Growing up in Florida, Kate DiCamillo was a shy kid.
“My mother would say sometimes, ‘Run into the store and ask so and so something,’ and I would think ‘Never.’ I couldn’t run in and ask anybody anything. I was afraid a lot,” DiCamillo said.
But, reader, she found her voice on the page. For nearly two decades, her stories have been read and heard in thousands of classrooms, libraries and homes around the world.
It started with an unassuming children’s book called “Because of Winn-Dixie,” which was published in 2000 and follows the tale of India Opal Buloni, who finds a scrappy stray dog and takes it in. Told through the lens of vibrant characters, the story deals with parental abandonment and alcoholism, while highlighting the power of friendship and forgiveness. It went on to win the Josette Frank Award and the Mark Twain Award and was later adapted to the screen and the stage.
From there, DiCamillo has penned many other books, like “The Tale of Despereaux,” “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” “Tiger Rising,” “Flora & Ulysses,” and the “Mercy Watson,” series.
However, DiCamillo’s journey to becoming a writer was a winding one. As a child, she was an avid reader and would pore over everything from “Anne of Green Gables” to “Stuart Little” to “The Mouse and the Motorcycle.”
“I was one of those kids who read without discretion. If it was a book I loved it,” DiCamillo said.
In college, a professor told her she had a “faculty with words” and encouraged her to go to graduate school. She didn’t take the latter bit of advice; she did make up her mind to become a writer, though the idea — and the stories — stayed in her mind for a while.
“I didn’t actually start writing until I was 30. I just spent a lot of time talking about it,” DiCamillo said.
Even after she started writing, it took years to fine-tune her stories and get them published.
“Because of Winn-Dixie” was published when DiCamillo was 36 and before it was published by Candlewick Press, she received more than 400 rejection letters for the book, along with other work she’d sent out.
Thousands of readers, teachers and parents are thankful that she didn’t give up throughout that time, especially those who enjoyed her latest books known as the “Three Rancheros” trilogy: “Raymie Nightingale,” “Louisiana's Way Home” and “Beverly, Right Here.”
Each vividly told story is anchored around one of the Three Rancheros: Raymie Clarke, Louisiana Elefante and Beverly Tapinski. They were first brought together in “Raymie Nightingale” by a beauty contest, which each character has a different reason for being in. Raymie is trying to win so her father will come back home, Louisiana wants to win so she can buy back her cat, Archie, from the “Very Friendly Animal Center” with the prize money and Beverly wants to sabotage the whole contest.
Throughout the trilogy, hope rises amidst seemingly impossible circumstances as the characters each grow into themselves and learn how to cope with families that are far less than perfect.
DiCamillo’s writing process is primarily character-driven so it only makes sense that the trilogy started with Raymie. She first thought up Raymie shortly after selling “Because of Winn-Dixie,” while working at a hot dog stand and reading Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” series.
“I was at a hot dog stand and no one came to it so I got to read all day in there. I made my way through all the Ramona books. I was just struck by how vital and relevant [they were]. I mean I was 30-something years old and it was 30 years after they’d been written and they were still just absolutely engaging and fantastic,” DiCamillo said.
At first, she was inspired to write a purely light-hearted story about an inept child entering a beauty contest. But her plans got pushed to the side as Raymie’s character began to take shape and echo some of DiCamillo’s own experiences growing up.
“This base note came in of her father leaving and my father left when I was six. So then it became something different entirely and these other girls showed up. It wasn’t what I set out to do at all but it answered something in me to do it,” DiCamillo said.
However, after she wrote “Raymie Nightingale,” she didn’t immediately plan to write a second or even a third.
“With novels, I’ve never thought in terms of [a series]. . . But what happened here was Louisiana Elefante . . . basically wouldn’t shut up. Her voice kept on bothering me,” DiCamillo said.
Thus, in 2018, Louisiana’s story was told and released to the rest of the world with “Louisiana’s Way Home.”
“Then it became clearer [that] I was going to have to tell Beverly’s story too. It’s odd because Louisiana's kinda like ‘The Rime of [the] Ancient Mariner,’ she’s the wedding guest who grabs you and talks. Beverly is so reluctant. You have to wait for her to come to you,” DiCamillo said.
That was one of the challenges in writing “Beverly, Right Here,” which came out in September.
“I had to be so very still and wait for her to come to me. She’s a character that I love and the kind of kid that I wished that I was brave enough to be because she just doesn’t care what people think about her. She’s got this rough exterior but she’s very tender inside and she’s not afraid to act on that tenderness,” DiCamillo said.
Beverly, 14, runs away from home and is set on making a life of her own away from her mom, Rhonda, who doesn’t seem to care about anyone beyond herself. The young teen is also running away from the death of her beloved dog, as the reader learns at the start of the novel:
“Buddy died, and Beverly buried him, and then she set off toward Lake Clara.”
Beverly finds a place to live, through the kindness of Iola, an elderly woman who needs a bit of help herself as she begins to lose the ability to drive. She also finds a job bussing tables at a seafood restaurant.
As Beverly tries to forget about what she left behind, she begins to make tentative connections with people in the community. Despite her gruff manner, she can’t stop herself from helping those around her and from forming friendships, creating an oddball family.
“She’s able to love and she’s able to help people but she’s a little reluctant to let herself be loved and let herself be seen and to let herself be helped. In this book, she learns to let herself do that,” DiCamillo said.
DiCamillo’s books often deal with the harsh realities of life and she doesn’t shy away from delving into topics like loss, abandonment and poverty in her books.
“It’s funny because I never think about it while I’m doing it because I’ve always [thought] ‘Okay, let me just follow the story.’ So I don’t start to ask myself questions about ‘Is this too dark?’ until it’s too late,” DiCamillo said.
“I guess I’ve always been doing it. . . .Kids are living in the same world we’re living in and so much that’s really hard happens and those hard things don’t wait until you’re an adult to happen to you. So to not have stories tell you the truth seems like a real disservice to me.”
Rather than ruminating on whether a story is “kid-appropriate,” she lets the characters lead and gets out of the way, letting them tell the stories they need to tell. That’s not to say that the writing process has become easy all these years (and books) later.
“I go down to the office first thing in the morning, get the coffee maker on and go in there and write before I can talk myself out of it,” DiCamillo said, “You know the Dorothy Parker quote: ‘I hate writing. I love having written’? That’s still where it is. It is so much a central part of who I am and it helps shape meaning, but I never [want to]. It’s why I’m in there first thing in the morning because I’ve learned if I don’t go in there you talk yourself out of it.”
While DiCamillo does most of her writing from her home office, she also has a busy schedule of book signings and speaking engagements. On Friday, she’ll be heading to Saratoga Springs to discuss “Beverly, Right Here” and will also hold a Q and A session.
Even though DiCamillo is an introvert, she said she finds visits like these rewarding because she yearns for that connection with the readers, with the kids and the adults who relish the characters and the stories she’s created as much if not more than she does.
During visits like these, she’s noticed that many of the attendees hope to write their own stories and create their own vibrant characters. For them, DiCamillo has three pieces of advice:
“The first one is the happiest assignment you’ll ever receive if you want to do this which is read. Anybody who is not thrilled to get that assignment probably doesn’t want to be a writer. So you read, read, read, [and] absorb narrative that way. Then you have to find some way to make yourself do the work of it. For me, it was two pages a day because I figure there was enough time before I went into work to do that and no matter if you’re in school or you’re working full time, you can usually [find time].”
The final piece of advice is to carry a notebook everywhere.
“There’s a wonderful Flannery O’Connor quote ‘The writer [should] never be ashamed of staring. There’s nothing that does not require [his] attention.’ So I think that’s your job -- to look at everything and to pay attention to everything,” DiCamillo said.
WHEN: 6 p.m. Fri. Nov. 1
WHERE: Saratoga City Center, 522 Broadway, Saratoga Springs
TICKETS: $26 and up (admission includes a copy of “Beverly, Right Here”)
MORE INFO: northshire.com