The Chat Room Discussion
One of the great things about the World Wide Web is the opportunity it provides to meet and visit with people you might never ordinarily have a chance to know. Our About Children's Books community had such an opportunity when Kate DiCamillo visited our chat room. At that time, Kate was the author of two novels for children: Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising, which were published in 2000 and 2001 respectively by Candlewick Press. Prior to the chat, I visited with Kate by phone, and we had a practice chat session so she could get used to chat procedures. We decided to have an informal chat, and Kate indicated she'd be happy to talk about both the process of writing and her books. Much of what follows came from our chat.
The Writing Process
Kate has a degree in English from the University of Florida in Gainesville. At that time, she had been writing daily for the past seven years. Thanks to a competitive grant from the McKnight Foundation, Kate received some financial support while writing her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie. The most frequently asked question at our chat was, "How long does it take you to write a book?" Kate said it took about a year. "I write every morning, or try to, no matter where I am or what I am doing. I give myself a page limit. Two pages. That's all I ask of myself." Kate went on to say that she also did a lot of rewriting.
Being a part of a writing critique group has been very helpful to Kate. She had been meeting with the same group of writers for about five years. They meet every other week to read their work aloud to one another and discuss it. The group provides "support and community."
One of the things we were particularly interested in was how Kate got her ideas for stories. We were intrigued by her response to the question, "Your characters are very real to you. Do they come to you already formed or do you shape them?" Kate said that they shaped her by "telling me their stories." She stated, "It's always a challenge to get myself out of the way so that the story can be told."
Kate mentioned that twelve-year-old Rob Horton, the main character in The Tiger Rising, first appeared in a short story she wrote. "Rob just kind of haunted me and it took me awhile to figure out the story he wanted me to tell." Although both of her novels share the theme of the loss of a parent, Kate said that as she was writing, it was "a theme I was not even aware of."
As Kate DiCamillo told us, having her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie, designated a 2001 Newbery Honor book was "an incredible honor." When you have won such a prestigious honor, what's left? According to Kate, "I just want to tell more stories." In 2003, The Tale of Despereaux was published and in 2004, she was honored with the Newbery Medal for the book. A quirky fairy tale, it is quite different from her previous work, although the excellent writing and several familiar themes are still present. The inspiration for this story came, according to the author, from her best friend’s son, who asked for a story about "an unlikely hero. He has exceptionally large ears." The hero certainly is unlikely; he's a mouse who loves music.
After writing three novels for older children, Kate DiCamillo introduced a new, and funny, early chapter book series for younger readers. The Mercy Watson series features a pig with a yen for buttered toast. In addition, she has written several picture books, including Great Joy and Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken. Her latest children's novel, published in October, 2009, is The Magician's Elephant, which I highly recommend. If you and your children have not yet read any of Kate DiCamillo's books, I encourage you to do so. I particularly like The Tale of Despereaux as a read aloud that you and your children can enjoy together.