dive in. 


Betsy: [00:45] So, Katherine, you are a very busy, busy, busy person. You have written over a dozen books. You are on a book tour this Fall for your new book, Willodeen. And as we heard on the show, you're working on a new book about sea otters. And yet, despite all of that, why did you want to be a part of The Story Seeds Podcast and work with Jocelyn?

Katherine: [01:06] As soon as I heard about Story Seeds, I was all in. It is just the coolest concept because when you write for young people, you've always got them there in your head, you know you're ... you're thinking about what they want to be reading. But when you can actually collaborate one on one with a young person, that is that's an opportunity I didn't want to miss. And as soon as I heard Jocelyn's story concept, I was all over it.

Betsy: [01:35] What was it about her, her story seed that you thought you could actually grow in some way?

Katherine: [01:40] Oh, well, it was a story about courage and a story about love and friendship. I mean, it was about a girl and her dog and, you know, that just goes straight to my heart because I was one of those kids who just obsessed over animals. I wanted to be a vet when I was growing up. I worked for a vet. In fact, when I was ...

Betsy: [02:01] Really?

Katherine: [02:02] ... In high school. Yeah, I assisted in surgery and I picked up a lot of poop. And along the way, I realized, you know, maybe I should be writing about animals rather than, you know, performing surgery on them. But that part of the story really grabbed me. And then Jocelyn's personal story is it's just so amazingly courageous. She is. She's a remarkable human being, and it was just an honor and a delight to be able to work with her.

Betsy: [02:35] I can completely understand that, and, you know, in terms of like working with h er, you know, we all, you know, we all work with teams and partners at school and at work or at home even. But was this your first time collaborating with someone on a story specifically?

Katherine: [02:51] You know, it's funny, I actually have a great deal of experience collaborating as it happens. My husband and I did a series called Animorphs many ...

Betsy: [03:02] Yes!

Katherine: [03:02] ... Years ago. It was a Nickelodeon TV show for a while. It's been around forever and there were like 63 books in the series

Betsy.m4a: [03:11] And there's graphic novels now, right?

Katherine: [03:12] And they're graphic novels with the amazing Chris Grine doing the all the heavy lifting and the amazing artwork. He gets total credit on that. But we wrote basically a book a month. It was amazing. So we had a new baby at the time but we were able to churn out a whole lot of books. And after that I kind of thought, No, I want to write my own books and I want to write books with a beginning and a middle and an end. 

Katherine: [03:32] More recently, I just finished a book with a friend who's a middle grade author, and we haven't announced it yet, but that again, was a really fun collaboration. What was so great about Jocelyn was that she gave me, you know, this wonderful story on a silver platter right down to the beautiful ending. And that, as you know, as a writer is, is an amazing gift. So that made it that much more fun.

Betsy: [04:09] Well, that makes sense. But of course, you've collaborated with mostly adults, I mean, this was a kid you were collaborating with. So how did you prepare before you met with Jocelyn?

Katherine: [04:19] Well, I knew already that we were going to be talking about a dog, a girl with cancer, the possibility of the dog turning into a service dog. So I knew there were some leaps and bounds we were going to have to deal with. For example, in the real world, it takes quite a while for a dog to become a service dog. And I knew that that was going to be an impediment in the story if we wanted to keep it short.

Katherine: [04:46] I also knew I might want to use only the point of view of Sally, Jocelyn's dog. That introduced, of course, a whole new set of problems, including, you know, anthropomorphizing. That's always a problem when you write from the point of view of an animal. And I knew that I had to keep it short and sweet. So going into it, it was helpful to talk to Jocelyn and get all these little data bits.

Betsy: [05:15] Did you send her any questions beforehand or during the process in any way or?

Katherine: [05:21] We interacted a lot back and forth, and it was really fun. There were a lot of details about her life that I wanted to incorporate and you know, when you're writing a story, it's those compelling little bits and pieces that sometimes make a story come alive. And she gave me so much to work with. Sally high ... high fiving and jewel the babbling bird. And, of course, the fact that she had two tortoises in her backyard. Um talking about big chemo and how very difficult that is. She was so candid and so willing to share, you know, the hard parts of what it's like to be a kid with cancer. And that helps so much too. Because in writing from her dog's point of view, I wanted to be sure that I got that, that worry and that empathy and and also captured just how incredibly brave Jocelyn is.

Betsy: [06:22] So sort of along those lines, what were your favorite parts collaborating with her and what was hard about it?

Katherine: [06:28] Oh, you know, every time we talked and especially Zooms, but also she sent me lots of fun pictures. I got to see her interacting with Sally. And Sally is quite a charmer. 

Katherine: [06:42] So um ...  and and you know, Jocelyn just has a smile that would melt the sun. And so she's ... it's it's pretty ... That part was really fun. She also was pretty adamant about what she wanted and didn't want, for example. She knew that she didn't want to finish the story herself. She didn't want a cliffhanger. She knew that Sally had to become a therapy dog and not by virtue of magic or magic realism, which is ...

Betsy: [07:13] Ahh ...

Katherine: [07:13] ... What I had thought about doing. I knew if I use some kind of magic fantasy element, I could move the story along a lot quicker, and I knew it was a very short story, but that was something She wanted. So that had to change my trajectory a little bit. And then, of course, she knew the ending. And the ending, the beautiful ending when she and Sally walked back into a hospital to help other kids. So it's really interesting if you've got the scaffolding on a story that can make it so much easier. There are, as I'm sure, you know, there are people who describe themselves as plotters and then some who describe themselves as pantsers, you know, fly by the pants kind of people. And I'm somewhere in the middle. I will create an outline and then, of course, abandon it when it doesn't suit my needs. And I find a lot of writers kind of fall into that middle category. But Jocelyn was giving me the scaffolding, you know, she was giving me what I needed in order to make the story whole. And that was such a gift. I mean, I'm ready to collaborate with her again.

Betsy: [08:21] Well, and so if someone who has never collaborated with someone was listening to this, what do you think you can learn from working with a partner on your writing?

Katherine: [08:33] You know, it's an interesting balance because you want to have that give and take. And it's so useful to have another set of ears. Sometimes there are very obvious mistakes. When we wrote Animorphs, we made all kinds of continuity ...

Betsy: [08:50] Laughs. 

Katherine: [08:50] ... Errors because we wrote it so quickly and someone created a website. I think it was called KASU and it stood for Katherine Applegate screw ups, and it was just all the continuity errors, you know? Whoops. You know, Jake didn't really acquire that hippomorph. So it was, you know, we were writing fast. But that's, you know, obviously the like down and dirty part of editing you can get help with from a collaborator is wonderful. But you also get the chance to see your story through fresh eyes and a more, you know, kind of delicate way.

Katherine: [09:27] It's also important, though, as you work with a collaborator to to stay true to your own vision and to tell the story that you need to tell. So I always tell kids, you know, you write for yourself first and foremost. And now in this particular instance, I very much wanted to write for Jocelyn and sort of be a vehicle because she'd given me such a beautiful story.

Katherine: [09:51] One of the weird things about being a writer is it's it's a kind of a lonely job. Sometimes you're kind of stuck in a little room, very isolated. And there's something lovely about having another human being there to bounce ideas off of. 

Betsy: [10:07] Yeah. Well, and then it's kind of funny because Jocelyn told us she doesn't really like to write which a lot of people don't, but she's definitely full of all these amazing story ideas as you saw. What about you? What were you like when you were Jocelyn's age? Did you? Did you want to read and write? Did you? Did you always want to be a writer when you grew up?

Katherine: [10:29] No, and I confess this fully every time I do a school visit, I was not a reader and I am absolutely in the minority on this. I think you'll find most writers were reading Tolstoy in utero ...

Betsy: [10:43] Laughs

Katherine: [10:44] ... But I was … I was not one of those. I was one of those kids who just kind of didn't get the point. Now I happen to have a daughter who has dyslexia. And of course, in that case, writing is really a challenge. But that wasn't my particular issue. I just thought it was kind of pointless. And then I came across, you know what I call my best friend book Charlotte's Web. And probably because it involved animals. And of course, because it's such a gorgeous and poignant story. It clicked with me and I thought, Hey, you know, maybe there's something to this whole reading thing, but I think it's so important for young readers to realize that it's different for everybody.

Katherine: [11:24] You don't have to love Charlotte's Web. Maybe it's a graphic novel. Maybe it's poetry. Maybe it's nonfiction,  you know, everybody's different. And somewhere out there, there's a book that's just going to change the way you look at the world. Reading allows you for a brief moment or two to be a different person, and that is such a remarkable gift. I can't imagine wanting to pass it up. Once you understand how much fun it is and the way to do that is keep experimenting because everybody is different.

Betsy: [11:58] Mm hmm. So, you know, you love books about animals and you've written many stories about animals and the environment. I think I said at the top of the show, you're practically the Jane Goodall of children's books. So many of your books are about animals and the environment. I mean ... I'm going out on a limb here. But was Jane Goodall an inspiration at all?

Katherine: [12:20] Laughs. Oh, she's ... I always tell people when I grow up, I want to be Jane Goodall, but I will need I need like a Starbucks in the jungle, and that's going to be such an issue. You know a four star hotel would be nice.

Betsy: [12:33] Mm Hmm.

Katherine: [12:34] I don't think I'm quite cut out for it ...

Betsy: [12:35] Slightly less bugs, please.

Katherine: [12:37] Laughs. But in my latest book, Willodeen, there is a young girl, very brave young girl, not nearly as brave as Jocelyn, but she has, I would say, a hint of Jane Goodall in her. She loves to sit and observe nature, takes notes, sort of as a scientist without knowing she's being a scientist and observing the decline of a couple of different species that are very odd. One is ... looks an awful lot like a bear meets hummingbird, and she's trying to figure it out. And I definitely had Jane Goodall in mind and also, to some extent, the remarkable Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Who, as I'm sure you know, has made a lot of really wonderful noise, loud and good noise about climate change.

Betsy: [13:32] What was the inspiration for Willodeen?

Katherine: [13:34] I was hoping to I wanted to talk about biodiversity, and the catalyst was I live in L.A. there are lots ... It's a very urban place and we are surrounded by wildlife trying to get along with these crazy humans. 

Betsy: [13:51] Hmm.

Katherine: [13:51] One of the challenges has been coyotes. And they are prone to using small pets in the neighborhoods as appetizers, which is, you know, there want as they should. And so I was watching that uneasy relationship and thinking about how I could translate that into a book. I always tell kids, if you've got a chance to to play with stories, one of the most fun things you can do is just start from scratch. That's a wonderful thing about fantasy. You can create a world from the bottom up and create your own species. You know, I grab a cheetah and put some wings on them, you know, do whatever you want. It's so much fun. I did that in a book series I did called Endling Two, where I created a sentient species, sort of a Labrador slash human who was the last animal in her species. And we unfortunately have a word for that now. We call them Endlings. So it's a lot of fun. It's a really interesting way to go at, you know, STEAM issues. You know, you're looking at, there's science, there's art. What do they look like? What do they sound like? What, what natural environments do they need? Who are their predators? I mean, just once you get started, all the questions just keep rolling on,

Betsy: [15:18] Oh, yeah. I'm asking myself a question right now, which is why don't I have a cheetah with wings? Because now I want one. I want one real bad. That sounds awesome. Oh my gosh.

Katherine: [15:29] I'm with you, I'm with you. I want a hummingbear too.

Betsy: [15:32] Yes. Who wouldn' want a hummingbear? Oh my Gosh.

Katherine: [15:36] Yeah- I mean, who wouldn't?

Betsy: [15:38] Get me one of those. Well, and obviously this book could be called fantasy, but I think you you must have done some actual research to do it to some extent, right? So did you do research for it?

Katherine: [15:50] Oh, I love research. It's one of my ...

Betsy: [15:52] Mm Hmm.

Katherine: [15:52] ... Favorite parts. It's both because it's a great way to procrastinate and ...

Betsy: [15:56] Yes!

Katherine: [15:57] ... Deadlines are not my strong point, as you know ... Because, you know, historical research in particular is a lot of fun. I certainly did a ton of research when I wrote The One and Only Ivan because I knew absolutely nothing about gorillas, let alone that particular western lowland gorilla. And I found it just to be a wonderful sort of side benefit of the writing process. I just went to Monterrey to research sea otters, and ...

Betsy: [16:27] Aw.

Katherine: [16:27] ... I had a ball. And of course, when I was working on Willodeen, I had to figure out the puzzle pieces of a very small unit in terms of biodiversity. You know, sort of backyard biodiversity. Who depends on whom. And it's way more complicated than you might imagine. And even with Jocelyn's story, I did some research on service dogs and what requirements there were and what the training was like, and that was fun.

Betsy: [17:01] Mm hmm. Oh, yeah. We are now going to play a rapid fire game. So Katherine, I am going to ask you 10 questions about yourself and you are going to give me the first answer that comes to mind. Now we asked Jocelyn some of these questions too and her answers are up on the Story Seeds website at w-w-w Story Seeds Podcast dot com. So we're going to put your answers up there too. Are you ready?

Katherine: [17:27] As ready as I can be.

Betsy: [17:29] All right. All right. All right. Here we go. Here we go.

Betsy: [17:32] If I were a spy, my code name would be.

Katherine: [17:35] Oh ! Uh ! Uh! Dogface 102.

Betsy: [17:41] Nice. The grossest thing I have ever eaten was.

Katherine: [17:46] Oh, you know, I've had, you know, crickets. And you know, the, you know, the usual snails and that kind of thing. Nothing I couldn't handle. I'll eat anything.

Betsy: [17:58] Nice. If I could have dinner with one famous dead person, I would pick.

Katherine: [18:04] E.B. White. I think the author of Charlotte's Web. He was just a charming and and very smart man. And if he's not available, Abraham Lincoln would be fun.

Betsy: [18:17] That's a good second. That's ...

Katherine: [18:18] Yeah, yeah

Betsy: [18:18] ... A good second. All right. My most favorite piece of clothing is.

Katherine: [18:23] Oh, my sweatpants.

Betsy: [18:25] Mm hmm

Katherine: [18:26] I live in em and I lived in them even before the pandemic.

Betsy: [18:29] Laughs. In my pockets right now, I have.

Katherine: [18:35] A dog treat, actually.

Betsy: [18:37] Oh, wow, that is really appropriate. Ok.

Katherine: [18:40] But then on my lap, I have a dog. So, you know ... Kind of go hand in hand.

Betsy: [18:42] Oh. See. That kind of goes hand in hand. All right. If I were on The Voice, I would sing.

Katherine: [18:50] Hmm… Oh, some old blues tune. And and if I can't be Jane Goodall, I'd like to be like, you know, a happy Billie Holiday. But ... Laughs

Betsy: [19:06] Oh, you don't ask for much. Laughs. If alien landed on Earth and I met one, the first thing I would show them is.

Katherine: [19:16] Mmm ... I, you know, I think you got to start with like an icebreaker, so maybe some ... I love popcorn.

Betsy: [19:24] Ooh.

Katherine: [19:24] Don't you think? Wouldn't it be a good way to start? Dude sit down, have some popcorn? We can work this out.

Betsy: [19:31] All right, I was saving the hardest question here, my favorite animal is.

Katherine: [19:36] Oh, such a cliche. And I apologize. It's  ... I love dogs. 

Betsy: [19:39] Ha!

Katherine: [19:40] I know I should say something exotic or bizarre. At very least gorillas. But you know what I love about dogs? They're optimists, and they're always hoping that next meal is going to be right around the corner or a walk is about to happen. And I have enough of the pessimist in me that I really appreciate that.

Betsy: [20:00] Aw. My favorite place to write is.

Katherine: [20:04] I can write anywhere.

Betsy: [20:06] Nice.

Katherine: [20:07] I've learned over time

Betsy: [20:08] But you have no favorites?

Katherine: [20:09] Laughs. Oh, I'd love to be in my backyard and 

just, you know, watching the birds and hanging out with my laptop, that's perfect.

Betsy: [20:18] All right, last one. I write books because.

Katherine: [20:24] It helps me figure out the world.

Betsy: [20:27] Nice. Thank you Katherine, for joining me on this 

bonus episode of The Story Seeds Podcast. I have loved talking to you. Thank you so much. This was so fun.

Katherine: [20:37] Oh, thank you. I've had a great time.


Betsy: [20:41] Listeners, if you haven't heard it yet, make sure to check out Katherine and Jocelyn’s episode and their story: Two Brave Girls, One with Four Paws. 

Betsy: [20:50] We have also created an activity kit to help you grow your own story seeds inspired by their collaboration. You can check it out in the Imagination Lab section of our website at w-w-w dot story seeds podcast dot com.


Betsy: [21:04] This episode is brought to you by MacMillan Children’s Publishing. 

Betsy: [21:07] Credit to Ultraviolet Audio for the sound mixing, design and score of this bonus episode. Our theme music is composed and performed by Andrew VanWyngarden, and I am your host, Betsy Bird. 

Betsy: [21:17] Story Seeds is a Literary Safari Production.