Kate DiCamillo, Chronicler Of The Hard Truths Of Youth She's hugely popular and comes across as something of a smart aleck, but the children's author says she retains the timidity of her youth. She says that helps her connect to her young readers.

Kate DiCamillo, Chronicler Of The Hard Truths Of Youth

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It's been 18 years since a book called "Because Of Winn-Dixie" changed author Kate DiCamillo's life. It was the first of her string of bestsellers for young readers, ranging from picture books to novels. Now DiCamillo has a new novel out, "Louisiana's Way Home." Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr reports her success is based on a determination to tell her readers the truth.

EUAN KERR, BYLINE: It's Saturday evening in St. Paul, and 400 parents and children have gathered for the launch of Kate DiCamillo's new book. The event was organized by the Red Balloon Bookshop, which hosted the launch of "Because Of Winn-Dixie." She told the audience she wrote that book right after moving to Minnesota from Florida.

KATE DICAMILLO: When I moved here, I knew that it was cold, but I thought, how cold can it be?


DICAMILLO: And I literally - this is true. I didn't have a jacket when I moved here, and I didn't have socks.

KERR: And she didn't have a dog, so she wrote one and named it Winn-Dixie. She told a crowd she didn't always want to be a writer.

DICAMILLO: When I was growing up, I wanted to be a veterinarian until something very unfortunate happened in a vet's office involving somebody's German shepherd and their eye falling out, and me outside, vomiting.

KERR: At the book signing afterwards, she bonded with one of her young readers over their four-legged friends.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So you're not a cat person, or you are a cat person?

DICAMILLO: You kind of picked up on it. No, I'm allergic to cats.


DICAMILLO: And I like to make jokes about...


DICAMILLO: ...Cats and, you know?


DICAMILLO: But, I mean, I would never hurt a cat.


DICAMILLO: And I'm sure you're going to tell me you've got a cat that's as good as a dog. No, you're not? OK, great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm a dog person.

DICAMILLO: You're a dog - do you like cats?


DICAMILLO: Yeah, right. You and I are on the same page, yeah.

KERR: With her red reading glasses perched atop her now-gray curls, DiCamillo is not much bigger than most of her young readers. Her friend and fellow author Julie Schumacher is struck by how DiCamillo seems to understand them.

JULIE SCHUMACHER: She has a sort of childlike frankness when she talks to them. And she will point at people and tell them to sit down and be quiet if she needs to, but she'll also connect to them one-on-one in a way that I think many other writers of children's lit who never had children were able to do as well, going back to C.S. Lewis.

KERR: That's right. Despite having written 25 books for youngsters, DiCamillo doesn't have children of her own. But she vividly remembers being one and not being taken seriously.

DICAMILLO: And it happened all the time because I looked like the kind of kid that should be patted on the head and, you know, sent to an orphanage. But I was actually very sarcastic.

KERR: She still is, and she knows her readers can take it.

DICAMILLO: One of the things that I love about interacting with kids is I get that chance to, like, see them as individuals and not to condescend to them. And that comes back to that whole larger thing about writing and telling the truth.

KERR: Her stories don't hold back about the hard truths of life. Julie Schumacher, who is also a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, says DiCamillo often writes about individuals - some human, some animal - facing the world alone.

SCHUMACHER: There is no beating around the bush. The characters suffer. There's great suffering in these books. There's great loneliness, a sense of abandonment that pervades everything she's written.

KERR: It's very much a part of DiCamillo's new book, "Louisiana's Way Home." It's the story of the orphaned Louisiana Elefante, who lives with her eccentric grandmother. Early one morning, Granny tells Louisiana they have to leave immediately to escape a family curse.

DICAMILLO: (Reading) So I got in the car, and we drove away. I did not think to look behind me. How could I have known that I was leaving for good? I thought that I was caught up in some middle-of-the-night idea of Granny's and that when the sun came up, she would think better of the whole thing. This has happened before. Granny has many middle-of-the-night ideas.

KERR: DiCamillo's stories aren't just for young people, said reading specialist Betsy Kelly at the launch of "Louisiana's Way Home."

BETSY KELLY: So many adults just want to read those books because they really are quality literature with depth and such amazing plotlines. And so a lot of adults love her books, too.

KERR: Despite legions of fans, Kate DiCamillo says she is sometimes scared by the unlikelihood of her success. Even though she comes across as a smart aleck, she admits to being timid. So she wants to send a message to her readers.

DICAMILLO: Guess what. You're going to be OK. And I didn't always believe that when I was a kid.

KERR: Kate DiCamillo's books may be filled with hard truths, but there are always moments of hope and joy. For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in St. Paul, Minn.


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