Worth a thousand words: For Kate DiCamillo the story is always about connecting
In the world of children’s literature, there are stars and superstars.
It’s safe to put Kate DiCamillo into the later camp.
The author of the acclaimed and beloved children’s novels “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “The Tale of Despereaux,” and “Flora and Ulysses,” is one of only six writers to have won two Newberry Medals, one of the top honors for children’s literature. (She joins luminaries such as Lois Lowry – “The Giver” – and E.L. Konigsburg –“From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”.) She served as the U.S. Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, in 2014 and 2015, and is a two-time finalist for the National Book Award. Her books routinely make the New York Times Best Sellers list and are read in classrooms across the nation.
DiCamillo is making her first visit to Spokane in support of her new picture book, “La La La,” illustrated by Jaime Kim.
And “picture book” is the key phrase here. The story centers on a lonely little girl who begins singing. When no one joins in, she wanders into the world looking for someone, or something, to sing with her.
Her song? “La la la.” In fact, “la,” is the only word in the book – unless you count a couple snoring “zzz’s” when the girl falls asleep.
So what’s it like to do a book reading for a book with practically no words? DiCamillo, speaking by phone from her home in Minneapolis, laughs at the question.
“The funny thing is you would think that it would have occurred to me,” she said. It wasn’t until her publisher’s publicity director pointed out the challenge that she began to formulate a plan.
In lieu of “reading” from the book on Saturday at the Spokane Public Library’s downtown branch, DiCamillo will talk about how the story came to be, and will share some of the sketches she created in bringing it to life.
“To call them sketches is actually really a highfalutin term for what they are,” she said, “because I can’t draw at all. I story-boarded things out with circles.”
She added, “Even though this is relatively wordless, it’s still the same story I’m telling when I’m using words. It’s all about that need to connect. It was actually illuminating to sit down and figure that out.”
DiCamillo, 53, broke through with her 2000 novel, “Because of Winn-Dixie,” which centered on a girl, Opal Buloni, who lives in a Florida trailer park with her father, called the Preacher, who adopts a scruffy dog she finds at the neighborhood Winn-Dixie grocery store. The book was a Newberry Medal finalist and was turned into a 2005 movie starring AnnaSophia Robb and Jeff Daniels.
In her nearly two decades in publishing, DiCamillo has done two other picture books – 2007’s “Great Joy” and 2008’s “Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken.” She also has three book series for young readers, “Tales from Deckawoo Drive,” “Mercy Watson” and “Bink & Gollie.”
But it’s writing novels where she’s most at home. “Because it gives you just a little bit more room to cover up your mistakes, right?” she said with a laugh. “When I’m writing a novel, I think, ‘It’s too long. I’ll never live through this.’ But ultimately, it is the form where I am most comfortable.”
Her seventh and most recent novel, 2016’s “Raymie Nightingale,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. She’s at work on a new novel, she said. But it might be awhile. In recent years, she’s been averaging three or four years between novels. “I move very slowly. I’m not prolific,” she said, later adding, “The only place I’ve learned to be patient is in writing.”
Each morning, she wakes up at 5 a.m. and works until she writes a couple pages. That pace picks up when she’s in the revision process, and she’ll do four pages a day. She goes through “tons and tons” of drafts, as well.
“I spent a long time, almost a decade, really wanting to (write) and not doing it,” she said. “So once I started, I knew it was all on me and persistence was what I was going to have to do.”
She knows her time with her audience is fleeting. “They’re still coming to me at 12,” she said. By the time her readers hit 13, “They’ve left me.” Still, she finds it immensely gratifying that her former readers keep her stories with them.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years, which is unbelievable because I never even thought I would get published, but I have kids who grew up with ‘Winn-Dixie’ who are teachers now and they’re reading ‘Winn-Dixie’ to their class. And that’s amazing,” she said.
“It’s one of the most deeply meaningful things to have a 20-year-old – this happens quite a bit with ‘Despereaux’ – where they’ll say ‘This book got me through childhood.’
“I just feel lucky to get to do it.”