Kimberly Willis Holt was born during a hurricane in Pensacola, Florida. While growing up, she lived in Paris, Guam, and several other U.S. states because her father was a navy chief. Today, she lives in Amarillo, Texas, with her husband and daughter, but seven generations of her family have lived in Louisiana. She still calls Forest Hill, Louisiana, home because that is where her parents were from and that was the place to which they always returned during her childhood.
When she was twelve, Holt read Carson McCullers's book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and as she explained in an interview for Kathleen Horning's online article for School Library Journal, "It was life-changing because of the characters. That was the first time I read a book where the characters seemed like real people to me." Other books she read as a child were the Little House on the Prairie books, Little Women, To Kill a Mockingbird, and many biographies.
She admits to being a shy, quiet child and an average student because her family was always moving around, which always made her the new girl at school. Holt credits her seventh-grade science teacher with encouraging her love of writing. He read a poem she wrote about a Vietnam soldier and insisted she show it to the creative writing teacher. But a few years later, another teacher discouraged her. "She was a great teacher, but she would praise other people's writing, but not mine. I was very shy and insecure and I took it as though I really wasn't meant to be a writer. That kept me from writing for a long time." In the School Library Journal interview, Holt further explains that this experience is the reason she always encourages students to believe in themselves. "Don't let one person stop you," she advises.
College was a disappointment for Holt. She majored in broadcast journalism but never completed her degree. Instead, as a senior, she quit school to work full-time in the news department at a radio station. She then worked as an interior decorator before moving to Amarillo. It was there that Holt decided to treat her writing as a real job. She published some articles, essays, and short stories before turning to her young adult novels.
The inspiration for My Louisiana Sky occurred when Holt was nine years old. She and her mother passed a woman on a Louisiana back road. Holt's mother told her that the woman was mentally retarded and that she had a lot of children. The memory stayed with Holt, until the voice of twelve-year-old Tiger, the main character in her book, came to her in Amarillo. Having never written for children, Holt reacquainted herself with the middle grade and young adult literature available at the library. Pam Conrad's Prairie Songs was among the books she read, and Holt considers Conrad a mentor. "Conrad taught me that you can write about anything for children. There are no limits."
The path to publication was not easy. Holt received rejections from agents and editors, but she never lost hope. She estimates that she did approximately twenty revisions, writing off and on for three years, before an editor at Henry Holt offered to buy My Louisiana Sky, and still there was revision to be done. But Holt claims to love rewriting, and it obviously pays off. My Louisiana Sky received numerous awards, including the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for Fiction. It was also selected as one of the American Library Association's Best Ten Books for Young Adults and an ALA Notable Book for Children. Bank Street College also honored it with the Josette Frank Award, and the book was chosen as a Booklist Editor's Choice.
G. P. Putnam's Sons published Mister and Me in 1998. This book took approximately four months to write and was inspired by stories Holt heard from her father about her great grandfathers who worked in a small Louisiana sawmill town. In an interview on CNN's chat page about books, Holt reveals, "even though they're not true stories, there are many truths in them," and like My Louisiana Sky, Mister and Me garnered high praises. It was a Junior Library Guild Selection and was included on the Louisiana Young Reader's Choice Master List as well as the New York Library's Top 100 Books for Reading and Sharing.
Holt explains that much of her writing is inspired by her own life and the family stories she was told as a child. "I come from a family of storytellers," she told CNN. She found the seed idea for When Zachary Beaver Came to Town when, at age thirteen, she visited the Louisiana State Fair and paid two dollars to see the fattest teenage boy in the world. A few years later, the same trailer and same young man appeared in the parking lot near a friend's office. The friend became acquainted with the young man and told Holt about him. This relationship contrasted sharply with the way Holt had interacted with him at the state fair. "I was very nosey and asked all sorts of questions," she explained to CNN. When the voice of character Toby Wilson finally came to her, Holt set her story in a small Texas town and towed in Zachary Beaver to be gawked and marveled at. "I just tried to be true to what a thirteen-year-old boy would do [in that situation]," she said.
In 1999, Holt published When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, and it surpassed the praises of her two former books. A few of its many awards are: School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, American Bookseller Pick of the List, ALA Notable Book, one of ALA's Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults, Horn Book Fanfare, and, finally, the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
Holt's latest release is Dancing in Cadillac Light, published by the Putnam Group in 2001. While it does draw from Holt's personal life, the characters are not Holt and her sister, although Holt admits that the sister relationship in the story is somewhat autobiographical. Furthermore, the grandfather is a composite of a fictional person and Holt's own grandfathers. The book actually began as a short story, but with each draft it came closer to the vision Holt had for it.
Holt continues to read the works of other writers. Some of her favorites include Jacob Have I Loved, Sarah Plain and Tall, The Grapes of Wrath, The Color of Water, and works by Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston. She also offers this advice to aspiring authors, "Keep reading good books. Keep writing a part of your daily life, and live your life."