Kate DiCamillo, the author of more than a dozen books including the Newbery Medal-winning The Tale of Despereaux, will be named the country’s fourth national ambassador for young people’s literature at a ceremony at the Library of Congress on January 10. DiCamillo follows Walter Dean Myers, whose two-year term ended in December.
“Anybody who knows me knows I am a handwringer and a worrier, and this is big and intimidating to me,” DiCamillo said. “But this community has taken me in and reading is something I believe in so passionately. Being offered this felt like such a huge gift, I couldn’t say no.”
In the role, DiCamillo plans to promote the idea of community reading with her platform, “Stories Connect Us.” She was inspired, in part, by an article in the New York Times last fall that reported the conclusions of a study which found that people who read literary fiction performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.
“I want people to read together and I want to show people that stories can help us see each other,” DiCamillo said. “I’m interested in ‘community reads’ that pull together disparate people in a town or a school or a hospital or an orphanage, where everybody reads the same book and talks about it.”
DiCamillo will be the fourth person to serve as ambassador. Jon Scieszka was the first, appointed in 2008 by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress.
Though Scieszka and DiCamillo are good friends, he refused to say whether he influenced her appointment. “I cannot reveal the role I may, or may not have played in the selection of the newest Ambassador because our sworn enemies Braniac, The Joker, and Circe might use this information against us. Oh, wait. Or is that the Justice League of America?” Scieszka e-mailed in response to a query about his involvement. “In any case, I am absolutely thrilled to be adding Kate's impressive superpowers to our team in the fight for all that is good and true in Young People’s Literature.”
The idea for the post, which originated with the Children’s Book Council, was developed in conjunction with the Center for the Book, an arm of the Library of Congress that promotes literacy, as a way of reaching out to younger readers. It is funded, in part, by the CBC’s charitable arm, Every Child a Reader. (The ambassador receives a $15,000 a year stipend to cover expenses.)
A committee whose members included the CBC’s Robin Adelson, John Cole of the Center for the Book, two librarians, a bookseller, a reviewer, and Myers, the current ambassador, met last summer to brainstorm potential successors. Adelson gave committee members the selection criteria and asked them to each bring a list of people they could “go to bat for.” DiCamillo quickly emerged as the consensus frontrunner, she said. “It took the committee less than two hours to make a decision.”
Billington, the Librarian of Congress, makes the formal appointment but Adelson says he was “delighted with the suggestion of Kate and quickly agreed. Kate is just a phenomenal choice. It’s an honor to give her this kind of platform to spread her message.”
DiCamillo will be the second woman to hold the post. Scieszka was succeeded by Katherine Paterson in 2010 before Myers took over in 2012. As Scieszka noted, the four writers produce very different kinds of work. “It's the absolute personification of our mission to reach as many different kinds of readers in as many different kind of ways as possible,” Scieszka said. “And it’s a very funny bunch. Our meetings in our Fortress of Solitude are going to get crazy.”
Like the others, DiCamillo’s appointment is for a two-year term. She will be the first ambassador who resides somewhere other than the northeastern U.S. A native of Philadelphia who grew up in central Florida, DiCamillo has called Minnesota home since 1994.
The official ceremony will be held at the Library of Congress on January 10. Thus far, DiCamillo has identified only one drawback to her new position. Pixie-sized and down-to-earth, she has a well-known aversion to high heels and nylons. It is a measure of how seriously she is taking her new role that she concedes she will probably have to buy a dress.
“Almost the first thing I thought of when I said ‘yes’ was, ‘I probably can’t wear jeans to this,’ ” she said.