a hectic Saturday before Christmas, writer Kate
DiCamillo stands in front of a buzzing crowd of toddlers
and children at the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul,
Minn. She is dressed in her usual black top and jeans,
and her white-blond hair curls around her watchful face.
Some of the kids sit cross-legged on the floor; some
perch demurely on chairs or on a parent’s lap; some
peer around the edges of bookshelves; some bat absently
at furry puppets that hang from a display.
is used to the pandemonium that is a crowd of children.
She is not rattled. She keeps things moving.
reads a few pages from her new book, "Leroy Ninker
Saddles Up," and just as she is asking if anyone
has any questions, one small rogue child suddenly shoots
out of the pack, crawling fast, like Bart Simpson’s
baby sister, circumnavigating the tiny island of space
where DiCamillo stands, and then crawling off again. She
watches him go and says, "I might have a
question," and everybody laughs.
boy raises his hand. "Why do books have words in
them?" he asks.
looks thoughtful. "That’s what you call an
existential question, but I’m up for it," she
are a special way for me to tell you a story and I don’t
have to be there. It’s like magic."
far as DiCamillo is concerned, everything about books is
magic, especially the fact that she is one of the people
who makes a living by writing them.
18 of her books, beginning with "Because of
Winn-Dixie" in 2000, have been bestsellers or much
lauded or deeply loved or all of those things. (Mostly,
all of those things.) DiCamillo, this year’s Star
Tribune Artist of the Year, won her second Newbery Medal
in January for "Flora & Ulysses" —
something only five other authors have done in the award’s
93 years. She was also named National Ambassador for
Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress,
a two-year appointment that takes her all over the
country, speaking to children, educators and librarians
about her favorite topic, reading.
was on everyone’s shortlist," said Luann Toth,
managing editor of School Library Journal and a member
of the ambassador committee. "Her books are a
perfect blend of literary merit, accessibility and
heart. It’s a good thing she’s so young and dynamic.
She’s got rock-star status now."
grew up in Clermont, Fla., moving there from
Philadelphia at age 5 with her mother and older brother
in hopes that warmer weather would improve her frail
health. (She was hospitalized with pneumonia many times
as a toddler.) Her father was supposed to join them, but
he never did; she’s not sure why, and they are still
estranged. Family life in Florida was just the three of
them: mother, brother and Kate — and their dog, always
graduated from the University of Florida with a degree
in English and then sort of frittered away the next few
years, working at the Circus World theme park and at a
campground, thinking about writing, wanting to write,
determined to be a writer, but not actually writing.
1994, when she was 30, she tagged along with a friend to
Minneapolis, a place she had never been. It was
something of a risk. She didn’t have a job. She didn’t
have a winter coat. ("I thought, how cold could it
be? When it gets cold in Florida, you just run.")
But it turned out to be the best thing she could have
could go 15 minutes in any direction and be at a
bookstore or a library," she said. She got a job at
the Bookmen, a book warehouse and distribution center in
Minneapolis. Her goal was not to become a full-time
writer; she didn’t dare dream that big. She just hoped
eventually to cut her hours at the Bookmen to 30 per
week and make up the rest of her income through writing.
And so she began to write, diligently, every day, two
for a long time, she didn’t sell a thing.
Red Balloon, a girl asks, "Which book is your
my books?" DiCamillo asks. "Which of my books
is my favorite?" The child nods. DiCamillo doesn’t
answer the question right away. Instead, she asks if the
girl has any siblings. Yes. She asks if the girl has
brought a parent with her. Yes. So DiCamillo addresses
the parent: "Which of your children is your
favorite? Which one do you love the best?" And
there is a little gasp.
how I feel about my books," DiCamillo says. "I
love them equally but differently. I think of them all
as deeply flawed but lovable, which is not what I’m
saying about you."
she doesn’t have a favorite, but she does has a
special fondness for "Because of Winn-Dixie,"
the book that started it all.
would have happened without ‘Because of Winn-Dixie,’?"
she said. "I wouldn’t have my house. I wouldn’t
have anything. I got where I am, wherever that is,
because of that book."
took a long time. Years. At first, she wrote short
stories. Two pages a day, every day. She sent them to
literary journals, and the literary journals sent them
back. She kept writing. Years passed.
then the Bookmen assigned her to the third floor.
Children’s books. Oh, my. She began to read.
Watsons Go to Birmingham,’ by Christopher Paul Curtis,
was the first children’s novel I read as an
adult," she said. "It talks about hugely
important things, but it’s incredibly funny. I didn’t
know you could do that with a children’s book. A book
like that, or like ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ it tells you
the truth and makes the truth bearable."
began to write a children’s book. "I think I
found exactly where I’m supposed to be," she
said. "If I had not been assigned to the third
floor, I don’t know that I would have discovered
day writer Louise Erdrich came into the Bookmen, and
some of DiCamillo’s friends kind of pushed her
forward, urging her to introduce herself. She remembers
the moment vividly: Erdrich, she said, stopped and
looked at her. "How long have you been
writing?" Erdrich asked. "Four years,"
if you can hang on for a couple more years,"
Erdrich said. "Things opened up for me in the sixth
was so decent of her," DiCamillo said. "To
look at me, right in the eye, and really see me. That
meant so much."
remembers it, too. "I walked away thinking, ‘warm
and fearless.’ Which is very good in a writer."
crowded bookstore is growing warm, and some of the
smallest children are starting to rock and hum. Someone
has asked DiCamillo about the Mercy Watson books, her
series about a pig who loves buttered toast, and
DiCamillo is explaining how those books came to be.
everybody hear me?" she asks. "Because this is
fascinating." And the humming drops and the
children stop fidgeting and they listen. DiCamillo knows
how to work a crowd of kids.
"Flora & Ulysses," Flora, the 10-year-old
heroine, says, "This malfeasance must be
stopped." She asks her father to "quit
speaking euphemistically." She urges the squirrel,
Ulysses, to "obfuscate." Other characters
"posit." The squirrel has an
books for children, said Andrea Tompa, DiCamillo’s
editor at Candlewick Press, is harder than people might
think. "There is a perception that kid books are
easier — easier to write, easier to read, not as
sophisticated as adult books. I think that’s
false," Tompa said. "Those words have to be
well-chosen. There’s no room to hide. It’s like
writing a poem."
never wonders if a word is too hard for kids. Instead,
she wonders, "Is this the right word? How does it
sound when you read it aloud?" And if the word
sends a person to a dictionary, well, that’s part of
the joy of reading.
began writing "Winn-Dixie" in the late 1990s,
during a frigid Minnesota winter when she was missing
Florida, her mother and her dog, Lucy, whom she had left
high was 37 below for three days in a row," she
said, hardly exaggerating at all. "I had this
Florida car, and I’d open the car door and little
pieces would fall off. They’d frozen to death."
Writing allowed her to immerse herself in the remembered
warmth of home.
joined a writing group run by Jane Resh Thomas, the
author of 14 books for children and a longtime teacher
in MFA programs, including at Hamline University in St.
was just shocked by the quality of her writing,"
Thomas said. "I told her at the front door as she
left, ‘You’re going to be famous, you know.’ And
she said she had had so many rejections that she couldn’t
believe in herself anymore.
told her that I would believe in her for her."
was published in 2000, six years after DiCamillo’s
move north. It was named a Newbery Honor Book — a
runner-up to children’s literature’s top prize —
and won the Josette Frank Award and the Mark Twain Award
and was made into a movie.
told her she was going to be famous," Thomas said,
"but I didn’t think she was going to be famous
questions end, and DiCamillo signs books and poses for
pictures. She is not much bigger than the kids she poses
with, slender and tiny, almost elfin, but with a great
booming happy laugh, a HA HA HA that everyone
recognizes. Later, when she is up in the loft of the Red
Balloon, signing books, she belts out a HA HA HA and
people below look up and call, "Kate!? Is that you?
Kate!" And Kate peers over the edge of the loft and
invites them up. Is that your dog? she says. Bring your
dog up! And they do.
morning, DiCamillo’s coffee maker clicks on at 5:30
a.m., and she comes downstairs, pours herself a cup of
black coffee and carries it into her neat-as-a-pin
office. She sits at a plain wooden kneehole desk that
faces a blank wall, and she writes. Two pages. Every
morning. No distractions. No excuses.
discipline is legendary; her friends give her all kinds
of grief about it.
one of the most hardworking people I know," her
editor, Tompa, said. "She could coast on raw talent
if she needed to. But that’s not the way she is."
DiCamillo starts a book, "The primary thing in my
head is I’ve got something by the tail and I don’t
want to let it go," she said. But as the book
progresses, the feeling shifts. "Later, it’s more
a feeling that I’m carrying it in my arms and I don’t
want to let it drop."
50, she has never married and has no children, but she
has a ton of friends and a dog named Henry. "I
believe that you can have anything you want, but you can’t
have everything you want," she said. "I have
access to friends’ kids. I don’t know what kind of a
parent I’d be, but I’m the aunt of your
doesn’t really take vacations, doesn’t waste time
surfing the Web. Her publicist handles her Facebook
presence. (DiCamillo writes the posts.) She sees no
point in noting the thumbs-ups or the praise fans might
write. "It never fills you up," she said.
"If you go looking for approval, you’re never
going to be satisfied."
found her path in life, and she is devoted to it.
"I’m a solitary person given to intimate
socializing," she said. "I’ve got a lot of
wonderful friends who take good care of me. But I’m
happier if I’m working. I’m happier if I have a
at the Red Balloon asks the inevitable question, the one
that DiCamillo will never answer. "What’s my next
book? A novel," she said. "It will come out in
spring 2016. What’s it about? I can’t say. What’s
the title? I won’t tell you. Is it any good? I don’t
editor is happy to answer that one a few days later.
"It’s spectacular," she said emphatically.