Thursday, January 2, 2014

Interview: Kate DiCamillo, new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature

Cue the triumphal march! Bring out the scepter – or the wand! We have a new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature!
In case you haven’t heard, Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo, 49, has just been chosen as the fourth person to take over the job first created in 2008 by the Library of Congress.
So how does it feel to take over a job previously held by “Stinky Cheese Man” author Jon Scieszka (he had a triumphal march), Newbery Medalist Katherine Paterson (she had a wand) and multiple-award-winning author Walter Dean Myers (he used a scepter)?
“I’m intimidated but happy,” Kate said in a brief interview this morning from her Minneapolis home.
Kate’s efforts in her two-year tenure as ambassador will be centered on her theme of “Stories Connect Us.”
“I would just love for as many people as possible to understand the power of reading together,” said Kate, who won the 2004 Newbery Medal for “A Tale of Despereaux.” “In this new role, I want to encourage more people to read together and, if that happens, I’ll be thrilled.
“I was a kid who was lucky enough to be read to in a variety of ways,” Kate said. “I really want to show people how stories can help us connect with each other.”
Kate hasn’t yet been officially been inaugurated as the new ambassador. That happens on January 10 at the Library of Congress when the current ambassador, Walter Dean Myers, turns over the keys to the children’s literature kingdom to Kate. The day before that, January 9, Kate will appear with her three predecessors  at a 4 p.m. event at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. If you’re in the area, it’s worth heading over there for a rare opportunity to meet these stars of the children’s literature world.
Kate was asked to fill the ambassador’s position back in the early fall, and has had to keep the secret until today’s official announcement
“I’m getting very good in my old age at keeping my mouth shut,” she laughed. Kate added that she knows it’s a big job, “but when they asked me, how could I say no?”
Kate’s still not sure exactly how she’ll use her job as ambassador to highlight her theme of “Stories Connect Us.” In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Kate talked about doing “community reads” as one way for people of many ages to connect through stories.
Kate began writing for children when she moved from Florida to Minneapolis at the age of 30 to try to jump-start her ambition to be an author. Her rise in the world of children’s literature has been meteoric. Kate’s first book, “Because of Winn-Dixie” was published in 1999 and won a 2000 Newbery Honor. Her second book, “The Tiger Rising,” was a nominee for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and she won the Newbery Medal for “The Tale of Despereaux” her  third book.
Kate is also the author of two popular beginning reader series, the “Mercy Watson” books and the “Bink & Gollie” series, which was co-written with Alison McGhee. Kate’s latest novel, “Flora & Ulysses,” has received a huge amount of critical acclaim and also is a word-of-mouth best-seller among the kids at my library. In my own review, I called it “the kind of literary tour de force that someone only as talented as DiCamillo could possibly pull off.”
As she takes over the ambassador’s position, Kate lamented in the Publishers Weekly interview that she’ll likely have to trade her trademark jeans for a dress – which she’ll have to purchase. But she also told me that she relishes the chance to take over the job first held by the hilarious Jon Scieszka, who loved playing a recording of a “triumphal march” created for him by some elementary school students during his ambassadorial tenure.

“Jon’s still in my phone as ‘Mr. Ambassador,’” she said. “Now, I’ll have to change it to ‘Mr. Ex-Ambassador!’”

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