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Six Questions with KT Johnston


KT Johnston writes historical narrative nonfiction about ordinary animals from the past who had an extraordinary impact on a person’s life, and in the process, left a pawprint on humanity itself. KT’s most recent book, Jubilee: The First Therapy Horse and an Olympic Dream (Capstone Editions), released in January 2022. Her debut, Railway Jack: The True Story of An Amazing Baboon (Capstone Editions) is one of Bank Street’s “Best Children’s Books of the Year” 2021; a nominee for both WA Library Association’s 2022 Towner Award, and SC Association of School Libraries’ 2022-23 Children’s Book Award; and is rated “Best Nonfiction for Kids” in Amazon. KT earned a degree in biology and conducted wildlife studies before becoming a corporate analyst. She and her husband live in Minneapolis and have two grown children. Visit KT's website to learn more about her work.


1. How did you begin your journey as an author?

I love to tell this story! My daughter had gone off to college and my nest was empty. She and I were discussing the interesting craft of a book she'd been assigned in Spanish Lit (Aura, by Carlos Fuentes). An unconventional book idea popped into my head and I was describing it to her, “Wouldn’t it be cool if….” She said, with an excessive level of enthusiasm, “Maybe you should write it!” Her motivation, you see, was not merely to help me find something fulfilling to occupy myself with, but also to distract me, to let go a little, LOL. I thought, "Hmm. Maybe I will." And I did.


2. Do you ever struggle to come up with your next project? Or do you have lots of ideas and find it a challenge to narrow down your ideas?

I have about 50 stories right now in my “stuff file.” When I run across a story that piques my interest, I do a quick search to see if it has already been written and what sort of source material might be out there. I make myself a few notes, then file it for the time being. Then at some point, the story bubbles up into my consciousness. The one that pushes to come out isn’t always the one the “market” might be interested in at that moment, so deciding which one to write next is my challenge. I have, though, written some that were pushing, knowing they’d be in the drawer (hopefully only “for now”)—just to get them to step aside in my head for another project!


3. When you begin writing a book, do you always know where the story is going?

Before I begin my research, I have a general idea of how the plot might look based on what had originally caught my eye about the story. It’s while I’m uncovering nuggets and treasures in source material that ideas start to form into scenes and sequence. When the research feels solid and the arc feels satisfying, I outline the plot. I almost always write the beginning and ending scenes first. Finding where I want to end my telling of a true story is sometimes difficult, so working through that helps. That’s not to say I don’t change my mind once I’m into a project, but I mostly know where the story’s going by the time I sit down to write.


4. If you could tell readers one secret about Jubilee, what would it be?

What a great question! A painting on Lis’s wall is copied from an oil by a Minnesota artist that hangs in my friend’s house! (Many thanks to illustrator Anabella Ortiz for slipping this in so well!) It is of the famed former director of the world-renowned Spanish Riding School, Alois Podhajsky. He once agreed to provide a critique of Lis and Jubilee. He watched, silent. Lis’s heart sank, sure he was unimpressed. Then he rode Jubilee himself. When he dismounted he told Lis she had done a wonderful job. His praise gave Lis the courage to aim for her highest dream.


5. What was the most challenging thing you faced while writing/researching this book?

The biggest challenge while researching Jubilee was that I’m sure there are so many interesting details of their story that were inaccessible to me. Most primary sources were naturally written in Danish, and would not be found in libraries and media databases I could reach from the United States.


6. What’s a particularly striking or memorable reaction someone has had to Jubilee?

There have been a few reviews where the readers said the book had brought {happy} tears to their eyes. That is the ULTIMATE compliment I can get! I want people to feel my books. The degree to which a child feels a story affects the degree to which it will stick with them. I hope my stories will inspire children to be mindful and curious about our world and those we share it with, one true story at a time.



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