A Profile of Kate DiCamillo

Kate and a nutty pal at the Berdoll Pecan Farm in Cedar Creek, Texas.

Superheroes come in all shapes and sizes: Incandesto is a towering beam of light; Ulysses is a squirrel; and Kate DiCamillo, of course, is a writer of children’s books.

“For heaven’s sake,” I can hear Tootie Tickham asking, “what kind of superhero writes?” And it’s true that Kate may not be your typical cape-wearing, crime-fighting superhero, but to me she’s a superhero nonetheless.

Like any good superhero, Kate rose from humble beginnings to great heights. (Cue the voice-over narrator: SHE WAS A MILD-MANNERED BOOK PICKER, WORKING IN A BOOK WAREHOUSE. SHE WILL BECOME KNOWN TO THE WORLD AS KATE DICAMILLO, NATIONAL AMBASSADOR FOR YOUNG PEOPLE'S LITERATURE!) As Kate tells it, she had always wanted to be a writer — she had always called herself a writer — but it wasn’t until age thirty that she realized that, in order to be a writer, she would actually have to start writing.

So in the dark of night — or actually, in the wee hours of the morning, before heading out to her job — Kate worked on her superpowers. Day after day, two pages at a time, she poured her heart onto the page.

As though it were fate, a sales rep from Candlewick walked into that book warehouse and promised to deliver Kate’s manuscript to an editor. That manuscript became Because of Winn-Dixie, which went on to win a Newbery Honor, and from that point on, everything Kate wrote turned to gold.

It’s an origin story worthy of Incandesto himself.

But what makes Kate a superhero, truly, as Flora Belle Buckman would be quick to tell you, is that she fights evil. Through her writing, she defends the defenseless, brings hope to the motherless, shines light in the darkness. All you have to do is take a look at some of the letters she receives from kids — and adults, for that matter — to know how much her stories mean to them. She makes her readers laugh and cry and marvel at the beauty of the universe, and I can’t think of a better superpower than that.

Now, if Kate is a superhero, I like to think that I have the honor of being her sidekick — or one of them, anyway, as I’m sure there are a number of us who would like to claim that position. I still have to pinch myself sometimes, when I think that I am trusted with editing Kate DiCamillo’s books.

I had read and loved Kate’s novels well before I was ever involved in producing them, so when I was asked to work with Kate on The Magician’s Elephant, I found the idea daunting. At that point, I had only met Kate a couple of times, and — despite the fact that Kate is probably about five feet tall — I was completely intimidated by her. It wasn’t just that she was an outrageously talented and successful author; in person, she has a rather forceful personality, with a loud laugh and a disconcerting way of asking blunt questions and not letting you get away with evasive answers. She was such a star in the world of children’s books that I worried she might be difficult to work with—that she’d be offended by my edits, or even by the fact that I dared to edit her words at all. Worst of all, I worried that I’d somehow manage to destroy the magic of her stories with my clumsy suggestions.

So I was both thrilled and terrified to be working with Kate, and I offered my comments tentatively at first. But Kate, thank God, is the furthest thing imaginable from a diva. She welcomes my suggestions, clumsy or not; indeed, she can tell when I’m pulling my punches, when something’s bothering me that I haven’t been able to put my finger on, and she draws it out of me. She’s successful enough that she could be forgiven for phoning it in every now and then, but that’s not who she is, and she never takes her talent for granted. She still does the work — two pages a day — and when the time comes to revise, she’s not willing to rest until the book is as strong as it can possibly be.

I soon found that my terror had subsided, and in fact, I looked forward to phone calls and e-mails from Kate. She’s easy to talk to, laugh-out-loud funny, well read, smart, and insightful. She’s a treat to sit next to at dinner parties, always asking provocative questions and sincerely interested in the stories (and the desserts) of those around her. She’s one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen, and she has the ability to make each person in a signing line feel like he or she is the only one in the room. It’s not fair that someone so talented and hardworking is so much fun to be around, but that’s the truth about Kate DiCamillo.

After The Magician’s Elephant, I was excited to work with Kate again, but I wasn’t sure what was coming next. I knew that she was working on a novel, but all I knew about the novel-in-progress was that Kate referred to it as her “stupid” book — which wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring.

diCamillo_FloraAnd then, in early 2011, Kate’s agent sent me the first half of her book. I opened it up with excitement, and from the first I was hooked by this story of a girl who wanted desperately to believe in superheroes. There wasn’t anything stupid about it, of course — rather, Ulysses’s sweetness, Flora’s fierce loneliness, and William Spiver’s vulnerability were extremely poignant. The portion of the novel that I received that day ended with Flora reaching out to feel her dad’s heart, and my own heart swelled as soon as I’d read it. I loved it.

I waited eagerly for the second half, and it didn’t disappoint. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough as Ulysses and Flora faced their arch-nemesis and became separated — I was desperate for the two of them to make it back to each other. But of course, I knew that the book would end with them together again, because that’s what Kate strives to do in every single one of her stories — to bring her characters together, safe and happy, in one warm, bright room. And every time, she succeeds. Her stories are inspiring. Her stories are comforting. Her stories are superheroic.

Do you doubt her?

Do not.

Kate DiCamillo is the winner of the 2014 Newbery Medal for Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. From the July/August 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Andrea Tompa
Andrea Tompa
Andrea Tompa is an editor at Candlewick Press.
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