Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Children's Author Kate DiCamillo

In the late 1990s, Kate DiCamillo was working in the children’s section of a book warehouse, earning $4.80 an hour. The job gave her insight into the children’s publishing process: perhaps 5,000 copies of a book would sell, and the rest would be liquidated to free up warehouse shelves. So when she published Because of Winn-Dixie in 2000, her first young adult novel, she was incredulous when it sold half-a-million copies and was named a 2001 Newbery Honor Book (it has since sold millions more, and was made into a 2005 feature film).

The subsequent years have seen the publication of a dozen picture books and five more novels, two of which have earned the Newbery Medal: The Tale of Despereaux (2003) and Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (2013). She has written about squirrels who turn into superheroes, swash-buckling mice, and porcelain rabbits who must escape a watery fate at the bottom of the sea. Immensely imaginative and wildly popular, it was perhaps no surprise that she was named the 2014-2015 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress (no surprise to her fans at least; she has said she was in a state of disbelief). Her main platform is the idea that "Stories Connect Us," and she is using her position to encourage community reading programs that revolve around a single booka concept similar to the NEA’s Big Read initiative. The day before she spoke at the National Book Festival, we sat down with DiCamillo and discussed reading, writing, and creative process. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

NEA: Your main platform as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature is that Stories Connect Us. Can you tell me about the ways that they actually do that?

KATE DICAMILLO: I really believe in reading together. I think that there's so much emphasis put on making kids read, that a lot of times people lose sight of what's in it for everybody. If you sit down and read with your kid, either having your child read to you or you reading to your child at a regular time each day, it deepens the relationship. You don't have to talk about stuff; the story will do that work for you.

NEA: What do you hope group reads can do for communities rather than individual relationships?

DICAMILLO: That same thing that it does for the individual relationships I think it can do for communities. Everybody reading the same book at the same time pulls people together. It does start a conversation. If you're going to read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, you're going to talk about heartbreak and loss, and all of those things that people don't talk about as a community.

NEA: Tell me about how you got started in writing.

DICAMILLO: I knew that I wanted to do it. I read all the books on writing. I told people, “I want to be a writer.” And I literally didn't write anything until I was almost 30. I was so disgusted with myself. It got to the point where…the absolute fear of trying to write something was easier than that self-loathing I had for not doing it. It got to the tipping point where it was easier to make a fool out of myself this way than to make a fool out of myself the way that I had been for the last ten years. It's just a different way of making a fool out of myself.

So I started by doing two pages a day. I moved from Florida to Minnesota, and I got a job in a book warehouse. I was assigned to the third floor; the third floor was nothing but children's books. I was a picker, so I'd go around and pick the books off the shelves, and I started to read. And I read The Watsons Go to Birmingham (1963). It's great. It's talking about huge things, and it's utterly engaging, it's funny. And I thought, “I want to try and do this.” So, I took the book home and I typed up some pages to get an idea of how long a chapter was, and to get the feel of language. And then I wrote Because of Winn-Dixie. 

NEA: And then won a Newbery Honor.

DICAMILLO: There's still, even now, a part of me that can't believe that I got published. That part of me has never gone away. I found, through sheer luck, exactly where I'm supposed to be. This middle-grade novel business is where I belong. I started off by writing short stories for adults, and that's still there, but this is where my heart is.

NEA: What is it about writing for children that appeals to you?

DICAMILLO: It makes me better. If you see [my] adult short stories, they're much darker. It's [children’s author] Katherine Paterson who said when you write for kids, you're duty-bound to end with hope. That’s what you need to offer kids. So it makes me more hopeful to write for this age. Also, you can use magic; the impossible can happen. There's not as much room for that in adult fiction. The only thing that you can't do is be boring. You have to get them on the first page.

NEA: Do you ever feel like you need an outlet for that darker side, as you say?

DICAMILLO: No. If you talk to certain critics of me and my books, [they’ll say] there's too much darkness in my books. So the darkness is still there. Yet it's balanced with this optimism that only comes out when I write for kids. So that's the gift that it gives me.

NEA: You obviously have common themes, but your stories are also very different. Where do you look for inspiration?

DICAMILLO: But it is the same story, over and over in many ways, you know. I'm always obsessed with the same things, and I think that most writers are. You get a couple of themes and if you're lucky, you can keep on turning it and shining different light on it, but it's always that forgiveness and redemption and friendship and hope. So where does the inspiration come from? I always have a notebook with me, I eavesdrop, I write down what people say. It's very rare that one of those things will provoke a story, but I think that that kind of paying attention all the time, and keeping everything open, lets the stories come in. But where they come from is still a mystery to me.

NEA: Can you tell me a little bit more about your writerly obsessions, as you describe them?

DICAMILLO: I try not to think about them. If I know too much about what I do and how I do it, then I feel like I'm in trouble. I know about those writerly obsessions because of critics and librarians and teachers; other people have pointed them out to me. But if I look at them too closely, I feel like I'm going to mess the story up by forcing myself somewhere.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

DICAMILLO: I love creative process! So I have that notebook. At the back of the notebook, in addition to all the things that I write down as I listen in on people, there's a list of ideas that gets transferred from one notebook to the next. Some of those things I pick up I can't make work, but I know that I shouldn't get rid of them. So they go into the next notebook.

When I sit down to start to write, I work two pages at a time. The first draft is single-spaced, and looks like it was written by a crazy person. I don't worry about punctuation, spelling, I talk to myself as I do it—anything to get to those two pages. I make it through in a relatively linear fashion, through the story. Then I put it aside and let it sit for at least two weeks, ideally longer, if I can. Then I print that up, put it to the left of the computer, and I start re-typing, double-spacing, and make it through another draft that way. Then I print it up, and I let it sit, and then I do a third draft, and then I do a fourth draft, and then I do a fifth draft. At about a fifth or sixth draft, my friends will start reading for me. Then I'll get to the point where I'll send it to my editor.

It's a lot of drafts, but there's also a lot of comfort in thinking it doesn't have to be perfect, and it's never going be perfect. This is just the second draft, so don't panic. A lot of stuff will solve itself just by sitting there and re-typing.

NEA: And I’ve read that you read the final draft out loud.

DICAMILLO: Right. I've heard some people will read into a tape recorder so they can hear it. But usually for me, just reading it out loud is enough. You catch all kinds of stuff that way. On the page it looks okay, but then words will bump up against each other when you read them out loud. I'm always amazed that everybody doesn't do that, whether it's an adult or a kid book. It just changes how you write.

NEA: Do you read a lot of children's literature?

DICAMILLO: I'm probably about 80 percent adult, and 20 percent children. I go back to stuff that I love, and try to figure out how it was done. Charlotte's Web is a continual “how did he do that?” A Bear Called Paddington still bedevils me. Like why is that so funny and how can I do that?

NEA: What books are on your bedside table right now?

DICAMILLO: I just finished Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, which a friend gave to me. I'm reading Amy Bloom's Lucky Us. I'm reading Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. In the airport—I always get a book in the airport—I got J.K. Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling.

NEA: My last question is fill-in-the-blank. Children's literature matters because…?

DICAMILLO: It gives us hope. And it helps us to see the world and each other. Period. The end.



Submitted by Constance Escobar (not verified) on

Thank you for sharing your writing process. The interview was very informative and it helped me find relevance in my own experience.

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