The inner voice of Kate DiCamillo belongs to a 10-year-old girl from a small Florida town who learned to navigate the world through books she checked out at the local library.
“That connection to the 10-year-old kid, I’ve come to believe through the years, is more immediate for me than other people,” said DiCamillo, the best-selling author of “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “The Tale of Despereaux.” “Maybe that’s why I write for kids. That 10-year-old is front and center all the time for me.”
That innate ability to empathize with young readers makes DiCamillo a natural for her new role: On Jan. 2, she was named by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington the national ambassador for young people’s literature.
“Kate DiCamillo is not only one of our finest writers for young people but also an outstanding advocate for the importance of reading,” Billington said. “The Library of Congress is pleased to welcome Kate as a worthy successor to our three previous national ambassadors.”
The ambassadorship was established in 2008 by the Library’s Center for the Book, the Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader to raise awareness of the importance of literature to children’s literacy. The ambassador serves a two-year term, appearing at events around the country and encouraging young people to make reading a central part of their lives.The young Kate DiCamillo certainly did.
DiCamillo was raised in Clermont, a small town in central Florida, in a home filled with books. Kate’s mother read to her, bought her books and sent her for more to the tiny, wood-framed Cooper Memorial Public Library – a place that held unique importance in her life.
“It was this old house filled with books, and the librarians knew me and gave me special privileges: I could check out more than four books at a time,” DiCamillo said by phone from her Minneapolis home last week. “Being seen by those librarians as somebody who was special and who loved to read – that shaped me. It was also how I made sense of the world, through books.”
She read, she said, “without discretion”: Beverly Cleary, “Little House on the Prairie,” “The Twenty-One Balloons” and, over and over, a biography of George Washington Carver – anything she could get her hands on.
“I was just wide-ranging. Whatever it was, I would read it,” she said. “Loved, loved, loved books.”
At the University of Florida, a professor noticed her facility with words and urged her to consider graduate school. But she passed, deciding instead to become a writer – or, at least, pose as one.
“I just got a black turtleneck and started wearing that, because that’s what writers wore,” she said. “I started talking about how I was going to be a writer. And, no lie, that’s basically how I spent the next 10 years.”
She worked at Disney World, Circus World, a campground – but never wrote a thing.
“The whole time I’m saying, ‘I’m a writer, I’m a writer, I’m a writer,’ ” she said. “It wasn’t till I turned 30 that I figured out I was actually going to have to write something.”
DiCamillo began writing short stories, moved to Minneapolis and took a job in a book warehouse as a “picker,” pulling volumes off shelves to fill orders. She had never considered writing for children, but fate landed her on the warehouse’s third floor – filled entirely with children’s books. She read them and got inspired.
“I thought, I want to try to do this,” she said.
Through her work at the book distributor, DiCamillo connected with editors at Candlewick Press and eventually submitted a draft of a novel about a lonely girl who adopts a mischievous dog she encounters in a grocery store. The finished novel, “Because of Winn-Dixie,” was published in 2000 and earned a Newbery Honor as one of the year’s best children’s books. Her follow-up, “The Tiger Rising,” was named a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. In 2003, “The Tale of Despereaux” won the Newbery Medal as the year’s best American book for children.
She since has produced three more novels, two picture books and two series of chapter books, and both “Winn-Dixie” and “Despereaux” were made into feature-length films – a wave of success that still leaves DiCamillo wondering what happened.
“I’m sitting here with my mouth hanging open,” said DiCamillo, who began writing with modest expectations: She hoped just to earn enough to go part-time in her other job.
That’s why, in part, she wants to serve as ambassador.
“There is a part of me that still can’t believe I got published,” she said. “So much has been given to me by this community. I want to try to give back.”
DiCamillo chose as her platform “Stories Connect Us” – the act of reading brings people together and the power of literature helps people better understand each other.
“It’s more than reading together, but partly that: Teachers to students, grandparents to grandchildren, parents to their kids, kids to their parents, communities reading together,” she said. “That is a way to connect.
“And when you’re sitting alone in your room [reading], you’re connecting with other people by imagining other lives.”
The 10-year-old DiCamillo connected to the world that way. Ambassador DiCamillo hopes to help others do the same.
“I feel really lucky to get to do this,” she said, “to tell stories for a living, and to be the ambassador and to go out and talk about the power of stories.”
More information about the national ambassador for young people’s literature is available at read.gov/cfb/ambassador/.