When she was a very little girl, sick in bed with measles, Kate DiCamillo looked out the window and saw a strange sight. Her father was walking through the orange grove toward the house. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He lived in Pennsylvania.
“Sometimes he showed up when we didn’t expect him to,” DiCamillo said in a recent interview. “Sometimes he didn’t show up when we did expect him. His timing often was off.”
Kate, her brother and her mother had moved to Florida when Kate was 5 in hopes that the warm climate would improve her frail health. Her father promised to sell his orthodontist practice in Philadelphia and join them, but he never did. DiCamillo sees a silver lining in this abandonment: “I’ve always written about missing parents,” she said. “This is part of why I became a writer.”
The theme of absent parents runs through much of her work and is at the heart of her new novel for children, “Raymie Nightingale” (on sale April 12).
Originally, the book was meant to be comical. Raymie Clarke is a 10-year-old girl who decides to take baton-twirling lessons so she can compete in the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition. “That seemed funny,” DiCamillo said. “A young, inept child — i.e., me — tries to learn to twirl a baton. I thought it was going to be purely funny.”
But then she started asking herself questions, as she always does when she works on a book. Why did Raymie want to twirl the baton? So she could enter the competition. Why did she want to enter the competition? To win it. And why did she want to win it? To impress her absent father. He would see her picture in the paper, and he would come home.
DiCamillo, who is 52 and lives in Minneapolis, is one of only six writers to twice win the Newbery Medal, which has been children’s literature’s highest honor for more than 90 years.
She has spent the past two years crisscrossing the United States, speaking at schools and libraries as the Library of Congress’ national ambassador for young people’s literature. (Her appointment ended in January, and the current ambassador is Gene Luen Yang.)
The experience was, in some ways, transcendent. Her message to children was about the power of stories to connect people — “but the very thing I go out and tell people, I’m getting back from them,” she said. “The message I set out to deliver is delivered back to me.”
There was another unforeseen result of the ambassadorship: this new book.
While DiCamillo has long spoken to children, this time her publicist suggested that she might prepare a PowerPoint presentation.
“So I did that, and I talked about myself and my childhood, and one of the pictures I included was one of me and my mother and my brother together in Florida.” At each talk, the photo is beamed onto a big screen, “And I say to the kids, ‘Who’s missing?’ ”
“Raymie Nightingale” has its roots in DiCamillo’s childhood, although it is not strictly autobiographical. She calls it “the absolutely true story of my heart.”
Like Raymie, DiCamillo took baton-twirling lessons and competed in a pageant. Like Raymie, she was 10 years old in 1975. Like Raymie, as a child she visited a nursing home where residents screamed but the staff remained stoically cheerful. And like Raymie, her town had an animal shelter like the one in the book, a horrific place out of nightmares.
“It’s where you realize the adults aren’t doing a super-great job of things, and you have to pretend,” she said.
“It’s such a potent thing, to be a kid. We grow up and we don’t want to remember how everything is so beautiful and terrifying when we’re young. The older you get, the more you hope to muffle things. To be an adult, all that gets buried under what you have to do. But for me, all that wonder and magic and terror is all right on the surface. It’s like a direct conduit to that feeling of being a kid.”
The evolution of a story
“I had Raymie from the minute I started writing,” DiCamillo said. “I knew her name. I also knew there was a girl to the left of her, and a girl to the right of her. But who were they? I didn’t know.”
They were, it turns out, Beverly Tapinski and Louisiana Elefante. (DiCamillo has a wonderful gift for names.) Beverly and Louisiana come from families even more fractured than Raymie’s. Beverly’s father has left the family and gone to New York. Her mother, a former baton-twirling beauty queen, hits her.
And Louisiana — tiny, dramatic, enthusiastic Louisiana — has no parents, just a zany grandmother. They live together in a falling-down house with no furniture, no money. They survive on stolen cans of tuna fish.
The three girls, damaged in different ways, cope in very different ways. Louisiana, whose health is frail (she is prone to fainting when she gets excited, and suffers from “swampy lungs”), is the eternal optimist, never-say-die. She binds the girls together. “We’re the Three Rancheros!” she says.
Beverly is brave and tough. “Fear is a big waste of time,” she says. “I’m not afraid of anything.”
And Raymie — “Raymie is very, very much like me,” DiCamillo said. “A haunted child.”
The thought of her father being gone “made a small, sharp pain shoot through Raymie’s heart every time she considered it,” DiCamillo writes. “Sometimes the pain in her heart made her feel too terrified to go on. Sometimes it made her want to drop to her knees.”
Ebullient, frail Louisiana has some DiCamillo in her, too. But Beverly? “Beverly is who I wish I could be.”
Although the skeleton of the book is dark — these abandoned children with their tough, tough lives — the story is hilarious, poignant and warm, a rich celebration of friendship and adventure. The girls may have absent fathers, they may have unhappy mothers, but there is a wonderful oddball array of adults who step in and care for them — Mr. Staphopoulos, the swimming teacher; Mrs. Sylvester, the bird-voiced receptionist at Raymie’s father’s office, and Raymie’s neighbor, Mrs. Borkowski, who might or might not be as crazy as a loon.
“They give Raymie a lot of what she needs,” DeCamillo said. “They saw her, and they gave her what she needed.”
The lesson of dogs
DiCamillo is telling all of this from a window table at a Minneapolis coffee shop. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, warm for mid-March, and walkers are out in full force. Every now and then, she is distracted by a passing dog.
Her own dog, Henry — a 15-year-old cairn terrier/poodle mix, a perfect dog, she says — died in late December, and so for now she must get her dog fix elsewhere, anywhere: cellphone photos of a reporter’s dogs. The excitable dog in her neighborhood that leaps straight up in the air when she walks past its fence. A parade of dogs along a busy Minneapolis street on this brilliant afternoon.
“GIVE. ME. THAT. DOG,” she says suddenly, interrupting herself and staring fiercely through the window at a small, short-legged dog — possibly a terrier-corgi mix — trotting by on the other side of the street. “GIVE HIM TO ME.” The dog and its minder trot on, oblivious. DiCamillo turns her head and watches them go.
Animals are important characters in all of DiCamillo’s books. Her first book, after all, was about a girl and a scruffy dog named Winn-Dixie. Edward Tulane was a rabbit. Despereaux (hero of her first Newbery-award winning book) was a mouse, and Ulysses (co-hero of her second Newbery-award winning book) was a squirrel.
In “Raymie Nightingale,” the important animal is a cat named Archie (dogs everywhere roll their eyes), although there is also a significant bird.
DiCamillo is about to head off on a 20-city book tour, almost unheard of for a children’s author — or any author.
“I am an introvert, and I am gearing up for that whole thing,” she said. “Just thinking about Henry, it was a great run with him, but I was thinking people will ask me about dogs and I’ll have to not cry. What I need to do is get through this tour and then I can get another dog.”
Losing Henry, “it breaks your heart — it is the lesson of life just made so explicit,” she said. “Because your heart goes, ‘I will never do that again.’ But then you think, what’s the point of being here if you don’t?”