'Winn-Dixie' author follows unusual path to literary success
When Kate DiCamillo was in her 20s (not that long ago), she told everyone she was a writer. At least she thought she was a writer. In fact, she knew she was. But there was a problem: she hadn't written anything.
After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in English, she got jobs at Circus World and Disney World, where she worked the ride lines. She also called bingo at a children's camp. "At the time I thought I was going nowhere," admits the critically acclaimed author. "Now I can see there was a pattern."
When she relocated from her home in Florida to Minnesota and took a position at a children's bookstore, the pattern—working with kids—really began to materialize, and her dream of being an author soon came to fruition. "I finally realized that I actually needed to write something to become a 'writer,'" says DiCamillo, "so I started writing short stories."
As a Southerner far from home, the first frigid winter in Minnesota took its toll on the author. "I was homesick and couldn't afford to go home," she remembers, "and it was the first time I didn't have a dog." Out of this experience came the idea for her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie (2000). The story of a lonely little girl named Opal who adopts Winn-Dixie, a muddled mutt with a loving heart, the book—set in sunny Florida—won a Newbery Honor and climbed onto The New York Times bestseller list.
DiCamillo's next effort, The Tiger Rising (2001), was based on a character she had written about in one of her short stories. Rob Horton, a 12-year-old mourning the death of his mother, makes an amazing discovery: there's a tiger in the woods behind the Kentucky Star Motel, where he and his father live. The magical creature opens up new possibilities in Rob's life, including a friendship with a feisty, dark-eyed girl named Sistine. Another critical success for DiCamillo, The Tiger Rising was a National Book Award Finalist and a Book Sense 76 selection.
Her latest book for young readers came about in an entirely different way. The Tale of Despereaux was inspired by the son of one of DiCamillo's closest friends. "He wanted a story about an unlikely hero," recalls DiCamillo, "and the hero had to have exceptionally big ears." She tried to explain to the boy that characters don't just materialize on demand; they have to exist as ideas in the writer's head in order to work. But over the next few months, as she thought about the request, something clicked for DiCamillo. Three years later, The Tale of Despereaux was complete.
The novel's mouse-hero, Despereaux Tilling, has fallen in love with a human, the beautiful Princess Pea, whose family owns the castle he calls home. But the romance is thwarted by his father, and Despereaux is soon imprisoned in a dank dungeon. To the mouse's magical story, DiCamillo adds the adventures of the castle's other inhabitants, including a rat named Chiaroscuro, and Miggery Sow, a young servant girl who dreams of becoming a princess. With its old-fashioned, fairy tale qualities and whimsical pencil drawings by Timothy Basil Ering, the book is definitely a departure for DiCamillo, but one readers are sure to love.
Her next project, a picture book, is already in the works. Nowadays, though, the popular author has a new responsibility—answering mail from fans. "It's thrilling when a kid writes you," she says, "and it breaks my heart to think they would take the time to write and get nothing back."
As for future children's novels, DiCamillo promises there will be more. "I'm at the mercy of whatever character comes into my head," she explains. "Every day I get up and write two pages—and only two pages. It's an easy goal that I know I can do, whether I'm working on a book or not."
More importantly, it ensures that this former Disney World employee and bingo caller will continue to prove her claim that she really is a true, honest-to-goodness writer—not that any of her readers ever thought differently.
Heidi Henneman writes from San Francisco. Copyright 2003 BookPage Reviews
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2004 Spring
Despereaux Tilling is not like the other mice in the castle. HeÃ†s smaller than average, likes to read books, and is in love with a human being: Princess Pea. When a rat and a young servant kidnap the princess, Despereaux, armed with a needle and a spool of thread, makes a daring rescue. Framing the book with the conventions of a Victorian novel, DiCamillo tells an engaging tale. Copyright 2004 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2003 #5
Despereaux Tilling is not like the other mice in the castle. He's smaller than average, with larger than average ears. He'd rather read books than eat them. And he's in love with a human being--Princess Pea. Because he dares to consort with humans, the Mouse Council votes to send him to the dungeon. Book the First ends with Despereaux befriending a jailer who resides there. Books two and three introduce Roscuro, a rat with a vendetta against Princess Pea, and Miggery Sow, a young castle servant who longs to become a princess. Despereaux disappears from the story for too long during this lengthy middle section, but all the characters unite in the final book when Roscuro and Miggery kidnap Princess Pea at knifepoint and Despereaux, armed with a needle and a spool of thread, makes a daring rescue. Framing the book with the conventions of a Victorian novel ("Reader, do you believe that there is such a thing as happily ever after?"), DiCamillo tells an engaging tale. The novel also makes good use of metaphor, with the major characters evoked in images of light and illumination; Ering's black-and-white illustrations also emphasize the interplay of light and shadow. The metaphor becomes heavy-handed only in the author's brief, self-serving coda. Many readers will be enchanted by this story of mice and princesses, brave deeds, hearts "shaded with dark and dappled with light," and forgiveness. Copyright 2003 Horn Book Magazine Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2003 July #2
Dear reader, light your lamp and listen to the tale of Despereaux, the last mouse born of Antoinette. Born with his eyes open and ears much too large, Despereaux seems destined for early death. A true Renaissance mouse, he can hear honey, read words, and appreciate fine music. But he cannot conform to the strictures of the mouse world. Rodents and humans don't mix, yet he falls in love with the Princess Pea, earning the wrath of all the mice in the castle. The melodramatic voice of the narrator glides through DiCamillo's entirely pleasing tale, at times addressing the reader directly, at others, moving the reader back and forward in time. Never does she abandon the reader in the dungeon with Despereaux, the dark-hearted rats, or the guard and fellow inmate, Gregory. And so unwinds a tale with twists and turns, full of forbidden soup and ladles, rats lusting for mouse blood, a servant who wishes to be a princess, a knight in shining-or, at least, furry-armor, and all the ingredients of an old-fashioned drama. (Fiction. 7-12) Copyright Kirkus 2003 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2003 June #3
The author of Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising here shifts gears, demonstrating her versatility while once again proving her genius for mining the universal themes of childhood. Her third novel calls to mind Henry Fielding's Tom Jones; DiCamillo's omniscient narrator assumes a similarly irreverent yet compassionate tone and also addresses readers directly. Despereaux, the diminutive mouse hero ("The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive"), cares not a whit for such mundane matters as scurrying or nibbling, and disappoints his family at every turn. When his sister tries to teach him to devour a book, for example ("This glue, here, is tasty, and the paper edges are crunchy and yummy, like so"), Despereaux discovers instead "a delicious and wonderful phrase: Once upon a time"-a discovery that will change his life. The author introduces all of the elements of the subtitle, masterfully linking them without overlap. A key factor unmentioned in the subtitle is a villainous rat, Chiaroscuro (dwelling in the darkness of the Princess's dungeon, but drawn to the light). Ering (The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone) brings an understated drama to the black-and-white illustrations that punctuate each chapter. His artwork conveys a respect for the characters even as they emit the wry humor of the narrator's voice. The teller of the tale roots for the hero and thus aligns himself with the audience: "Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform." In addition to these life lessons, the narrator also savors a pointer or two about language (after the use of the word "perfidy," the narrator asks, "Reader, do you know what `perfidy' means? I have a feeling you do, based on the little scene that has just unfolded here. But you should look up the word in your dictionary, just to be sure"). Reader, I will let you imagine, for now, how these witticisms of our omniscient narrator come into play; but I must tell you, you are in for a treat. Ages 7-12. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2003 August
Gr 3 Up-A charming story of unlikely heroes whose destinies entwine to bring about a joyful resolution. Foremost is Despereaux, a diminutive mouse who, as depicted in Ering's pencil drawings, is one of the most endearing of his ilk ever to appear in children's books. His mother, who is French, declares him to be "such the disappointment" at his birth and the rest of his family seems to agree that he is very odd: his ears are too big and his eyes open far too soon and they all expect him to die quickly. Of course, he doesn't. Then there is the human Princess Pea, with whom Despereaux falls deeply (one might say desperately) in love. She appreciates him despite her father's prejudice against rodents. Next is Roscuro, a rat with an uncharacteristic love of light and soup. Both these predilections get him into trouble. And finally, there is Miggery Sow, a peasant girl so dim that she believes she can become a princess. With a masterful hand, DiCamillo weaves four story lines together in a witty, suspenseful narrative that begs to be read aloud. In her authorial asides, she hearkens back to literary traditions as old as those used by Henry Fielding. In her observations of the political machinations and follies of rodent and human societies, she reminds adult readers of George Orwell. But the unpredictable twists of plot, the fanciful characterizations, and the sweetness of tone are DiCamillo's own. This expanded fairy tale is entertaining, heartening, and, above all, great fun.-Miriam Lang Budin, Chappaqua Public Library, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2004 October
Gr 3 Up-In this delightful novel, a tiny mouse risks all to save the princess he loves from the clutches of a devious rat and a slow-witted serving girl. With memorable characters, brief chapters, and inventive plot twists, this fast-paced romp is perfect for reading alone or sharing aloud. Winner of the 2004 Newbery Medal. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
VOYA Reviews 2003 October
Despereaux is the smallest mouse in the castle, with the largest ears and the most romantic heart. He falls in love with the human Princess Pea and is banished to the dungeon by his fellow mice. Meanwhile, the rat Chiaroscuro falls in love with light. When he leaves the dungeon to pursue his love, he frightens the queen to death and ends up back where he started with a healthy grudge against Princess Pea. Out in the town, a girl the same age as the princess, named Miggery Sow, is sold into slavery by her father. She takes many nasty beatings but dreams of being a princess herself one day. All three stories entwine in the final part of the book in a satisfying and not surprisingly happy ending for nearly everyone. At times, DiCamillo's new fantasy novel is charming, by turns sad, sweet, and mildly scary. At other times, though, the conceit of the narrator addressing the reader directly wears thin. The characters are all well limned, although the princess is, perhaps, too perfect. The story's twists and intertwinings are all believable, but each character is given their own "book" within the novel, and the pacing is thrown off. First Despereaux's story is told to a point. Then Chiaroscuro's story is told to a point. Then Miggery's story is told to a point. Finally, they all come together. Although this story would make an excellent read aloud for the young, most young adults will likely feel that the narration is condescending.-Timothy Capehart. 4Q 3P M Copyright 2003 Voya Reviews