Kate DiCamillo must be taking lessons from the Energizer Bunny. On top of roving about the country this past year as the Library of Congress’ 2014–2015 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and launching a chapter book series this fall called Deckawoo Drive, DiCamillo has finished writing a new novel, her seventh one to be published by Candlewick, announced exclusively here.
The as-yet-untitled novel, for readers ages 10+, will be published in spring 2016, and, Candlewick representatives informed PW last week, it will be her “next major fiction release” after Flora & Ulysses, which won the 2014 Newbery Medal, as well as a slew of other prizes, including, most recently, the 2014 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for Young Adult Fiction from the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association.
PW caught up with DiCamillo in Minneapolis on September 30, just a few hours before she was to receive the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, as well as the Voice of the Heartland Award, given to a “company or individual who has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to bookselling in the Midwest and whose work elevates the presence of independent bookstores.” It is the first time that both MIBA and GLIBA booksellers unanimously named the same person as recipient of this award. Cutting short an author tour of South Dakota, DiCamillo had returned two days earlier to Minneapolis, where she lives, to accept the award at the third annual Heartland Fall Forum joint trade show of MIBA and GLIBA booksellers.
“It’s deeply moving to me. Minnesota is where I became a writer,” she told PW, recalling the days before she became a published author, when she worked as a book picker at The Bookmen, a now-defunct distribution company that had been headquartered just a few blocks north of the Heartland show venue. Recalling how in fall 1995 she made her first visit to what was then known as the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association’s trade show, she said that she’d thought she’d “died and gone to heaven. My eyes were the size of saucers. There were all these big names there” – never considering at the time that in the not-so-far-off future, she herself would be “one of those big names,” after her debut novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, won a 2001 Newbery Honor and The Tale of Despereaux won the 2004 Newbery Medal.
After all, DiCamillo pointed out, it’s not just because she is an author that she knows the booksellers assembled at the Minneapolis Depot for their annual regional trade show. She knows this group of booksellers on another level as well.
“These are my bookstores too,” she said, “They’re where I go as a reader. I know these people from shopping in their stores. I’ll know two-thirds of the crowd from living here and from working at The Bookmen.”
An ‘Emotionally True” Story
With Candlewick’s Jennifer Roberts sitting next to her, DiCamillo remained tight-lipped when pressed to provide some details on her newest novel, which she’d started writing “a while” before being named ambassador in early January, and then winning the Newbery at the end of the same month. She would say only that it’s about the friendship between three 10-year-old girls, and a tumultuous Florida summer that dramatically changes their lives.
“Every place I touched it, it opened another story underneath. It took me so long to figure out how to narrow it down to a manageable length,” she explained, saying she wouldn’t say more about the story until she “gets through all the rewrites” as the novel moves through the editorial process.
DiCamillo hedged just a bit when asked if her latest novel was based on any incidents from her childhood. “Whenever anyone asks if a book is based on a true story, I always say about [it], that it is emotionally true. That is particularly true with this one,” she said, disclosing that while she has a tentative title in her head, there is no working title yet. “That’s part of the next rewrite,” she said, joking (or maybe not) that her Candlewick editor, Andrea Tompa, sent her nine single-spaced pages of suggestions for revisions after she’d submitted the manuscript.
Even as PW tried to elicit details about her new novel, it’s obvious that DiCamillo is a pro at deflecting even the most persistent questions, a skill acquired from 15 years of handling similar queries from her young fans. She related a typical exchange: “ ‘What are you working on?’ ‘I’ll say, ‘I’m working on a novel.’ ‘What’s it about?’ ‘I will not tell you.’ ‘What’s the title?’ ‘I will not tell you.’ ” With a huge laugh, DiCamillo admits to being superstitious and having been just as reluctant about discussing her writing so early in the process with the two picture books, 10 chapter books, and six novels previously published by Candlewick.
Ten months into her two-year ambassadorship, DiCamillo said that it’s been “wonderful to be ambassador,” although, in the beginning of the year, the notion of “stepping into that role was very stressful for her, as she feared “messing up” in a position previously filled by Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson, and Walter Dean Myers. But, she emphasized during her 45-minute conversation with PW, continuing to work on her novel both “comforts” her and keeps her “grounded,” as she travels the country, promoting her platform, “Stories Connect Us,” before huge crowds, including 150,000 at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. and, more recently, 900 at each of two back-to-back sessions last week in a Sioux Falls theatre. Earlier this year the South Dakota Humanities Council named The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006) as the debut selection in its debut Young Readers One Program statewide reading program, which included in the spring the distribution of more than 2,000 special-edition copies of Edward Tulane to third graders in the Sioux Falls and Brookings school districts.
Reflecting upon how she still managed to complete a novel with so many ambassadorial demands on her time, DiCamillo noted, “It made me remember who I am and what I want to do – write a story.” Describing winning the Newbery on the heels of being named ambassador was an “almost surreal” experience, she said, but making her own coffee each morning before sitting down to write when at home in Minneapolis balances out being treated as a celebrity when traveling.
While DiCamillo emphasized that what she wants to do in life is simply write the stories inside her, her experiences this past year have made her even more of an advocate for storytelling as a means of making social connections and strengthening bonds with others. “Community reading programs are where it’s at,” she said, pointing out that not only did third-graders throughout South Dakota read Edward Tulane, but so did their teachers and librarians, as well as their parents. “Everybody then has a common language in which to talk about things,” she said, explaining that, often, after she’s spoken with children during the day during her school visits and other programs, if there’s an evening event as well, children will bring their parents to it, thus further strengthening that family bond with a shared experience.
“That’s fantastic,” she said, “the kids leading their parents to the book.”