A Story Waiting to be Written
Every College of Liberal Arts student has a story waiting to be written, as proven by former English major Kathi Appelt.
Story by Alix Poth ’18
Photos by Michael Kellett
Article illustrations by Angelyn Wiley ’17
When you walk into the Appelt home, you’re met by five friendly felines and an aroma of freshly brewed coffee, flying ukuleles and purple walls, leopard print carpet and shelves upon shelves of books. In other words, you find the perfect abode for an award-winning children’s book author who discovered her passion for the humanities in the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M.
It’s fitting that Kathi Appelt ‘79 lives in such an inviting home, as she is well-known for her hospitality. After acquainting guests with the magical wonders of her living room, she invites them into her equally stimulating kitchen, complete with colorful tiles that line the walls and deep, twinkling blue countertops. With an offer of homemade cookies and a good cup of coffee, it quickly becomes apparent that Kathi’s home and hospitality are not simply for show — they help tell her story. This is exactly what she views as the heart of what makes us human: we are all storytellers.
Indeed, the story of Kathi Appelt, and her journey from the Texas A&M University College of Liberal Arts to children’s book author fame, is a captivating one.
Kathi graduated from high school in 1972 and became a first- generation college student when she studied at Texas A&M. Kathi began with hopes to become a veterinarian but said she quickly found her mind was not wired for the hard sciences. However, she was enthralled by the freshman English course she was required to take, and was inspired by the dedication and clear love of the subject shown by the teacher assistant. She switched her major to English before her second semester of college.
“I didn’t have a clue what I would do with an English degree, but it felt right for me to be in the English department,” she shared. “The liberal arts courses I took taught me how to think — how to take material and bring my own sensibilities and stories to it, and then come to a thoughtful conclusion.”
However, before Kathi was able to return for her second year of school, she needed to return home to Houston for a short period of time. Like many students today, she was in need of funds to help pay for college. Circumstances like Kathi’s are a reminder of the great benefit and educational freedom provided to students through scholarships.
“I didn’t have enough money to sustain myself, so I started doing temp jobs for an agency and went to business school at night,” she said. “I earned enough and came back to Texas A&M as an English major. But I also had an interest in theatre, so I took every class I could in the theatre arts, a subsection of the English department at the time.”
Kathi’s interest in theatre proved beneficial in more ways than one. She was the first recipient of the C.K. Esten Award given to successful theatre students. (C.K. Esten was the director of Theatre Arts and known as the “Voice of Kyle Field.”) A few years later, following her graduation in 1979, Kathi married her husband, Ken Appelt, after meeting him at her stagehand work-study job in Rudder Theatre, where Ken was the sound engineer.
Kathi and Ken, son of one of Texas A&M’s community pillars Les Appelt ‘41, settled down as College Station locals, had two sons, and were suddenly tossed into the world of parenthood.
“I felt ill-prepared to be a parent, and even felt shocked by how much I didn’t know about it,” Kathi said. “I started reading to my boys a lot, sort of as a self-defense, thinking that it certainly couldn’t hurt. I discovered the world of children’s books through them, and I was enchanted.”
Kathi described her sons’ childhood years in the 1980s as the “golden age of children’s books,” and marked herself as a beneficiary of that period of wonder. During this time, she grabbed lunch with her friend and former professor, Elizabeth Neeld, who happened to be an English professor of children’s literature. When Neeld asked what she was reading, Kathi laughingly responded that children’s books were her current literature of choice.
“Elizabeth looked at me and asked seriously if I had ever thought of writing children’s books, to which I responded no,” Kathi said. “She asked me, ‘Why not?’ Considering my love for children’s literature, I didn’t have an answer to that! It goes to show the power of good, intuitive questions.”
Her time and connections with the College of Liberal Arts faculty set Kathi on the path of becoming a successful children’s author. The rest, as they say, was a story waiting to be written.
Telling a Good Story
As Kathi entered the world of writing children’s books, she credited the study of liberal arts with fostering her ability to view life through the lens of storytelling.
“Humans are all about stories, which is what sets us apart,” she said. “We’re the only ones on earth that are like that, and the liberal arts are the examination of the thing that makes us most human.”
Her writing process is centered around telling an absorbing story she believes others would want to read. Kathi aims to keep her younger audience in mind, remembering the voracious reader she was as a child. She also draws inspiration from life happening right around her — noting small everyday details, reflecting on past experiences, and observing the world through a child’s eyes.
“Most of my books and poems come directly from my own life because that’s what I know best and feel most strongly about,” she said.
But Kathi is also honest about what it takes to be an author; even with dozens of published books, she knows it’s a challenging process. Her first book purchased by an editor was never published. Her first published book, Elephants Aloft, was written two years before it was illustrated and released into the world.
“I would send manuscripts in the mail and would have to wait six months to a year to hear back about it, so I’d just move on to the next story,” she said. “One picture book bounced around and took 17 years before anything happened. Every book has its own journey and history.”
It’s a vulnerable process to get work onto a published page, Kathi said, especially when you put your emotions into a story. She said you want people to respond in extremes to your writing because it means you’ve touched them.
“It requires a thick skin to put it out there, and you have to love the work,” she said. “People will either love the story or they’ll hate it, and I’ve seen how one bad review can haunt you — but it’s a risk you take. When you make people respond and think, it means you touched something in them, and that’s really freeing.”
The Human Heart of Liberal Arts
The transparent, hard work Kathi has put into her stories has paid off. She’s published close to 50 books and has won numerous awards. She noted the awards she received for her first novel, the National Book Award Finalist and Newbery Honor Book distinction given to The Underneath, felt most significant.
“Winning parents’ and children’s choice awards feels really gratifying,” she said. “I got stuck with the plot of The Underneath, and had to make myself keep writing it in small significant scenes, so it was great to be rewarded for that.”
You would think after such a notable career, one might be content to be finished; but Kathi shows little sign of stopping. A teacher at heart, she spent a few years teaching an upper-level course on writing for children at Texas A&M, and loved it. Today, she continues teaching in the Master of Fine Arts writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She firmly believes the key to being a good writer is to always be a student.
“I still attend writing classes and workshops every year. My advice to young writers is to read everything. Write like your fingers are on fire — quickly and a lot,” she said. “There’s always something new to learn. Every book and writer has something to teach me.”
Kathi said many of her students over the years would ask her why she believes the liberal arts are useful, and the prevalence of that question has shown her just how shortchanged the liberal arts are.
She views all College of Liberal Arts departments — history, anthropology, psychology — as studies of various aspects of the overarching human story, and even non-liberal arts colleges come back to a human core. Studying in the college will help a person in their professional life no matter what they decide to do, she said.
“The liberal arts has a human core. We are storytellers because we ourselves are stories,” she said. “I think it’s something we’ve really lost sight of… which leads us to not listening to each other. We shout, but we don’t listen. Liberal arts is the study of our human story, which teaches us listening, contemplating, and looking underneath the human experience.”
Nestled into their cozy and colorful College Station cottage, Kathi and Ken remain passionate about the arts and humanities in their everyday lives (after all, Kathi is a writer, Ken is in a band, and their sons are jazz musicians). They believe Texas A&M gave them a solid grounding for the wonderful stories that have filled their lives and are now displayed throughout their home. Supporting the College of Liberal Arts is a way to honor stories like Kathi’s, and to allow new stories to be written.
“I felt safe [in the College of Liberal Arts], like I was allowed to say what I needed to say,” Kathi said. “I was given the ability to tell a story, absorb it, react to it, and most importantly, honor the stories of others. The College of Liberal Arts showed me that there’s something really powerful about a good story.”
The story of Kathi Appelt found its triumph from a foundation in the Texas A&M College of Liberal Arts. Like hers, there are many other stories simply waiting to be written — championing and funding the liberal arts ensures these stories have the opportunity to be told to the world.
Start an Aggie’s Story
Without the support Kathi received from generous donors, her stories would still be waiting to be written. There are many “Kathis” who need an Aggie hero to help get their story started. It is easier to be that hero than you may think. Here are three ways to empower students to start their stories in the College of Liberal Arts.
Endowment Level Gift
This is a $25,000+ gift to the College of Liberal Arts through the Texas A&M Foundation. It starts your Aggie legacy and will continue to serve students long after you’re gone.
Estate plan gift
This means your gift is written into your retirement accounts, will, life insurance policy, or the like. It is important that you get the language used in this documentation correct, which is why the Texas A&M Foundation is happy to help you support both your family and your passion for Texas A&M University after your lifetime when you document an estate plan gift.
Immediate Impact Scholarship
Immediate impact scholarships are exactly what they sound like. They are one-time scholarships given as soon as possible to the recipient. They require a minimum gift of $1,000; however, the impact you make in students’ lives increases as you increase the amount you give.
Learn more about these and other giving opportunities or make a gift by visiting txamfoundation.com. You can also empower Aggie stories by contacting Larry Walker, senior director of development, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Andrew Millar, director of development at email@example.com.