In Kate DiCamillo's new novel for young readers, Raymie Nightingale, the title character becomes friends with two other girls after they meet in what turns out to be a disastrous baton-twirling class.
Like her character, DiCamillo tried to learn to twirl as a kid but never did.
"I think it's kind of a geographical thing, and a generational one, too," DiCamillo, 52, says by phone.
"I was in Atlanta talking about the book and I met this woman who said, 'Why, I could teach you right now!' She was very confident, but I could feel the cold sweat trickling down my shirt."
DiCamillo might not have mastered the baton, but she certainly has mastered the art of writing for kids. Her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie (2000), became a film starring AnnaSophia Robb and Jeff Daniels. DiCamillo won the American Library Association's Newbery Medal in 2004 for The Tale of Despereaux (which became an animated film) and in 2014 for Flora & Ulysses, making her one of only six writers to receive the medal twice.
DiCamillo will be at the Robert W. Saunders Library in Tampa on June 24 to talk about Raymie Nightingale. The book, for readers ages 10 and up, "kind of went full circle," the author said, in returning to the same territory as her first book: small-town Florida in the 1970s.
"It wasn't a conscious decision," DiCamillo says. "The first thing I had for this book was the name of the contest."
That would be Little Miss Central Florida Tire, a local pageant that Raymie and her friends are, for very different reasons, avid to win (hence that baton class).
The setting is a natural for DiCamillo, who was raised in Clermont, west of Orlando, after her family moved there from Philadelphia when she was 5 years old. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in English. Although she has lived in Minneapolis for years, you can still hear Florida in her warm voice.
She began writing Raymie Nightingale, she says, with only that contest and her main characters' names: 10-year-old Raymie and her friends, dreamy Louisiana Elefante and wisecracking Beverly Tapinski.
"Writing is so difficult. The only easy things for me are names," she says. "I never know what I'm doing.
"I read something about how Jonathan Franzen has all his characters and their character traits on this chart. If I did that I couldn't write the book. I like what Elmore Leonard said: 'I write to find out what happens.' "
She did have one thing in mind. She has written about animals in all her books — the title dog in Because of Winn-Dixie, the mouse Despereaux, tigers, rabbits, elephants, squirrels. "I thought, man, I've really got to write a book without an animal."
She thought she was with Raymie Nightingale. "But then the cat showed up. And the bird. And the dog.
"I just love animals. And I think as readers we're more likely to open our hearts to an animal than we are to each other."
While she's in Tampa, DiCamillo will be talking about another subject close to her heart: libraries. She is currently in her second term as the National Summer Reading Champion for the Collaborative Summer Library Program. CSLP is a nonprofit consortium of librarians from around the country who work to provide summer programs and reading materials for young people.
"I'm so happy to do it," DiCamillo says. "The library mattered so much to me as a kid.
"Not only did we have a library close by" — the Cooper Memorial Public Library in Clermont — "but I had a mother who believed in it. She loaded up the station wagon with us and with other people's kids, too, and away we went."
It's something DiCamillo is eager to share with kids now, "the gift of that safe place."
She recently completed a stint as the U.S. National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, which also had her talking to readers across the nation. "It was an amazing experience. You hear people talk about kids not reading, but I found so many kids who are passionate about stories."
DiCamillo says that she always talks to groups about the books she read when she was a kid.
"It's so interesting to me that so many of them are still books that they know about, that they are passionate about.
"I just have to mention Charlotte's Web and there is this excited, barely contained noise. It really speaks to the power and longevity of books for kids.
"They speak to the human heart."
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.