Kate DiCamillo

Two-time Newbury Award winning author
Headshot of a woman.

Photo Courtesy of Candlewick Press

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Kate DiCamillo: "Each letter has a shape," Beatryce said. "And each letter has a sound. And you put these shapes and sounds together, and they become words. Do you understand?" "Aye," he said to her. His heart was beating fast. He did not know. He had not understood how much he wanted it-- to know the secret of letters and sounds and words-- but his heart, pounding against his rib cage, was telling him.

Jo Reed: That was two-time Newbery Award winner and the 2014-15 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Kate DiCamillo and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Kate DiCamillo is an author of Young adult and children’s literature…and make no mistake, she writes stories that matter. In a 2020 New York Times’ article about Kate author Ann Patchett wrote about her book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane “I couldn’t remember when I read such a perfect novel.” Patchett went on to read all of Kate DiCamillo’s books and ended the article by writing, “These books you have written, these books that I love? They’ve made the world a better place. They’ve changed my life.” Millions of kids and their parents and teachers have agreed as have critics. Kate DiCamillo is equally at home writing fantasy like the Newbery Award winner Flora and Ulysses and books that are realistic like her first, the extraordinarily successful Because of Winn Dixie. She also writes books for younger readers like the Mercy Watson series about the hilarious adventures of a pig…if you read Kate you will find that animals will figure prominently….as does an imaginative and expansive heart. But she is first and foremost a storyteller—weaving tales that are emotionally true however fantastical. Her most recent book is The Beatryce Prophecy.  Published by Candlewick Press and beautifully illustrated by Sophie Blackall, The Beatryce Prophecy is a compelling tale that opens our eyes of the sheer power of reading and storytelling to crack open the world. The story seems to be set in the Middle Ages or a Middle Ages that’s close to ours but not quite and features a girl, a goat, and a monk. I’ll let Kate DiCamillo fill in the rest.

Kate DiCamillo:  I struggle to sum it all up. So, there is a girl named Beatryce, who can read and write in a time and place where it is against the law for a female to do either one of those things. And she forgets who she is, and is found by a monk in a barn, curled up with a goat named Answelica, and all Beatryce can remember is her name. And the monks soon discover that she can read and write, and they're terrified, because they know then that she's dangerous to have around. So that's kind of where the story starts. Do you think that that gives you a fair enough idea of things?

Jo Reed: I think it does. It opens with an epigram that says, "It is written in the Chronicles of Sorrowing that one day there will come a child who will unseat a king. The prophecy states that this child will be a girl. Because of this, the prophecy has long been ignored." And I think that sets up the book pretty nicely, because we understand immediately, girls are really not valued; and how unvalued, we later come to learn.

Kate DiCamillo: You did a very nice job of reading that. You've got a great voice. It's fun to read that little beginning, because there's kind of like a punchline in it, almost, you know?  There's that pause, and you did it: "Because of this... the prophecy has long been ignored."  

Jo Reed: And Beatryce's superpower is, as it were, being able to read and write. And I loved that we had a heroine, first of all. I loved that we had a heroine; I can come to a full stop there. But it's also wonderful to have a heroine who doesn't necessarily have to wield a sword or get involved in a violent kind of thing. Her astonishing power is to be able to read and write, and tell stories, and also to have an extraordinarily determined will.

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah. Yeah. Which... there's a moment in the book where one of the men who tutors Beatryce says to her mother, "She has... she has a fierce will. Should I break her?" And her mother says, "No. She'll need that." And she does need it. You know, it's always difficult to talk about where a book came from. It's never a straight line. But you're always asked, and you have to come up with an answer. And so, after we were in galleys with this book, I started to think, "Okay, let me go back." And I went back through all my notebooks and notes, and started to think, "Where did it start?"  And so much of this book, for me, comes from two things: one, how fiercely I wanted and needed to read when I was a kid. I was very fortunate, in that I had a mother who read to me, and a brother who read to me, but I was desperate to be able to do it myself. And at that point, we weren’t taught how to read until first grade. I think, now, you're taught in kindergarten. So I went off to first grade thinking that I was going to learn how to read on the first day, and not only did that not happen, but I struggled to learn how to read. We were being taught with phonics, and phonics made no sense to me, and I was at wits' end. And I remember coming home from school and weeping to my mother, because this thing that I wanted so much was right within my reach, but yet it was ever receding, because I couldn't untangle the phonics. And I said, "I can't-- I don't understand what they're talking about." And my mother, in her straightforward, no-nonsense way, said, "Well, for the love of Pete, calm down. You're smart. There's got to be a different way to do it. You're good at memorizing things." And so what she did was, she just made me a bunch of flashcards with words on them. Every day, I would come home from school, and my mother and I would go through the flashcards, and she taught me how to read that way. And I felt that, once I could do that, I felt that anything was possible. And also, I felt like I was myself; which is still the way I feel, but that's when I'm most myself, is when I'm reading.

Jo Reed:. And you dedicated the book to your mother.

Kate DiCamillo: I did, but the funny thing is that, as I was writing, I wasn't aware of any of that, of how deeply personal it was. It's like all I was aware of was that there was a story, and that I needed, as always, to get out of my own way and tell it, and that that feeling, always, that the story is smarter than I am, and I just need to be patient and tell it. I wasn't thinking of my mom at all, and it wasn't until I went back and went through all the notes, and started to think about it, and started to understand that, in the book no one can read. It's against the law for girls and women to read, but nobody can read except for the men in power. And there's a moment in the book where Beatryce makes a friend called Jack Dory, and he's the same age as her. And she finds out that he can't read, and she's absolutely appalled, and she wants to teach him. And that's one of my favorite parts in the book, is when Jack Dory is learning the letters from Beatryce. And there's a moment when he says that each letter was a door that swung wide inside of him, and that feeling was the feeling that I had when I was a kid, and my mom gave me those words.

Jo Reed: I mean, the wonder of reading, the power of writing, just seems to be such an underlying theme of this book, but I also know you don't set out to illustrate a theme, but rather to tell a story.

Kate DiCamillo: Right, right.

Jo Reed: So, when do the themes become apparent to you? Like, "Oh, look at this. It's about reading and writing, and how astonishing that is."

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah. You know, I work in a way where I do lots and lots of drafts. And so, probably, by the time I turn this in to my editor, I'd probably rewritten it six or seven times. And then I rewrite it with her. So about the fifth draft, maybe, I start to see things out of the corner of my eye. And I think, "Oh, don't look directly at that." It's kind of like somebody's beside me, weaving it all together. And I think, "Ah, don't look at it, don't look at it," but I can feel all of these things that are like the subterranean themes that are coming together. But I don't look at it directly until I'm done, right before we went into galley, when I started to write about where it came from. And that's when I sat and looked at it, and was kind of amazed, like, "Wow, there are a lot of themes in here that I <laughs> didn't realize were in here." <laughs>

Jo Reed: I absolutely want to talk about the illustrations, but before we do, tell us about Answelica.

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah. <chuckles>

Jo Reed: The scene-stealer. <laughs>

Kate DiCamillo: <laughs> Yeah! I mean, this happens in stories, sometimes, where you think, "Uh-oh, here comes somebody that's going to derail the whole thing." And she's one of those characters that is so powerful that she could have hijacked the whole story.  And so it wasn't hard, though, to make it Beatryce's story, because Answelica, who is a goat with very sharp teeth, has, up to this point, loved nobody, and she loves Beatryce. And because of that love-- that really fierce, uncompromising love that she has for Beatryce-- she didn't want to steal the story, because she was all about saving Beatryce, too, you know? So it was such a delight -- you're always waiting for that moment when you write, when the characters-- you're not making them up at all; you're just following them. And she was such a delightful character.

Jo Reed: I was going to ask you if she just leapt onto the page, sort of fully formed. Did you have to draw her out?

Kate DiCamillo: No, she arrived fully formed.

Jo Reed:  And she’s captured perfectly in the illustrations which were done by Sophie Blackall.

Kate DiCamillo: Sophie! Let’s talk about Sophie’s art.

Jo Reed:  Oh! It's so beautifully illustrated. It's just a gorgeous, gorgeous book all around; I mean, both literally and figuratively. <laughs>

Kate DiCamillo: <laughs> This is one of the great gifts of writing novels for kids, is to get these illustrations, because what happens is, what Sophie has done here is made the story much more profound with her art. And you're usually kept separated from the artist. The writer and the artist don't really talk to each other during the process. But Sophie and I knew each other from here and there, and so, occasionally, we would e-mail, even though we really weren't supposed to be doing it. And we both had the same experience. For me, writing the book was kind of like... it was something I already knew, and I was trying to remember it. And Sophie said it was the same way for her, with the art: that it was like something that she already knew, and that she just had to sit there and let it reveal itself. So it was really moving for both of us.

Jo Reed: Do you see the novel in your mind as you're writing?

Kate DiCamillo: I do. And I know that when we read-- I mean, there's the science on this, that 70 percent of us see it.  And back in the day, when you would do things in person, I would ask that in an auditorium: "How many of you see the story as you're reading?" And literally, it was always about 70 percent of the room, the hands went up. And for me, when I write, it's the same as reading. Yeah, I see it. And so this is the second time, then, this has happened. The other time it happened for me was with Edward Tulane, where what I see when I'm writing is what the artist then paints, and it's a really surreal kind of thing.

Jo Reed: Yeah, well, that's exactly where I was going with it, <laughs> so thank you. I'm curious about your creative process and how much you know in the beginning. And I'm thinking about your novels, which can be fantastical, like Flora & Ulysses or Edward Tulane, or more realistic, like Raymie Nightingale or Winn-Dixie. Do you know, when you sit down, which way you're going?

Kate DiCamillo: No, I know virtually nothing when I sit down. And usually, I just have an image, or sometimes just a name. And the thing with Beatryce is I started this book the summer after my mother died. It was 2009. And then I got up to a second draft of the first part of it, the first 40 or 50 pages, and I put it away. And I don't know why, and I literally forgot about it. And so then, five years ago, I was cleaning out the closet in my office, and it was just a ton of paper. It was a nightmare. And the very last thing that I found in there was those 40 pages, and I'm like, "What's this?" And it had been so long since I'd seen it that I could tell that it was something worth working on. A lot of times, you don't know, right? But I thought, "This is a story." And so it's actually been around for a long time. And when I go back and try to find in my notebooks when I started on that story, in 2009, there is three words: monk, moon, goat. <laughs> That's where I started, and I had no idea what was going to happen, so...

Jo Reed: Do you carry a notebook with you?

Kate DiCamillo: I sure do.

Jo Reed: Yeah?

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah. I've got it open in front of me right now, just in case some word or you say something that triggers something for me that-- yeah, so I always have it with me.

Jo Reed: And your books typically include animals. And I have to say, Kate, often, when books have animals, because I love animals so much, it's just like, "Oh, my God. Something horrible, really bad-- really, really bad-- is going to happen here," and I don't really want to see it or read it, because it just stays with you for so long. I think it's like growing up with Old Yeller, or something like that.

Kate DiCamillo: Well, can we just take a sidebar there, and say that that's me, too? I was so traumatized from the time I read Black Beauty that all I want to say is, I had a hard and fast rule: no books with animals on the cover.

Jo Reed: Absolutely. Yeah.

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah. Yeah.

Jo Reed: So it makes sense then, that even though your books feature animals I don’t have to be scared for them.

Kate DiCamillo: <laughs> Right. There's one, Tiger Rising, that doesn't go well, and that's one of those things where I realized, writing that, that the story... it has a truth independent of what I want. Because I spent a long time trying to rewrite that so that didn't happen, and it wouldn't work. It wasn't then true, which sounds like a weird thing to say about fiction, but it didn't-- it wasn't true. So, but other than that, yeah, you're safe.

Jo Reed: And tell me why you include animals, literally throughout your books, as fabulous characters?

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah, it's a question that-- I mean, if you tick off all the animals in my books, it's almost embarrassing. I mean, now we're at a goat. I mean, I must be at 10 animals. Why do I do it? One, I'm an animal lover. Two, I think part of it is-- and this is not calculating on my part--but we, as readers, tend to let our guard down more quickly for animals than we do for human beings, sometimes. So it's a shortcut into the human heart. And that goes for my heart, too, right? And also, you know, <laughs> the short answer: I loved Paddington. I grew up reading Paddington. I'm always trying to figure out, "How did Michael Bond do that?" You know, I love those books so much. So, and it might be that those kind of animal characters make me feel like a kid again, and safe, you know?

Jo Reed: When you look through your books, the books that you've written-- and I'm thinking about the novels, most specifically-- what do you see as through-lines?

Kate DiCamillo: I see as through-lines what other people point out to me, and I think, "Wow, that's true." I remember-- Because of Winn-Dixie was the first book. I was doing my very first school visit, and I was really excited. It was $250, is what they were going to pay me to come in and talk about the book, and that was what I made in a week at the time, working at the bookstore. So I was really excited, and didn't want to mess it up. And I remember standing up in front of the classroom with the teacher, who said to the kids, "Okay, here's the person who wrote the book, and now we're going to talk about the themes in the book." And I thought, "We are?" Because it's like, "What are those?" I'm like, "I have no idea what the themes are." And I remember I could feel sweat trickling down my sides, and these beautiful fifth-graders, one by one, they put the themes up on the chalkboard. And after I'd done the school visit, I went out to my car, and I wrote the themes down. All of which is to say, what those kids put up on the chalkboard that day, 21 years ago, those are the through-lines: friendship, forgiveness, family. Those seem to be my preoccupations, and I keep on returning to them without even being aware of it, you know?

Jo Reed: I see a couple more as well: there's a lot of absent parents, and there are found families, made families. People find their people.

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah. People find their people. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that's true. That's true. And even if you think that you're not revealing yourself as you write, if you think you're telling nothing that's true about you-- if you're writing about a girl long ago, and a goat, and you think, "This has nothing to do with me"-- you're still tipping your hand. It's all about you. And I grew up in a single-parent home, and I'm preoccupied with that missing parent. And I know what it's like to find your people in the world-- what a gift it is, what a miracle it is, and the comfort of it. So those things keep on showing up, because they're part of who I am.

Jo Reed: How did you come to writing?

Kate DiCamillo: <laughs> I came slow and late. I was a huge reader, clearly, as a kid, and so I did what most huge readers do when they're confronted with college. I thought, "I'll major in English, and then I can read all the time." And that's what I did. And then, in my senior year, I had a professor who said to me, "You have a certain facility with words. You should consider graduate school." And that's exactly what he said. And I was young enough and foolish enough to think that he was trying to tell me that I was really talented. And I thought, "Why should I bother going to graduate school? I'll just go off and be a writer." So I got a black turtleneck, and I...

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Kate DiCamillo: Right? Because that's what you have to have. And I sat around looking bored and disdainful, and people would say, "Oh, that's Kate. She writes." Except, Kate wasn't writing. I read a lot of books on writing, and I told everybody that I wanted to be a writer, and I managed to spend 10 years in that way. And then, right before I turned 30, I thought, "Well, I could actually go on with this charade for the rest of my life, if I don't do something." So I started by writing two pages a day. And then after a while, I had stories, and I started to send those out to literary journals. So I started with short stories, thinking, "Oh, they're short. Therefore, they're easier." Which, of course, is completely erroneous.

Jo Reed: When did you start writing for kids?

Kate DiCamillo: When I moved to Minneapolis. I grew up in Florida, and when I moved to Minneapolis, I was 30 years old, and I got a job in a book warehouse. And I was assigned to the third floor-- what a friend of mind would call "serendipity-doo-dah." Third floor was where all the kids' books were. And I entered into that job-- my job was to go around and pick the books, fill the orders-- with, I think, a bias that a lot of adult readers have, which is, "Oh, you know, kids' books-- duckies and bunnies." And then, as a reader, it was only a certain amount of time before I started to read the books that I was picking off the shelf, and one of the first novels that I read was The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis. Right?

Jo Reed: I love that book. - I just love that book.  

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah, he's divine. And it was a book that had been written since I was a kid, and it's so funny, and it's so warm, and it talks about something so huge and overwhelming and important, and it does it in such an elegant way. I was just kind of blown away by it. And I took the book home, and I typed up a chapter. It's like, "Okay, how long would a novel for kids be? How long would a chapter be?" And pretty soon after that, I started working on Because of Winn-Dixie. And I don't know. Even before I finished that, I felt like, "Yeah, this is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is it." Because I'm a different writer when I write for kids. I didn't know it at the time, that thing that Katherine Paterson says, that you're "duty-bound to end in hope," but I felt it, and it changed me as a writer, and then it changed me as a person, too.

Jo Reed: It's kind of extraordinary that Because of Winn-Dixie was your first book. That book was huge.

Kate DiCamillo: Well, it's so funny, because, I was there. You know, this is a-- this book warehouse, it was a book distributor for the whole Upper Midwest. So when I wrote Winn-Dixie, and when it was sold, my expectations for it were so realistic, because I saw what happened; how many copies of a book would-- I thought, "If I'm really, really lucky, 5,000 copies of this book will sell, and the rest will be remaindered somewhere where I won't have to see them every day at work." And that was my big goal, is 5,000 copies. And so what happened with Winn-Dixie was just... <laughs> unbelievable. I remember, like, this is maybe two years ago. I was in Politics and Prose, and somebody said, "How many copies of Winn-Dixie are there in print?" And I'm like, "I have no idea."  And the Candlewick person that was there with me stood up and said the number, and I just cried in front of everybody. Do you know what it is? I don't know what it is now. Eleven million.

Jo Reed: <gasps>

Kate DiCamillo: You see? It makes me cry again.

Jo Reed: It's amazing.

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah, it's because booksellers hand-sold it, teachers and librarians read it out loud, and now I have these grownups who are fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, and  when we used to have a signing line they would come through, and say, "This was read to me in third grade, and now I'm reading it to my students." And so it's just-- hee. Yeah.

Jo Reed: But then you follow that with your second novel, The Tiger Rising, which is a National Book Award Finalist. And then, in 2004, you get a Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, and then another one for Flora & Ulysses. And I'm just naming. You've gotten so many more prizes, so many more prizes, all of them so well deserved. And you can't fake books for kids. You know what I mean? There's a certain amount of... fakery that can happen <laughs> in books for adults, that kids are just not going to buy for two seconds.

Kate DiCamillo: Right. they don't, and you have to get them at the first sentence. They have to trust you, you know? I was always so aware of it when I was going around doing school visits. It's just like, "Just give me a few minutes, and then you'll know that it's okay, that you can trust me." And they've got to feel that from the book, too. And part of that is telling the truth.

Jo Reed: Well, your books certainly have unhappiness and darkness, but... I don't know. There's a comfort in them, as well, that isn't mushy. It feels earned.

Kate DiCamillo: Oh, well, that's a wonderful thing to say. It's a wonderful thing to say. I'm kind of undone right now.  That's okay. I'll get myself back together. <laughs>

Jo Reed: You were the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Tell me what that experience was like, and what you learned.

Kate DiCamillo: It was fabulous, because when you go on book tour, you go to the same places all the time. As National Ambassador, I got to go a lot of places that I wasn't normally going. And you also have a platform and mine was "Stories Connect Us." And to me, the great, grand gift of going all over the country, talking about "Stories Connect Us," was that I was in gyms and community rooms and libraries, and you look out at this group of faces. And again and again, this message that I've come there to give them, "Stories Connect Us," they give back to me, because it was just again and again and again, you would feel that thing where you were connected with people, and we all just became a community talking about books and why they matter. And so it was a really moving experience for me. I'm so glad I got to do it.

Jo Reed: Were you working on Beatryce during the pandemic, finishing it up?

Kate DiCamillo: Sophie was working on the art then. I think we were already in first pages. So, there's first pages, second pages, and then you get to the ARC, or the galley. I think we were already in first or second pages. It’s funny, because people will tell me different lines from this book that matter to them, and one of them is, Beatryce remembers a line from a story about, "What world is this I now inhabit, and how shall I live in it?" And when somebody quoted that to me in an interview, I thought, "How in the world did I write that before the pandemic?" Because that feeling is the feeling that I had so often, as we were making our way through the last two years, you know? And, I wrote that before.

Jo Reed: Yeah, it seems so well suited to the pandemic, like a book that speaks to this time. The quote I have is, "We shall all, in the end, be led to where we belong," which comes up a couple of times in the book.

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah, Candlewick made a beautiful book trailer for it, and Sophie reads those lines, and it's enough to make you weep, it's so beautiful in her accent. She's Australian, and it's worth listening to her say those lines: "We shall all, in the end, be led to where we belong. We shall all, in the end, find our way home."

Jo Reed: When I came across that in the book, I really stopped and had to think about that, and what I thought about it, and whether I believed it, or how I believed it; let's put it that way. Because this isn't like Dorothy returning to Kansas. I think it really is about allowing yourself to find people to love, and who'll love you.

Kate DiCamillo: Yeah. I think-- and this is me, I'm always terrible at what things mean in my own books. But, so this is the first time that I have talked about those lines and what they mean. And part of that, I think, is like, yes, what you said: letting yourself be loved, but letting yourself be yourself, and being loved for yourself and empowered to be yourself. And that goes all the way back-- that feeling goes all the way back to... I kind of have a memory of being on the floor of the Florida room of the house where I grew up, and my mother was sitting, reading in a chair, and I have this Big Golden Book, Pinocchio, open in front of me on the floor, and I was reading it out loud. And I just remember just relishing all the words. And my mother looked up from whatever she was doing, and said, "You're a good reader, Kate." And she was not one to give idle compliments there, you know, so I was a good reader. And I knew who I was in that moment, and that's so much about finding your way home; you know, led to where we belong, to who you are, to being who you should be in the world.

Jo Reed:  I’m curious: do you reread books? Are you a rereader?  Do you reread books?

Kate DiCamillo: I am a rereader, with a few books. But I found during the pandemic that I reread a lot, and that was fascinating to me, because I think it was a search for comfort. And I'm always aware of that with poetry-- that something that resonates with you in one way can resonate five years later in a different way-- but I experienced that with fiction during the last couple of years. It's just like, "Oh, wow, this means something totally different to me now."

Jo Reed: That makes sense. I did a lot of rereading during the pandemic, as well. That and pasta.

Kate DiCamillo: <laughs> Everything's better with pasta.

Jo Reed: Everything is better.

Kate DiCamillo: Pasta, dogs, coffee, books.

Jo Reed: And that is a good place to leave it!  Kate, it was such a pleasure, and falling into your books has been an absolute delight for me, so thank you.

Kate DiCamillo: I thank you. Thank you. It was a delight to talk with you.

Jo Reed: That was author and two-time Newbury Award winner Kate DiCamillo—her most recent book is The Beatryce Prophecy published by Candlewick Press. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.

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Two-time Newbery Award winner and the 2014-15 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Kate DiCamillo writes stories that matter. From the fantastical like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (which author Ann Patchett calls a “perfect novel”)  to the more realistic Raymie Nightingale series, DiCamillo always finds the balance between humor and heart. First and foremost a storyteller, her immensely popular books are beloved by kids, parents, teachers and critics. Kate DiCamillo’s most recent book is The Beatryce Prophecy. Published by Candlewick Press and beautifully illustrated by Sophie Blackall, The Beatryce Prophecy is a compelling tale that opens our eyes to the sheer power of reading and storytelling to crack open the world. In this podcast, DiCamillo talks about how storytelling and reading both factor into her life, her writing process, why animals figure so prominently in her work, and her time as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Funny and thoughtful, Kate DiCamillo is as delightful to speak with as she is to read.