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From adverse conditions, talented writers often emerge. Beloved children’s author Kate DiCamillo is a testament to this. As a young child, she suffered from pneumonia five years in a row. As an adult, she is delighting children all over the world with such whimsical tales as Because of Winn-Dixie (2000) and The Tale of Despereaux (2004).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Troubled Childhood
DiCamillo was born on March 25, 1964, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her earliest years were her most difficult. when she was five years old her father left her and her mother. The years prior to his disappearance were no easier, as she suffered from severe pneumonia. A doctor recommended a warmer climate for the DiCamillos for the sake of Kate’s health, so her family moved to central Florida. while still a girl, DiCamillo developed a love of literature that inspired her to try her hand at composing stories of her own, and she soon discovered that she had considerable talent.
In Pursuit of a Dream
Success was not instantaneous, and DiCamillo supported herself with a number of odd jobs, including, in her words, ”selling tickets at Circus world, planting philodendrons in a greenhouse, calling bingo at a campground, running rides at an amusement park.” As she bounced from job to job, she continued to write, composing at least two pages each day. The result of this approach was her first short story, although she admits, ”It was a very bad short story.” However, she revised the piece and felt comfortable enough with the results to submit it to a magazine. Although the magazine rejected it, DiCamillo had developed a taste for writing and became more keenly focused on her dream than ever.
Having moved from Florida to Minnesota in 1994, DiCamillo took a job with a book wholesaler where she filled book orders. This job left her with the time to read some of the books that surrounded her. As it so hap pened, she worked on the floor of the office building where the children’s books were stored. So, between taking care of orders from bookstores and libraries, DiCa-millo became acquainted with a variety of children’s books. As she relates:
—–I read picture books and poetry books and board books and one day, I picked up a novel written for children called The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963. Christopher Paul Curtis’s book changed my life. I read it and decided I wanted to try to write a novel for kids.
Capturing the Dream
DiCamillo devoted herself to working on her first children’s novel. Because of Winn-Dixie reflects DiCamillo’s interests at the time she wrote it. Opal, the novel’s main character, is a girl who has just moved (although she has moved to Florida instead of away from it) and makes her first friend: a dog she meets at the Winn-Dixie supermarket. While writing the book, dog-lover DiCamillo was also suffering because she lived in an apartment building in which dogs were not allowed, ”and suffering mightily from a disease I refer to as ‘dog withdrawal,”’ she says in her autobiography. Opal is also similar to DiCamillo in her love of stories. As the ten year old continues to make friends throughout the summer, she avidly collects their own personal stories.
Because of Winn-Dixie was published in 2000. The book is not only an entertaining and enjoyable tale for kids; it is also a poignant exploration of loss. (Like DiCamillo’s real-life father, Opal’s mother is absent in the novel.) The complexity of the book was not lost on critics, who praised it as a poignant and humorous coming-of-age story. The novel also earned DiCamillo several awards, including the Josette Frank Award and the Newbery Honor, and appeared on many ”best book of the year” lists. More importantly, it served as a signpost that DiCamillo had finally achieved her long-sought dream.
DiCamillo followed her debut novel with The Tiger Rising (2001), the story of a young boy named Rob Horton who makes a strange and wonderful discovery when he finds a caged tiger in the woods by his Florida home. Three years later, she published The Tale of Despereaux. ”My best friend’s son asked if I would write a story for him,” she told About.com. ”’It’s about an unlikely hero,’ he said, ‘with exceptionally large ears.”’ After asking the boy, ”What happened to the hero,” he replied, ”I don’t know. That’s why I want you to write this story, so we can find out.” Again, DiCamillo wowed readers and critics alike. The Tale of Despereaux won her another Newbery award. Her fourth novel, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, followed in 2006, to more acclaim.
Exploring New Territory
While still maintaining her focus on young people, DiCamillo has diversified her writing. She has written several chapter books— books aimed at intermediate readers—featuring a pig named Mercy Watson. The pig gets into various adventures, whether she is attempting to rescue a mysteriously sinking bed in Mercy Watson to the Rescue (2005) or tumbling into Halloween-related high jinks in Mercy Watson Princess in Disguise (2007). ”Mercy Watson had been in my head for a long time,” DiCamillo explains on her Web site, ”but I couldn’t figure out how to tell her story.” A discussion with one of her friends ”about the many virtues of toast” suddenly triggered inspiration, and the toast-loving Mercy came into focus. According to DiCamillo, ”Sometimes you don’t truly understand a character until you know what she loves above all else.” DiCamillo has also written two picture books: Great Joy (2007) and Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken (2008).
In 2005, DiCamillo’s work branched out further when Because of Winn-Dixie was adapted into a major motion picture starring Jeff Daniels and Cicely Tyson and directed by Wayne Wang. An animated film version of The Tale of Despereaux, with Matthew Broderick providing the voice of the title character, was released in 2008.
DiCamillo continues to live in Minnesota and publish regularly. She is the owner of a pup named Henry, who brings her as much pleasure as the crowd and critic-pleasing stories she conjures. As she says on her web site, ”I think of myself as an enormously lucky person: I get to tell stories for a living.”
Works in Literary Context
The Fairy Tale
Fairy tales, sometimes called fairy stories, are fictional yarns that often include such outlandish elements as talking animals, bizarre creatures, and magic. Fairy tales may have existed for as long as stories have been told, the originals being passed along in the oral tradition. The most well-known and influential collection of fairy tales was published in 1812 by the Ger man brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. Children’s and Household Tales would expose the world at large to such famous stories as ”Snow White” and ”Hansel and Gretel” and provide the backbone of the fairy tale tradition that continues to the modern age with contemporary fairy tales like DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux.
The artistic genre called magical realism is defined by the appearance of magical elements in an otherwise realistic setting. The term was first coined by the German art critic Franz Roh to apply to the visual arts in an essay titled ”After Expressionism: Magical Real ism” published in 1925. The term as used in the visual arts implied a very realistic representation of reality. In the 1960s, the term was used to describe literature that combined fantasy and naturalistic reality in a seamless manner. This method of storytelling was particularly favored by Latin American writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. While the works of Fuentes and Marquez are decidedly adult, the term magic realism has also been applied to writers like DiCamillo, who blends the real and the unreal in novels like The Tale of Despereaux and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.
Works in Critical Context
Because of Winn-Dixie DiCamillo’s debut novel won over critics as soon as it was published. Critics took special note of the novel’s structure, with a reviewer for Publishers Weekly commenting, ”In this exquisitely crafted first novel [a Newbery Honor book], each chapter possesses an arc of its own and reads almost like a short story in its completeness.” However, the qualities that most moved critics were the novel’s warm tone and poignant vision of a girl’s maturity. Betsy Groban, in her review for The New York Times Book Review, calls it ”a poignant and delicately told story of a dog as a child’s much-needed best friend.” Christine M. Heppermann, in her review for Horn Book Magazine, concedes that the book ”teeters on the edge of sentimentality and some-times topples right in,” but concludes, ”All in all, this is a gentle book about good people coming together to com bat loneliness and heartache—with a little canine assistance.” The novel’s enthusiastic response was further emphasized by its winning of several major literary awards, including a 2001 Newbery Award.
The Tale of Despereaux
DiCamillo’s third novel, The Tale of Despereaux, proved to be another in her impressive string of critical successes. More of a fairy tale than her previous work, The Tale of Despereaux was intended for a younger audience, but critics still appreciated it for its whimsy and engrossing characters and action. Miriam Lang Budin, in a review for School Library Journal, calls the book ”entertaining, heartening, and, above all, great fun.” In her review for Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Book, Janice M. Del Negro writes, ”There is a classic charm to this picaresque tale . . . that and a pace that lends itself to reading aloud will make this novel a favorite among those ready for some gentle questing.” Once again, DiCamillo was honored for her book with a Newbery Award.
- Blais, Jacqueline. ”Author Newbery is No Small Thrill.” USA Today (January 14, 2004).
- Budin, Miriam Lang. Review of The Tale of Despereaux. School Library Journal 49, no. 8 (August 2003): 126.
- Del Negro, Janice M. Review of The Tale of Despereaux. Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books 57, no. 3 (November 2003): 99.
- Groban, Betsy. Review of Because of Winn-Dixie. The New York Times Book Review (May 14, 2000): 26.
- Heppermann, Christine M. Review of Because of Winn-Dixie. Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 4 (July-August 2000): 455-456.
- Margolies, Jane. ”Pleasantly Stunned, a Star Children’s Author Hits the Tour Trail Again.” The New York Times (February 21, 2006).
- com. Newbery Medal Winner Kate Dicamillo. Accessed November 18, 2008, from http://childrensbooks.about.com/cs/authorsillustrato/a/katedicamillo.htm.
- Book Browse. Kate DiCamillo—Biography. Accessed November 18, 2008, from http://www.bookbrowse.com/biographies/index.cfm?author_number=573.
- Candlewick Press. Kate DiCamillo. Accessed November 18, 2008, from http://www.candlewick.com/authill.asp?b=Author&m=bio&id=1989&pix=y.
- Kate DiCamillo.com. About Kate. Accessed November 18, 2008, from http://www.katedicamillo.com/about.html.
- Wilson Biographies.com. Kate DiCamillo: Autobiographical Statement. Accessed November 18, 2008, from http://wilsonbiographies.com/print/jrauthorbk_9th_dicamillo.htm.
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