Kate DiCamillo is a rock star in the world of children’s literature.
Her 2003 book “The Tale of Despereaux” was a Newbery Medal winner and has been made into a movie. She’s been the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature where she championed reading aloud to children and has written more than two dozen books. Her latest book, “Beverly, Right Here,” comes out Tuesday and is part of a sequence of novels highlighting three unlikely friends. DiCamillo also will deliver the esteemed Charlotte Zolotow Lecture during the Wisconsin Book Festival next month.
Q: Congratulations on the release of “Beverly, Right Here” coming out! This must be an exciting time.
A: It’s always exciting and also ... a little bit like putting your kids on the school bus for the first day of school … thinking “oh, boy, it’s out of my hands now.”
Q: “Beverly, Right Here,” is a companion novel in a sequence of books about three girls on the verge of their teenage years, their relationships with each other, and also their own personal struggles, dreams and journeys. The first book was “Raymie Nightingale” in 2016, followed by “Louisiana’s Way” in 2018, and now “Beverly, Right Here.”
Those are three books in pretty quick succession — was that your intention?
A: I have to say, none of it was planned. I did “Raymie” and thought “that’s that.” I never really think in terms of sequels. My first book “Because of Winn-Dixie” … almost as soon as that book came out I was getting letters from kids (saying) you need to write a sequel. I remember a letter 10 pages long outlining Winn-Dixie (books) 2, 3, 4 and 5 and the PS was “Get busy I’ve done all the hard work.” (But) I’ve always said I feel like I’ve left (the Winn-Dixie) characters in a good place. I surely felt like those girls in “Raymie” were as safe as they could be. Then the characters just kind of haunted me.
Q: Why set the “Three Rancheros” books in the 1970s?
A: I grew up in Florida in the mid 1970s, and Raymie’s story is probably as autobiographical as I’ve ever gotten. None of it is true, but it’s all true emotionally. With “Raymie” I started out wanting to write something funny about a hapless child in a beauty contest, i.e., that was me. But I ended up telling the story of my dad leaving. And then all these characters showed up.
Q: The first two books in the Ranchero sequence end with the characters literally climbing to the top of something. Was this intentional symbolism? Do you find that young readers pick up on it?
A: I had never thought of that. No, what I find in general is that I always look at things out of the corner of my eye. I’m aware there could be some symbolism but (I tell myself) don’t look at it directly, you’ll mess that up. Then, when I go out into the world, readers will point out things that I didn’t see and wasn’t aware of. I don’t ever think in terms of themes and symbolism when I’m writing, I just like if I can get out of my own way and listen the characters … then I’ll be able to do it.
Q: “Beverly. Right Here” isn’t the only book you had come out this year. “A Piglet Named Mercy” picture book was published in April. That is a lot for you. What have the last three years been like for you in terms of writing?
A: When we talk about it that way, I guess I am prolific. I think I work so slowly ... I keep a lot of different projects going at once.
I’ll do a second draft of a novel, then I’ll put it aside and let it marinate. In the time between I’ll work on something shorter. I’ve always kind of got something on the loom. Writing the Mercy Watson (story) is sort of like having sorbet in between a really heavy entrée at a restaurant.
Q: Animals play important roles in almost all of your books. This seems a great way to connect with children. Is that the intention?
A: It’s something that I struggle to answer. It’s not calculated, but it is very true, that as readers we put down our guard more with animal characters. What I read when I was growing up, Paddington Bear, Stuart Little, I had those anthropomorphic characters, and in a way it’s connected with the child still in me.
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Q: You write children’s literature, but it ranges from picture books to young adult novels. Is there an age group you enjoying writing most? Have you ever considered writing non-children’s literature?
A: I feel mostly like myself when I’m writing middle-grade literature.
In becoming a writer, I started by writing short stories. I kind of found my way to children’s literature by working in a book warehouse ... on the third floor, which was all kids books. I get asked (a question like), “When are you going to grow up and write a real book?”
But I’m so happy here and I feel like I get to do something that really matters to me. I’m also asked, “How do you get in to the head of a 10-year-old?” I once heard Beverly Clearly interviewed and she said “that 10 year old is right here.” All those memories of being a kid, it’s just very accessible to me. A lot of people don’t remember (their childhood) clearly, (but) that 8-year-old is right beside me all the time.
Q: I have to admit, I bragged to my daughter’s third-grade teacher that I would be interviewing you. She said she reads the “Tale of Despereaux” to her class every year and asked me to tell you “thank you.”
A: Please tell her thank you for me. Her reading out loud to them … (teachers) never hear how it’s literally changing those kids’ lives.
She’s doing something really powerful because (reading aloud and sharing a story) builds a sense of community in a way that I don’t know what else does.
Q: In the “Tale of Despereaux” there seems to be a lot you’re trying to convey to children about being kind, but perhaps other historical allusions — such as the mice taking Despereaux to the dungeons wearing hoods — similar to the KKK? Was that intentional?
A: I have to say it goes back to those beautiful connections that I never (intentionally) made, but have been making them out of the corner of my eye.
Q: At the Wisconsin Book Festival you’ll be giving the Charlotte Zolotow Lecture — named in honor of Zolotow, a distinguished children’s book editor and author. Can you give us a glimpse into what you plan to speak about? What do you feel are the biggest issues today in children’s literature?
A: I’ll be talking about, broadly, why stories matter to me. I still think that whole thing of reading aloud, I was obsessed with it when I was the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and I’m more obsessed with it now. It’s a scientific fact that literature can teach empathy. It matters so much.
Q: You served as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2014-15 and your theme was “Stories Connect Us.” What was that year like and did you take away anything from that role that has affected your writing today?
A: I went out delivering that message (Stories Connect Us) and the funny thing was that it was delivered back to me a thousand-fold. It matters so much. I’m such an introvert and also kind of not very intrepid. Not only did I get the message back to me, I connected to all these readers. (During that year) I realized how much I need that connection with people.
Q: Do you want to talk about what you’re writing next?
A: I never talk about what I’m working on, but I do have some Mercy Watson books in the works. Next year is also going to be the 20th anniversary of “Because of Winn-Dixie.” We’re doing a special edition and I’ll go out and do a couple events.
Q: Where you’ll likely get asked if you’ll ever do a sequel?
A: It’s not just kids that want (a sequel), adults do, too. To me, so much about that book (is about how) things don’t always work out the way we want them to, but it’s OK. This is a patched-together life and you can still feel loved and seen.