December 17, 2017
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Kate DiCamillo turns a doodle into a story of hope

By Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (TNS)
Penguin Random House | TNS | BDN
Penguin Random House | TNS | BDN
"La La La" by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo has twice won children’s literature’s highest honor for novels she’s written. But her new picture book is nearly wordless, with only variations on a short musical syllable.

What connects “La La La” (Candlewick Press) to “Flora & Ulysses,” “The Tale of Despereaux” and other DiCamillo novels is a character with a longing to connect.

In “La La La,” illustrated by Jaime Kim, a girl all by herself sings, but no one responds. She saunters outside, still singing. Just when she might give up hope that her song will ever be acknowledged, she receives a surprising answer.

The story began with DiCamillo drawing a small circle trying to get the attention of a big circle.

“I’ve always been a doodler,” DiCamillo said during a telephone interview.

She kept doodling. “There was something that the small circle was after and I figured out after a lot of little-circle drawing … that it was after this connection.”

After doing draft after draft of drawings, she said, “I could see that there was a narrative arc to it.”

At that point, DiCamillo said, “because I clearly cannot draw, it went to the brilliant hands of Jaime Kim.”

This unexpected way of birthing a story brought DiCamillo “this great sense of being able to play, which sometimes I can lose sight of in writing,” she said.

“La La La” is subtitled “a story of hope”; DiCamillo’s tale could be subtitled “a story of perseverance” or “a story of courage.”

After graduating from the University of Florida with her degree in English, she worked in a greenhouse, a campground and an amusement park, wanting to write but struggling to do it. Reading Christopher Paul Curtis’ “The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” helped turn her attention toward children’s books. Living in Minnesota, homesick for Florida and grieving the lack of a dog, she wrote “Because of Winn-Dixie,” which launched her career.

Even though DiCamillo has won the Newbery Medal for year’s best children’s book twice, starting to write a new book still makes her afraid.

“You have to learn how to write each book,” she said, noting that the only thing that carries over from book to book is the knowledge that she has done it before.

In 2014-15, DiCamillo served as Library of Congress’ national ambassador for young people’s literature, visiting classrooms and reading programs with her chosen theme, Story Connects Us. Not only did she encourage many young readers and their teachers, she found herself encouraged and changed.

“The message that I had gone out to deliver was the same message that was getting delivered back to me,” she said. “I felt so connected to people. It was a wondrous experience.”

Without those ambassador visits, DiCamillo said, she would not have written “Raymie Nightingale” (2016), perhaps her most personal novel. Telling the truth to children about her father leaving home when she was a little girl “ended up in me telling the truth about my childhood in the novel,” DiCamillo said.

In that novel, young Raymie, a Florida girl, wants to win a beauty contest to lure her departed father back home. During this quixotic quest, she bonds with fellow pageant misfits Beverly Tapinski and Louisiana Elefante. Yes, as journalists and readers are quick to point out, DiCamillo has a knack for striking character names.

“Everything about writing is hard for me except for that — the names pop into my head. That’s one of the reasons why I always make sure I have a notebook with me,” she said.

Her only theory, and she dubs it “somewhat half-baked,” is that her facility with names comes from growing up in the South and hearing so many unusual names “at an early age distorted my brain in a wonderful way, I guess.”

While she lives in Minnesota, DiCamillo remains passionate about Southern writing. “I go back every year and read the collected Eudora Welty (stories),” she said. “I love Flannery O’Connor, and those stories surprise me every time I read them, too.”

As a former literary ambassador for young people’s literature, DiCamillo has suggestions for new parents, aunts and uncles and anyone else who wants to read to children:

1. Start as soon as you can. That means before they’ve even arrived, you can read to them.

2. It’s as pleasurable for us as it is for them. It gives you a huge gift. You’re not doing it for them, you’re doing it for you, the plural you, the two of you together.

3. When it comes to older children, don’t tell a kid that they have to go read. It’s a privilege and a joy, reading is. It’s your job to remind them that they’re lucky they get to do it. It’s also your job to be reading for yourself and let the kids see you reading for your own pleasure.

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©2017 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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