Kate DiCamillo's coming-of-age: 'Winn-Dixie' author follows unusual path to literary success
When Kate DiCamillo was in her 20s (not that long ago), she told everyone she was a writer. At least she thought she was a writer. In fact, she knew she was. But there was a problem: she hadn't written anything. After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in English, she got jobs at Circus World and Disney World, where she worked the ride lines. She also called bingo at a children's camp. "At the time I thought I was going nowhere," admits the critically acclaimed author. "Now I can see there was a pattern." When she relocated from her home in Florida to Minnesota and took a position at a children's bookstore, the pattern working with kids really began to materialize, and her dream of being an author soon came to fruition. "I finally realized that I actually needed to write something to become a 'writer,'" says DiCamillo, "so I started writing short stories."
As a Southerner far from home, the first frigid winter in Minnesota took its toll on the author. "I was homesick and couldn't afford to go home," she remembers, "and it was the first time I didn't have a dog." Out of this experience came the idea for her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie (2000). The story of a lonely little girl named Opal who adopts Winn-Dixie, a muddled mutt with a loving heart, the book set in sunny Florida won a Newbery Honor and climbed onto The New York Times bestseller list. DiCamillo's next effort, The Tiger Rising (2001), was based on a character she had written about in one of her short stories. Rob Horton, a 12-year-old mourning the death of his mother, makes an amazing discovery: there's a tiger in the woods behind the Kentucky Star Motel, where he and his father live. The magical creature opens up new possibilities in Rob's life, including a friendship with a feisty, dark-eyed girl named Sistine. Another critical success for DiCamillo, The Tiger Rising was a National Book Award Finalist and a Book Sense 76 selection.
Her latest book for young readers came about in an entirely different way. The Tale of Despereaux was inspired by the son of one of DiCamillo's closest friends. "He wanted a story about an unlikely hero," recalls DiCamillo, "and the hero had to have exceptionally big ears." She tried to explain to the boy that characters don't just materialize on demand; they have to exist as ideas in the writer's head in order to work. But over the next few months, as she thought about the request, something clicked for DiCamillo. Three years later, The Tale of Despereaux was complete. The novel's mouse-hero, Despereaux Tilling, has fallen in love with a human, the beautiful Princess Pea, whose family owns the castle he calls home. But the romance is thwarted by his father, and Despereaux is soon imprisoned in a dank dungeon. To the mouse's magical story, DiCamillo adds the adventures of the castle's other inhabitants, including a rat named Chiaroscuro, and Miggery Sow, a young servant girl who dreams of becoming a princess. With its old-fashioned, fairy tale qualities and whimsical pencil drawings by Timothy Basil Ering, the book is definitely a departure for DiCamillo, but one readers are sure to love.
Her next project, a picture book, is already in the works. Nowadays, though, the popular author has a new responsibility answering mail from fans. "It's thrilling when a kid writes you," she says, "and it breaks my heart to think they would take the time to write and get nothing back." As for future children's novels, DiCamillo promises there will be more. "I'm at the mercy of whatever character comes into my head," she explains. "Every day I get up and write two pages and only two pages. It's an easy goal that I know I can do, whether I'm working on a book or not." More importantly, it ensures that this former Disney World employee and bingo caller will continue to prove her claim that she really is a true, honest-to-goodness writer not that any of her readers ever thought differently.
Heidi Henneman writes from San Francisco.