July 6 2016 11:48 AM

Kate DiCamillo talks success, libraries and her lifelong love of books

Photo by Catherine Smith Photography
Kate DiCamillo’s first visit to the library in her hometown of Clermont, Fla., left a lifelong impression on her.

“The visit with my mother to the library is so vivid in my life,” she said. “I remember these Beatrix Potter books. I was looking at them, but I was not able to read them yet. I was sitting at this tiny table looking at these tiny books. They were perfect for me.”

Books became a fascination. DiCamillo would go on to be a picker at a book warehouse and a clerk at a used bookstore before becoming a successful writer of young adult books. She credits her mother with fostering her love of books.

“My mother was a big reader. But more than that, she was a reading facilitator,” DiCamillo said. “She read to me. She bought me books. She took me to the library.”

DiCamillo is now playing the role of reading facilitator, but on a much larger scale. She is serving this summer as 2016 National Summer Reading Champion for the Collaborative Summer Library Program, a national initiative that helps public libraries offer high-quality reading experiences. DiCamillo will participate in a national media campaign, attend events across the nation and help develop and promote the group’s summer reading program. The author comes to the Wharton Center’s Pasant Hall Saturday as part of her national tour to promote reading.

“It’s more of a reminder about how important reading is and how the library has an open door,” she said.

DiCamillo’s impressive portfolio includes two Newbery Awards for “The Tale of Despereaux” and “Flora and Ulysses.” She also was named a Newbery honoree for “Because of Winn-Dixie,” which was made into a film in 2005. “The Tale of Despereaux” was made into an animated movie in 2008. DiCamillo, 52, started writing so late at the age of 30. She is often asked why she started so late in life.

“For a while, I felt like I wasted those years, but now I don’t regret those ‘wasted years,’” she said. “I was learning along the way.”

DiCamillo’s decision to write for the young adult market came from what she playfully calls “serendipity doo-dah.”

While working as a book picker, she came across “The Watsons Go to Birmingham.” Flint writer Christopher Paul Curtis wrote the book while working on the line at a GM plant.

“It was funny, accessible and deeply satisfying,” DiCamillo said. “After reading the book, I typed a chapter of it to see how many pages a typed manuscript would be.”

Working in the warehouse gave DiCamillo a realistic expectation about writing. She figured a print run of 5,000 would be a success. “Because of Winn-Dixie” quickly sold 500,000 copies and has sold over 7 million copies to date. DiCamillo has another Warehouse story she likes to tell about the time she saw pallets filled with boxes and boxes of the same book. She was amazed.

“It was ‘Harry Potter,’ and that book changed so much,” she said. “It made children’s books unabashedly popular.”

After the publication of “Because of Winn-Dixie,” DiCamillo left Florida and went to work at a used bookstore in Minneapolis.

“I hoped to ride the wave and to see where it would take me,” DiCamillo said. “I eventually had to let the job go.”

In the 22 years she has been writing, DiCamillo has seen young adult books get a darker, adding that “it reflects the world kids are living in.” She usually avoids autobiographical material in her novels, but her latest book, “Raymie Nightingale” is semi-autobiographical.

“I didn’t realize it when I was writing — I’m so clueless,” she said. “I write behind my back.”

The book took her back to the small town where she grew up and confronted the abandonment of her family by her father. She also includes a plotline where the protagonist enters the Little Miss Central beauty contest, convinced it will convince her father to come home. The episode is based on real events from her childhood.

Recently, DiCamillo was at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Orlando when folks from her nearby hometown invited her to visit.

“There was very little publicity, but there were 500 people there,” she said. “It was very emotional, and I cried through most of it. I realized then that I had needed to leave in order to reinvent myself.”

Kate DiCamillo

Author talk and book signing 4 p.m. Saturday, July 9 FREE (Registration required; call or visit the website to register) Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 367-6312, cadl.org/events