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For Kate DiCamillo, connection is the story

With a couple of Newbery Medals under her belt and legions of enthusiastic fans, Kate DiCamillo should feel pretty secure about her books, right?

"I can never tell if anything I do is really good," the author says. "I'm always just slightly chagrined."

Countless kids who have devoured Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, Flora & Ulysses and more of DiCamillo's books know they're really good. It's a safe bet that hundreds of those kids will be in the audience when she talks about her new book, La La La, at the Times Festival of Reading.

DiCamillo, 53, grew up in Florida after her family moved to Clermont from Philadelphia. She lives in Minneapolis and talked by phone about La La La.

Many of your books are illustrated, but La La La is almost all art — the story is told with a single word. How will you talk about it?

It's a wordless picture book. I'm a writer, but I can't read the book (out loud). I can't do it without the images. So there's a PowerPoint. I needed to tell the story of the story, and I had to find the vocabulary to talk about that.

It's basically the same story I'm telling all the time — it's the radiance of connection that I'm always after.

What was the genesis of this particular story?

It started in my notebooks. I started drawing this incredibly small circle. I knew that it was moving through the world entirely alone. Then it saw this large, luminous circle, and it wanted to connect.

It was all just circles. I cannot draw at all.

Did that story grow out of any personal experience?

Way before the doodles, it started with me as a kid, a really young kid, being so sick, being in the hospital for a long time. (DiCamillo had pneumonia at age 4.) That's how we ended up in Florida — the doctors said, you need to go to a warm climate.

That kid is right inside of me. That feeling of being small and alone and afraid has never gone away.

The book isn't entirely wordless — it has a single word, right?

Yes! "La" is a word. It counts as a word in Scrabble. I have this group of friends, and we play really intense, hard-core Scrabble, so I know.

How much do you collaborate with illustrators on your books?

I literally don't even talk to them until after the book is done. I talk to my editor, and the editor and the design team talk to the artist.

The connection that's in this story also happened with me and Jaime Kim, and the result is this gorgeous art. It really moves me.

But I didn't talk to Jaime until it was done. I met her in Chicago in the summer.

I sent her a storyboard with the circles. The Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota has all the rough drafts from my notebooks. You can see the small circle with its ladder trying to get to the large circle. The story arc is there, there's some emotion there.

Her way into the story, which she writes about (in the afterword), is her relationship with her sister.

That's her genius. I feel this book is beautiful and moving. That's not what I can normally do with what I write. You know, I'd think, well, it won a Newbery, could it be good? Then I dismiss that thought.

So you didn't even know what the book's main character would look like?

I didn't even know if it would be a person or not.

There's this amplification that happens any time you tell a story. You let it go out into the world. It's the most beautiful thing. All I can do is look at it in wonder and amazement.

Most of your books have been novels for older kids, while this is a picture book for preschool kids. Which is harder to write?

I have not done many picture books. I feel the mid-grade books, this is where I should be most of the time.

People think about picture books, it's just a few words, it can't be too hard.

From a cognitive standpoint, I'm very aware that you have no room for error in a picture book. Every word counts. It's like writing poetry, except you also have to have that page turner (that keeps kids reading). It's harder! In mid-grade (novels) there's more room for missteps.

When I was starting to write, I was fascinated with Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems. I remember taking it home and typing it out, trying to figure out how it worked. It's just a classic, with dauntingly few words.

La La La: A Story of Hope

By Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Jaime Kim

Candlewick, 72 pages, $17.99

Times Festival of Reading

Kate DiCamillo will be a featured author at the 2017 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will speak at 11 a.m. in the Student Center Ballroom. The event is free, but a limited number of wristbands for guaranteed seats are available with the in-person advance purchase of a copy of her book La La La at Barnes & Noble USFSP, 500 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. Because of the anticipated number of fans, her signing at the festival will be limited to one copy per person.

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