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An Interview with Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo served as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from January 2014 to December 2015 and was this year’s National Summer Reading Champion. This past spring, Horn Book editors Elissa Gershowitz and Martha V. Parravano shared breakfast with the two-time Newbery Medalist (for Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures and The Tale of Despereaux) and Jennifer Roberts, VP of publicity and executive director of marketing campaigns for Candlewick Press. Once we’d sorted who ordered the mixed-berry plate and who had the seasonal berries, we got down to business.

Elissa Gershowitz: The Ambassadorship. How has it gone?

Kate DiCamillo: My term is almost up. It has taken me a long time not to be afraid of it, because it’s all so official. I never want to be a role model, and so that intimidates me, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what it is. What I finally figured out, after about six months, was that I’m just doing what I’ve done my whole life, which is talking to people about books and making them read. It’s what I do in my friendships. “Here, you have to read this, you have to read this.” There’s so much talk about what kids need to do and what parents need to do, and I keep wanting to push the conversation back to “this is a privilege to get to do this.” That you can go anywhere in this country and get a book from a library is just the most amazing thing in the world. It’s not a duty; it’s a privilege and it’s a joy. That joy is doubled and tripled and quadrupled if you read with other people.

EG: As ambassador are you mostly talking to kids, or to grownups, or a combination?

KD_UofAlaska_microphone

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Roberts.

KD: A lot of it has been school groups, but when it’s the general public, I’d say half-and-half. Sometimes it’s all adults, and I’ll say to a roomful of adults: Go home and read to your adult. We forget how much we love to be read to. And as long as your kid is receptive to it, and almost all of them are, even the really gnarly ones when they get to be twelve and thirteen, that time to sit down and read together gives you as parents as much as it gives the kids. It deepens the relationship.

EG: How did the Summer Reading Championship come about?

KD: [Candlewick publicist] Tracy Miracle was talking to the Collaborative Summer Library people and found out the theme was “Every Hero Has a Story.” Tracy thought, what if I got behind that, because I’ve got some furry heroes. The fear and trepidation I had around the ambassadorship — maybe I’d finally gotten my sea legs, I don’t know. But by the time the summer reading opportunity came along, it was just like, yes. Let me. I’m a kid who grew up going to the summer reading program every year at the public library. I love talking to kids about that. It’s just been the most natural thing in the world for me to do while I’m out doing the ambassador stuff. In Seattle, in front of an auditorium full of kids, I asked, “How many of y’all know where your public library is?” And this incredible number of hands came up. It must have been eighty percent of them. I’m like, “Really? That is so great. Do you know that your local library has a summer reading program?”

EG: So you’ve been traveling a lot. Do you enjoy traveling?

KD: Well, let’s talk about bedbugs.

EG: Erm, we just got our food.

KD: No, I actually do like traveling. Here, Jennifer [Roberts] always wants me to modify my language.

EG: Not for us, you don’t need to.

KD: If I am just home and writing, I become very strange. So there’s this balance. I am really an introvert, and I need that time alone for a variety of reasons. I need to write, and I can’t write when I’m on the road. But going out and not only meeting the kids, but meeting the teachers and the librarians and seeing the world, fills me up. There have been a couple of times when we’ve gotten the balance wrong, and I’ve been out to the point where it takes me too long to get back in, but it has generally been good. Now I can’t remember what the question was…

EG: “Do you like traveling?”

KD: I started off with bedbugs, and then I politely veered off.

EG: Have there been any especially memorable places you’ve been, or people you’ve met?

KD: There have been a ton of memorable places. About six months ago Jennifer and I went to South Dakota, which is not that far away from where I am in Minneapolis, but I had never done an event there. It was for their book festival, and they managed to get every third grader in the state, at the end of the year, a copy of [The Miraculous Journey of] Edward Tulane. And then I went there in the fall and saw them as fourth graders. They bused in something like two thousand kids, and I talked to them in groups of a thousand. I thought, “This will never work, because I’m going to physically be too far away from them.” But they have this state-of-the-art theater with an incredible sound system. I was able to move, and get down right in the middle of those kids. It was massive, and yet it was really, really intimate. What made that happen despite the size of the theater was that the kids were responding. It was the stories connecting us, and it was deeply powerful. Jennifer cried. I cried. Librarians cried. Organizers cried.

Jennifer Roberts: Didn’t you feel, Kate, that this was one of those moments where the connection was between not just your books and you as a writer, but also you as a person? Because the kids were comfortable asking you such personal questions.

KD_Seattle_fullhouseKD: Yes. And because I’m short and loud — I’ve watched this happen with Jon Sciezska when I’ve seen him present. It’s miraculous. The kids know right away that they can trust him, that they can say anything. I’m not Jon. But I think because I’m short, and because I’m in jeans, which a lot of the kids noticed — she wears jeans, you know? — and right, they’re not skinny jeans…

JR: Once someone asked, “How old are you?” Because they’ll ask these questions.

KD: That was one of my favorite exchanges. I said, “I’m fifty.” And the girl said, “But how did that happen?” Same thing I keep wondering.

EG: I’m looking at you and wondering that too. Do they ask any questions you just don’t want to answer, or you sort of deflect?

KD: No, because I feel like that’s part of the reason that I’m there, to tell them the truth. I was just at the Library of Congress, and a couple of eight-year-old girls wanted to give me the business about Opal’s mother [in Because of Winn-Dixie], and how I really needed to write another book. They either knew what happened, or Opal knew what happened, or something had to give. I said, “I genuinely don’t know, and I would be lying if I made her come back.” And then we talked about how sad that was, and then I talked about the end of the book, where Opal is in that room with all of those people, and don’t they seem like family? And it’s that same kind of thing with talking to them about me and my life. It’s like, has it been ideal? No, but it has worked out in ways that have been incredible. Because I talk about being sick a lot as a kid, and I talk about my dad leaving. Those kids in South Dakota, it was electrifying that they put it all together, because the first big question was, “Do you think that you would have been a writer if you hadn’t been sick?” Yeah, no, so this bad thing that happened to me, this thing that seemed bad, actually gave me something. And then we moved to the next question: “What about your dad? If he had stayed, then maybe you wouldn’t have been a writer.” Yup.

EG: Many of your books are serious, but some of them are just kind of silly and fun.

KD: They are. Nobody ever learns anything.

dicamillo_francine poulet meets the ghost raccoonEG: I was just laughing out loud at your latest — that raccoon catcher [Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon, Tales from Deckawoo Drive series]. Do you think of those as a break from the heavier pieces?

KD: I was talking to Tobin [M. T. Anderson] about this one, and he said it’s like sorbet in between courses.

EG: Cleansing your palate.

KD: Yes. And it is like that. But it’s also necessary. I feel like I need it, so it’s not just taking a break.

JR: Wait, can I ask you a question?

KD: I love it when you ask me questions.

JR: It’s not like you wrote Flora & Ulysses, which is very funny but more serious, and then completely go to the sillier chapter books. You’re juggling a little bit.

KD: I’m always juggling. I’ve got four Deckawoos done now, and I’ll hold steady at that for a while. But I’ve got a novel that I’m working on. I just finished a draft of that, and when I put it aside, then I’ve got a shorter thing that could be silly. And so I work on that, and I’ve got that in a first draft now. And then I’ll go to the second or third draft of a novel, and then after I’m done with that, then I’ll go back to the short thing and take that up for another draft.

JR: You see why we have to stop traveling her! She’ll never get any writing done.

EG: But it never feels like you’re churning your books out. Each one is fresh and interesting. Nothing feels like you are just phoning it in.

KD: God help me if I’m phoning it in. That would be terrible.

EG: Are you getting ideas on the road, so you’re really working at the same time?

KD: Yes, that’s the great thing about the road. Because no matter how hard you try to be present at home, you’re always doing the things that you have to do. It’s hard to see with fresh eyes, but you come out here and wham, wham, wham.

JR: Well, it’s like what you say to kids when they ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”

KD: I eavesdrop. And this is like riding a city bus all over the country.

EG: Do you get recognized on the street? And if you do, are you recognized differently by children than by adults? There aren’t that many actual celebrities in this field, really, but you are one. How does that play into your life?

floraulyssesKD: I’ve been recognized in airports lots of places, but mostly getting recognized is at home. Minnesota has been so good to me and so pleased that I love Minnesota. This is the great thing about writing for kids. Adults might not do anything if they recognized me. But if they do see me, and they’re with a kid, they’ll tell the kid who I am. They think they should give that to the kid. So generally that sends the kid over. It happens at restaurants quite a bit. I don’t think about being a celebrity. I think, oh my god, kids are reading, and they care about a book enough to come over and talk to me about a book that they care about. If I think about it as being a celebrity, it would freak me out. But I just think, lucky me, that I get to be a part of this whole thing. Even when we go out on the road, and we do always go into areas where the kids are not seeing writers and they’re not getting books, and then we go to the other end where they have everything in the world. I still feel like it’s probably a rarefied chunk that I’m seeing, but what I see are kids who are totally engaged with books. It makes me so much a Pollyanna. Do you guys want to argue about that? What do you think? Do you think I’m just being hopeful?

JR: No, I think it’s books and stories. You talk about stories so much because stories come in so many different formats. They just love the stories. They want to know, like you said, Opal’s mom — what happened to her? You created her; it’s what you did. She exists somewhere, and you must know where.

winndixieKD: It’s real in their engagement, and it matters to them. There was a twenty-one-year-old guy at the Boston Public Library event the other day. He raised his hand and said, “I grew up in Boston, in an urban setting. I read Winn-Dixie when I was a kid, and that’s about a girl in a rural Southern town, and yet I really connected to that story. Do you have any other stories about unlikely connections like that?” And then he came through the signing line afterwards, he was at the very end. I asked, “So are you done with college?” He said, “I just finished.” I asked, “What’s your degree in?” and he said, “Psychology with a minor in art. Don’t ask me what I’m going to do. I’m hoping it will just come to me.” And then — I keep on thinking about this — he quoted verbatim the passage at the start of chapter seventeen, about Littmus W. Block coming home from the war and having seen so much sadness in the world, he wanted something sweet so he built the town a candy factory. This grownup quoting from the book!

EG: Do you think every kid is a reader, even if they don’t think that they are? And/or if they don’t think that they are, how do you reach them?

KD: I know people in the industry who are big, big readers, who are just nervous as all get-out about their kids. “He doesn’t like to read. She doesn’t like to read. What am I going to do?” Reading is my passion. I always think — and I don’t know that this makes me a lot of fans — I don’t think it’s going to be the thing for everybody. But I think for everybody it can be a solace, illumination, education. It might not be the way that the child engages with the world, but it should be something that they all learn how to do, and that they get to have for themselves, as opposed to somebody telling them what to do and how to do it. They’re not easy questions.

EG: In terms of this connection and what’s happening in people’s minds — every time I see the girl who played Opal in the Winn-Dixie movie [AnnaSophia Robb] acting in something else, I think, “I’m so glad that Opal’s doing okay for herself.”

KD: That’s hysterical. I like it.

EG: Do you think of the movie versions of your books [Because of Winn-Dixie in 2005 and The Tale of Despereaux in 2008] as yours? Or do you think of them as something different?

KD: I was saying this the other day at the library. The only control you have over a movie is whether or not you decide to sell the rights. It seems very small and mean to say, “This book is so precious and perfect that you can’t turn it into a movie.” To me the book is like having a kid. I have to let it go out in the world, and great things will happen. Maybe they won’t, but it has to keep on moving. So yes, I see that as part of mine, or something that I’m part of a cycle of.

Martha V. Parravano: I wanted to ask about the illustrations in your books. You’re so devoted to visuals. In almost all of your books there’s some visual element. Is that you? Is that the publisher?

KD: That’s a happy synergy between us. With Despereaux I said to Kara [LaReau, former Candlewick editor], “I can’t imagine this book not being illustrated, can you?” and she said, “Oh, no, it has to be.”

MVP: You were so ahead of your time. Now it’s going to be all about the synergy between words and pictures.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward TulaneKD: Right. I remember when I had, like, eight pages of Despereaux, and I was struggling with it. But I gave it to one of my good friends, who read it and said, “It makes me feel like a kid. It makes me feel like I’m reading a book that I read when I was a kid.” Everything when I was a kid was illustrated. Those color plates. And they weren’t always — sometimes they were in the wrong place. And why was her hair dark, you know? That kind of thing. But they were an integral part of it. Kara and I hadn’t really talked about it that much. We just knew that it had to be. And then enter Chris Paul [Candlewick creative director and associate publisher].

I’ve been so lucky. I wouldn’t have the career that I have if I had not been at Candlewick. No one has ever said to me, “What are you doing?” Instead they always say, “We’ll figure out a way to make this work.” If I go from turning in The Tiger Rising to turning in Despereaux, Kara would say, “More, please,” as opposed to, “What are you doing?” Or: “Don’t put that word in a book.” Like [author and reviewer] Sue Corbett listing out all the words in Flora & Ulysses and saying, “What are you trying to do? Prep them for the SAT?” I think if I’d been someplace else, I’m such a pleaser that if somebody had said “Take it out,” I would have. And I think if I’d been at another place I might have been pushed into a Winn-Dixie sequel.

It goes back to that thing about phoning it in, and what’s the point of doing it if I’m just going to phone it in, right? Or like with Mercy Watson. My agent, Holly [McGhee], said, “I don’t know what it is. But I like it.” And she sent it to Candlewick. And they’re like, “We have no idea what this is. But we love it.” And then they found a way to make it work.

JR: Booksellers and librarians at first didn’t know where to shelve it. A not-yet-tried genre, really.

MVP: And now there are so many imitators.

EG: And speaking of imitators — how many books are there now with introspective girls with pets? Thanks for that, lady.

KD: My obituary: her books about introspective girls with pets.

EG: Do you read your own reviews?

KD: I read whatever the publisher sends me. I don’t look for anything. I have been clean and sober for eight years. I have not Googled myself. I have not looked at myself on Amazon. It could drive you wild. What other questions are on your list?

EG: Mostly dumb ones, like how many pairs of rainbow socks have people given you?

dicamillo_bink & gollieKD: It’s funny, I’ve gotten many more toast socks than rainbow socks. Yeah, there are socks out there with toast on them. Yesterday I got a loaf of bread. That was a new one. It looked really good. It was from the cutest kid. He was maybe four, and his mom said, “Sometimes when he goes to sleep at night he’s saying something over and over to himself. It took me a while to figure out what it is. It’s from Bink & Gollie: ‘I long for speed. I long for speed.’”

EG: So are you straight-up Bink, or are there Gollie pieces in there too?

KD: I’m straight-up Bink. There’s that scene in the first Bink & Gollie book where Bink is on the bench trying to get her roller skates on. Tony [Fucile, illustrator] had never met me at that point, but that picture captured me to a T. That feeling of “Oh my god, I’m so frustrated, I just want to get these on and go.” (I said to him once, at the Geisel lunch, “How did you—?” And he’s like, “Well, there’s the internet.” And he didn’t say it like an asshole at all.)

EG: Did he know that the character was you when he was working on the project?

KD: Well, I didn’t really know that the character was me until he did the art. I mean, I knew that Alison [McGhee, co-author] is tall, I’m short, but it wasn’t that clear what was going on until Tony turned in the art. For a long time I would comfort myself by saying I need to summon my inner Bink. I always feel like that’s the best part of me, that kind of irrepressible person. And Tony gave that to me through that art.

JR: You’re not officially in the book, but it is pretty much what I think of as you.

EG: But it’s not forced, vanity, self-conscious.

KD: No, because I wasn’t really, truly aware of it.

JR: Also, vanity — Bink’s a bit of a mess.

KD: Verisimilitude, you know?

EG: Oh, I did have one last question: Do you have any words of wisdom for the next ambassador?

KD: I don’t know that I have any words of wisdom except that you’re going in as somebody who is supposed to give a message and instead you get paid back in ways that you do not anticipate. So you think, “Oh, I’m going to go out and do this,” but instead everybody gives to you. You know what I mean? You don’t realize what you’re going to get, and you can’t prepare yourself for it. It’s a gift.

From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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