KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
If you're dealing with the pain of loss and abandonment, how do you get through it? A lot of us adults ask that question, and writer Kate DiCamillo took it on with a 10-year-old character named Raymie Nightingale. That's also the title of her new book. And the Newbery Medal award-winning novelist joins us from Minneapolis to talk about it. Welcome to the show.
KATE DICAMILLO: Thank you, Kelly. It makes me sound like a barrel of monkeys, that introduction, you know?
MCEVERS: (Luaughter) What do you mean?
DICAMILLO: (Laughter) It's, like, oh, boy...
MCEVERS: Loss and abandonment.
MCEVERS: Well, but seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl who we will soon talk about - her name is Raymie Nightingale. Her story was born, I understand, while you were going around and talking to children. You were the Library of Congress's national ambassador for young people's literature, and as you were talking to kids, you would put up a picture of your family. And you would ask them a question, right?
DICAMILLO: I - what I did was, I talked to the kids about how I became a writer, and I talked to them about myself as a kid. Then I would put up this picture of my mother, my brother and me, and I would say to them, who's missing? And clearly it's my father, and they got that right away.
And that happened when I was six years old. We moved from Philadelphia to Central Florida, and - for me, ostensibly, because I was a really sickly kid, and I kept on getting pneumonia. They said move to a warmer climate. That's how old I am. It was a geographical cure.
DICAMILLO: And my father was supposed to - he was an orthodontist - was going to sell his practice and move down to Florida, but that never happened. And I saw him again. You know, I would sometimes spend the summer with him, and he would visit us. But he never lived with us. And as a kid, it - you ask a question. Why, and what can I do differently?
MCEVERS: When do you think you stopped feeling that?
DICAMILLO: Wow, now we're really doing therapy.
DICAMILLO: (Laughter) No, it's good. I don't know. I don't - maybe 40. (Laughter) What am I now? I'm 52, yeah.
MCEVERS: I don't know.
DICAMILLO: You start to get a sense of who you are, but it takes a while, you know?
MCEVERS: Raymie Nightingale has a lot in common with you.
DICAMILLO: (Laughter) Yes.
MCEVERS: She's - you have said - I mean, she's - I mean, it's set in Central Florida in the '70s at a time in a place where you also grew up. What else do the two of you have in common?
DICAMILLO: Well, I don't why. I don't know what my mother was thinking, but she entered me in a little-miss contest. Little Miss Orange Blossom, I think it was.
MCEVERS: And then...
DICAMILLO: And I don't remember anything about that except I have one flashbulb memory of standing on the stage and thinking, this is not where I should be, you know?
DICAMILLO: Raymie - she's very much like the child that I was - very introverted, watching worrying, wondering but also hopeful.
MCEVERS: In this book, Raymie Nightingale has a plan, right? Her father has left, and she has come up with a plan to get him to come back. I was wondering if you could read that. It starts on page eight.
DICAMILLO: OK. (Reading) The way that Raymie imagined her plan unfolding was that her father would be sitting in some restaurant in whatever town he'd run away to. He would be with Lee Ann Dickerson, the dental hygienist. They would be sitting together in a booth, and her father would be smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, and Leanne would be doing something stupid and inappropriate like maybe filing her nails, which you should never do in public.
At some point, Raymie's father would put out his cigarette and open the paper and clear his throat and say, let's see what we can see here. And what he would see would be Raymie's picture. He would see his daughter with a crown on her head and a bouquet of flowers in her arms and a sash across her chest that said, Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975. And Raymie's father, Jim Clarke of Clarke Family Insurance would turn to Lee Ann and say, I must return home immediately; everything has changed. My daughter is now famous. She has been crowned Little Miss Central Florida Tire. That's the way Raymie imagined it would happen.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) Inappropriate to file your nails in public. The book is also about two - these two other characters that Raymie teams up with - Beverly Tapinski and Louisiana
Elefante (laughter). Is that the...
DICAMILLO: Yes, good job.
MCEVERS: ...Right way to pronounce her name? You know, Beverly's the tough one. Louisiana is - boy, Louisiana's a lot of things, right? She's...
MCEVERS: She's had a hard time, but she's just, like, endlessly optimistic. And you know, we follow this series of adventures that the three of them go on in just a span of a few days. Were those two characters inspire by people from your own childhood, or did you invent them?
DICAMILLO: When I sat down to write the book, I thought it was just going to be kind of a funny thing about an inept child - i.e. me - slash Raymie - being in a beauty contest, a place that she should not be. And then these characters that I did not anticipate, Louisiana and Beverly, showed up almost immediately. There's a moment in the book where, you know, because Beverly is this, you know, gruff kid who carries a pocket knife and is studying how she can crack safes and wants to sabotage the Little Miss Florida Tire contest.
MCEVERS: Oh, yeah.
DICAMILLO: But there's this moment in the book where they're in the nursing home, and there's this woman who keeps on screaming, take my hand. And Beverly, the toughest of all nuts, walks into this terrifying room and takes hold of this woman's hand. Talk about haunted. I'm still haunted by that moment because that's always the kind of kid that I wanted to be, and I wasn't. I wasn't brave enough to be that way. And...
MCEVERS: The one who's brave but also has heart.
DICAMILLO: Yeah, it takes a lot of bravery to be kind, you know?
MCEVERS: Did you learn anything new about yourself in writing about Raymie?
DICAMILLO: Yes, I did. And I don't want to give a spoiler alert about something that happens in the book, but it wasn't until after I finished the book that I thought, this - very clearly that I was, as a kid, stronger than I thought I was - and the scene where Raymie does something that surprises herself and surprised me and made me realize that thing about - that these hidden things that are inside all of us that you don't know are there - you're strong than you think you are.
MCEVERS: That's Kate DiCamillo. Her new book is "Raymie Nightingale." Thank you so much.
DICAMILLO: Well, you're a champ, Kelly. Thank you.
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