Author convinced kids still love to read

Kate DiCamillo is too modest to say it — or even consider saying it — so we’ll say it for her.

Kate DiCamillo writes thrillers that’d move Tom Clancy to the edge of his seat, stories scary enough to give Stephen King the heebie-jeebies and romances that’d make Nicholas Sparks cry like a baby.

That’s because DiCamillo writes children’s books, and no period of life can be as exciting, as scary or as emotional as childhood, when kids are trying to figure out how the world works and how they might work in it.

DiCamillo is a two-time Newbery medalist for “Flora &Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures” and “The Tale of Despereaux,” and the latter book and “Because of Winn-Dixie” (which won a Newbery honor) have been adapted as feature films.

On Tuesday DiCamillo will present a reading and sign books at the Historic Fifth Street School, 401 S. Fourth St. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

DiCamillo’s latest book, “Raymie Nightingale” (Candlewick, $16.99), was released earlier this month. Set in central Florida during the ’70s, it’s about a young girl whose father has run off with a dental hygienist and who decides that winning the Little Miss Central Florida Tire pageant will help to get him back. Like DiCamillo’s other novels, it touches on themes of loss, belief even amid challenges and, ultimately, hope.

During a recent phone interview, DiCamillo said that, in her evolution as a writer, “I didn’t initially begin with children’s books. I kind of like backed into it and found out, wow, this is really where I’m supposed to be.”

Children’s stories tend to involve hopeful endings, and “I love that part of it,” she said.

Also, “there’s just more room for magic when you write for kids,” DiCamillo said. Her own books are set in both real-life and diverse realms of fantasy, and “you get to move in all of those different directions much more easily when you write for kids.”

Children also may be more willing to follow an author and a story into places an adult might find difficult to accept.

“I think that’s part of it,” she said.”I think kids are just in touch with some of that. By the time we grow up, we’ve kind of gotten rid of, maybe, for lack of a better word, that wonder.”

It was after college DiCamillo began to consider “the idea of being a writer,” she said.

“I had a professor who said I should go to grad school for writing. I was, ‘Well, I’ll just go off and be a writer.’ That lasted for 10 years with me not doing any writing and talking about being a writer.”

DiCamillo was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Florida and moved to Minnesota when she was 30. It was there that she experienced “what a friend of mine calls serendipity doodah.”

She got a job in a book warehouse and happened to be assigned to the third floor, as a picker, “which means I went around filling orders. That third floor was all books for kids, so as a reader, it’s just a matter of time before you start reading what you’re picking and I did and just kind of fell in love with the form.”

Reading Christopher Paul Curtis’ “The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963,” a historical fiction novel set in the early ’60s, was “the first time I thought, ‘OK, I want to do this,” DiCamillo said. “The book was so warm and funny and also deals with really big things, and I thought I wanted to try to do something like this.”

There are themes that run throughout DiCamillo’s work, although she might not be the best person to discern them.

“I know the themes because I have librarians and teachers who tell me, which is great because I never know what I’m doing,” she says with a laugh. “But hope, friendship, redemption, hope again. Also, forgiveness comes up a lot.”

DiCamillo loves it that her books are read not just by kids, but by adults who remember them fondly.

“You get those things where you have an adult standing in front of you and says, ‘I read this book when I was a kid and it mattered to me,’ which is thrilling,” she says. And, “I’ve had teachers say, ‘This was read to me when I was a child, and now I’m reading it to my class.’ So it stays alive in a way, and that’s wonderful.”

Children’s books, and the coming of age themes they often explore, can be particularly vivid to young readers because growing up is an experience everyone has. “And when it resonates, you connect,” she said.

“That is another thing, that a lot of these experiences happen to all of us, but at a certain age we don’t always have the language to articulate it. That’s what children’s books will give you. That’s why they become such a powerful memory for people, I think: Because they give language to those universal experiences.”

And even with advances in technology, DiCamillo is confident that kids’ love of books won’t disappear anytime soon.

“There are so many kids attached to and enthralled by books,” she said.

DiCamillo said that, while traveling the country as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2014-15 , “I’d go around to places I normally wouldn’t get to and I saw the same thing: Kids read and they’re holding books. Yes, they’re reading on electronic (devices), but a lot of them are still reading actual books, and they’re connected to them and they’re passionate about them.”

Nor does she find children today “jaded” by the world around them.

“And that might make me Pollyanna,” she said. “But the human heart hasn’t changed very much.”

Read more from John Przybys at Contact him at and follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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