Kathy-jo Wargin is the bestselling author of more than 50 books for adults and children, and has earned national recognition for award–winning titles such as Michigan’s Official State Children’s Book The Legend of Sleeping Bear, the International Reading Association’s Award Winner The Legend of the Loon, The Voyageur’s Paddle, and many more.
She has sold more than 1.2 million copies of her books, writing across genres and age-groups. She is as comfortable writing picture books for young readers as she is writing contemporary novels for adults.
Writing professionally for more than twenty-five years, she is now turning her pen to projects which include new stand-alone novels, a Great Lakes series for children and the launch of her adult serial brand Orchard Bay, which are novels set in a fictional town nestled along the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin.
Kathy-jo (nee Nelson) grew up in the beautiful and pristine northern woods of northeastern Minnesota, in an area known to most as the "iron range." She was born in 1964 in the town of Tower, which is not far from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Canada. Her father was a native of Tower, her mother was born and raised in nearby Aurora, Minnesota. After living in both of those small towns as a young child, her family moved to the nearby town of Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
It was amidst this beautiful though often harsh natural setting of the north that she fell in love with storytelling. As young as the age of four, she would sit on a stool at Marttila Drug or the Tower Bakery and listen to folks tell stories. “These were the perfect places for a little girl who loved stories. They were always filled with hard-working people – most of whom were from generational families native to northern Minnesota or immigrants who came from Scandinavia, Finland, Croatia, Serbia, Italy, and more. The iron range was well-known for it's diverse mix of cultures and it was a place where people, for the most part, easily shared those cultures through food, work, marriage, and stories. Most folks lived there for the work the iron range offered as much as for the nature of the north woods. Many worked in the mines or for the logging companies, or they fished and trapped for their livelihood. I can still hear their thick accents and see their hands cupping mugs of hot coffee as they conversed. They would talk to each other, they were friends. There was a lot of dry humor. They would tell stories or give each other a hard time and I would listen. I'm sure they barely noticed I was there. But I was. And I was listening to every word.”
Kathy-jo went on to study music composition at the University of Minnesota-Duluth where she fully enjoyed learning about the musicality of words. But it was more than the musical nature of writing that had an impact on her desire to tell stories. “I had a class in women’s studies and we studied a book titled The Girl by Meridel LeSueur. Meridel LeSueur (1900-1996) was a an iconic historic figure and she had many labels applied to her – Marxist, feminist, communist, left-wing liberal, on and on. She was blacklisted in the 40's and 50's. But she was a writer who told it like it was. She wrote from her perspective and place in time.
One day I walked into class and sitting front and center was Meridel Le Sueur. We were a small class, and there she was, in real life. We were given time to ask limitless questions of her which she answered honestly and unfettered. She encouraged us to write from where we are and who we are – our land, our people, our stories, ourselves. I thought about that, and how my home and history, specifically the people and the nature of the iron range, was a unique melting pot of cultures, families, and stories."
Kathy-jo Wargin's first professional writing assignment came while still in college, as a freelance opportunity to write for The Duluth News Tribune. Post-college, she wrote for newspapers, magazines, ad agencies, corporations, private clients, nonprofits and book publishers. In the mid 1990's she went back to school and received a Certificate of Entrepreneurship from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota.
As the digital age approached, writers were given access to publishing tools and assets that were historically only accessible to large publishing houses. Wanting to evolve with the industry during this revolutionary time, she founded a small publishing house designed to empower independent authors. Once this business was established, she realized how much she missed writing and went on to sell the brand in 2011. However, she is proud to say it still exists today as a successful publishing entity based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region of Minnesota.
She has also been part of her husband's decades-long endeavor called The Fresh Coast Film Project and Fresh Coast Film Collection. The Great Lakes are important to both Kathy-jo and Ed, and their combined bodies of work reflect this ongoing commitment and dedication to the region.
Kathy-jo and her husband Ed lived in Michigan for many years, and now reside in Duluth, Minnesota, which is an ideal basecamp for their work in the Great Lakes region. She is a frequent guest speaker at schools, conferences, professional associations, and more. She also conducts writing and publishing workshops for children as well as adults. To her, even though she lives in one of the harshest climates of all, the winters are still never long enough and the snow is never deep enough, but the coffee is always dark enough and that is - and will always be - good enough for her.
A partial listing of awards. We're proud of them all.
#1 Amazon Bestselling Category Book Award
Bank Street College of Education--Best Book of the Year List
Winner, Michigan Reading Association Reader's Choice Award
International Reading Association Teacher's Choice Award
Great Lakes Bookseller Association Award
New York State Reading Association Awards
Cooperative Children's Book Center Awards
Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards
Alabama Camellia Nominee Children's Choice Award
Minnesota Book Award Finalist
International Reading Association Children's Choice Award
Read Michigan Selection Awards
Storytelling Awards--Stories for Adolescent Listeners Category, Winner
Rutgers University Book of the Month Award
Michigan Notable Book Awards
Midwest Booksellers Association Awards
National Book Festivals State Selection Award
Children's Crown Gallery Awards
A few kind words.
And a few extra facts for no reason at all.
Both The Legend of Sleeping Bear and The Legend of Mackinac Island were developed into animated stories for television, and both were narrated by actor Jeff Daniels.
She is also an accomplished ghostwriter, but will never tell you anything about that.
Kathy-jo was the first Michigan writer with the distinction of having two books designated to the Read Michigan Notable Book List in the same year.
Along with her husband, photographer Ed Wargin, they have the distinction of being the first married couple to first have a joint book and later separate books on the Michigan Notable Book List in the same year.
Her first children's book, The Legend of Sleeping Bear, is Michigan's Official State Children's Book.
Very Odd Jobs.
At the age of five she stapled tags onto braided rugs from the basement of Ping's Family Store in Tower, Minnesota. She thought working was fun, and took her job quite seriously even though she was barely tall enough to see over the table. She's been working hard ever since.
She was a professional Ski Instructor in northern Minnesota during high school and all the way through college.
One summer in college, she was a member of a small musical touring group called The Mesabi Hills Players. They performed the history of the Iron Range through song and dance in a program called This Land of Iron.
She once had a summer job playing evening campfire songs on guitar at a resort 30 miles from her home in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Her father determined there were too many deer on the highway the time of night she was to be driving back home, thus ending her campfire-guitar-playing career after two weeks. (He was right about the deer.)
Advice to Writers.
"I think the most important edict is to show up for work everyday. By this I mean to mentally show up as a writer each and every day and also...
Be observant. Be quiet. Ask questions. Be curious. Work for it. Be organized. Be prepared.
Plan. When you begin your research, plan your investigation. Organize your findings. Plot your progress. Commit to your deadline.
Let first drafts be the fiery pathway forged from your heart to the paper. Fix it later, after you've told your story.
Know when to say it's done. There will always be a better word or thought to delete, add, change. Know when to let it be finished.