Katherine Applegate
Where it All Began With Female Leaders

Where it All Began with Katherine Applegate

What do you do?

I am a children’s author. Best job on the planet.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I loved animals, so naturally I wanted to be a veterinarian. No doubt about it. I even worked for a vet in high school, assisting in surgery, bathing cats, and picking up poop. After that, I still loved animals. But I didn’t want to be a vet anymore.

Share the story of a business you started as a kid. How old were you and how did it do? What did you learn?

When I was in elementary school, we used to get a toy catalog called “Creative Playthings.” They offered gerbils for sale, and I instantly knew I had to have one (or two, so they wouldn’t be lonely). This was a time when no one had heard of gerbils. These days, they’re so common that they can be a nuisance. In California where I live, it’s actually illegal to own gerbils because of the fear they could be released to the wild, establish feral colonies, and disrupt the ecosystem.

My mother ordered a pair of gerbils for Christmas, but they didn’t arrive in time, so she gave me a little box with a rubber mouse in it. I remember being so thrilled. It was the best present ever.

My gerbil couple finally arrived, and I named them Sandy and Max. They had a swank aquarium filled with wood shavings and an exercise wheel, and they seemed quite happy. So happy, in fact, that they decided to have a family.

And then another family. And another.

This was a consequence we hadn’t quite anticipated (seems pretty obvious, though, in retrospect). I did what any enterprising gerbil owner would do: I advertised in the local paper. I believe I sold babies for ten bucks a piece.

It took a while for the idea to catch on. No one knew what gerbils were, after all. But when the paper ran a story entitled “Pert Ten-Year-Old Becomes Gerbil Saleswoman,” the demand really picked up.

Katherine Applegate During Gerbil Phase
Katherine During Gerbil Phase


What advice would you give to your elementary school self?

It’s all going to be fine.

Who was your role model and/or mentor when you were a kid and how did that person influence you?

Mrs. Bulson, my sixth-grade teacher, encouraged me to try new things, including writing. Those little nudges from helpful adults can have a huge effect down the road.

Share a time that you failed and what you learned from it.

At school visits, I often tell kids about the time I dropped four huge strawberry milkshakes on a man dressed totally in white: white suite, white shoes, white hat. (Think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.) It was humiliating. Mortifying.

And, from the safe perspective of several decades later, pretty darn funny.

What I learned: Life can be viewed as either comedy or tragedy. Choose comedy. It’s a lot more fun.


Katherine Applegate During Waitress Phase
Katherine During Waitress Phase

Give one tip to a 10-year-old girl who is opening her first lemonade stand this weekend.

Don’t try to be like everybody else. Be YOU.

And don’t give up. I have a little piece of paper I keep on my desk. It’s from the time when I was writing THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, and it reads: “My problem here is: Am I giving up on Ivan or not?” It seemed to me, halfway through writing the manuscript, that nobody would ever want to read a book written from the point-of-view of a gorilla.

Turned out I was wrong. The book won a Newbery, and it’s being made into a movie.

Of course, sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes you fail. You’re going to fail a lot in life. That’s part of the deal.

It’s also how we learn.

Now go squeeze some lemons!

Katherine Applegate's Note to Herself: My problem here is: Am I giving up on Ivan or not?
Katherine’s Note To Herself Reads: My problem here is: Am I giving up on Ivan or not?

Did you enjoy our interview with Katherine Applegate? Take a look at other interviews that we did with successful women entrepreneurs.


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