Kate DiCamillo has been a fixture of the kid lit world since the publication of her first novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, but the truth is that she’d never imagined herself writing middle-grade books. In fact, she started out writing short stories for literary magazines and found kid’s books a bit silly.
To support herself, she still needed a day job, so she started working as a picker at a book distributor. She was assigned to the third floor, which held the kid’s books. Despite her bias, it wasn’t long before she started reading the books she was filling orders for, and found they were so much more than the cute stories about bunnies that she’d imagined. Not long after she started on Winn-Dixie. “When think about it, I think, you know, I could’ve gotten a job someplace else, I could’ve gotten assigned to a different floor at the warehouse. I just feel so grateful I found my way to where I feel like I’m supposed to be,” she says.
This fall, DiCamillo has two books coming out: the middle grade novel,(Oct. 2) and the picture book (Sept. 4). Both books touch on some of DiCamillo’s favorite themes, including the cheering power of animals and the importance of friendship, albeit from entirely different angles.
Writing Louisiana’s Way Home is the first time DiCamillo has returned to characters from a previous book: In this case Louisiana Elefante and her granny from 2015’s Raymie Nightingale. After completing the story of Raymie and her friends, DiCamillo found herself writing the same line again and again: “In case you were ever wondering what happened to me, Louisiana Elephante, I’m gonna write it all down.” Louisiana’s voice, intensely dramatic and yet amusingly deadpan, was so insistent that DiCamillo eventually decided to just follow where she led. “It’s hard to talk about without sounding like I’m slightly crazy, because none of it was calculated,” she says. “That voice just arrived and I followed.”
Louisiana’s journey is not a easy one. She faces poverty, abandonment, and betrayal, almost entirely on her own, but her will to survive, as well as the aid of a kind priest and a welcoming family, carries her through. In dealing with the darker parts of the story, DiCamillo strives to be honest without losing hope. “I feel that responsibility to the reader, but i get to benefit from that responsibility too,” she says. “The story leads the reader towards hope but it leads the little writer towards hope too.”
Writing Good Rosie! was a far less fraught experience. “Sometimes I think I’m never gonna try to write another novel. It’s so hard! And of course picture books are hard too, but a bit more collaborative,” DiCamillo explains. “It’s a lot less lonely.” Good Rosie! was especially fun, since she was working with her friend Harry Bliss. They’d been talking about doing a dog book for years, and after they ran into each other at a conference Bliss started some sketches on the way home. DiCamillo took the rains from there, crafting a story about a dog named Rosie learning to overcome her fears and make new friends.
But why dogs? Or, in the case of Louisiana, a crow? What’s the appeal of animal characters?
“Sometimes as a reader we’re a little bit more inclined to let our guard down with an animal,” DiCamillo explains. But she also simply loves animals, from her own dog to the fictional heroes of her childhood, like Stuart Little and Paddington.
In fact, she’s a bit jealous of Burke, the owner of the aforementioned crow (whose name is Clarence). “I just won’t feel my life is complete until I have a shoulder with a crow on it,” she says.
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.