From author to ambassador, Kate DiCamillo approaches reading with celebration

January 10, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
Author Kate DiCamillo gained acclaim for her children's novels "Because of Winn-Dixie" and award-winning "The Tale of Despereaux." Jeffrey Brown talks to DiCamillo about her latest role as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and her goal to "remind people of the great and profound joy that can be found in stories."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: Author Kate DiCamillo today became the newest national ambassador for young people’s literature, a post created by the Library of Congress in 2008 to promote literature for children.

Jeffrey Brown talked with her earlier this week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kate DiCamillo says she was the shyest child in the world, the kind of kid who wouldn’t say boo to a goose.

Well, she found her voice as a writer of stories for young people. Among her bestselling books are “Because of Winn-Dixie,” the recent “Flora and Ulysses,” and Newbery Award-winning “Tale of Despereaux.”

She will spend the next two years as both author and ambassador for stories and reading.

Kate DiCamillo lives in Minneapolis and joins us from there.

And congratulations to you. And it’s nice to talk to you again.

KATE DICAMILLO, U.S. National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature: Well, thank you very much for being willing to talk to me. Let’s talk books.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the shyest — the shyest child in the world becomes a national ambassador.


JEFFREY BROWN: How did that happen?

KATE DICAMILLO: Well, I know. There’s a really rich irony in that, isn’t there?

And I am not exaggerating — well, I do tend to exaggerate. I’m a storyteller, but, really, I was just like — if I had a dime for every time an adult said, “Cat got your tongue?”

You know, and my mother was a very outgoing person. And she could never believe that I couldn’t run into the store and ask somebody some kind of question. So how did I end up here? I ended up here by telling stories.

And telling stories helped me connect with the world. And it turned me into somebody who can talk to people, I think. I don’t know. I’m doing a pretty good job talking to you. Right?



JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so tell us what you — how you see this role and what you plan. Is it — do you start off thinking that there is a problem that you need to address, a problem of young people and reading?

KATE DICAMILLO: I want to remind people — I don’t want to think about it as a problem.

I want to remind people of the great and profound joy that can be found in stories, and that stories can connect us to each other, and that reading together changes everybody involved. So I am not coming at it from a problem angle. I’m coming at it from a celebration angle. That’s how I would like to think of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What books did that for you, brought you out of the shell you were talking about?

KATE DICAMILLO: Well, one of them — and I was a kid who loved to read and also a kid who was lucky enough to have a — I had a mom that read to me all the time.

“Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell had a huge impact on me. “Harriet the Spy,” Louise Fitzhugh. I remember my mother reading me Beverly Cleary’s “Ribsy.”

All of those books kind of did that thing of connecting me to myself and connecting me to the world and connecting me to the people around me. So that is kind of the message that I want to carry out into world. That’s what I hope to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you think of — is reading reading, or does it matter what young people are reading? I’m thinking about some of the books that gained tremendous currency, like “The Hunger Games” now and other ones you can think of at different times.

Do you think just whatever they’re reading is good, or do you think there — certain things are more nourishing than others?

KATE DICAMILLO: Well, I’m not going to make judgments about what people are reading.

I just want them to be reading. And I think reading one book leads to another book. So, I am just going to celebrate the whole ball of wax. I just want people — I also want people to know that this is — you know, that kids books can be for adults as well. There are a lot of different ways to connect to a story.

And I think “Harry Potter” has actually gone a long way to convincing people that adults can read kid books. But I would like to just bring more people into the room.

JEFFREY BROWN: The other thing that becomes part of this conversation of course, these days is technology and that sort of competition for the young people’s attention.

Do you think of all these things, the — you know, whether it’s video games or tablets, do you think of them as the enemy, or is there a way to make them friends? How do you think about it?

KATE DICAMILLO: I think that it’s a matter of balance and moderation.

And I think that my role here is just to remind everybody of the power of story and it can be just as entertaining and engaging as a video game. So, again, I’m not going to say, no, don’t do that, but, rather, remember story. And story is what makes us human in a way. So, I just — I’m here to say story can be a powerful thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: I remember when we first talked. And now it’s 10 years ago…


JEFFREY BROWN: … when you won the Newbery Award.

But you came to writing late yourself, right? This wasn’t — you weren’t a natural.


JEFFREY BROWN: You just sort of came into it.

KATE DICAMILLO: No, I’m not a natural. I’m a late bloomer.

And I feel so fortunate to have ended up where I have ended up, as somebody who gets to tell stories for a living. But I didn’t start writing until I was almost 30 years old. And I didn’t get published until I was 36 or 37.

So — but it was something that I always knew that I wanted to do. And I finally sat down and started trying to do it. So, hey, let’s hear it for all the late bloomers and for dreams coming true, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: And I think I read that — this is a little hard for me to believe, but maybe you can tell me — you received 450 rejection letters before anyone agreed to publish you?

KATE DICAMILLO: I wish that I could tell you that that is erroneous.


KATE DICAMILLO: But it is not.

I kept a notebook where I kept track of everything, where I sent it, when it came back. So that is the case. So, I sent stories out for six years before anything happened. And when I go and I talk to kids, I go, imagine if I had given up at like the — the rejection letter, you know, 200. I wouldn’t be here.

So if there is any message that I can give in that respect, it’s, you know, persistence and not giving up on your dream.


Well, Kate DiCamillo, congratulations again. And good luck in your new role, the national ambassador for young people’s literature.

Thanks so much.