she was a very little girl, sick in bed for the third
time with measles, Kate DiCamillo looked out the window
and saw a strange sight. Her father was walking through
the orange grove toward the house. He wasn’t supposed
to be there. He lived in Pennsylvania.
he showed up when we didn’t expect him to,"
DiCamillo said in a recent interview. "Sometimes he
didn’t show up when we did expect him. His timing
often was off."
her brother and her mother had moved to Florida when
Kate was 5 in hopes that the warm climate would improve
her frail health. Her father promised to sell his
orthodontist practice in Philadelphia and join them, but
he never did. DiCamillo sees a silver lining in this
abandonment: "I’ve always written about missing
parents," she said. "This is part of why I
became a writer."
theme of absent parents runs through much of her work
and is at the heart of her new novel for children,
"Raymie Nightingale" (on sale April 12).
the book was meant to be comical. Raymie Clarke is a
10-year-old girl who decides to take baton-twirling
lessons so she can compete in the Little Miss Central
Florida Tire competition. "That seemed funny,"
DiCamillo said. "A young, inept child — i.e., me
— tries to learn to twirl a baton. I thought it was
going to be purely funny."
then she started asking herself questions, as she always
does when she works on a book. Why did Raymie want to
twirl the baton? So she could enter the competition. Why
did she want to enter the competition? To win it. And
why did she want to win it? To impress her absent
father. He would see her picture in the paper, and he
would come home.
who is 52 and lives in Minneapolis, is one of only six
writers to twice win the Newbery Medal, which has been
children’s literature’s highest honor for more than
has spent the past two years crisscrossing the United
States, speaking at schools and libraries as the Library
of Congress’ national ambassador for young people’s
literature. (Her appointment ended in January, and the
current ambassador is Gene Luen Yang.)
experience was, in some ways, transcendent. Her message
to children was about the power of stories to connect
people — "but the very thing I go out and tell
people, I’m getting back from them," she said.
"The message I set out to deliver is delivered back
was another unforeseen result of the ambassadorship:
this new book.
DiCamillo has long spoken to children, this time her
publicist suggested that she might prepare a PowerPoint
I did that, and I talked about myself and my childhood,
and one of the pictures I included was one of me and my
mother and my brother together in Florida." At each
talk, the photo is beamed onto a big screen, "And I
say to the kids, ‘Who’s missing?’?"
Nightingale" has its roots in DiCamillo’s
childhood, although it is not strictly autobiographical.
She calls it "the absolutely true story of my
Raymie, DiCamillo took baton-twirling lessons and
competed in a pageant. Like Raymie, she was 10 years old
in 1975. Like Raymie, as a child she visited a nursing
home where residents screamed but the staff remained
stoically cheerful. And like Raymie, her town had an
animal shelter like the one in the book, a horrific
place out of nightmares.
where you realize the adults aren’t doing a
super-great job of things, and you have to
pretend," she said.
such a potent thing, to be a kid. We grow up and we don’t
want to remember how everything is so beautiful and
terrifying when we’re young. The older you get, the
more you hope to muffle things. To be an adult, all that
gets buried under what you have to do. But for me, all
that wonder and magic and terror is all right on the
surface. It’s like a direct conduit to that feeling of
being a kid."
EVOLUTION OF A STORY
had Raymie from the minute I started writing,"
DiCamillo said. "I knew her name. I also knew there
was a girl to the left of her, and a girl to the right
of her. But who were they? I didn’t know."
were, it turns out, Beverly Tapinski and Louisiana
Elefante. (DiCamillo has a wonderful gift for names.)
Beverly and Louisiana come from families even more
fractured than Raymie’s. Beverly’s father has left
the family and gone to New York. Her mother, a former
baton-twirling beauty queen, hits her.
Louisiana — tiny, dramatic, enthusiastic Louisiana —
has no parents, just a zany grandmother. They live
together in a falling-down house with no furniture, no
money. They survive on stolen cans of tuna fish.
three girls, damaged in different ways, cope in very
different ways. Louisiana, whose health is frail (she is
prone to fainting when she gets excited, and suffers
from "swampy lungs"), is the eternal optimist,
never-say-die. She binds the girls together. "We’re
the Three Rancheros!" she says.
is brave and tough. "Fear is a big waste of
time," she says. "I’m not afraid of
Raymie — "Raymie is very, very much like
me," DiCamillo said. "A haunted child."
thought of her father being gone "made a small,
sharp pain shoot through Raymie’s heart every time she
considered it," DiCamillo writes. "Sometimes
the pain in her heart made her feel too terrified to go
on. Sometimes it made her want to drop to her
frail Louisiana has some DiCamillo in her, too. But
Beverly? "Beverly is who I wish I could be."
the skeleton of the book is dark — these abandoned
children with their tough, tough lives — the story is
hilarious, poignant and warm, a rich celebration of
friendship and adventure. The girls may have absent
fathers, they may have unhappy mothers, but there is a
wonderful oddball array of adults who step in and care
for them — Mr. Staphopoulos, the swimming teacher;
Mrs. Sylvester, the bird-voiced receptionist at Raymie’s
father’s office, and Raymie’s neighbor, Mrs.
Borkowski, who might or might not be as crazy as a loon.
give Raymie a lot of what she needs," DeCamillo
said. "They saw her, and they gave her what she
LESSON OF DOGS
is telling all of this from a window table at a
Minneapolis coffee shop. It’s a sunny Friday
afternoon, warm for mid-March, and walkers are out in
full force. Every now and then, she is distracted by a
own dog, Henry — a 15-year-old cairn terrier/poodle
mix, a perfect dog, she says — died in late December,
and so for now she must get her dog fix elsewhere,
anywhere: cellphone photos of a reporter’s dogs. The
excitable dog in her neighborhood that leaps straight up
in the air when she walks past its fence. A parade of
dogs along a busy Minneapolis street on this brilliant
ME. THAT. DOG," she says suddenly, interrupting
herself and staring fiercely through the window at a
small, short-legged dog — possibly a terrier-corgi mix
— trotting by on the other side of the street.
"GIVE HIM TO ME." The dog and its minder trot
on, oblivious. DiCamillo turns her head and watches them
are important characters in all of DiCamillo’s books.
Her first book, after all, was about a girl and a
scruffy dog named Winn-Dixie. Edward Tulane was a
rabbit. Despereaux (hero of her first Newbery-award
winning book) was a mouse, and Ulysses (co-hero of her
second Newbery-award winning book) was a squirrel.
"Raymie Nightingale," the important animal is
a cat named Archie (dogs everywhere roll their eyes),
although there is also a significant bird.
is about to head off on a 20-city book tour, almost
unheard of for a children’s author — or any author.
am an introvert, and I am gearing up for that whole
thing," she said. "Just thinking about Henry,
it was a great run with him, but I was thinking people
will ask me about dogs and I’ll have to not cry. What
I need to do is get through this tour and then I can get
Henry, "it breaks your heart — it is the lesson
of life just made so explicit," she said.
"Because your heart goes, ‘I will never do that
again.’ But then you think, what’s the point of
being here if you don’t?"