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Minn. writer DiCamillo talks books and reading aloud

Photo of the author.
Candlewick Press / Author's website
Kate DiCamillo, writer.

Kate DiCamillo urges us to go and read to somebody, in an interview with Grand Rapids children’s librarian Tracy Kampa.

Kate DiCamillo wants readers to know two things: that she’s proud to be a Minnesotan and that she’s “the luckiest person in the world to get to do this for a living.”

“This,” of course, is telling stories.

DiCamillo has written over 30 books for readers of all ages and is the recipient of several literary awards. She’s a rare two-time winner of the Newbery Medal for distinguished children’s literature for her books The Tale of Despereaux and Flora and Ulysses. Her newest books include The Puppets of Spelhorst and Mercy Watson is Missing!

In a recent What We’re Reading interview, DiCamillo talked with Grand Rapids Area Library children’s librarian Tracy Kampa about writing, the importance of reading aloud, and some of her new and forthcoming books.

On writing

As a published writer for over 20 years and with a huge readership, DiCamillo explained that when writing she tries to stay focused on the story, not necessarily the reader.

“I always feel like my job is to get out of my own way, which means not worrying about pleasing people and to try to push my ego out of the way, and let the story tell me where to go,” she said.

DiCamillo’s books are known for colorful and unforgettable character names such as Raymie Nightingale, Jack Dory, Miggery Sow, Louisiana Elefante, Baby Lincoln, Edward Tulane the rabbit, Ulysses the squirrel, Despereaux Tilling and many more. While DiCamillo admitted writing has always been a hard process, she said her characters’ distinctive names come quite easily to her.

“I started off knowing the name of Raymie (Nightingale) and then … who's standing here twirling a baton with her? It's like, boom — her name is Louisiana Elefante. Everything about writing is hard for me, except for the names. I don't know where they come from, but I've learned to write them down when they show up,” DiCamillo said.

"Big, powerful things happen with reading aloud."
Kate DiCamillo, writer.

On reading aloud

In a 2018 PBS NewsHour segment, DiCamillo compared reading aloud to “a safe room.” She explained further, “Everybody kind of lets their guard down and they enter the story together and it lets something miraculous happen. We get to connect in ways that we don't anticipate because we're in the story together.”

She credits teachers and librarians for keeping this practice going, including her own second grade teacher, who read aloud to the class every day.

“You can consider other lives, see your own in a way that, ‘Oh wow, that terrible thing is happening and to somebody else, too. I'm not alone,’” she said. “It's not as much shame filled, you know? Big, powerful things happen with reading aloud.”

And DiCamillo wants readers of all ages to engage with stories aloud.

“Go and read to somebody. If you're a kid, you can read to your parents as they're getting ready for work. If you're a parent, you can read to your kids at night. If you're 50 years old, you can go into the nursing home and read to a resident. Kids’ books are particularly good for that because a kids’ novel is easy to read and easy to digest for somebody who's in pain and feels alone,” she said.

Forthcoming books

Fans should be excited to hear that DiCamillo has two new books coming out this spring.

Ferris (March 2024) is the story of Emma Phineas Wilkie, whose nickname is Ferris, about the summer before she goes into fifth grade.

Orris and Timble: The Beginning (April 2024) is a picture book about a rat and an owl who become friends.

Learn more about Kate DiCamillo on her website.

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What We're Reading is made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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Tammy works at Bemidji State University's library, and she hosts "What We're Reading," a show about books and authors.