June 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Kate DiCamillo on Truth, Twirling, and “Raymie Nightingale” | Interview

raymieWhen Raymie Clarke’s father abandons her mother for another woman, he leaves without saying goodbye to his daughter. Hoping to attract his attention, the girl takes up baton lessons in an attempt to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition (and get featured in the local newspaper). While the lessons go south almost immediately, Raymie befriends two similarly vulnerable, lonely kids who are confronting their own family issues. Through their friendship, the three help one another and begin to make sense of a world that’s revealing itself in new and bewildering ways. In Raymie Nightingale (Candlewick, Apr., 2016; Gr 4-7) Kate DiCamillo revisits the Florida of her childhood, including twirling lessons. Honest, affecting, and peopled with characters that readers won’t soon forget, Raymie Nightingale is a book for every child.

You so perfectly capture that in-between age in your books, when kids are leaving childhood, looking for answers about all the things they don’t understand but want to, and hoping “that some truth” would be revealed. Is that a time in your life that you have a strong emotional connection to?

There is some part of me that just remembers that time so clearly, so passionately. And in a way, even though I am “grown up” now, I still feel the tug of leaving childhood. And I still have that hope that some truth will be revealed. That’s part of why I write, I think—looking for that truth.

From the moment we meet your characters, they make an indelible impression. Do they appear to you fully fleshed out, or do their personalities and quirks emerge in drafts? 

The names of the characters show up first. But then I discover the person behind the name as I write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And then, too, characters appear and surprise me all the time. I thought Raymie’s story was going to be mostly about Raymie, and when I sat down to do the first draft, Louisiana and Beverly showed up almost immediately, and entirely unexpectedly. I got to know them at the same time that Raymie got to know them.

Tell us a little about Raymie Clarke and the significance of Florence Nightingale.

Well, Raymie is a lot like the kid I was: shy, afraid, forever watching, forever hoping. As for the significance of Florence Nightingale…when I was growing up, there was a series of books about well-known people in history. And I would read those books and get this nagging kind of feeling that I wasn’t measuring up, that I wasn’t capable of doing good or wonderful things. Raymie becomes preoccupied with that copy of the life of Florence Nightingale, and she also discovers something about herself, about who Raymie Clarke is, and what she is capable of.

There’s lots of longing in Raymie Nightingale…for parents, pets, home, emotional connections. Are wishes for those the “dangerous things” that Raymie believes?

Ah, wow. What a fabulous question. Yes, I suppose so. But also this: I think she discovers that it is just as dangerous not to wish for those things, not to work for them.

Words are so important to your protagonist, whose interior life readers are privy to. And while some of the adults who are important to Raymie can offer only platitudes or clichés, those phrases seem to reassure her at times, or encourage her to take action.

Let’s see: “Be a problem solver, not a problem causer.” “Clarke Family Insurance, how may we protect you?” “Flex your toes and isolate your objectives.” “Phhhht.”

Those are some of the platitudes that go through her head. And they do reassure her. But it’s just as you say, they also encourage her to take action. Raymie is looking for a way to make some sense out of the world. And all of those words help.

Like several of your other novels, Raymie tackles some of the painful realities that are visited upon children—poverty, hunger, abandonment—yet there is also joy and humor. How do you strike that balance?

All of me gets poured into those words on the page. I feel terror and joy. I feel hope and despair. I laugh a lot. I cry a lot. I hope that there is some kind of balance in myself and in the stories—life is hard and beautiful and strange.

In addition to the themes mentioned above, animals and Florida loom large in your realistic fiction. Do they sneak in, or are they invited?  

Ha. They sneak in. I can’t seem to write a book without an animal in it.  And I am haunted by my Florida youth and those other themes—they are part of me. They end up on the page no matter what I do.

Is it true you took baton-twirling lessons?

Wheeeee. I took lessons. Yes, I did. But I can’t say I ever managed to twirl. Drop, yes. Fumble, yes. But twirl? Never happened.

Click here for a chapter sampler of Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, courtesy of Candlewick Press.

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.