Katherine Applegate, THE ONE AND ONLY FAMILY

Katherine Applegate, THE ONE AND ONLY FAMILY

#1 New York Times bestseller! Powerhouse children’s writer and Newbery Award-winner Katherine Applegate joins Zibby to discuss THE ONE AND ONLY FAMILY, the poignant, delightful, and heartbreaking final installment in the quartet that began with THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN—the story of the world’s favorite silverback gorilla. Katherine reveals the inspiration behind this iconic series and then delves into the themes of family and parenthood through the eyes of her animal characters. She also talks about her writing process—including extensive research into the animal world—and her career, from ghostwriting for Disney to co-writing the Animorphs series with her husband.


Zibby: Welcome, Catherine. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss The One and Only Family. Congratulations. 

Katherine: Oh, thank you. I am so delighted to be here. 

Zibby: Okay, so tell everybody, what is this, this is the final installment, right? You're not going past here, or should I not say that?

Katherine: No, no, this is it. This is it. 

Zibby: Okay, okay. Tell everybody what the book is about. 

Katherine: Well, you know, this is a continuation of a what it's now become a four book quartet, I guess you'd call it that started with the one and only Ivan, um, which many people have have realized at this point was based on a true story.

There really wasn't Ivan https: otter. ai

And spent 27 awful years there. So I fictionalized that story and eventually expanded upon it. We had the one and only Bob. Bob is a very sarcastic, charming dog who is voiced by Danny DeVito in the movie. And the one and only Ruby, a baby elephant. And I really thought I was done, but then I. I was thinking about the fact that, uh, the real Ivan may well have been a twin.

We don't know for sure. He was found with another baby, uh, gorilla who appeared to be the same size and age, a female. And unfortunately, she died almost as soon as she got to Tacoma. And Western Lonely Gorillas, you know, do have twins occasionally. It can be a familial thing, as it is with humans. So I thought, Wouldn't that be fascinating to see our dear friend Ivan actually be a dad, even though in real life, uh, as far as we know, he never was.

Zibby: Wow. And, I know, I jokingly asked if it was a spoiler to reveal that Ivan has twins, because it comes as such a surprise during the reading of it, even though you can see it in the cover and you know what's gonna happen. Because the surprise for many people when they have twins is just that, like, here is the baby.

And then here is another baby. Oh my gosh, what do we do now? And the terror that Ivan feels that I'm sure so many parents have felt at the same time feels just so, so real. So tell me a little bit more about that. And as I mentioned to you, I have boy girl twins of my own who are now 17, about to be 17.

But yeah, that moment when you're like, how am I going to deal with two sets of Temper tantrums of two year olds. 

Katherine: Yeah, that, that is an epiphany for him, for sure. And in fact, it, and I try always when I'm writing these to, to stay as close as I can to animal behavior. And, and you know, it's always on a spectrum because of course you're going to be anthropomorphic when you're, when you're talking about animals.

But in fact, sometimes gorillas, and in this case Ivan, uh, is. Is quite isolated for, uh, various reasons. There isn't a troop around to help his, I guess we say wife Kenyani, as she anticipates becoming a mom. And one of the things the keepers do is present them with a stuffed baby. Toy gorillas so they can start, you know, holding them and experiencing what in the most simplistic fashion what it's like to be a parent.

And so I tried as much as I could to kind of follow through that timeline. And Ivan is, of course, bewildered. even though all the keepers know that he is about to be the dad of twins when he actually ends up with two. And it, it is, you're right. Absolutely. The most glorious moment of his life and the most terrifying because he's thinking, Oh, imagine what it'll be like to be a dad and, and share my life and my wisdom.

And then he suddenly remembers what it's like when you see a toddler tantrum. Yeah. Multiply that by two, as I'm sure you can recall. 

Zibby: Yes, unfortunately. Actually, we did the same thing. We had a dog when the twins were born. And we gave the dog, like, a doll. You know, a doll baby. And, like, tried to pretend like it was a baby.

Like, get the dog used to the fact that there would be babies around. And, anyway. Then we even had the doll. Cry. I feel like a dog trainer told me to do this. We had a dog that you like push the stomach and it would like mimic the real sounds of crying. Oh, I love it. Yeah. I mean, the things you do when you're pregnant.

No, of course it didn't work. Of course it didn't work. No. The, the thing that Ivan feels right away when seeing the kids, which again, so many parents relate to is this feeling, protect, protect, protect. And that feeling like doesn't go away, does it? And it's pervasive across. species and everything. And it is just so evolutionary.

You, you know why it's there, but to see it written on the page like this and to know as a parent that feeling and instincts, the protection just doesn't end, right? When does it ever let up? Never. 

Katherine: Boy, you tell me, I have two daughters in their twenties and it, it's not that it doesn't get easier. Of course it, in many ways it does.

You're not, you know, on call 24 hours a day, but the worry doesn't go away. It, it, I guess it never does and you want them to take risks and you know they're going to and you, the other thing is you remember when you were young and how fearless you were and you want. You want that to happen for them, but boy, it's hard.

Zibby: You had all these little gems sort of sprinkled throughout. Can I just read a couple lines? Do you mind? 

Katherine: Oh that, no, of course. 

Zibby: . Well, this was funny. I was perhaps a bit too optimistic earlier. I can now report with some authority that parenting is definitely not as easy as it looks. That was great, . Totally agree.

But you said in this part. I laugh, this is page 183, I laugh until my eye is well with tears. Once again I'm reminded that it's possible to be happy and sad, worried and hopeful, confused and certain, all at the same time, especially when you love someone dearly. 

Katherine: Aw,... 

Zibby: I feel that so deeply. 

Katherine: I know. And it's, I guess it's the human condition.

You're right. It's, or the primate condition, it's, I'm sure crosses all species, that endless anxiety. But it's, it's, you know, I guess it works because here we are. 

Zibby: I know. Yeah. Good reason for that, I guess. Are you sad to have sort of put these characters to bed, like, and not write about them anymore? 

Katherine: Oh, yeah, you know, it's so funny with series especially, uh, but certainly even with a single title, these, these characters become part of you, and they're a family, and this has been a good, you know, ten years or so.

You know, they're part of my life, and it does feel sad to let them go. I just did a book tour, and a lot of kids were asking, well, what about the twins? You could do a book about the twins, or what about the series? And you just know it's time. It came full circle. I felt like the narrative arc ended where it needed to.

And hopefully on a, on a very hopeful note, because I think that's so important for kids. 

Zibby: When you started, when you wrote the one and only Ivan, did you know it would be a quartet? 

Katherine: Oh, God, no. I didn't think it'd be a book. I make a point to tell both struggling writers and, and kids that I got about halfway through the original manuscript and literally tossed it in the trash.

I just could not believe that anybody would read first person guerrilla. I, I just thought I was, I'd gone way out on this crazy tangent and you're a writer, you know, that feeling. What have I done? So I eventually pulled it back out and thought, you know, I want to know what happens. And I rewrote it about, you know, a million times.

But that, of course, is what writing is all about. It's rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh. Remember I talked to Garth's dad? Stein a while back about the art of racing in the rain from the point of view of the dog. 

Katherine: I love that book so good. 

Zibby: But he said people like laughed him out of the room.

Like his agent was like, you have lost your mind, you writing a book from the point of view of a dog. Like no one will do this and no one will ever publish this. And it took him forever to get it published and then it sold a million copies. 

Katherine: And, and it was absolutely lovely. Yes. Oh, that's so fascinating, isn't it?

Because you just never know. 

Zibby: Yeah. 

Katherine: Until it's on the page. 

Zibby: Exactly. So tell me about your whole writing career and how you got started. Like when did, when did you know this is what you wanted to do? How did you know not to give up? How did you just, you know, sort of get the wisdom to pull things out of the trash when they had something to them?

Katherine: Yeah. Well, you noticed I laughed right away because, you know, like sausage in legislation, it was, it was very messy. I started out, well, I got a liberal arts degree and then became the world's worst waitress because that's what you do when you have a liberal arts degree. And then, and I was terrified to write.

It seemed like the most humiliating way to fail because it was so public. So eventually I became a ghostwriter. And I was the consummate hack, and I mean that in the best possible way, it's, it's a good way to learn your craft. And I wrote, oh, like, 17 Sweet Valley twins, women of a certain age will remember Sweet Valley.

Zibby: I am of that age, and that is amazing, and I

Katherine: gave Jessica her first period. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh. 

Katherine: Yes. 

Zibby: Wow. I'm like God. 

Katherine: So, and I did, I did tons of work for Disney, you know, Aladdin, Little Mermaid, that kind of thing. And lots of series with Packagers. Where my name wouldn't be on the book and eventually got up the nerve to try something and it, it took me a long, long time.

Zibby: Wow. I ghost wrote a book actually after my first giant failure when I couldn't sell my first novel after an agent took it out and blah, blah, blah. And the consolation prize, I guess, is she's like, well, you could ghost write this book. And I was like, okay. Which was fun. You know, I'm like, oh, this is great.

You know, you talk, I, at the time there was no zoom. I'm like, this is in 2000. Five or something. I would just like be on the phone with the authors and then transcribe and then they were kind enough to give me a width attribution on the cover. Isn't that sweet? I know. It's like, I got a width, like width zipping.

Oh my gosh. 

Katherine: Well, you did all the heavy lifting there. 

Zibby: But still, most of the time, you know, I knew that couldn't have been the case. But I think ghostwriting is, is really interesting and it is a great way to sort of hone in a voice vibe. putting yourself literally in someone else's mind. So yeah, good, good starting.

Katherine: It is. It's really good practice because you are adopting somebody else's voice and you better, you better get it right. Especially if you're writing, uh, as it turns out, say Donald's up for Disney because of this. You better get that right. Trust me. 

Zibby: Yeah. That's a, that's a tall order. I mean, the Sweet Valley Twins and Donald Disney characters.

I mean, come on. I mean, those are beloved by everyone. Maybe different groups, but perhaps not. So then tell me about like the first project, cause you've done so many different types of books and all of that. What was the progression like and how did you do a, you know, just all the different things, children's books and middle grades.

Katherine: Well, I actually, and I used to not admit this, but I thought it would be very easy to write a Harlequin romance. I was not a reader and I hasten to add that there are fantastic romance writers out there. I just wasn't one of them. So, with my husband, I attempted to write two Harlequins, and to this day, I won't tell anybody what my pen name was, and eventually, my husband and I did a series together called Animorphs, and we wrote it with Scholastic.

There were 63, maybe, books in the series, and we Probably 40 or 50 of them now. And that was back in the day when books came out every month. There was a babysitter's club and goosebumps. Kids love that because you know, it's, it's, you rush back to the bookstore to the scholastic book club and you grab that next book.

So that was exhausting because we had a new baby and we were, you know, passing around the baby and the coffee and the book nonstop, but it's a, but it was a steep learning curve. But now I will go to book events, and this is such a reminder that I've aged, and these, these eight year olds who are Animorphs fans will show up, and they have Animorphs tattoos, and they've named their babies after Karen.

Oh my gosh. So it's so cool. They're just the best. They're the most wonderful fans on earth. They're just, they all grow up to be delightful human beings and I take full credit. You should, as you should. So once we'd done that, I, you know, we, I, we were both so, So tired of writing series and my husband started writing YA and I, I drifted more toward middle grade.

And that's when I started my first real book. I call it was called home of the brave. And it was in free verse about Sudanese refugee. So it was a huge departure. 

Zibby: Wow. And then Crenshaw, by the way, was required reading for all my kids. So, um, yeah, I know. I can't believe it. We have so many copies because like as one kid and then the next kid at the same school and da da da.

So, yeah. Oh, I love it. Yeah. Congratulations on that. So how do you feel like you're able to write? I mean, it's one thing for us to ghost write. But to write from the point of view of another species all together and put yourself, I mean, I guess I could kind of imagine what it's like to be my dog, but aside from that, like, I think it would be harder for me.

How do you do it? And not that there's ever a way, but I don't know, how do you get into character, so to speak? 

Katherine: I love that you say, not that there's ever a way because it's spoken like a writer. You know, like, what? It's, it's so messy, but, uh, well, research is a huge part of it. And I love doing that because I am the consummate procrastinator and it's such a great way to not write.

For example, I did a book called Otter recently written from the point of view of a Southern sea otter in Monterey Bay and tried to stay as close as I could to the actual experience while of course pretending to be an otter and I had it vetted by marine biologists. And I, I tried to really hue as close as I could, but at the end of the day, you know, you're taking this big leap, but it was a chance to go hang out with otters and do fascinating research.

So I think that's a lot of it. You know, you do the best you can to understand what their perceptions of the world are, but you know, there's like Jack London at one end, and then there's, you know, frog and toad at the other, and there's a spectrum of approaches. And it kind of depends on the book. 

Zibby: Did you know that Frog and Toad is now a TV show?

I just saw that yesterday. 

Katherine: No, you're kidding! 

Zibby: No, I was trying to watch something else, and of course, like, there it was on, I don't know, one of the streaming channels. 

Katherine: Oh, I gotta check that out. I don't know. It's, you know, I'm kind of a purist. It's, it's so perfect the way it is, but okay. 

Zibby: Your movie was so good though.

Katherine: That was so fun. I got to go to London and watch it being filmed. 

Zibby: Really? Oh my gosh. 

Katherine: It was so cool. Angelina Jolie, who was a producer, was on the next set over, uh, doing, um, Maleficent. So she said we got to go chat with her with her golden contacts in and it was just fascinating. 

Zibby: Wow. That was our Thanksgiving, uh, Thanksgiving family movie, the cousins and everything.

So yeah. Aw. So what projects are you working on next? What are you working on now and what's coming out next? Those are probably different things, but. 

Katherine: Um, well I have a picture book version of Otter coming out with Macmillan. With this, the illustrator's done many of my covers with him, Charles Santoso, who's just amazing.

And it's nothing but adorable baby otters. I didn't really need to write anything because Charles is so magnificent. I also have a picture book coming out with the amazing Lita Judge that is based on Ruby for HarperCollins, and she too is amazing. So that's going to be really charming. And I have a second book in a series called Dogtown that I wore with a, um, a fellow writer who's amazing, uh, Jennifer Childanko.

Who won a Newbery honor for the Al Capone series, the Alcatraz series. And that was really fun because we're both dog lovers. So it's about dogs and robot dogs and you know, how can you go wrong? And actually my, my current work in progress is involved stuffed animals, which I have never done. And it's a whole different leap into, you know, the unknown.

So we'll see. 

Zibby: Oh, that's so fun. All right. Do you have a lot of fun with what you're doing? It seems like it, but is it? 

Katherine: Oh, no, it's really hard. Boring and frustrating. No, I always tell kids, it's just, it's a job like any job, and you, you know, you have good days and bad days. Only when I step away from it do I realize how much I love it.

You know, I sometimes tell writers, if you want to know if you're going to be a writer, Tell yourself you can't write for a month and if you can't stand it, then, you know, you're meant to be doing it because it's, it, it takes a certain resilience. 

Zibby: Interesting. I feel like anytime I have a deadline or something, I'm like, I like run the other way.

I don't know. 

Katherine: You're not alone, trust me. I'm sure I've set records. 

Zibby: What other advice do you have for aspiring authors? 

Katherine: You know, I've been telling kids, it's not grammatically correct, but embrace your weird. And by that, I mean, and you know, because you look at all the writers and creatives, you know, we're a weird bunch.

We tend to look at the world differently. And I mean that. Absolutely, with total affection, because I think it's a real gift, and when kids are starting to write, and adults for that matter, you're, there's so much pressure to conform, to be like everybody else, especially, you know, as you head into middle school and high school, and remembering that little weird part of you is magical, creatives can look at the world differently.

So I think it's really important to remember that. 

Zibby: I love it. Well, congratulations. This book was so sweet and special and took me back to my the early days of twin parenting. Celebrating not being Good and bad. Good and bad. Good and bad. But, you know, the notion of, of making a family and, you know, Making your nest in whatever shape and how much we should respect all the other species and not take ourselves too seriously.

Sharing the world, all that good stuff. So important. So anyway, true delight. I've, you've delighted my whole family for hours on end in various mediums. So thank you so much. 

Katherine: Oh, thank you. It's been a joy. 

Zibby: All right. Thank you.

Katherine Applegate, THE ONE AND ONLY FAMILY

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