Kate DiCamillo – the author, her art and a chance to see her in Mesa

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Acclaimed middle grade author Kate DiCamillo will talk about her newest book, “Raymie Nightingale” at 4pm Sunday, April 24, at Dobson High School in Mesa. The ticketed event is hosted by Changing Hands Bookstore.

DiCamillo’s six earlier middle grade novels have won numerous accolades and major awards, including Newbery Medal winners “The Tale of Despereaux” and “Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures” and Newbery Honor Book “Because of Winn-Dixie.” “The Tiger Rising” is a National Book Award finalist. Writer Debra Citron interviewed DiCamillo by phone.

Kate DiCamillo, Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Arizona, author event
Kate DiCamillo. Photo: Candlewick Press.

Kate DiCamillo: The artist and her art

There is a lovely, small, picture storybook entitled “Goldie the Dollmaker,” created by author-artist M.B. Goffstein and published in 1969. It tells the simple story of a young woman who earns her living by making dolls.

Goldie selects the wood, carves the dolls, and then paints on their underclothes, faces and hair. She works hard, and each doll is a labor of love. Before she is done, she looks deep into the eyes of each doll and smiles. A whole lifetime of knowing, caring, and hoping goes into that smile and she paints its reflection on the doll. It is irresistible. Her little creations are sought after and beloved by the children lucky enough to own them.

She is a true artist; humble, perceptive, fiercely dedicated to her craft, and devoted to artistic truth and beauty, even when dearly bought. The book is a tiny, perfect evocation of the costs and the joy of making and loving art.

I hadn’t read it in a long time, but I thought about it often as I prepared for an interview with Kate DiCamillo. I had the feeling that Goldie and Kate would understand each other, and that they would be friends.

Kate DiCamillo is warm, direct, and gracious; she is funny and honest–someone who watches, but doesn’t own a TV; loves music, hates to cook, kills at Scrabble, can’t tell a joke, but laughs a lot. We talk about books, “Downton Abbey” and dogs. In our conversation, we tell each other tiny bits and pieces of our lives. We connect.

Those bits, those stories—like music and art–connect our hearts and minds with those of others, even across time and space. They are the things that can make us fully human, if we listen.

Connection is DiCamillo’s life’s work, a daily striving to communicate the “profound joy that can be found in stories” and to create for her readers, “that electric feeling that says, ‘someone is like me.’”

She describes herself, modestly, as a storyteller. I think she is an artist, like Goldie, as well. And when art and story meet, magic happens. Her middle grade novels remind me of the beautiful keyhole Easter eggs that delighted me as a child, filled with enchanted scenes that I could imagine myself a part of.

Like the eggs, her books draw readers into self-contained worlds–a castle, a small town, a few city blocks, and even smaller, scattered way stations–but they are not static, prettified tableaux. They are not sugarcoated.

They are imaginary, but true worlds; homes to people, animals and toys who have experienced the same hardships as real children—mothers who drink, people who lie, fathers who leave, parents who die; bullies, betrayal, poverty, and loneliness. The stories begin with loss and longing and travel paths of discovery and hope.

DiCamillo believes that through books, kids can learn empathy. She leaves just the right amount of space between her words for them to slip in, find themselves in another, feel deeply, and let their hearts grow larger.

She also believes that kids can handle the truth: Life is difficult, there is no reward without risk, and living fully means experiencing joy and sorrow and engaging with the world.

With her memorably lovable (and hate-able) characters, inspired plots, and musical, expressive language, she reassures her readers that friends, young and old, will help them bear their pain, and she shows them how to find those friends—by listening, caring, reaching out, taking a chance; by trying, again and again, to connect and grow strong by sharing stories with others.

Raymie Nightingale, Kate DiCamilla, new bookThe new book

“Raymie Nightingale” is a beautiful example of DiCamillo’s art. She returns to her central Florida roots and tells her most nuanced, emotionally revealing story yet.

“Raymie” is not “Because of Winn-Dixie.” Yes, there is a girl and a dog (he comes later), but there are two other girls and the ghost (?) of a cat, as well. If “Winn-Dixie” were a song, it would be “Simple Gifts”—lyrical, unadorned, full of comfort, hope and innocence. “Raymie” would be “Amazing Grace”—greater heights and depths, richer, sometimes plaintive, always aware that grace is a gift.

Three girls meet in a baton-twirling class. Each is dealing with abandonment issues; each is in denial about her situation. The story of their developing friendship is told from Raymie Clarke’s point of view. She is introspective by nature–an observer and a follower, seemingly. She is wounded by her father’s recent desertion, and her mother’s shocked withdrawal, and she decides to win a beauty pageant to get her father back.

Her conflicted emotions and sense of responsibility cause her to worry constantly about the state of her soul, and produce alternating bouts of hope and despair as frequent as the in and out of her breath.

She tries to straighten out her zigzag feelings by pondering the sometimes-mystifying aphorisms of her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Borkowski, and the inexplicable (to Raymie) confidence placed in her by her junior lifesaving instructor and her school librarian, who has, also inexplicably, given her a biography of Florence Nightingale to read over the summer.

Beverly Tapinski’s father left, too. Her tired, furious mother hits her. She is unsurprisingly angry, loud and aggressive and claims not to be afraid of anything, including running away to Dad in New York.

Louisiana Elefante is an endearing drama queen with weak lungs and a voice like an angel. She is by turns fierce, sweet, startlingly perceptive, and willfully naïve. Her parents are dead and she is cared for by her mad-as-a-hatter, sly-as-a-fox Granny. They are desperately, achingly poor.

Each girl is completely believable. I suspect each has a cherished piece of the author’s childhood self within. Their budding friendship is very real—beginning haphazardly, fed by boredom, curiosity, and mutual benefit; growing rapidly, as they share their stories and begin to trust and care for each other.

The ‘Three Rancheros’ are born as they embark on a series of misadventures involving a lost library book, a relentless pursuer with bad intentions, a mostly accidental burglary, a funeral, and a totally intentional animal rescue. Disaster constantly threatens, but their friendship lets them weather the turmoil, and the strengthening of the girls’ bond gradually enables them to let go of false hopes, reach out to help and be helped by others, and literally, save lives.

“Raymie Nightingale” is a wonderful book. Prepare to feel deeply–to hurt, to heal and to hope right along with the Rancheros.

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If  you go: 4 p.m. Sunday, April 24 at Dobson High School, 1501 W. Guadalupe Rd., Mesa. Admission is by ticket only. Seating is general admission; doors open at 3:30 p.m. $20 to $25 (includes a copy of “Raymie Nightingale”). changinghands.com.

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