Kate DiCamillo: The Persistence of Reverie
Kate DiCamillo’s transformation from docile to dogged came with a sudden moment of self-realization.
Kate DiCamillo is an award-winning author of children’s literature whose books have sold over 35 million copies worldwide.
Born in Philadelphia in 1964, DiCamillo moved with her mother to Clermont, Florida, to treat her childhood illnesses. She studied English at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and began writing children’s fiction while working at a book warehouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
She published her first novel in 2000. A story about a 10-year-old girl and a stray dog she finds in a supermarket parking lot, Because of Winn-Dixie won numerous awards, including a Newbery Honor, and was adapted into a 2005 feature film.
DiCamillo has since published over 25 books, many of which focus on children with one or no parents and feature animals as a major character. These include Newbery Medal-winners The Tale of Despereaux (2003) and Flora & Ulysses (2013), both of which were adapted into motion pictures.
Growing up, Kate DiCamillo was often sick. She was hospitalized several times with pneumonia and spent a lot of time on the bathroom floor.
Kate DiCamillo: I was like up in the middle of the night with whatever was wrong, I would go in there and it would be cool. And Nanette, the standard poodle that I grew up with, we always said she must’ve been a nurse in a previous life. So the dog would hear me up and the dog would get up, push open the bathroom door, come and sit with me and keep me company in the wee hours of the night. I feel like that dog partly raised me.
That dog was a source of comfort for DiCamillo in the midst not only of sickness, but also a tumultuous childhood. When she was sick, her family moved from Philadelphia to Florida to treat her pneumonia. Her mother and her brother Kurt went ahead, but her father an orthodontist, never arrived.
DiCamillo: He never moved down there and that was the plan. But he would show up. He stayed in Philadelphia. We didn’t know when he was gonna show up. Sometimes when he said he was gonna be there he wasn’t there, and so then we got to the point where, okay, “I’ll take the kids for the summer.” And so he would drive down and drive us back up. And that’s when we found out that he was living with somebody else, although my parents never got divorced. And so we did that three summers.
AJC: And was that stressful? Like, would you rather not have gone to the trouble?
DiCamillo: It was terrifying. It was very clear that my mother was reluctant to release us and also very clear that she didn’t have the power to stop it.
DiCamillo’s mother, Betty, raised her and her brother. Through the uncertainty of her childhood, DiCamillo says her mother saw a strength in her she didn’t know she had, and she pushed her to use it. Early on, little Kate was eager to learn how to read, but she had trouble with the phonics method her school was using.
DiCamillo: What my mother did when I came home hysterical about this, because she was very matter of fact, “For the love of Pete calm down,” and then gave me something that not only charted the rest of my life, but gave me really, when I think about it psychologically like something that I needed saying, “You’re smart,” she said that to me. “You’re good at memorizing,” she knew me. And then she said, “We’ll find a way around it,” which is the most beautiful of all of those things. We’ll find a way around it, i.e, there’s really nothing wrong with you, we’ll just do it in a different way. And so she made me flash cards with a word on each flashcard and every day I’d come home and we’d go through that pile of words and I’d just memorize them.
With that extra help, DiCamillo’s mother didn’t just teach her how to read, she also gave her the tools to come to terms with the impact her father and his absence had had on her. As a children’s author DiCamillo has written over 25 books and has twice won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature. Many of her books feature someone with one or no parents. Her characters run the gamut: a courageous mouse, an organ grinder and his monkey who experiences homelessness, even a squirrel with a penchant for poetry. But DiCamillo doesn’t write to say what she feels so much as to discover it.
DiCamillo: Part of the mystery that I’m always trying to unravel within my soul is how do you do it? How do you deal with a missing parent? I have a word, a phrase, a name sometimes, an image sometimes and I don’t know, it just always feels to me like a divining rod. It’s just like, oh, this, you hold it over this word and it moves. It’s like, okay, dig here. And I’m digging, but it’s in a different spot, but I’m still getting to the same thing every time, which is this missing parent. I’m so much happier if I can take the chaos of here and make it into the pattern of a story.
But it took time for DiCamillo to find that happiness in her writing. For much of her twenties, she bounced around working in a theme park and a camp ground. She thought a lot about writing, but wasn’t actually putting words on paper. One conversation that sticks with her from that time was with a friend named Oscar. The two were talking while manning a ranger station.
DiCamillo: And of course, if you sat with me for longer than 15 minutes at that point, that’s what you would hear about is me wanting to write. And I remember him saying to me, one night, “That’s on you.” And I’m like, what an unfeeling response. And that, when you keep on going, it’s just like, I have Oscar’s words in my head. I couldn’t make myself talented, I couldn’t make myself lucky, but I could make myself relentless. I knew how to make myself relentless. And so it’s on me.
And relentless she was, even in the midst of daunting odds. Over the next several years, DiCamillo received almost 500 rejection letters from publishers. In her thirties, she followed a friend to Minneapolis and took a job at a book distribution center. It was there that she started reading children’s books.
DiCamillo: I mean, I just remember thinking, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. This is where I’m supposed to be.
Writing her first children’s novel Because of Winn-Dixie became a way for DiCamillo to cope with a bout of homesickness, missing her family in the midst of a harsh Minnesota winter. The book follows ten-year-old Opal who rescues a dog shortly after moving to a new town in Florida and the connections she makes thanks to her new canine friend. Winn-Dixie was a smash hit that exceeded DiCamillo’s highest expectations. About 11 million copies are in print in over two dozen languages. And in 2005, the book was beautifully adapted for the big screen. With Winn-Dixie the flood gates opened and since then DiCamillo has come out with 27 more books. But over the same period, she also grew more distant from her father.
DiCamillo: I went a couple of times as an adult to see him, it became increasingly difficult. You could only be his way in the world. There was no way to be yourself. It was crushing. I was in Minneapolis by this time, my father was going to go to Saudi Arabia and work as an orthodontist for X amount of time and come back. Then, as far as we knew, he went to Saudi Arabia and we didn’t hear anything from him for a year. No one knew where he was and it turns out that he’d never gone. And that was the point at which I thought, I can’t, it’s just not safe.
AJC: Emotionally safe?
Kate DiCamillo never fully reconnected with her father before his death in 2019, but she did find a moment of closure. Listening to a podcast one day she heard a guest say that there are four things to say to somebody who’s dying.
DiCamillo: Thank you. I love you. I forgive you. Do you forgive me? And I carried that around for a while, and this is when my father was still alive. And then I wrote him a letter and I said, “Thank you. I love you. I forgive you.” And because that was kind of like the child, I didn’t ask that question of, can you forgive me? Because I thought the important things to say were, that I loved him and it was a miraculous thing to just write it out in my handwriting and send it. And I sent it and it might as well have gone by magical owl because like four days later I got a letter back that said, “Forgive me for what?” And then that was when I knew that I had done… It’s like the, okay, there you are. You’re still the person that you were. And I see you in all your complexity and I see the huge gifts that you gave to me and I’m grateful.
After many explorations of what it means to have a missing parent, DiCamillo’s latest book is dedicated to the one who stayed, her mother Betty, who died over a decade ago. DiCamillo started the book shortly after her death. But then she put it aside only to rediscover the pages a few years ago while cleaning out a closet.
DiCamillo: And it has been so long since I’ve read them that I can read them without seeing it as something that has anything to do with me–
AJC: Almost with an editor’s eye.
DiCamillo: I can see, oh, okay, it’s clear that there’s something here.
That story would become The Beatryce Prophecy. The book tells the tale of a girl who can read and write in a land where girls are forbidden to do either and her quest to unseat the king. The book is a paean to the power of words and the essential role that stories play in our lives, especially those of young people. When DiCamillo thinks about that power, she turns to another classic children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, and a childhood friend who read the book over and over.
DiCamillo: I asked her as an adult, “What do you think that you were looking for as a kid?” And she said, “It wasn’t that I thought it was gonna end differently. It was more like it was all so beautiful and I didn’t think that I could bear it and then I would read it and find that I could bear it.” Kids need that so much. It’s just like, okay, somebody’s telling me the truth and is trusting me with the truth and that makes me feel like I can bear it.
For over 20 years, Kate DiCamillo has been creating stories to help young people around the world learn to bear the challenging truths of life. But in the process, she’s also learned to listen to the lessons children have for grownups.
DiCamillo: That kind of feeling that if you look out of the corner of your eye, you can see this like whole world going on that no one’s talking about. And that’s very deeply connected to childhood for me. And it’s something that most of us get rid of as we age, that door slams shut. There’s no room for that peripheral magic. But that small door has stayed open for me, for whatever reason. Getting to write these books gives me back that access, that view of the world. And so I love what writing for kids has done to me as a human being. It’s made me more hopeful and more aware of that peripheral magic.
Kate DiCamillo understands you can never be too old or too young to learn from a good story. The tales we tell ourselves help us make it through our own tangled journeys to find the magic we pass on to the next generation of story listeners and storytellers.