In August 2018, Kate DiCamillo was in the office of her Minneapolis home, sorting through a decade's worth of old papers and manuscripts, when she happened upon a stunning discovery — the first 40 pages of a long-abandoned, long-forgotten novel.
She sat on the floor and read with growing excitement, while outside her windows the cicadas sang.
"I was like, what's this? And because I had been so long away from it, I was able to read it like it wasn't something I had done, and I could tell that it had legs," she said. "It was like, Oooh boy! This is something!"
Those 40 pages — begun in 2009, six months after the death of her mother, Betty — have grown into a full book of 256 pages, to be published later this month.
"The Beatryce Prophecy," DiCamillo's 10th novel for middle-grade readers, has earned starred reviews from trade journals Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, who call it, respectively, "compassionate" and a book with "an angelic soul."
The story of young Beatryce, a lost and terrified child who is found hiding in a haystack, guarded by a fierce goat named Answelica, is set in some other time, some other place.
War rages. Girls are not allowed to learn to read, but somehow Beatryce can both read and write. Monks keep a book of prophecies. One prophecy states that a girl will unseat the king, and when the book opens the king and his henchmen are on a mission to find and capture Beatryce.
As with many of DiCamillo's books, the novel is about a parentless child, benevolent adults, a difficult world, a beloved animal. It's about the power of friendship, love and story, and though it is dark at times, it glows with hope.
Dedicated to her own strong mother, it is also the most feminist story DiCamillo has told.
"That went whizzing right past me until I turned it in," she said. "It wasn't a conscious thing at all. But I can see it and I get behind it 100 percent."
With its resourceful protagonist — not to mention the fearless Answelica — the book carries the message that girls can be their own saviors.
She will launch the novel at Talking Volumes on Sept. 30, her first in-person appearance in nearly two years.
DiCamillo is sitting on a bench overlooking Lake Nokomis as she talks. On this August afternoon she is dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and jeans and she is drinking hot coffee. She has kicked her leather sandals off of her tanned, bare feet.
The walking path is behind her, but somehow she is aware of every person who passes. She notices a couple she had seen at the coffee shop — or their small dog, anyway. "Oh there goes that dog, go grab him," she whispers.
She notices two people jogging past. "They're running along and they don't know that some day they won't be able to run along," she says. "They're like, yeah, we'll be able to do this forever."
One wonderful parent
DiCamillo, who is 57, grew up with her mother and brother in Clermont, Fla., where they settled when she was 5, moving from Philadelphia for the warmer weather. Her father was supposed to join them, but he never did.
It is her mother, Betty Gouff DiCamillo, whom Kate credits with keeping the household rock-solid, filling her head with stories, teaching her to believe in herself, teaching her to read.
"I was always desperate to read," she said. "And I went off to first grade thinking, finally, it's going to happen the first day. And of course it didn't."
It didn't happen the second day, either, or the third. The teacher taught phonics, which made things worse; DiCamillo couldn't understand them.
"I just remember this chill running down my spine and I came home and collapsed in front of my mother, hysterical, like, I can't do it! I want to read! And I don't understand any of this!
"And my mother was like, 'For the love of Pete, calm down. We'll just work around it.' "
Her mother made flashcards, and every day after school she and Kate went through the pile until Kate had memorized them all.
"So that's why the book is for her," she said. "Because she said there are lots of different ways to do it — we'll find a different way."
Yes, DiCamillo grew up with just one parent. "That's all you need, is one wonderful one," she said.
Writing through the pandemic
The year 2020 was supposed to be a big one for DiCamillo.
The Minnesota Opera was to stage "Edward Tulane," based on her novel "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" and the Royal Shakespeare Company in London was to stage a musical version of "The Magician's Elephant."
COVID-19 put a stop to both, but the lockdown had an unexpected upside: It gave her time.
"For whatever reason, I was able to write," she said. "And it was really, really super grounding. It's been a productive time for me."
It also made her realize how much time she usually spent on the road. For years, she has spoken at conferences, schools, trade shows and colleges; her book tours were robust. She also served two years as the Library of Congress's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, an honorary position that took her all over the country.
"I was always on an airplane," she said.
But when everything stopped, she stopped too. "And it gave me that chance to stand back and think, Is this the way that I want to keep on going?"
For the first 100 days, "I wrote every morning." She wrote fairy tales. She wrote stories. She has, she said, "stuff lined up into, I don't know, 2025."
Eventually, she resumed her pre-lockdown schedule — working on something, putting it aside, taking four or five days off.
"That's usually when I would get on a plane," she said.
Instead, she got on Zoom. She set up a tripod and did weekly short lessons on how to write. She gave speeches via Zoom, she spoke to classrooms via Zoom. And while it was vastly different from in-person, she found it wasn't so bad.
"I still can feel that sense of connection," she said. "And it was amazing to me that that could still happen." On Zoom, "I can't see anyone at all, but I can feel everyone there."
This year is proving to be a slow, cautious reopening. The London musical is set to open Oct. 14 in front of a live audience, but the Minnesota Opera has not yet rescheduled "Edward Tulane." In the meantime, it will offer a preview, a virtual concert with choral highlights beginning Dec. 13.
"Maybe these start-and-stop things is how we will proceed from now on," she said.
She has plans to do virtual school talks once a week. Her book tour also will be mostly virtual. "I don't think there'll be much that's in person," she said.
Another time, another place
"The Beatryce Prophecy" was illustrated by Australian artist Sophie Blackall, a two-time winner of the Caldecott Medal who joined forces with DiCamillo, herself a two-time Newbery medalist.
"It's astonishing what Sophie has done here," DiCamillo said. "The depth and the wonder and the enchantment. I can't believe how much it has enriched this process."
In an email exchange with DiCamillo, "Sophie said, 'I feel like I'm drawing something I remember,' and that's how it was for me writing it."
The book has the feel of a Medieval illuminated manuscript, with full-page illustrations, elaborate borders and decorative dropped initials.
But that Medieval feeling might be misleading. The last page gives a clue: "All of this happened long ago," it says. "Or perhaps it has yet to happen. ... Who's to say?"
There are other clues: a telescope, which had not yet been invented in Medieval times. A book Beatryce recalls that was "uniformly printed."
On the park bench at Nokomis, DiCamillo repeats the question: "Who's to say? Perhaps things have ended and started over. It's not for me to say."
A few years ago, DiCamillo was in England. As she stood in the peace of the ancient Roman pools at Bath, "somebody flew a drone through," she said. That combination of ancient and modern "was the most disconcerting and also most oddly moving thing."
That feeling is echoed in "Beatryce" — the Medieval with a whiff of the modern.
Stories, DiCamillo notes, "are smarter than I am." Even her own.
"I really feel like it's the future. But I don't know," she said, staring out at the lake. "I wonder along with the reader."
Talking Volumes: 7 p.m. Sept. 30, Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul. $22.50-$32.50, mprevents.org
Twin Cities Book Festival: She and illustrator Blackall will talk about the book in an online chat with author Ann Patchett. 5:30 p.m. Oct. 14, twincitiesbookfestival.com
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. @StribBooks