National Book Award finalist and Newbery Honor author Kathi Appelt’s newest novel is her first for young adults. Set along a Texas bayou and spanning decades, the story follows a unique cast of interconnected characters: 16-year old Cade, a thief of cemetery statuary; Zorra, an ocelot captured by a poacher; and Achsah, a teenaged slave recently freed, but whose daughters are still imprisoned. Appelt spoke with PW about the experiences and subsequent research that inspired Angel Thieves, writing an ensemble cast that includes an animal and a place, and the challenges of writing for teens instead of middle graders.

What inspired you to write Angel Thieves?

I wish I could say there was a single thing that inspired the book, but actually there were a couple of things.

Several years ago, in the mid- to late-1990s, I went to a funeral with my grandmother. My family on my grandmother’s side goes way back; I’m a seventh generation Houstonian, so it was a graveside service in the Washington Cemetery, a very old cemetery in Houston. It was a rainy, cold, dreary day, and, as we were driving out of the cemetery, I couldn’t help but feel something was wrong. I asked my grandmother if we could make another loop. We drove back through and I realized that all of the angels I could see from the car were headless. It being an old cemetery, I’m sure some of the damage was from weather events, like lightning and downed trees, but it was freakish.

I live about an hour and a half away from Houston, but, a couple weeks later, I told my husband that I had to take him to see the cemetery. It was haunting me. We drove down and took photos of the headless angels. That’s when I started looking into the phenomenon of selling cemetery statuary on the black market. I actually wrote a poem about a boy who was a thief, stealing cemetery statuary. I guess it has just stayed with me all of these years.

In 2001, right before 9/11, there were two young women in their early 20s who had signed on with a missionary group to travel to Afghanistan. They both claimed they felt called to go there. The young women were taken as hostages by the Taliban after being caught proselytizing. I remember thinking, why would these women put themselves in that position? What does it look like and feel like to have that kind of faith? I’ve never experienced that; I think of myself as a spiritual person, but to have that kind of intense faith was puzzling to me. I started thinking of these kids, whom I call “sweet believers” because their faith is so simple and pure. Then, I wondered: What would it look like to have a boy who has a dark secret, but who falls for a girl who is a sweet believer?

That’s the real-time story. The dream-time story goes back to pre-Civil War, Texas. All of my stories start with place and I knew I wanted to set this novel in Texas on the bayou. I started doing research and I came across an article about Sylvia Routh, a slave freed upon her master’s death. But they were put under the guardianship of a really awful man. They were supposed to be set free at 21, but there was no law or way to make sure this actually happened. As a mother, I couldn’t help but wonder, how could I ever be free if my children weren’t?

I felt compelled as a lifelong Texan to be honest about the state’s history, to show it wasn’t all victory. The victors get to write history and tell the story, but I wanted to help bring the other side to light.

It seems this story of freedom, faith, and hope is especially timely. When did you begin writing it, and did you know then it would intersect with larger social themes?

I began writing Angel Thieves three years ago. I knew that I would be addressing the history of slavery in Texas. I originally started the book with Achsah, then I decided to [start] with place, setting it more deliberately along the bayou in Houston. I wanted to give my readers a more identifiable way to jump into the story, so I opened with Cade and Soleil, two contemporary characters, then segued into Achsah’s story.

I had started working on Angel Thieves before families started being separated at the border. It’s kind of freakish to be writing about families being separated, then to see it start happening.

One of the surprises for me was the Native American thread that I incorporated into the story. The more I researched, the more I realized it was necessary to include this part of the story. In the United States, marble fields are in Georgia and Vermont. I didn’t think it was likely a character would make their way from marble fields in Vermont to Natchez, Miss., but I thought Georgia was a realistic possibility. Of course, one of the things the Cherokees lost with the Removal Act was the marble fields in Georgia. I didn’t intend for that to be a large part of the book, but the passing of the Removal Act happened pretty much at the same time as Texas Independence. They were almost concurrent events. It wasn’t a beautiful moment in our nation’s history. It would have been irresponsible to not include these parallel events, especially when I was discussing marble as part of the cemetery statuary.

Why did you choose to include the bayou and an ocelot as part of the novel’s ensemble cast?

The bayou is so ancient; she’s always been there. She’s the narrator, but, more importantly, she’s the witness.

When I started to think about the black market and cemetery statuary, my mind went right to exotic animals. I was particular about the ocelot because they are indigenous to the Houston area, even though the population is depleted now. One of the few places they remain in Texas is along the Rio Grande, where maybe 50 still live. The ocelot was a way to tie the natural history of the bayou to the human history.

This is your first novel for a young adult audience. How was writing this novel a different experience than writing for younger readers?

The middle grade set is the sweet spot. On the lower end of the middle grade spectrum, kids are still believers. Some still believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. On the other end, kids aren’t so far from the magic, but they are no longer completely willing to set aside their disbelief. With younger middle grade, you can get away with some things because the readers are willing to go along with you.

You have to convince the older kids that magic is possible. They love fantasy and video games and science fiction, but are they truly convinced that magic is possible? Part of my choice to incorporate magical realism into Angel Thieves comes from my wish that they’ll give into that magic a little bit; it’s just enough magic to tap into what they used to believe and might believe again. There’s an openness but a fair bit of cynicism, too, which makes teens more difficult to write for.

Angel Thieves by Kathi Appelt. Atheneum/Dlouhy, $18.99 Mar. 12 ISBN 978-1-4424-2109-7