Normally Katherine Applegate would have been in her house in San Francisco the morning that “the call” came in. But she’d been visiting family in Richmond, Va., with her 13-year-old daughter, and found herself in a hotel room 3000 miles from home when the phone rang. Her daughter had caught a bug and was running a fever, and Applegate’s mind was not on the Newbery committee. “It just never crossed my radar screen,” she said. “They told me it was the medal, and I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ ”

As the news sunk in, Applegate said she told the committee, “ ‘It’s the best thing that happened to me since I gave birth, adopted my daughter, and got married.’ I heard a great deal of laughter on the phone. It was fun.”

When PW reached Applegate, roughly two hours after the announcement, she said she was “still sitting here in stunned disbelief.” She heaped praised on the committee that had chosen her, observing that “the amount of work that goes into it is staggering. They make such a remarkable commitment. So it’s much more special when you realize how much work it involves.”

Her first call was to her husband, novelist and frequent co-author Michael Grant, who had stayed in San Francisco with their teenage son (“he didn’t want to miss school”). Next up, she said: “I looked for some fresh coffee but couldn’t find any (priorities!).” Though she was sworn to secrecy, she asked for and received the committee’s permission to call her editor, Anne Hoppe. “The book would not exist without her TLC and patience,” Applegate said. When she reached Hoppe on the phone, “We were giggling like 12-year-olds.”

Then, she recalled, “I just sat tight and watched the webcast. It was so much easier because I already knew what the outcome would be.” As soon as her Newbery was announced, “the phone started ringing immediately and incessantly. My husband texted me and said, ‘OMG you’re trending on Twitter!’ ”

Applegate’s medal-winning story, based on a real-life silverback gorilla that lived in a glass box for 27 years as an attraction in a circus-themed mall before being transferred to a zoo, was a book she calls “very close to my heart.” She said Hoppe had been “remarkably patient” throughout its long road to publication. After turning in her first draft, which wasn’t working and was too short (“Anne said, ‘We’re not going to be able to publish a pamphlet!”), Applegate said Hoppe “encouraged me to go back to my original idea, which was to fictionalize part of the story. I am so glad she did that.” (For much more on the inspiration for and creation of The One and Only Ivan, read our Q&A with Applegate, written at the book’s publication.)

My husband texted me and said, 'OMG you're trending on Twitter!'
Jokingly calling herself the “consummate hack,” Applegate explained that “I’ve written so many books along the way” – more than 150, she guessed, including the bestselling Animorphs series, which she co-wrote with her husband. “I’ve worked in the trenches,” she said. “I’ve reached the point where I really appreciate [the Newbery]. It’s very gratifying.”

Applegate also gives credit to Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla of Feiwel and Friends. After years of writing many series titles, she says it was Feiwel and Szabla who “gave me that push” to break out and try writing standalone novels. “It was scary, but I’m very grateful.”

And now, at what can be seen as the pinnacle of a career, she’s a long way from The Midas Touch, the Harlequin romance that marked her very first published book back in 1988. Applegate remarks with a laugh, “I’ve got to believe I’m the first person to win the Newbery who has written a Harlequin romance!”

Fittingly, Applegate notes, she recently found a scrap of paper, something she had written a few years ago. On it were the words, “Should I give up on Ivan or not?” She says, “I was at one of those many places you get to in a book, where I say, ‘I just can’t make it work.’ For some reason this piece of paper stuck around. I’m going to have it framed.”

For an interview with 2013 Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen, click here.

For an interview with 2013 Printz Medalist Nick Lake, click here.