Author Highlight

Katherine Applegate

Katherine Applegate has been writing books for thirty years. In that span, she has written about elephants, dogs, trees, and gorillas. Though there are limitations to protagonists who can’t open jars, Applegate’s work remains thoughtful and didactic. These differences between species, she says, are what intrigue her. Writing through the eyes of an animal, she can explore a whole new perception of the world. Her true talent, however, lies not in her ability to grant her subjects any new humanity but in helping the reader recognize the humanity already there. Her latest release, Odder, is no exception. 

Written as free verse poetry, Odder tells the story of Odder—or Jazz to the humans of the story—as she learns and relearns what it means to be an otter. Using free verse, Applegate says, forced her to be more thoughtful with her choice of words but allowed her to express herself in a way she can’t through prose.

“My first exposure to verse novels was Patricia McCormick’s brilliant and searing Sold. It gave me the courage to write my novel Home of the Brave, and that’s when I realized the power of saying more with less. White space on the page can convey as much as words do. It felt like the perfect vehicle for Odder’s story.”

Like Applegate’s The One and Only series, Odder examines animal captivity, though a much kinder side of it. The story was born from Applegate’s fascination with the work of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which stands, along with Big Sur and Clint Eastwood’s political career, as one of the truly conversation-worthy things to come from California’s central coast. 

“It’s interesting the way a novel can evolve. Odder began as an entirely fictional story chronicling one day in the life of an adventurous young sea otter. But as I was doing research, I came across the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sea otter cam. The more I read about MBA’s surrogacy program, where they pair orphaned baby otters with residents of their otter program, the more I wanted to write about it. The story took an unexpected turn into a whole new world.”

Odder (Jazz) is the composite of two real otters, Joy and Selka, who passed through the MBA’s surrogacy program. Like Odder, Joy and Selka helped mother orphaned pups at the aquarium after being deemed “non-releasable.”

Applegate says that the research process and finding the stories behind the characters was one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.

“I adore research,” she said. “And, as I always admit, it’s a great way to procrastinate. You should see my otter library. I’ve accumulated everything from children’s non-fiction books to textbooks on the behavioral ecology of marine mammals.”

There was a more lighthearted side to the research as well.

“Watching those otters cavort [on the aquarium’s livestream] is a great way to soothe your soul after a hard day, by the way.”

I concur.

Two thousand twenty-three figures to be another big year for Applegate as she expects to release three new titles, the biggest of which being the third installment of The One and Only Series. The One and Only Ruby, set for release on May 2, follows 2012’s The One and Only Ivan and 2020’s The One and Only Bob.

Though the series has garnered overwhelming praise, including a Disney adaptation and a Newbery medal, Applegate has maintained her humility.

“Because I started out as a ghostwriter for series books and wrote several series under my own name, I really had no intention of writing a sequel to The One and Only Ivan. These days, I like books with a beginning, a middle, and an end. [Getting the Newbery award] was like I won the lottery. It’s a humbling, and thrilling, and joyful experience. But the funny thing is, at the end of the day, the blank page still awaits, as daunting and exhilarating as ever. Every time you start writing a book, you think, ‘I have no idea how to do this.’”

As for what comes next for Odder, Ivan, Ruby, and Bob, Applegate kept mum. She said that if she told me, she’d have to kill me.

Donna Washington

Words by Rory Grady

Visitors to Donna Washington’s website will be immediately greeted by the quote, “All of the stories I tell are true…except for the parts that I make up.” Initially, I appreciated it simply for its similarity to the opening lines of Slaughterhouse-Five, but as I’ve considered it more, I’ve found a deeper profundity. A universal truth of good storytelling is that nothing is ever entirely true or untrue. The most honest stories are still embellished, and there is still honesty in what sounds like obvious fiction. Donna learned this lesson early. 

In her childhood, her father told first-person accounts of folktales, often giving himself flattering roles. She recalls him telling the story of his apprenticeship under Merlin while doing sleight-of-hand magic tricks to really sell it. Though storytelling was always present in her life, Donna didn’t see it as a career, and it wasn’t until she got to college that the opportunity presented itself.

“When I was at university, I was cast in a show that required me to take a storytelling class. The joke is that while I was taking this class, I made that transition [to storytelling]. It was clear that it was the art form for me, but I was the only person who didn’t know.”

Ultimately, it was a professor’s advice that opened her eyes to storytelling.

“When the show closed, Rives Collins, who is still a professor at Northwestern, stopped me in the hall and said, ‘You should be a storyteller.’ I was like twenty-nothing, and I just thought, ‘Okay.’ That’s how I fell into it.”

As she found more success in storytelling, Donna decided to branch out into other media. Donna wrote her first book, the Story of Kwanzaa, in 1997 to educate readers on what Kwanzaa is and how to celebrate it.

While she loves writing books, she has found some aspects of the process challenging after working on a stage for so long.

“[Onstage,] I see the story, I visualize it, then I embody it. You can’t do that the same way with language, so I have the often arduous task of finding voice inside plain writing. I try to find rhythmic ways to do that. As you’re reading, I want the voice in your head to make sense.”

Donna also operates with meticulous attention to detail when putting together a transcript, knowing that she won’t have the same freedom to tweak it as she does in stage performances.

“It’s way more stressful to send in a manuscript than prepare a piece to do onstage. It drives my husband a little bit crazy, but I will obsess over a paragraph. I know it’s not quite right, and I’ll just stare at it for a really long time. I know that once it leaves my hands, I might not get the chance to play with it anymore. It’s a whole different process.”

Like everyone else in the storytelling field, Donna’s life changed drastically during the pandemic, shifting most of her performances online. That said, her pandemic was far more productive than those of us who could hardly be asked to put on pants. In 2021, Donna released a new book, Boo Stew, in which she provides her own take on the story of Goldilocks and displays her undeniable talent for adapting folklore. 

Along with Sheila Arnold, she founded Artists Standing Strong Together, a nonprofit that works to connect artists with resources. The organization was born in the early days of COVID after many artists saw their sources of income disappear. ASST acted quickly, establishing an emergency fund and hosting its first showcase just days later. The group still holds weekly events allowing authors and patrons to see storytellers free of charge. It also conducts weekly meetings for artists to promote new work or pose questions to the group.

“I would not be where I am today if other artists had not taken the time to sit me down and have some very frank discussions and answer questions. Everyone I encountered was incredibly patient and forthright, so I’ve always tried to do that. ASST, to me, feels like an embodiment of that spirit. I’m honored that we were able to put it together.”

Donna is currently at work on the first of three installments in a series devoted to teaching the foundations and effects of storytelling. The first book, titled No Magic Needed, will cover how stories affect our brains and how we respond to them in ways we don’t realize. The next installment, The Two Faces of Story, will be introduced through a chapter of No Magic Needed titled “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but Stories Will Make Me Kill You.” This book will focus on how stories are used for either good or evil. No Magic Needed is slated for publication next year, and her hope is for the other two to follow in the next few years.

“My goal for the next decade is to write those three books. No Magic Needed; The Two Faces of Story; and Language, Literacy, and Storytelling are my personal projects.  Those will be my three brain-dump donations to the storytelling world if they’re wanted.”

Though Donna doesn’t know exactly how these books will look in their final forms, I look forward to their releases. I know that readers will be able to find truth in it all — even the parts that she makes up.


Listen to Donna’s appearances on the podcast here:

Visit Donna’s website here:

Visit ASST here:

Trevor Lai

Words by Rory Grady

It’s about midnight Pacific time when I open my laptop for my interview with Trevor. Other twenty-two-year-olds might call that early. I’ve passed the sleepy stage of tiredness and moved on to blurred vision and vague stomach pain. I rub my eyes, nurse my herbal tea, and wait for Trevor to join.

When he does, his presence is immediately palpable. His posture is magnificent. He wears a benign smile as the sun illuminates the room behind him. Trevor Lai is the founder and CEO of Up Studios, one of China’s largest animation studios. Their flagship show, Super BOOMi, has gathered over five billion views since its debut, and it grows globally every day. While Trevor spends much of his time working in animation — and has plenty of accolades to show for it — calling him simply an animation director would be a gross omission. 

Lai started drawing when he was four, inspired by the artwork of Robert Munsch and Jim Lee’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics. This love led him to work in a comic book store in his teens, and through his work there, he had the opportunity to attend San Diego Comic-Con. While there, Lai was able to show his portfolio to heavy hitters in the comics and television industries, most notably an executive at Saban Entertainment (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers)  who noticed Lai’s pages over his shoulder while standing in a line. Impressed by Lai’s work, the executive gave him his business card.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’ve made it! I got this guy’s business card!’ But I think when I really go back to and evaluate the feedback I got from the [comic professionals like] Jim Lees of the world, it was constructive, but it wasn’t as enthusiastic. I think you can analyze that moment and see there’s a television professional who works in animation who saw something great in my drawings, and there were comic book professionals who weren’t reacting the same way. Looking back, I guess I think, ‘Yeah, I guess [television] is the path I should have chosen.’”

Lai also attributes his transition from comics to what he saw as a lull in the comic book industry and a realization that drawing panels for thirty-something pages of each comic book didn’t appeal to him. This change led him to children’s literature.

“I was like, ‘You know, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to sit there and draw thirty-two pages. It’s a grind.’ So I thought, ‘What do I love? I love creating the stories, and I love creating the characters. Is there a medium where I can do this?’ That’s how I ended up with children’s books.”

Lai also viewed children’s books as a more responsible field financially, saying, “Comics were entering a sort of recession, and I didn’t think that was very reassuring. I had this epiphany that children’s books are the one product you buy four times in your lifetime, if not more. When you’re a kid, your parents buy the book for you. When you’re an adult — maybe around college age — you get it again. Maybe it’s a gift, or sometimes you buy it for nostalgia. When you’re a parent, you’ll buy it again, and when you’re a grandparent, you’ll buy it for your grandkids.”

Seeking new challenges, Lai entered the world of animation soon after. He recalls his entry into the television industry was something of a trial by fire, describing it as the equivalent of someone opening a restaurant despite never working in a kitchen. He had no degree or experience working in animation direction, but what he lacked in experience, he made up for in pragmatism. When creating BOOMi, Up Studios’ most popular character, Lai wanted something he could call his Mickey Mouse, a character that could be successful both on the screen and in real-world marketing campaigns. Lai says he still uses this approach when creating characters.

“Once I’ve drawn something, I think, ‘Okay, is this going to be iconic, or is this going to be something that’s for me? That’s when my branding hat does a filter. If this is just for me because I have an obsession with cute little mushrooms or whatever it is that day, I’ll put that to the side. I’ve learned from a lot of small studios that aren’t able to distinguish between the two and end up turning a personal passion into either the life or death of the company. That’s just not a recipe for success.”

Through BOOMi, Lai has found his Mickey Mouse. Up Studios has licensed BOOMi’s character to over one hundred hotels and a successful campaign with the National Hockey League. Lai’s greatest feat, however, has been able to cater to new, younger viewers without compromising what made BOOMi so special in the first place.

“I think I’m still like a kid. I still have this insatiable wonder about everything. I’m always asking, ‘Why?’ When you’re a kid there are no bad questions, and yet when you’re an adult, I think there are a lot of wrong assumptions. You have to challenge those assumptions. That’s how you continue to learn.”

A lot can be said about Trevor Lai’s business acumen and the lessons on entrepreneurship he learned in adulthood. They’ve no doubt helped him grow Up Studios into the global success it is today. But I’d argue that nothing has been as important as that preadolescent sense of wonder, that will to stay curious and never once lose sight of that kid who was so obsessed with Ninja Turtles.

Up Studios will be releasing seasons seven and eight of Super BOOMi as well as the English version of Piggy in early 2023. Don’t miss out.

Listen to Trevor’s appearance on the podcast here:

Follow Up Studios @upstudiosworld

Find Trevor’s books here:

Watch Super BOOMi Hockey Hero here:

Watch the trailer for Piggy and the Baby Cloud here:

Amy Schwartz

Words by Rory Grady

It’s rare to find an author whose work can endure the test of time like Amy Schwartz’s. Two different Freaky Friday movies have left vogue since the publication of her book Bea and Mr. Jones, another life-swapping story that celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. What separates Schwartz’s work is her loyalty to her instincts, even if it means making the counterintuitive choice. Schwartz’s main objective, she says, isn’t to write books with morals or deeper meanings; she just wants to write good stories.

“I’m not that fond of books that set out to teach lessons. Maybe something comes across in some of my books, but I just write with the idea of wanting them to be enjoyed.”

Schwartz grew up in a creative household in San Diego, California. Both of her parents encouraged her artistic pursuits and guided her toward literature. The Little House on the Prarie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the illustrations by Garth Williams were particularly impactful. Of Williams’s illustrations, she said, “I remember really studying those drawings and just wishing I could do that.”

Schwartz’s love of art took her to the California College of Art in Oakland, where she majored in drawing. After graduation, one of Schwartz’s friends commented that her artistic style would fit well in children’s literature. This advice would shape the rest of her career. 

Schwartz wrote her first book, Bea and Mr. Jones, in a children’s writing class in New York. The book tells the story of a kindergartener named Bea and her father as they decide to switch lives after becoming bored with their own. The story is notable for its ending, in which Bea and her father decide to stay in their new lives. The story’s ending drew some questions from prospective publishers, but Schwartz was confident in her story and refused to change it. The book continues to be one of Schwartz’s most successful titles, and it recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary with a new reissue.

In her forthcoming book, 13 Stories About Ayana, which will be released this fall, Schwartz revisits a familiar character. Readers may recognize Ayana from her role as the sidekick in Schwartz’s previous book 13 Stories About Harris. 13 Stories About Ayana shares the same format as its predecessor and follows Ayana as she works in a community garden with her father. Fans of Harris’s character will be pleased to know that he too will return in the new book. While the story came naturally to Schwartz, she did not originally envision the books as a series.

“It was somewhere after I completed Harris that I realized I could do a similar book with Ayana as the main character. I felt rather bad about Ayana being number two in the last book, and I thought maybe she could be number one in this one.”

Though Schwartz has been publishing for over forty years, she still finds each project uniquely challenging. When she finds herself struggling, there are a few things she finds invaluable. The first is the advice of friends and editors. The second, she says, is routine.

“Perseverance is the most important thing. I work every day — and obviously, everyone does this differently — with me, I set a time period that I’m going to work. With that, I know that if I sit at my table for this long every day, something good will come of it.”

Keep an eye out for new material from Amy Schwartz. 13 Stories About Ayana is set for release on November 22, and the fortieth-anniversary edition of Bea and Mr. Jones is out now. 


Find all of Amy Schwartz’s books here:

Follow Amy on Instagram @amyschwartzbooks

Listen to Amy’s appearance on the podcast here:


Until next time, readers.

Michael Waters

Words by Rory Grady

While giving a sermon at Azua Pacific University, Dr. Michael Waters posed a question to the audience. “Where do we go from here?” he asked. The crowd hung in an arrested silence. Answering the question would dominate much of the remainder of the speech. I suppose you could say answering that question has dominated much of Waters’s career. His answers have taken different forms, but all have kept the sentiment of the original. “Where we go from here will be determined by the courage we show in this hour.” 

Michael Waters is, by all measures, a renaissance man, laying equal claim to the titles of author, minister, father, and activist. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be an advocate, but he didn’t immediately know what that would look like.

“I always knew I wanted to help people. I knew that very early on because I had a number of examples around me. As I got older, the idea of advocating and fighting injustices started to appeal to my sensibilities.”

Of his role models, none were more important than his grandfather, with whom Waters spent summers in his childhood. The most impactful memories, Waters said, were made in the long drives the two would take together. Almost every morning, the pair would load up a pick-up and drive somewhere around Marlin, Texas, and Waters would spend the rides listening to his grandfather’s stories. Topics of the stories varied greatly, some covering his service in World War II, others recounting his piano-playing in jazz bands. No matter the subject, every story had some message or moral to be taken away. Though some years have passed since those drives, Waters still finds himself thinking of those stories.

His grandfather’s talent and passion for storytelling would inspire Waters as he pursued writing professionally. Writing always came easily to Waters, but it wasn’t until he was invited to write for the Huffington Post that he realized his true potential. Waters has since found success writing both fiction and nonfiction. The biggest influence in his recent writing, he says unequivocally, is his children.

“The children’s books I’ve written so far have been inspired by our kids. That’s just it. Being their dad, they have taught me more than anyone. I’ve learned so much from their observations of the world. Their honest questions have been intriguing, and they’ve been challenging, and I’ve written from that perspective.”

His latest release, Liberty’s Civil Rights Roadtrip, features his daughter as the titular protagonist as she embarks on a journey to see and experience civil rights landmarks and the stories tied to them. The most rewarding part of the publication process, Waters says, is being able to preserve the stories of these places. 

“It means the world to me to be able to offer in a book form — or any other form — these stories to make sure they’re not forgotten so young people can grab hold of them. One of my great blessings was a woman, who is a hero of mine, who was on the bridge in Selma in 1965. To be able to personally hand her a copy of my book and see her hold it, and cherish it, and be so grateful that these stories are being told, that means the world.”

His writing has also struck a chord with his younger readers. While visiting a school in the Bronx, Waters was introduced to a student who was inspired to pursue writing after reading For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World. In their conversation, Waters gave this student the same piece of advice that he’s given in classrooms across the country, and that is to manifest hope. He emphasizes that this does not mean ignoring or avoiding the problems in front of you. It’s a decision you make every day to be good and make a difference for the better. It’s a lesson his grandfather taught him in those long drives all those years ago.

Find all of Dr. Waters’s books here:

Listen to Dr. Waters on the podcast here:

While you’re at it, manifest hope.

Jennifer Swanson

Words by Rory Grady

It takes only a small shift in bond angle to freeze liquid water. This is my favorite fact of trivia that I’ve learned this week. I didn’t learn it from a lecture, or a textbook, or a scholarly essay — though I’m sure you can also get it from those places too if you have the time and means — I got it from a children’s book. This left me with two important takeaways. The first is that sometimes information comes from places you don’t expect. The second is that a small shift can trigger a large change.

Jennifer Swanson has made a career of taking these complex topics and writing about them in a way that’s accessible and exciting for young readers. And she’s good at it — like, really good at it. At the podcast, we call her “the dean of all things STEM and steam,” and that is a title well earned.

Swanson had a strong interest in science from an early age, leading a science club at seven years old. Her love of science was nurtured by oceanographer and documentarian Jacques Cousteau and her seventh-grade science teacher, Mrs. Roth, whom she credits with making science come alive and instilling in her early the belief that women can succeed in STEM.

Swanson’s devotion to STEM continued at the US Naval Academy, where she pursued a degree in chemistry. In one class, a professor noted her gift for putting complex topics in simple terms. His observation stuck with her as she started writing professionally. 

Though Swanson has found a place for herself in the literary world as a nonfiction writer, her first effort at writing was in fiction. It was an inauspicious start,  as her first piece of professional criticism was, “Do you do anything else?” Shaken nerves notwithstanding, Swanson recognizes the importance of this review. The same critic pushed her to explore writing nonfiction, which Swanson considers a turning point in her career. 

“When you hear something like that, you think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is horrible,” she said. “But once I started writing nonfiction, I knew that this is where I was supposed to be.” 

Since then, Swanson has published over forty nonfiction titles. And though nonfiction has presented different demands, Jennifer has fallen in love with the entire process, challenges and all. Her book Beastly Bionics includes close to 300 citations in the bibliography, something she told me with particular pride. Swanson admits that the research process can be demanding, but her curiosity and love of the subject matter make it worthwhile.

“Kids always ask me, ‘What’s your favorite book?’ And it’s literally the one I’m working on at the moment because I’m knee-deep in the research. I love learning all the things and picking out the cool pieces. You can’t include everything from your research, but you find that one cool Jeopardy fun fact, and you think, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to get this in this book somehow.’ Books about trees and animals are amazing, but books about animals that can be robots and biomimicry, that takes it up a whole notch for me.”

It’s this same inquisitiveness that Swanson hopes to inspire in her readers.

“I want them to go out and be curious,” she said of her readers. “I want them to ask more questions and see what they can do. For me, science is best when it’s in action. Don’t read about it. Do it.”

For her forthcoming book, Footprints Across the Planet, which will be released in August, Swanson explores the footprints, both physical and digital, left by all species. She hopes that it will provoke kids (of all ages) to examine the footprint they’re leaving because a small shift can trigger a large change.

Be on the lookout for new material from Jennifer Swanson. Footprints Across the Planet is set for release on August 14, and Who Owns the Moon?, a joint project with Cynthia Levinson, is due out in 2024. While you’re at it, be curious. You may learn something.

Listen to Jennifer on Reading With Your Kids here:

Listen to Jennifer’s podcast, Solve it For Kids, here:

Find Footprints Across the Planet here: