After the Call: Impossible, Wonderful Things

DiCamillo with current Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden at the banquet, 2004.
Photo courtesy of the American Library Association Archives.

I grew up on a dead-end street in a small town in central Florida.

In the summertime, I went everywhere barefoot, and my feet were so callused that I could walk on the hot macadam or through a patch of sandspurs and not feel much at all. I walked to the store barefoot, made my way through the orange groves and down to the lake barefoot; and often, my mother loaded all of the barefooted neighborhood kids into her Ford station wagon and drove us to the Cooper Memorial Library.

The library was in a little house in downtown Clermont. The floors of the old house were wooden, and they creaked as I made my way past the front desk, turned to the right, and entered the carpeted children’s section, where I went directly to the spin rack of paperback novels.

There, balanced on one foot, mesmerized, I slowly turned the rack and considered my choices. I can still feel the floor beneath my feet (foot), I can still hear the reluctant wheeze of the spin rack as it turned. I can still see the books.

Many of those books had Newbery seals imprinted on their front covers, and the seal always seemed like a promise to me. Here, it seemed to say, enter here, through this portal, and you will find a magical world.

Whenever anyone says the word Newbery, this is the image that pops into my head — me, a small child in bare feet, standing safe within the confines of the Cooper Memorial Library, turning the spin rack slowly, slowly, and believing that I could go anywhere at all through the magic of those books.

I don’t know how many times I checked out the Dell Yearling Newbery paperback copy of William Pène du Bois’s The Twenty-One Balloons. All I know is that I read and re-read the book. I studied the illustrations as if they were maps that would lead me where I needed to go. Every illustration showed impossible, wonderful things. My favorite was of the mechanical beds that moved up and through and out of the bedroom skylights, allowing you to sleep among the stars. I knew it was impossible. No adult would ever sanction such a bed. But yet, as I sat and studied the illustration, I let myself believe that maybe, just maybe, such a thing could be.

And that is the gift all those stories I read gave to me — a sense of the possible hidden inside the impossible.

The Newbery Medal seal depicted on the cover of so many of those books is an actual medal. I didn’t know that when I was a kid, but I know it now.

It is a medal that you can hold in your hand — heavy, solid.

Impossibly, I have two of those medals.

I keep them both in the second drawer of my desk, and when I open the drawer, the first thing I see is a photograph of me at seven years old sitting cross-legged and barefooted on a carpeted floor.

Oh, that kid! She is the same kid who stood balanced on one leg in the small-town library and let herself believe in the impossible.

Young Kate. Photo courtesy of Kate DiCamillo.

Every time I see the photograph, I think: somewhere, in some small town, or in some big city, at some library, there is a child who is standing and considering the books before her, a child who will find her way in the world because of stories, libraries — a child who will discover that there is a way to go up and out and through the skylight of a house, a way to journey among the stars.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Kate DiCamillo

A two-time winner, Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Award in 2004 for The Tale of Despereaux and in 2014 for Flora & Ulysses. Because of Winn-Dixie was a 2001 honoree. Her latest title is The Beatryce Prophecy (all Candlewick).

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.