An Orphan, An Elephant And A Hapless Magician Kate DiCamillo's latest children's book, The Magician's Elephant, begins with a crash when an elephant bursts through the ceiling of an opera house.
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An Orphan, An Elephant And A Hapless Magician

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An Orphan, An Elephant And A Hapless Magician

An Orphan, An Elephant And A Hapless Magician

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In the city of Baltese, at the end of the century before last, a hapless magician tries to conjure up a bouquet of lilies. But in the world of children's book author Kate DiCamillo, he accidentally conjures an elephant instead. It crashes through the ceiling of an opera house and cripples a noblewoman. And that's just the starting point for DiCamillo's latest book "The Magician's Elephant." Her previous books include the wildly popular "Because of Winn-Dixie" and "The Tale of Despereaux."

And Kate DiCamillo joins me here at the studios of NPR West in California. Thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. KATE DICAMILLO (Author, "The Magician's Elephant"): Well, thank you for letting me come in.

BLOCK: And besides this elephant who's crashed through the ceiling, the main character here is a 10-year-old boy, Peter Augustus Duchene, an orphan.

Ms. DICAMILLO: Yes. Orphans are a good way to get a story started.

BLOCK: Because you have to figure out what - how they…

Ms. DICAMILLO: Well, immediately you've got a conflict, so, that's great. I like it that you called the magician hapless. I like that a lot.

BLOCK: That's how you see him?

Ms. DICAMILLO: Hapless but hopeful. He intends to conjure lilies, but he also wants to do something bigger and better.

BLOCK: And it was the character of the magician who came to you first, right?

Ms. DICAMILLO: Yes. This is one of those creepy things that writers say, that a magician appeared before me. And when I talk to kids and I say that, I always have to back up and go, not literally. You know, it was just this very clear vision of the magician. You could almost, like, smell his hair product.

BLOCK: What did it smell like?

Ms. DICAMILLO: Greasy with, you know, a cheap cologne in it. And you could just tell that he was desperate and that he was tired of doing cheap tricks. He wanted to do real magic.

BLOCK: Does this happen often that characters appear to you and you smell their hair pomade?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICAMILLO: No, not the smelling of hair products. That's probably a singular thing, but you're always waiting for that image or that character to show up. And you never know when it's going to happen and it seems to be something out of your control.

BLOCK: He's a great little kid, Peter. He has a lot of faith in his own memory and his own belief and it takes a while for it to come to the surface, but he knows what he believes.

Ms. DICAMILLO: Yes. And he dares to hope and to continue to hope, even though he does think occasionally that it might be easier to despair. But he doesn't stay there. He bounces back to hope.

BLOCK: And his hope in particular is...

Ms. DICAMILLO: That he can find his sister, who he has become separated from, who he has believed for quite some time to actually be dead and who he then finds out is alive.

BLOCK: The notion of faith and memory and how, sort of, intertwined those are with children, those are pretty heavy things to be putting on pretty young, thin shoulders that you write about, but it seems to come up in your children's books time and again.

Ms. DICAMILLO: I do seem to have some thematic preoccupations, which I can't get away from. They keep on showing up again and again. And I think that children, being human beings, are as preoccupied with those big things as we are as adults. And I think it does them a huge disservice to assume that they are living in a world different than the one that we live in.

BLOCK: Well, that's an interesting notion right there, that we maybe don't give kids enough credit for what they know and maybe over-cleanse, over-sanitize what we expect them to read and…

Ms. DICAMILLO: And over-insist that they don't see what's right in front of them.

BLOCK: Can I tell you what I think my favorite little moment in the book is?

Ms. DICAMILLO: I'm glad that you have any favorite moment at all. You can list all your favorite moments.

BLOCK: I have a few.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: But there's one, and I'm not sure quite why it grabs me, and I'm not, frankly, sure quite why it's in there, but it's…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICAMILLO: Is that criticism? Is that literary criticism?

BLOCK: No, I'll explain.

Ms. DICAMILLO: Okay. Okay.

BLOCK: There's a manservant who has a memory from when he was a child of his dog leaping across a river. And the dog, he would remember, in mid-air would do a little flip, a little spin just to express the joy of being able to jump across this river. And it's not central to the story. It doesn't…

Ms. DICAMILLO: It is central to the story, in a way, though. Yeah, go ahead, I'm sorry, I interrupted.

BLOCK: Well, it triggers a memory. I mean, it triggers for him a memory, I guess.

Ms. DICAMILLO: And it becomes also this visual image of the impossible, that river that the small dog leaps across, she should not technically be able to do it. She's too small and the river is too wide. But she not only does it, she does it with - and I don't know how you say this word, even though I put it in the book - a filip, F-I-L-I-P, a filip of joy. Is that how you say it?

BLOCK: I think.

Ms. DICAMILLO: You're the one that's got more pronunciation skills than I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I think you got it.

Ms. DICAMILLO: So, not only does she go across, but like you said, she does just a little unnecessary gesture to show that this impossible thing is easy for her. I think that's central to the whole story. The impossible can happen and it can happen with grace and ease and joy.

BLOCK: And joy.


BLOCK: And a little bit of showing off.

Ms. DICAMILLO: And a little bit of showing off. Yeah.

BLOCK: Kate DiCamillo, what do you hate in children's books?

Ms. DICAMILLO: What do I hate in children's books? Wow, I feel like I'm really being set up now. I, myself, as a child, hated it when somebody was writing a story to teach me a lesson. I was happy to take my facts from non-fiction, but I did not want somebody with an agenda telling me a story, and so I always kind of stay away from that as a storyteller myself.

There can be and there are and there necessarily must be lessons or meaning in a story, but they should not be the reason that you're telling the story. They should be just a part of the story, an organic part of it, and they should be as much a revelation to the writer as they are to the reader because the more I go around and talk about this book, the more I learn about what's in it.

BLOCK: You learn about it after the fact.

Ms. DICAMILLO: I learn about it in talking to other people about it, yeah.

BLOCK: What do you learn?

Ms. DICAMILLO: Well, you know, it's so funny because so many people have told me absolutely emphatically that this is a book about hope. And then somebody - I just got an email from a friend the other day who said this is a book about grief. I think both of those things are true.

BLOCK: And what do kids say?

Ms. DICAMILLO: Kids think it's pretty funny that an elephant would land in the lap of a noble one(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Kids are smart.

Ms. DICAMILLO: Yeah. And I did have one kid say to me: This book begins with a cataclysmic event. Was there a cataclysmic event in your own life that made you write it? And I thought, wow, you don't want to mess around with kids because they will - they'll put their finger right on it, you know?

BLOCK: And what did you tell him?

Ms. DICAMILLO: I said sure, yeah. There was a - I said you don't need to know what the cataclysmic event was, but that was - it was born of my cataclysmic event, yes.

BLOCK: How old a kid was this that cataclysmic was in his vocabulary?

Ms. DICAMILLO: Isn't that a great word, cataclysmic? He was 10.

BLOCK: Good for him.


BLOCK: Well, Kate DiCamillo, thanks so much for coming in. Great to talk to you.

Ms. DICAMILLO: Well, thank you for letting me be here.

BLOCK: Kate DiCamillo's latest book is "The Magician's Elephant." To hear more of our conversation and get a look inside her writer's notebook, go to our Web site

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