Kate DiCamillo and Me (or how I started writing for children)

Posted on Jan 29, 2014 | 5 comments

winn dixieNo, I don’t know Kate DiCamillo. That was just a come-on. I’ve never met her.

But if I did, I would thank her for what she has done for me. She’s taught me quite a lot.

I began writing my first novel shortly after I read Because of Winn-Dixie to my children. When the story was done, I closed the book, my face wet with tears, and there I was, 10 years old again. Or maybe 11.

My children, who had shed a few tears themselves, were staring at me. I sobbed loudly.

My feelings for India Opal Buloni and her scraggly dog, for her dear, struggling and emotionally frozen father, and for the ragtag, beautiful collection of people Opal collects around her took me back to the way I felt about books when I was a kid. They way I inhaled them, devoured them, lived them, cried over them, merged with them and loved them above all else.

Winn-Dixie was my second DiCamillo book. My first was the Newbery-winning The Tale of Despereaux, recommended to me by a local indie bookseller. It was strange and slightly dark and different from most of the children’s books I’d read, and my kids and I adored the wordplay. It was my first hint that there had been a flowering in children’s literature. I could still offer my kids my favorites from my childhood in the 60s and 70s, like Sterling North and E.B. White and L.M. Montgomery and Judy Blume—of course!—but now there was lots more to explore. For me as well as for them.

I adore books. I majored in literature and published my own first book—nonfiction—in 1993. I’ve been a (mostly) faithful member of a book club for a dozen years. But my relationship with novels has never been as intense as it was when I was in 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th grade. When I responded to a recent Facebook game where we were asked to share the books that had changed us the most, all the novels on my list were ones I read as a child.

What is it about those years, the middle grade years, that makes books such powerful companions? Again, I got the answer from Kate DiCamillo.

She was being interviewed on NPR earlier this month after her selection as the Library of Congress’s national Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. (She followed that this week with another Newbery Award. Fantastic.) “I never sit and think,” she said, “‘I need to write to 10 and 11-year-olds.’ . . . I think that I am a 10- or 11-year-old at heart, so it’s never anything that I have to do to connect to that. It’s just a part of me and part of—I’m always writing towards the child that I was and that I am, that broken-hearted, wondering, hopeful kid, you know?”

“Broken-hearted?” I wondered. “Why was she broken-hearted?”

I looked up her biography on Wikipedia. It’s pretty sparse. But the seed of a broken heart is there: her father left. Or, rather, her mother left, with the kids, apparently for Kate’s health, and her father never joined them as planned. It made me sad just thinking about it.

I also felt like I’d invaded her privacy a little. Even though it was there for all to see on Wikipedia.

And the fact is, I didn’t really need to know it. Her story is sad but not extraordinary. Many children grow up with an empty space where one of their parents should be. But even for the luckiest child, one with an intact family, a safe home, a welcoming neighborhood, growing up can be heartbreaking.

Sometimes our broken-heartedness is inherited. That was the case for me, I think. My childhood was full of fresh air, open space, good schools, loving parents and shelves full of books. But my mother had a deep sadness, the residue of her own traumatic wartime childhood. I felt that. It shaped me.

For others, the broken heart comes from poverty. From being teased or excluded. From loss. From illness. From alcohol. From moving.

But there doesn’t need to be a traumatic event to break a childish heart. Passing from childhood to adolescence means losing so many illusions. It means learning that your parents are flawed. That you will make mistakes, and sometimes your mistakes will hurt people. That you have to take responsibility for those mistakes. It means learning that some people won’t like you, and you may never know why. It means getting hurt.

We all get hurt.

Books about others who have been hurt, who are lonely, who have broken hearts but who survive—they help make the passage bearable. And while I enjoy a rollicking adventure once in a while, I will always find the greatest satisfaction in a book that makes me cry. A book that appeals to my own brokenhearted 10- or 11- or 12-year-old…and gives her hope.

I found I wanted to write a book for her. After I put away Because of Winn-Dixie, I sat down at my computer.  I began to write.

5 Comments

  1. Always knew this about you which is why I love you so. Comme c’est triste comme c’est beau. No other way to live.

  2. These reflections moved me. Especially the observations about how painful adolescence is all by itself, and how we all get hurt. Reminded me of something a colleague– a man who had a very difficult, painful life behind or beneath his academic success– once told me: “Everybody has a back story.” Learning about others’ “back stories” helps one not just understand, but survive one’s own.

  3. Suzanne, just this post moved me, I wonder what your works hold in store!

    • Thank you, LRS and Petrimetra! I am glad you were touched by this post and I appreciate your comments.

  4. Edward Tulane had me bawling my eyes out with my child comforting me at the end. DiCamillo knows how to tug heartstrings in the best possible way and make readers want to come back for more. You really got to the heart of what a talented author can do I*N*S*P*I*R*E! Thanks.

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