Kate DiCamillo, the award-winning author of modern classics such as "Because of Winn-Dixie" and "The Tale of Despereaux," is the first to admit that all her books rumble with intensely personal themes: abandonment, friendship, courage and the power of books.
"I write about the things that occupy my heart," she says on the phone from her home in Minneapolis.
But "Raymie Nightingale," a 2016 National Book Award finalist that came out in paperback in April, is the closest she's come to writing about herself.
It's the story of Raymie, a 10-year-old girl in Florida. Raymie lives alone with her mother, longs for the father who abandoned them and signs up for baton-twirling so she can win a contest that will land her picture in the paper. If her father sees her picture in the paper, Raymie believes he'll realize how wrong he was to leave such a talented daughter and come home.
A sequel, "Louisiana's Way Home," comes out in October.
Describing Raymie, DiCamillo says, "I didn't realize when I started out with that book that I'm cutting close to the bone. It's in Central Florida in the '70s when I grew up. My father left. And so I just realized that even though I wasn't telling the truth, I was telling the truth."
DiCamillo, 54, has always been telling the truth in fiction that resonates with children and adults. Her characters learn that friendship makes them stronger. They find that if they dig deep, they have the courage to do greater things than they ever imagined. They discover that if you read books rather than eat them, a choice that sets Despereaux apart from his mouse family, you may go on to save the day.
From the time the 6-year-old DiCamillo and her mother moved to Clermont, Fla., without her father, who stayed behind in Philadelphia, her voracious reading and the friends she made and kept from kindergarten proved her salvation.
Her mother, she says, "never ever failed me as far as books went." Her mother read to her, and "it changed the course of my life."
DiCamillo remembers checking out a biography of George Washington Carver from the library so many times, her mother asked the librarian if they could buy it.
DiCamillo laughs. "The librarian said, 'Betty, it doesn't work that way.'"
She's surprised when asked whether she named Betty, the kind mother of Burke, Louisiana's friend in Louisiana's Way Home, for her mother, who died in 2009. She didn't consciously choose the name for that reason, but "I think on some level," she says, "it's a nod to all the comfort she gave me."
DiCamillo's memories swirl through her books and her conversation. They're her primordial soup, the fertile ground from which she and her characters have evolved to pursue their journeys. She remembers stamping her way down a long hallway in her home as a child. Her mother, at the other end, would say, "'Here comes someone who intends to get her own way.'
"She saw me as very determined," the author says. "It turned out to be the determination that made me keep sending those stories out."
Kids like to hear about all the rejections she received - 473 - before she stopped sending short stories to literary magazines and wrote Because of Winn-Dixie. That book was accepted on its first try and won a 2001 Newbery Honor.
DiCamillo is one of only six authors who have won two Newbery Medals, one of the most prestigious awards given to writers of children's literature. She won for "The Tale of Despereaux" in 2004 and for "Flora & Ulysses," the story of a girl who saves a squirrel, in 2014.
DiCamillo doesn't like to cook, but food, from the aromatic, stick-to-the-soul chicken, garlic and watercress soup in "The Tale of Despereaux" to the sweet smell of fresh-baked cakes in "Louisiana's Way Home," play a big role in her books. Good characters give you two sandwiches when you ask for one. Bad ones chew caramels that they never share.
That, too, goes back to her memories. Like DiCamillo, her mother wasn't that interested in cooking. When she yearned for that large family feeling, she went "to other people's houses and ate - I loved that safety of being around the table and being seen and loved," she says.
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