Kate DiCamillo has probably written one of your favorite books, or one of your children’s favorite books. The 54-year-old author launched her career in 2000 with “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a runaway bestseller about 10-year-old India Opal Buloni and her dog (a scruffy runaway named for the Florida supermarket chain). Four years later, she won a Newbery Medal for “The Tale of Despereaux,” an Odyssean adventure novel about a small but brave mouse who rescues a princess from a dungeon filled with rats. It was the first of two Newbery Medals for DiCamillo, who won another in 2013 for the illustrated novel “Flora & Ulysses.”
In her most recent book, “Louisiana’s Way Home,” DiCamillo returns to Florida and to a character first introduced in “Raymie Nightingale,” her 2016 novel about a 10-year-old determined to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Contest. This time, it’s Raymie’s friend, Louisiana Elefante, who’s telling the story. And it starts very early in the morning, when Louisiana’s Granny wakes her up at 3 a.m. and informs her that the day of reckoning has arrived.
Soon, Louisiana finds herself hurtling down the highway toward Richford, Georgia, leaving behind her friends and her cat and the life she expected to live in Florida. Published this month, the book has personal ties for DiCamillo, who spent most of her childhood in a small Southern town not too dissimilar from Richford.
DiCamillo visits the Weinberg Center on Sunday at 2 p.m. from Minneapolis, where she lives with her own dog (named for the enduring children’s character, Ramona Quimby). She spoke with 72 Hours before her visit to explain the book, her entry into children’s literature, and how her own childhood still informs her writing.
I have to admit, I’m a little nervous to talk to you. I grew up on ‘The Tale of Despereaux’ and ‘Because of Winn-Dixie,’ so I was very excited to see you were coming to Frederick.
DiCamillo: Oh, that thrills me. I just did an event on Saturday night and I talked about how that’s happened more and more, with adults telling me that they grew up reading my books. It’s just the most astonishing thing. It can move me to tears. But don’t worry, I won’t cry on you.
As an author, how does that feel, to now have people who have grown up and had formative experiences through your books?
DiCamillo: You know, so much of what has happened to me has been sort of surreal. Somebody rang me up at the grocery store the other day and said, ‘Thank you for my childhood.’ I can’t comprehend it. I can only be grateful for it. And sometimes a teacher will come through the signing line and say, ‘I’m reading this out loud to my class because my third grade teacher read it out loud to me.’ Which is the spectacular thing about children’s books. How they keep on going because of that.
When you first set out to become an author, did you know that you wanted to write books for children?
DiCamillo: No. What happened was, I finally started to write when I was 30. I had known that I wanted to do it for a while and wasn’t doing it. A typical path, right? And I started by writing short stories for adults and sending them out to literary journals. And then I moved [to Minneapolis] and got a job in a book warehouse. I was assigned to the third floor of the warehouse, which was all children’s books. My job was a picker, so I went around filling the orders. And as a reader, it’s only a certain amount of time before you start to read what you’re picking off the shelves. The first novel I read was ‘The Watsons Go To Birmingham — 1963.’ And I just loved it so much and I thought, ‘I want to try to do something like this.’ So, it’s not what I set out to do, but it’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I found my way to it.
And when you first read ‘The Watsons Go to Birmingham,’ what was it about children’s literature that made you realize, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do?’
DiCamillo: That book is so funny and so warm and it deals with this really huge thing, and because it wasn’t something that had been published when I was a kid, I was able to see it with fresh eyes. And I thought, ‘This is a story that really matters. And it’s very accessible.’ So, I checked it out and brought it home and typed up a chapter. I was like, ‘OK, how long would a manuscript be? How long would a chapter be?’ So, I wouldn’t be talking to you without Christopher Paul Curtis’ book.
Your debut novel was ‘Because of Winn-Dixie.’ How did the idea for that book come to you?
DiCamillo: It was during my second winter here in Minnesota. At that point, it was one of the worst winters on record. I had grown up in Florida, so I was kind of homesick for it. Then, right before I went to sleep one night, I heard this little girl’s voice, Southern accent, saying ‘I have a dog named Winn-Dixie.’ And when I got up the next morning, I thought, ‘OK. Let’s start with that sentence and see what happens.’ And something wonderful happened.
How long did it take to write? Did the story just come to you, or did it take a lot of thinking?
DiCamillo: Well, I never do a lot of thinking. Because if I think a lot, I mess up. But at that point, it seemed impossible to me that anyone would ever read it or it would get published. It was the first time I had tried writing a novel for kids, and I didn’t know what I was doing. So, it all just went along swimmingly. It actually took me less time than a novel takes me now because it just seemed so unlikely that anything would ever come of it.
But then, of course, something did. You won a Newbery Medal for it.
DiCamillo: (laughs) Something did come of it. It was actually not the medal. It was the Newbery Honor. But, boy, no complaints from me. I could not believe it. I had worked at the book warehouse and I had really realistic expectations for how many copies a middle grade novel from a first-time author would sell. And I thought if I was really lucky, 5,000 copies would sell. That would let me earn out my advance and allow me to write another book. But people really opened their hearts to that story. And it just changed my life.
Let’s talk about your newest book, ‘Louisiana’s Way Home.’ The character of Louisiana was first introduced in one of your previous books, ‘Raymie Nightingale,’ but what made you want to explore her further?
DiCamillo: Well, I finished that book, ‘Raymie,’ and I had never gone back to a character in a novel before. I had no intention of doing it. But I kept on hearing Louisiana’s voice. So, finally I gave in and started writing, but she wanted the story written in first person, which I was very reluctant to do. I hadn’t done it since ‘Because of Winn-Dixie.’ But I finally gave in to that, too. So, it’s all because the character pushed me into it, which makes me sound absolutely unhinged.
What made you so reluctant to use first person?
DiCamillo: You give up a lot of control with first person. The suspension of disbelief, I think, is a lot harder to maintain when it’s a 12-year-old telling you a story in first person. It’s so easy to make a mistake. I tried telling the story lots of different ways, like trying to tell it through letters and texts. But first person was the only way that it would work.
As I was reading the book, the scenes in Richford are so vivid in terms of capturing small-town Southern America. I was wondering if you were inspired by any real places when you wrote it?
DiCamillo: Well, I grew up in small-town southern America. Central Florida is really very Southern, and that’s where I grew up. I remember it so vividly. So, Richford is not based on any place, but rather it is very similar to the place that I occupy in my heart from growing up in the South.
Where in Central Florida did you grow up?
DiCamillo: About 30 miles west of Orlando, in a small town called Clermont. Which, when I was growing up, was a citrus farming community. And then Disney came, and there were a couple of hard freezes, so it’s not citrus anymore. But it was a very small town, very rural, and it was a fantastic place to grow up.
I know you were born in Philadelphia, though. So, what prompted your family to move to Florida?
DiCamillo: We actually moved because of me. The winter that I was three and then four and then five — three winters in a row — I got pneumonia and spent most of the winter in the hospital. And this was so long ago that doctors were still prescribing geographical cures. They said, ‘You should move to a warmer climate. Go to Florida or Arizona.’ So, we went to Florida.
Did it work?
DiCamillo: Well, I didn’t get pneumonia anymore. But I was just the sickest kid on the planet. I got everything else. But yes, it worked as far as pneumonia went.
A lot of your books center around characters who have had a parent or guardian leave them. It happens to Louisiana. It happened in ‘Because of Winn-Dixie.’ And I was wondering if that inspiration came from your own life at all?
DiCamillo: Yeah, it did. I mean, children’s literature is replete with missing parents and with orphans. But, for me, it comes from that move to Florida. My father was an orthodontist, and he was supposed to sell his practice and move to Florida with us. And he never did. It’s not that I didn’t see him again. I did see him. But we never lived with him again. And it left this question at the center of my childhood. And it’s kind of a question that I keep on turning over and over in my stories.
What toll did you see it take on the family, growing up?
DiCamillo: Well, in many respects, I had a fantastic childhood. But on the other hand, there was just no way, as a kid, not to read it as abandonment. And not to read it as, ‘What did I do to make him go away?’
Did he ever start a new family or remarry or anything like that?
DiCamillo: Nope. Sometimes my brother and I would go up and spend summers with him, and then he would sometimes come and visit us. A lot of times it was unexpectedly. I would look up and see him walking through the orange groves. It was just very erratic and very unpredictable, and as a kid, you think it’s your fault. That’s a lot of where Raymie came from, because Raymie enters this [beauty] contest thinking that her father, who has left, will come back if she wins the contest. You think that you can undo it. Or you think, ‘If I had done something different or if I was somebody different, maybe he would still be here.’
Did you ever talk to your father about this?
DiCamillo: No. No, it’s never really been talked about. But it gets worked on in the stories. And when I go into schools, I have a Powerpoint, and I talk to the kids about how I became a writer. And this is one of the things I tell them. I tell them about the pneumonia and I tell them about my father not living with the family. And when they’re with me, they can put everything together. Like, ‘Oh, you were sick all the time and oh, your father left. Those things are bad, but you might not have been a writer if those things hadn’t happened.’ And that’s the truth. That’s exactly the truth.
Yeah. And I think that a lot of times in your books, the children also take on a guardianship role, in a way, even though they’re so vulnerable. You see Louisiana do that for Granny. And in ‘Because of Winn-Dixie,’ you see that India Opal is sort of an emotional guardian for her father in some respects.
DiCamillo: Yeah. Yep. That’s so true. No one’s ever really pointed that out before.
And why do you think that is?
DiCamillo: I think that’s the kind of kid that I was. And I think that it’s what a lot of kids do when something is wrong. They step into that space. You know, it’s really interesting — no one has ever made that point before, but when I think back to the novels, that is the case. And I’ve never been conscious of it. I’m not conscious of most of what I do, and I would mess it up if I was conscious. But that’s a really interesting point. You could probably write a graduate thesis on that. It’s very good literary criticism.
As a child, did you ever find yourself taking on that role with either of your parents?
DiCamillo: I think that I probably did, at least in an emotional way. In wishing that they would get back together. Or feeling like you’re the substitute for the missing parent. So, probably — at least emotionally — yeah, I did.
Another thing that’s struck me about your books is that they’re written in a way that feels very adult. Reading them when I was a kid, I never felt condescended to. Is that a conscious style choice on your part?
DiCamillo: Well, I don’t really make conscious choices as I’m writing. But I’ve grown very aware of it. I remember one of the very first interviews I did, and the person who was interviewing me said, ‘How do you get into the mind of a 10-year-old?’ And I was kind of gobsmacked by the question. The answer to me is so obvious. ‘Well, I was a 10-year-old.’ As a kid, I was incredibly small and waif-like and I had a very sharp sense of humor. But because I was so small, I was always condescended to. So, this all comes back around to, ‘OK, that eight-year-old me is very present when I write, and I was a kid who hated to be condescended to.’ That probably seeps into the storytelling subconsciously. Because that kid in me who’s so present for the writing is also the kid who hated somebody to talk down to her.
Do you think that leaves you more vulnerable, to have that eight-year-old so close to the surface?
DiCamillo: Yes! I remember Katherine Paterson [another Newbery Medal-winning children’s author] saying that you have to have the hide of a rhinoceros and your heart has to be absolutely exposed. Both things, and they’re contradictory. So, yes, I feel very, very exposed. But it’s like I tell kids when they ask for writing advice. You have to keep everything open. It has to be your eyes, your ears, your head, and your heart. It all has to stay open. That’s your job as a writer.