Kate DiCamillo was born in Philadelphia, moved to Florida's warmer climate when she was five years old, and landed in Minneapolis in her 20s.
While working at a children's bookstore, DiCamillo wrote her first novel, Because of Winn-Dixie (2000). It was inspired by one of the worst winters in Minnesota, when she became homesick for Florida after overhearing a little girl with a southern accent. One thing led to another, and soon DiCamillo had created the voice of Opal Buloni, a resilient ten-year-old girl who has just moved to a small town in Florida with her father. Opal's mother abandoned the family when she was three years old, and her father has a hard time explaining why.
Thoug her father is busy and she has no friends, Opal's life takes a turn for the better when she adopts a fun-loving stray dog, Winn-Dixie (named after the supermarket where she found him, out in the parking lot). With Winn-Dixie as her guide, Opal makes friends with the eccentric people of her new town and even convinces her father to talk about her mother. Through Opal, readers are given a gift: a funny and heartrending story of how one girl's spirit can change her life and others'. Critics loved the book as much as readers, and in 2001, Because of Winn-Dixie was named a Newbery Honor Book.
DiCamillo's second novel, The Tiger Rising (2001), also deals with the importance of friendships, families, and making changes. Twelve-year-old Rob Horton and his father are dealing with grief, anger, and isolation after moving to Lister, Florida, six months after Rob's mother succumbs to cancer. Rob's father has a job at a motel (where they both also live), but it barely pays the bills. Struggling through the loss of his mother, Rob stifles his many confusing emotions as he battles bullies at his new school, worries about a rash on his legs, and copes with living in poverty.
In many ways, The Tiger Rising is a darker, more challenging story than Because of Winn-Dixie, but there is a similar light of deliverance in this beautiful novel: the healing power of friendship. Two meetings change Rob's life. First, he encounters a caged lion in the woods. Shortly thereafter he meets Sistine, who has recently moved to Lister after her parents' divorce. Sistine and Rob are polar opposites -- she stands up to the school bullies and lets out every bit of her anger at her parents' divorce and her relocation. Through Sistine, Rob recognizes himself in the caged lion, and the story of how the two children free the beast is one of the most engaging reads in contemporary young adult fiction. With the lion free, Rob is free to grieve the loss of his mother and move on with his bittersweet new life in Lister. A National Book Award finalist, The Tiger Rising is hard to put down as it overflows with raw, engaging emotion.
In 2003, DiCamillo's third novel, The Tale of Despereaux, was released to the delight of readers and critics alike. This odd but enthralling fairy tale also touches on some of the topics from her first two novels -- parental abandonment and finding the courage to be yourself. The hero, Despereaux Tilling, is a mouse who has always been different from the rest of his family, and to make matters worse, he has broken a serious rule: interacting with humans, particularly Princess Pea, who captures his heart. When Despereaux finds himself in trouble with the mouse community, he is saddened to learn that his father will not defend him. Characters in the tale are Princess Pea, whose mother died after seeing a rat in her soup; King Pea, who, in his grief, declares that no soup may be served anywhere in the kingdom; Miggery Sow, a servant girl who dreams of being a princess after being sold into servitude by her father after her mother dies; and Roscuro, a villainous rat with a curious soup obsession.
The story of how the characters' paths cross makes The Tale of Despereaux an adventurous read, reminiscent of Grimm's fairy tales. In the spirit of love and forgiveness, Despereaux changes everyone's life, including his own. As the unnamed, witty narrator of the novel tells us, "Every action, reader, no matter how small, has a consequence." Kate DiCamillo's limitless imagination and her talent for emotional storytelling earned her one of the most prestigious honors a children's author can receive -- in 2004, she was awarded the Newbery Medal.
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DiCamillo wrote The Tale of Despereaux for a friend's son, who had asked her to write a story for him about a hero with large ears.
In our interview, DiCamillo shared some other fun facts with us: :
"I can't cook and I'm always on the lookout for a free meal."
"I love dogs and I'm an aunt to a very bad dog named Henry."
"My first job was at McDonald's. I was overjoyed when I got a nickel raise."
"I'm a pretty boring person. I like reading. I like eating dinner out with friends. I like walking Henry. And I like to laugh."
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In the winter of 2004, Kate DiCamillo took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
The list changes every day. But for today, the answers are:
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 -- Because it showed me the depth and humor and humanity a children's book should possess.
Gone with the Wind -- Because it demonstrates the great art of "story."
Abel's Island -- This story of a mouse is essentially a primer on what it means to be human.
The Accidental Tourist -- It was this book, more than any other, that made me form the thought: I want to write like this, I want to make people feel this way.
Nobody's Fool -- For its expansive heart and forgiving nature
Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller -- A profound look at one artist's life and the storytelling art. I reread this book every April.
Art and Fear -- An examination of what it means to make art. I go back to it again and again and it always gives me the strength to go on.
Wringer -- Because it reminded me of the terrible secrets we are forced to keep from adults when we are children.
Sharpshooter Blues -- Because it shows that tragedy and comedy are inextricably linked.
The Collected Stories of Alice Munro -- Every Munro short story is like a novel. This is another book that I go back to for ritual re-readings. I learn something new each time.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you? Planes, Trains and Automobiles -- Because it makes me laugh.
Rocky -- For its gritty portrayal of hope.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy -- Because it reminds me how deep our need for a Story is.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like all kinds of music. Each book that I write is written to a different soundtrack. For Because of Winn-Dixie it was Van Morrison's Enlightenment, for The Tiger Rising it was The Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions; The Tale of Despereaux was written to Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry -- for its incredible story and its insights into the human heart.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Novels, novels, novels. I love a good story.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write as soon as I wake up in the morning. I can't write without a cup of coffee, so the coffee maker is set to come on automatically. On my desk: a stone from Lake Superior; and taped to the desk, a poem by Marge Piercy that ends with these words: Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on some short stories for adults.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I wrote for six years without selling anything. In that time, I received something in the neighborhood of 500 rejection slips. The rejection slips still show up. I still keep writing.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Katherine Hannigan, for a children's novel that will soon be published called Ida B..
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep writing. Keep submitting. The race goes not to the brilliant, but to the disciplined, to those who persevere.
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