On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
An exceedingly brave mouse. A squirrel who writes poetry. A dog named Winn-Dixie.
If you recognize any of these characters, you are surely a fan of Kate DiCamillo, the best-selling and multiple Newbery Medal-winning writer.
She describes herself as short, loud and more persistent than talented. But whatever brought her fame in the world of children’s books, kids and parents alike are glad she is writing.
Her work follows kids as they grow, from the picture book “La La La” to chapter books about a “porcine wonder” to novels like “Because of Winn-Dixie” — a story that made its way to the big screen with an all-star cast including Cycely Tyson, Jeff Daniels and Dave Matthews. And DiCamillo’s valiant mouse also got his own film, the animated “Tale of Despereaux.”
Tune in and call in!
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Kate DiCamillo Author of "Because of Winn-Dixie" and other books for childen; @Candlewick
KOJO NNAMDIThat was, of course, from "The Tale of Despereaux, the Strong Willed Mouse." He's just one of the offbeat heroes in the books of Kate DiCamillo, several of which have made it to the big screen. She's written something for everybody, from picture books to chapter books to novels. And she's here today to tell us about her writing and to answer your questions. Adults, you are welcome to listen, but because today's show is part of the Kojo for Kids series, we're taking kids' calls only. Kate DiCamillo, welcome to the program.
KATE DICAMILLOThank you. I'm so thrilled that it's just kids who can call in. I don't think that's ever happened before. That's exciting.
NNAMDIAnd, believe you me, they're calling already. I probably won't be able to get much in so allow me to start. What were you like as a kid? Where did you grow up, and what did you like to do?
DICAMILLOI grew up in Central Florida, in a small town about 30 miles west of Orlando. And what did I like to do? I liked to swim and I liked to read. I had a tree house. And I went to the library and I took my books up into that tree house, and I read and read and read and read and read, and I'm still reading.
NNAMDIWhat were some of your favorite books as a kid?
DICAMILLOYou know, I was one of those kids who, if it was a book, then I loved it. I mean, that was my criteria. But there were books that I came back to quite a bit that I read and reread. “Stewart Little” was one of them, and I loved "Mouse and the Motorcycle." There was a biography of George Washington Carver in our town library that I just loved reading, to the point where my mother asked the librarian if we could just buy it, because I loved it so much. And I remember the librarian saying, “Betty, you know it doesn't work that way.” So, there were just like -- I was a kid who lived for books, and I'm that way as an adult. I think of myself as a reader, even before I think of myself as a writer.
NNAMDISo, you got a library card as a kid, and then, for some reason, at some point, the library decided that one of its rules should not apply to Kate. Tell us about that. (laugh)
DICAMILLOThat was one of the happiest, happiest days for me. So, the head of the Cooper Memorial Public Library, her name was Miss Alice. And I was up there checking out my books, and there was a four-book maximum. You could only check out four books at a time. And Miss Alice came up next to the librarian who was checking me out, and she said, Kate is a true reader. We will waive the four-book maximum for her. She may check out as many -- and I just -- it was like I had been struck by lightning. It's just like I said when I understood exactly who I was. I felt so seen, you know. It was a huge gift. Huge gift.
NNAMDIYou had a lot of interesting jobs when you were younger, including one at Disney World. (laugh) Tell us about that.
DICAMILLOYeah, so I worked at Epcot Center, in the big geodesic dome Spaceship Earth. And I wore a blue, polyester spacesuit. And my job was to tell people to watch their step. (laugh) Yeah.
NNAMDIVery interesting jobs. Before I go to the phones, how did you decide to become a writer, after doing all of those jobs?
DICAMILLOYou know, I knew from the time I was in college that I wanted to do it. And I'll try to tell this story very quickly. But I knew I wanted to do it, but I didn't do it. And the reason I want to say it this way is because I want people to know that if you want to do something, you have to find a way to sit down and do it. And so I spent almost 10 years talking about being a writer and wanting to be a writer before I finally sat down and started to do the work. So, it wasn't until I was 30 that I started to write.
NNAMDIHow did you overcome all the rejection slips you got?
DICAMILLOYou know, when I talk to kids in schools, I have them guess how many rejection letters I got. And they say, 10, 25? And I'm like, no, and then I put the number up on the screen, and it's 473. And the room just erupts, you know. And they always want to know, how did you keep on going? And part of it was that I had a dartboard where I would put the rejection letters when they came back. And I would throw darts at it until I felt like, yeah, I'm going to show you. And then I would package up the story, and send it back out again.
NNAMDIWow, okay. On to our young people. We will start with 10-year-old Daphne in Washington, D.C. Daphne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DICAMILLOHow are you?
DAPHNEI'm good, thank you. How are you?
DICAMILLO(laugh) I'm very well.
NNAMDI(laugh) What's your question, Daphne?
DAPHNEMy question is, what was your inspiration for "Because of Winn-Dixie"?
DICAMILLOSo, "Because of Winn-Dixie" was the first book that I wrote, and I wrote it pretty soon after I had moved to -- I live in Minnesota now, so I'd made this big move from Florida to Minnesota. And it was one of the worst winters on record in Minnesota. So, as you can imagine, I felt very homesick for Florida and the warmth of Florida. So, that book was a way, because Winn-Dixie takes place in Florida, for me to go home.
DICAMILLOAnd the book is also -- it was the first time in my life I'd been without a dog. And so I just made up the best dog that I could think of, which was Winn-Dixie. So, the inspiration for that book was homesickness and wanting a dog.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Daphne. Eight-year-old twins Wilson and Seth from D.C. have questions about "Because of Winn-Dixie." One, why did you name the dog after the store? And two, why were the Dewberry twins afraid of Gloria Dump's house?
DICAMILLO(laugh) So, why did I name the dog after the store? So, I'm writing this book in a terribly cold Minnesota winter. I'm homesick for Florida, where I grew up. And the street that I grew up on, you could walk up there in your bare feet and get to a Winn-Dixie. And so Winn-Dixie just sounded like home to me. So, that's where the dog name came from, the store and the homesickness.
DICAMILLOAnd then why were the Dewberry boys afraid of Gloria Dump? Because, so often, we're afraid of things that we don't understand. And we tell ourselves stories about people that aren't true and make ourselves afraid of them, because we just don't know them. So, the Dewberry boys were only afraid because they didn't know her.
NNAMDIWell, since we've been talking about "Because of Winn-Dixie," would you read a little bit from that book for our listeners?
DICAMILLOI would love to do that. And I'll just start at the beginning, which goes this way. My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer, my daddy, the preacher sent me to the store for a box of macaroni and cheese, some white rice and two tomatoes, and I came back with a dog. This is what happened. I walked into the produce section of the Winn-Dixie grocery store to pick out my two tomatoes, and I almost bumped right into the store manager.
DICAMILLOHe was standing there, all red-faced, screaming and waving his arms around. “Who let a dog in here?” he kept on shouting. “Who let a dirty dog in here?” At first, I didn't see a dog. There were just a lot of vegetables rolling around on the floor, tomatoes and onions and green peppers. And there was what seemed like a whole army of Winn-Dixie employees running around, waving their arms, just the same way the store manager was waving his.
DICAMILLOAnd then the dog came running around the corner. He was a big dog and ugly, and he looked like he was having a real good time. His tongue was hanging out, and he was wagging his tail. He skidded to a stop, and smiled right at me. I had never before in my life seen a dog smile, but that is what he did. He pulled back his lips and showed me all his teeth. Then he wagged his tail so hard that he knocked some oranges off the display, and they went rolling everywhere, mixing in with the tomatoes and onions and green peppers.
DICAMILLOThe manager screamed, “Somebody grab that dog!” The dog went running over to the manager wagging his tail and smiling. He stood up on his hind legs. You could tell that all he wanted to do was get face-to-face with the manager and thank him for the good time he was having in the produce department. But somehow, he ended up knocking the manager over. And the manager must've been having a bad day, because lying there on the floor, right in front of everybody, he started to cry.
DICAMILLOThe dog leaned over real concerned and licked his face. “Please,” said the manager, somebody call the pound.” “Wait a minute, I hollered. That's my dog. Don't call the pound.” All the Winn-Dixie employees turned around and looked at me, and I knew I had done something big, and maybe stupid, too, but I couldn't help it. I couldn't let that dog go to the pound.
DICAMILLO“Here, boy,” I said. The dog stopped licking the manager's face and put his ears up in the air and looked at me like he was trying to remember where he knew me from. “Here, boy,” I said again. And then I figured that the dog was probably just like everybody else in the world, that he would want to get called by a name, only I didn't know what his name was. So, I just said the first thing that came to my head. I said, "Here, Winn-Dixie.”
NNAMDIThat's Kate DiCamillo.
DICAMILLOYou are a good listener. You listened very well.
NNAMDII love that story. (laugh) India Opal Buloni grew up in Florida, and so did you. Are there other parallels between her life and yours when you were a kid?
DICAMILLOI also grew up in a single-parent home, with a parent missing, except it was not my mother that was missing. It was my father. So, there's that. And then there's this thing about being rescued by dogs and community that is very much a part of my life. I have found so many people who have welcomed me into their backyards, like Gloria Dump welcomes Opal, and invited me to sit at their tables. And so, I feel so fortunate, in that respect.
NNAMDIHere now is eight-year-old Mazey. Mazey, you're on the air. Mazey, go ahead, please.
MAZEYHello. My name is Mazey, and my question is, how did you come up with your stories, and how do the characters relate to you?
DICAMILLOSo, how do I come up with the stories? With each story, it's a little bit different. And part of where the stories come from, I found, is -- there's no polite way to say this, it's eavesdropping. So, like I love to listen to other people talk, and I always have a notebook with me. And I will write down snatches of dialogue, things that people say. So, a lot of times, I'll get story ideas from overhearing conversations. Sometimes, it's from misreading signs, or sometimes just a character's name will pop into my head. For all of those things, I just always have a notebook, and I write down the idea or the character name, or what I hear.
DICAMILLOAnd then as far as, are the characters like me? Yes. The characters are never me, exactly, but there's always some part of me in every character that I write. And sometimes I'm not even aware of it as I'm doing it. It just -- I can see it, afterwards, how much the character is like a part of me. But I don't see it as I'm writing the story.
NNAMDIMazey, thank you very much for your excellent question. Fourth grader Benji is reading "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane." Stars keep coming up in your book. Are stars special to you? Benji wants to know.
DICAMILLOBenji, it's such a good question, because this is one of those things where I wasn't even really aware of that until I had a group of fourth graders wrote a letter to me saying, what is your problem with stars? They're in every book that you've done. And it's like, well, that's not -- and then I started to think about it, and it's true. And I don't -- I do love the stars and looking up at the night sky. It always makes everything kind of, like, click into place for me. But I don't intentionally keep on putting the stars in the books, but I find they keep on showing up. One way or another, there's a star in every book that I've done so it's just a preoccupation with me that slips into the stories.
NNAMDIHere's eight-year-old Evie in Washington, D.C. Evie, it is your turn. Go ahead, please.
EVIEI'm Evie, and my question is, if you have one, what is your favorite book that you've written?
DICAMILLOOh, the favorite book that I've written?
DICAMILLOYeah, you know, that is an impossible question to answer. Evie, can I ask you a question back?
DICAMILLODo you have brothers and sisters?
DICAMILLOOkay. So, like, if I were to say to your mom or your dad, which of you kids do your parents love the most, wouldn't they look really nervous and kind of like they wouldn't know how to answer you? It's the same way with me, with the books. They feel like my kids to me, and I love them equally, but differently because they're all individuals. And I see them, like, as deeply flawed, but loveable, anyway. And I'm not saying that you're deeply flawed. I'm just saying that it's like you see everything that is wrong with the stories, but you love them, anyway. But you cannot pick a favorite. That's how it feels to me.
NNAMDIEvie, thank you very much for your call. You can't pick a favorite, but you did win the Newbery Honor for "Because of Winn-Dixie." And then you won the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children's literature, for "The Tale of Despereaux," and then for "Flora and Ulysses." What was it like to get these honors for your writing?
DICAMILLOOh, you know, I can still cry when I talk about it, because it is like, back to that library where Miss Alice, you know, let me check out more than four books at a time. I remember standing in that library, and there was a spin rack of paperbacks, Yearling Newberys is what they were called. And so I knew to look for that medal...
NNAMDIEven as a kid.
DICAMILLO...on a book, yeah, when I was a kid. And so to think that it's on something that I have written is just -- it overwhelms me every time I think about it. That's the best thing in the world.
NNAMDIOn now to a fourth grader Becka in Washington, D.C. Becka, it's your turn.
BECKAOkay. Hi. I'm Becka Travis. Is Opal's mom friends with Gloria Dump?
DICAMILLOOh, that's a very interesting question. This is like -- you could probably -- you know, this is the weird thing, Becka, is that sometimes the reader knows more than the writer of the story. And there are all kinds of things that readers can figure out in a story that writers aren't even aware of.
DICAMILLOSo, I would say that it is possible, but I never thought of that before. It's a beautiful question. And that goes to one of my favorite points, which is that, you know, you write a story, and that's only part of it. It's not complete until the reader shows up. And so, together, we make it into a story, me writing it and you reading it. And that's a beautiful example of that, that question.
NNAMDIBecka, thank you very much for your call and your question. Ten-year-old Adolette from Arlington says she loves your books, and that she is dyslexic and asked if you think about kids who struggle to read when you write.
DICAMILLOOh, you know, there was this moment, and I was actually -- I was in North Carolina, in an auditorium. And a little boy raised his hand, and he held up his copy of "Despereaux," and he said, I have dyslexia, and this is the first book that I was able to read on my own. And I'm wondering if you wrote it for kids with dyslexia. And that question just kind of, like, knocked me sideways, you know, again with me crying. I guess I cry more easily now.
DICAMILLOBut it was just such a heartfelt question, I could only give him that heartfelt answer that I'm going to give to you, which is that, I write these books with my heart, which is complicated and, you know, broken, a little bit. And so, hopefully, that brokenness in me lets all the words get to you. And I don't know if that makes sense, but it's like me putting my heart on the page, and then you reading with your heart, which goes around for all of us, the way into the story is the heart. Does that make sense?
NNAMDIIt makes sense to me, that's for sure.
DICAMILLOOkay. All right. Okay.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Annalise in Warrenton, Virginia. Annalise, your turn.
ANNALISEHi. My name is Annalise. I'm ten years old, and (unintelligible) from Warrenton, Virginia. Currently, my friend and I are writing books together. What is your biggest and best tip for young writers?
DICAMILLOI have several tips, and I'll tell them to you very quickly. One, the most important one of all, I think, is to read as much as you can. And I bet you're doing that. And the second thing is to write, and clearly, you're doing that. And then the third things is to carry a notebook around with you for all the ideas that are out there, because I feel like when you're reading and writing and taking notes on the world, it's just a way to keep open to everything. And that's your job, as a writer, is to keep your eyes open and your ears open and your heart open, and your mind open.
DICAMILLOAnd so, I bet you're already doing all of those things, but I'll give you one more tip, which is don't give up. You cannot -- there's always going to be somebody who tells you that you cannot do it. Just step around that person and keep on going.
NNAMDIA couple of other things that I read about you, you said that you have been in groups where there were writers who you were absolutely convinced were more talented than you are. But it's a lot about persistence. It's a lot about getting the job done, every day.
DICAMILLOYes, yes. And it's just -- it's that thing of -- and I remember these moments so clearly of people -- there's no doubt that they're more talented than I am. But I decided that I could make myself show up and do the work every day, and I could make myself not give up. Those things were within my control, not whether or not I was talented. But it was in my control whether or not I could keep on showing up and keep on sending the work out. And so it was -- that was kind of what I hung my hat on, was not giving up.
NNAMDIEight-year-old Fiona in Washington, D.C. asked: When did your love of reading become a love of writing?
DICAMILLOWhat a beautiful way to say that question. Well, you know, it was a particular moment, I have to say, and that was in college, when I was majoring in English. And I had a professor who said to me, and this is a direct quote, "You have a certain facility with words. You should consider graduate school." And I was so young and full of myself, that I thought that that professor was telling me that I was a really talented writer. And I thought, why should I just bother going to graduate school? I'll just go off and be a writer.
DICAMILLOSo, that was where I fully formed the idea that I wanted to be a writer. But I also, in answering this question, have to quote Dorothy Parker, that, you know, "I hate writing. I love having written." So, every morning, it's still a struggle for me to do it. And then, every morning, I'm glad that I did do it, but I still have to push myself to do it.
NNAMDIThat's exactly what I used to say about jogging when I was an avid jogger. I said, I don't like jogging. I love having jogged. (laugh)
DICAMILLOYes, exactly. And it's so funny, because I used to run two miles a day, when I wasn't writing. And it finally clicked in my head, well, wait a minute you can run every day, and that's not who you want to be. But you want to write so why don't you write every day? So, running was a turning point for me, too.
NNAMDIHere's eight-year-old Natalie in Maine. Natalie, your turn.
NATALIEHi. I was wondering if -- why did you make, in "The Tale of Despereaux," why did you create the character Miggery Sow?
DICAMILLOWhy did I create the character Miggery Sow? You know, it's always funny to me when people -- sometimes adults will say, speak to me about how you developed your characters, or give us a lecture on character development. And I always just kind of stand up there and open and close my mouth. Because I don't know how to develop characters, and I'm not always sure where the characters come from.
DICAMILLOSo, I was writing this story about the mouse, and truly what happens was that one morning I get up, and Miggery Sow shows up. And I don't know what she's doing in that story, but I've been writing long enough now that I know that she's real and that I have to follow her. So, I don't know where she came from. I just know that she showed up.
DICAMILLOAnd that, to me, is one of the beautiful things about writing, is that if you show up at the same time every day, all kinds of magic happens, even though you think that it would be a lot better if you didn't sit down and write. (laugh) Tomorrow will be better. You know, that's what you always think but tomorrow isn't better. It's now. And if you show up at the same time, the characters will show up, too.
NNAMDITell us about your newest book, which came out six months ago.
DICAMILLOThat's "Beverly, Right Here" which was the last in a trilogy about girls growing up in Central Florida in the mid-'70s, which is, you know, when I grew up in Central Florida. I remember when the first of those books came out "Raymie Nightingale," and I said it takes place in Florida in the mid-'70s. And some kid said, oh, it's historical fiction. And it's, like, what? (laugh) And I was, like, yeah, I guess it is. (laugh)
DICAMILLO(laugh) It definitely is.
NNAMDIAnd, on that happy note, Kate DiCamillo, we have come to the end of this segment. So, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you so much for entertaining questions from our kid listeners.
DICAMILLOI had such a great time. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIA lot of fun. Today's edition of Kojo For Kids was produced by Lauren Markoe, and our conversation about parallels between life in a warzone and coping with a pandemic was produced by Monna Kashfi. Coming up tomorrow, we'll discuss how the region's Child Welfare Services are adjusting to a new normal, and what that means for kids in foster care. Plus, Lauren Francis-Sharma joins us to talk about her latest novel, "Book of the Little Axe," tracing a family's life from Trinidad to the Crow Nation in the American West. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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