Because Winn-Dixie is closing its Clermont store, I immediately thought of Kate DiCamillo because she grew up in Clermont and because her award-winning kids’ book Because of Winn-Dixie is set in that small Florida town near Orlando. Not as it is now, with sprawling subdivisions and modern supermarkets in shopping plazas, but back 30 or 40 years ago, when Highway 50 sliced through the groves of orange trees and dusty roads and pretty lakes, and kids walked to school and made magic of mundane things.
Kate has been making magic with words for more than a decade now. A University of Florida grad, she kicked around Central Florida for several years, then moved to Minneapolis and worked in the children’s section of a book warehouse. She wrote Because of Winn-Dixie during a long, cold Minnesota winter when she was homesick for Florida and wanted a dog. Her apartment didn’t allow pets, so she imagined a big, friendly mutt. A lonely girl named Opal names the stray after the grocery store in which she first rescues him. And then, because of Winn-Dixie, Opal begins to meet people and all sorts of things — some odd, mostly good — begin to happen.
Kate proved to be a winning writer in every way from the start. Because of Winn-Dixie, published in 2000, was a Newbery Honor Book and was Orlando’s One Book, One Community 2003 selection. Her second novel for middle-graders and also set in Florida, The Tiger Rising, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her third, the oh-so-wonderful The Tale of Despereaux, “being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread,” won the 2004 Newbery, the highest award in children’s fiction.
So what does Kate do for an encore — two picture books, six early chapter books starring the toast-loving pig, Mercy Watson, and two more more magical novels, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, about a china rabbit’s unexpected voyage of love and self-discovery, and last September’s The Magician’s Elephant, a dream-like story about an orphan boy, an old soldier, a fortune teller, and a magician who longs to make “true magic” and conjures an elephant instead of lilies.
Kate is a fabulist in the best sense of the word, who long ago discovered the truth in fiction. Coming this fall is a new chapter book written with Alison McGhee, Bink and Gollie, about the comical adventures of two precocious little girls, “one tiny, one tall, both utterly irrepressible.” Looking at the cover illustration by Tony Fucile, I’d bet money the tiny one with the fly-away hair is Kate. I recognize the mischievous grin of a girl about to make more magic.
Open Book: Because she is one of my favorite storytellers, I’d write all these things about Kate even if she wasn’t a friend. Check out her website, www.katedicamillo.com, watch the video about The Magician’s Elephant (Candlewick Press), and be sure to read her most recent journal entry. Wait for the moon.