March 2005

Kathi Appelt

A first lady who made a difference
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"I think I've been writing this book since I was in the third grade," says Kathi Appelt of her new picture-book biography, Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America.

While growing up in Houston, Appelt often helped her grandmother an ardent Democrat at party headquarters, especially during the Lyndon Johnson presidential campaign. "My grandmother was so fond of Lady Bird," Appelt recalls. "She felt that Lady Bird was the epitome of a Southern woman. She loved her, even though they never met."

Later, as an adult, Appelt realized how influential Lady Bird had been. Speaking to BookPage from her home in College Station, Texas, Appelt noted that "Lady Bird is a tiny woman, very quiet. As diminutive as she is physically, she made a huge difference." An advocate for the environment, Lady Bird had a special love for wildflowers, and she worked to preserve them first in her home state of Texas, and later through the Highway Beautification Act, passed by Congress in 1965 after Lady Bird went head-to-head with the billboard lobby. "If you look at First Ladies," Appelt says, "nobody has impacted legislation the way that Lady Bird did . . . none of them with the exception, perhaps, of Eleanor Roosevelt." Ironically, when Appelt proposed her picture book five years ago, her editor said she was interested, but commented that a college intern in the office didn't know who Lady Bird was.

Even those who are familiar with Lady Bird might be surprised to learn about her dramatic childhood. Born in 1912 in an East Texas mansion, Claudia Taylor earned her unusual nickname from a nanny who called her "purty as a lady bird" (which happens to be a colorful beetle). When the little girl was five, her mother fell down the mansion's grand stairway and subsequently died from blood poisoning. After her mother's death, Claudia's father often took his little girl along to his general store, but when he had to work late, she slept upstairs on a cot beside the coffins he sold. Thankfully, her father soon sent for her Aunt Effie to help.

Appelt discovered so many rich details in Lady Bird's childhood that they threatened to take over the book. "You can't imagine how much I took out," she recalls. "[Her childhood] was so interesting that I just hated to cut." As a result, she admits, "It's my most heavily revised book ever. I think I probably rewrote it 50 times." Appelt was overjoyed to collaborate with her good friend, Joy Fisher Hein, as illustrator. Hein is a certified Texas Master Naturalist, an accomplishment that definitely came in handy for this project. Her lavish illustrations brim not only with wildflowers, but also with the Texas swamps of Lady Bird's childhood, a vibrant Mexican scene from her honeymoon and the cherry blossoms that adorn Washington, D.C., every spring. "Joy's love is wildflowers," Appelt says. "The details and her exquisite attention to small things are what make the book so beautiful."

At the end of the book is a helpful page identifying various wildflowers, as well as a page about the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Both author and illustrator visited the center and did extensive research. Although they didn't meet their subject (Lady Bird, now 92, has suffered a stroke and no longer gives interviews), the former first lady sent a letter after she saw a proof of the book. "She very graciously thanked us and said she loved the book," the author notes.

Appelt has written many children's books, several books of poetry and short stories, but now she's trying her hand as something new an animal fantasy for middle-grade readers. She is tentative about the book in these early writing stages, but chuckles when asked about her popular, hilarious Bubba and Beau series, three picture books illustrated by Arthur Howard. The books feature very short chapters guaranteed not only to make preschoolers cry for more, but also to leave adult readers chuckling. Three more Bubba and Beau adventures are under contract, Appelt reports, and the next will likely feature her Down-South duo going trick-or-treating. "I would love to write nothing but Bubba and Beau," Appelt admits, "because I have so much fun writing them."

Alice Cary's favorite place to see wildflowers is beside mountain trails.

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