Kate DiCamillo has some things that few people possess: A completely noteworthy laugh. Two Newbery Awards. A world-class ability to write stories that connect with young readers. And that connection has a tendency to spread— DiCamillo’s stories are ones that readers often end up sharing with others.
But more about that laugh.
When DiCamillo laughs, the pitch, volume, and level of merriment all coalesce into the most satisfying burst of “Ha!” that you’re likely to hear. She’ll be taking her noteworthy exclamation, together with her skills as a superb author, with her as she embarks on a two-year stint as the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Both will serve her well.
Holy Bagumba! How perfect is it that you coined that exclamation in your book Flora & Ulysses (Candlewick, 2013) just months before this big news? What’s the story of you becoming Ambassador?
Jennifer Roberts [Candlewick’s executive director of marketing, publicity, and events] called me before Flora & Ulysses was published—I think it was early September—and said, basically, “Holy bagumba!” And I responded, “Holy bagumba!” It was weird because [although] I’m very intimidated by the whole idea, I knew that I wanted to do it. This is something that I believe in, passionately. So here I go.
So pretty quickly it sounds like you were sure.
Well, the first reaction was disbelief and that was followed by fear. Like I said, it’s such a big thing. And I don’t want to let anybody down. But this community, this children’s book community, has done everything for me. This is like my family.
And when I say community, I mean not only all the librarians and teachers and booksellers, but also all the kids. And so if I can do something through this role, for all the people that have done something for me, that would be great. So, it wasn’t really a question. I knew when I hung up with [Jennifer] that I was going to do it.
What will your duties be?
Well, as I understand it, Robin [Adelson, executive director of the Children’s Book Council] and her team will field proposals from people all over the country to host an event that I would then come to. My platform is “Stories Connect Us.” And so I’m hoping that there will be community reads—reading together in a variety of ways, whether it’s the whole town reading the same book or a whole school. Reading together can change how we see each other and how we see the world.
“Stories Connect Us.” Tell us more.
Those three words. That’s something I believe in. There’s some powerful thing that happens when we read together. When you’re reading something with somebody else, it helps you connect to those people. I think it’s something that really matters.
So how are you with gymnasiums full of excited kids? Because I foresee a lot of gymnasiums full of excited kids in your future.
[laughs] Well, that would be spectacular if that happened. I’m very comfortable in a gymnasium full of kids. And this is the other great thing—when you start out in kids’ books, you do a lot of school visits. Then, for me things got to the point where there wasn’t enough time to do everything, and I wasn’t getting into schools anymore. So now, hopefully, I’ll get back into schools because I love being with the kids.
What skills do you think will serve you well as Ambassador?
I think my biggest skill here is that because I’m so short, kids have some confusion about whether I’m an adult or a kid, and so it makes me very acceptable.
Yes, yes! Because they don’t know what I am. You know?
That, and I love talking with kids. I really love it. So that hopefully counts as a skill.
I think so. Are you friends with any of the past Ambassadors? Have they given you any advice?
I don’t know Walter [Dean Myers]. But Katherine [Paterson] is just…I love Katherine, and I consider her to be like my mom and I’d do whatever she tells me to do.
And Jon [Scieszka]—let’s not get started on Jon. Suffice to say, though, that he’s listed in my phone as “Mr. Ambassador,” and now I’ll get to change that.
That’s right! [laughs] I think I’ll change it to “Mr. ex-Ambassador.” I love Jon! And I love Katherine and I haven’t talked to either one of them about this because I was told to keep my mouth shut and that’s what I did.
So, authors lead fairly isolated lives…
…and the Ambassador job is certainly the opposite of that. I know that you travel quite a bit on author tours, but how do you see yourself adjusting?
Well, I’m the quintessential introvert. I really am. I can only recharge by being by myself. And it is very, very, very solitary being a writer. There’s no other way to do it except to be by yourself. But I just got off this big tour for Flora & Ulysses, and I had a spectacular time. And so I found that I really need and want to connect with people. So I’m looking forward to getting out there and going to places where I haven’t been before.
Are you able to write on the road?
I can’t do that. But you know, it should actually be something that ends up benefiting me, because I’ll get to connect with people.
What type of reader were you as a kid? As Ambassador, what effect would you hope to have on readers today?
That’s a big question. I think I’ll just step right around that one and go back to what kind of reader I was, and maybe somehow I’ll naturally answer the other question.
So I was the kind of kid who read everything. You know the type. If it was a book, then it was wonderful. I had favorite things that I came back to quite a bit. There was a biography—I can’t remember who wrote it—of George Washington Carver that I’d checked out from the public library so often that I remember my mother standing at the desk and asking the librarian, “Can’t we just buy this book?” And the librarian would respond: “Betty, you know it doesn’t work that way.”
So, I came back to that book again and again. I loved the “Little House on the Prairie” books. I loved Stuart Little.
I’m chagrined to admit this, but I never read Charlotte’s Web when I was kid. I had read Black Beauty and I was very jumpy from that point on about what was going to happen to an animal in a book. And so, I would look at Wilbur’s face every Saturday in the spin rack at the library and think: “I can’t do it.”
But that’s right up there at the top of the list now, as far as books that I love.
So what do I want—what would I hope for kids as readers? I would hope that they can find that books are a place to go to see the world and to see each other and to understand things and to get comfort and light and I would love it if they figured that out now. And then it sustains them for the rest of their life, as it has me.
Any advice for teachers or parents to create that environment, the same one that you were in, that made you a reader?
Well, I have a couple of things just based on how I was raised. Books were everywhere. And sometimes it’s not financially viable, but you can still get to the library. And then the other thing is my mother read for her own pleasure. And reading was never something that she said I had to do. I worry when people insist that kids have to do it. I would want it to be this great gift that you give yourself and not something that is a duty.
So, who has been your biggest influence in your reading life? Has it been your mother?
My mother. That actually made me tear up for a minute. It is my mother. She gave attention to what I was reading. I became obsessed with Abraham Lincoln when I was in second grade.
I’m obsessed with him now.
I cried all through the Lincoln movie.
That was a great movie.
Wasn’t it? In second grade, I was a good reader but I read everything at my level. There wasn’t anything else for me to read.
And my mom, in the days before the Internet, she found me an Abraham Lincoln biography at my reading level that I had not read. So yes: my mom.
And I’ve never said that before.
Scenario time. The phone rings at 8 a.m., it’s NPR, and they want a quote about the latest threat to reading; will you be ready?
[laughs] No! But I’ll try. I’ll try. I have to say, if NPR called about the latest threat to reading, I would actually be the voice of reason and say, “Let’s not panic.” Man, I’ve been out there. I’ve seen those [children’s] faces. I’ve seen them when I say, “How many of you all have read Charlotte’s Web?’’ and all their excited hands go up, at bookstores and in schools. Let’s not panic.
I am a big Bink and Gollie [Candlewick, 2010] fan. I think that Gollie would be right at home with this honor…
Yes, but instead, it’s Bink! [laughs]
So as the embodiment of Bink, how do you think she would react?
I think Bink would say exactly what I said when I talked to Jennifer [Roberts] the next day: “You think that I have to wear a dress?”
What is the answer to that?
…to the Library of Congress [for the announcement]. And I just got it. So, ready to go.
And then Bink would say, “They feed you when you’re Ambassador?” And the answer would be “yes,” and then Bink would say, “All righty then.”
Last question. Do you prefer a medal, a sash, a crown, or something else?
I prefer a book. That’s where I’m most comfortable. Holding a book.