Tag Archives: Kate DiCamillo

Where does Inspiration Come From?

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

But it is the same story, over and over in many ways, you know. I’m always obsessed with the same things, and I think that most writers are. You get a couple of themes and if you’re lucky, you can keep on turning it and shining different light on it, but it’s always that forgiveness and redemption and friendship and hope. So where does the inspiration come from? I always have a notebook with me, I eavesdrop, I write down what people say. It’s very rare that one of those things will provoke a story, but I think that that kind of paying attention all the time, and keeping everything open, lets the stories come in. But where they come from is still a mystery to me.

Kate DiCamillo

To Love the World

“I think our job is to love the world.”    Kate DiCamillo

Some days it takes courage to love this world of ours.  Some days it feels easier–simpler, anyway—to pretend this fragile planet, badly used in so many ways, isn’t owed anything so demanding as love.

And when I say “badly used,” I’m talking about more than greenhouse gases and plastic clogging our seas and a climate spinning out of control.

I’m talking about a world bristling with nuclear weapons.  I’m talking about leaders—especially those in my own country—who for the past fifty years and more have believed in such monstrosities, manufactured them, stockpiled them, brandished them, used them on a civilian population . . . leaders who clearly hunger to use them again.

I’m talking about laws in this “land of the free” created and interpreted and enforced to protect a tiny fraction of our citizenry, those who are rich, white, male, heterosexual.

I’m talking about the wealthiest nation in the world where every day food goes to waste by the ton while too many of its citizens go hungry.

I’m talking about  . . . but what is the point of more talk?

We know.  We all know.  And knowing seems to bring only despair, and despair does nothing to feed love.

Kate De Camillo, however, says “our job is to love the world” and Kate is a wise woman.

What does it mean, though, to love?  It is such an easy word to say, so friendly sounding, convenient, all encompassing.  But love takes thought and attention and lots and lots of hard work.  I know that from trying to live love every day within the confines of a family, within a community of friends.  I know, too, that love has very little to do with feeling and a great deal to do with doing.

Love is a verb, after all.  An active verb, any English teacher would be glad to point out.

So what does it mean to love the world?  This world.  The one we stand upon today.  The one descending into chaos all around us.

And how can my loving make the tiniest bit of difference?

I am a storyteller.  Only that.  The best of my energy and passion and talent turns itself into stories, stories meant to challenge and to heal.

Many years ago I cast a book into the world that spoke against war, hoping to build a longing for peace in my readers.  My book’s title was Rain of Fire, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom gave Rain of Fire a nice award.

Rain of Fire – Marion Dane Bauer

And war did not stop.  It did not even pause

Again and again I hold the natural world up in my stories.  I write about the flora and the fauna and the arching blue sky with reverence, hoping to generate reverence in my readers.

And the flora and the fauna and the arching blue sky go on being abused without end.

I write about families, struggling to nurture, to survive.

And families go on struggling . . . to nurture, to survive.

Clearly my stories are not a fix for anything.  And yet they are the deepest gift that has been given into my hands.

They are my love for this chaotic world made manifest.

I write these stories with all the honesty, with all the passion, with all the intelligence I possess.  They are my strength and my determined hope.  They are the gift—very nearly the only gift—I have to give the children coming up behind me.

Are my stories enough?  Of course, not.  Nothing I do alone will ever be enough.  Yet each story lives out its life as a fragment of a larger love.

And only love, all our love gathered together, has any hope of saving this beleaguered world.

What is your gift?  What is the work of your love?

A Freudian Slip

It was one of those amusing Freudian slips.

Last week I posted a quote on this blog from Kelly Barnhill’s Newbery acceptance speech and dated the speech as having been delivered in 1987.  Kelly would have been fourteen years old in 1987.  I don’t know her though she lives in my community, but when the good folks at Winding Oak who manage my website caught my error, I looked her up.

The real year of Kelly’s speech was 2017.  How did I come by 1987?  That’s the year my novel, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor.

On My Honor

A couple of times a month two good friends and I gather for conversation.  Our topic, aging.  We are old ladies, though I’m farther along the old-lady spectrum than either of them.  We talk about our fears, our hopes, the deep changes we are experiencing.  We own up to what we are losing, celebrate the places where we are still learning, still growing.  We’ve decided that it’s perfectly all right to talk about our physical ailments, too, something we don’t usually put on display.  And at the end of our conversation we look at one another, take a deep breath, and say, “Thank you.  This was really useful!”

Credit jclk8888 | morguefile.com

The day before my thirty-year slip with the date of Kelly’s speech appeared on my website, we three had been talking about the young who are taking our places.  One of these friends is a retired psychology professor.  She said she still sees reference to her published articles, but she knows they will grow fewer.  “Once research is more than ten years old,” she said, and her words trailed into a shrug.  And yet she has moved on to new territory, a master gardener, a fabric artist.  Roles she had little time for when she was immersed in her career.

The other is a retired therapist.  She with some others founded an institute designed to bring psychology and spirituality under the same roof.  She talked about how all of her companions in that groundbreaking work have moved on in one way or another, and yet how satisfying it was to go back and see that what they founded still thrives.

And I am still a working writer, though my work leaves my desk at a much slower rate these days.  And I spoke about the way the field that has challenged and sustained me for more than forty years has evolved in my wake.  I suspect that many of my early novels would never be published today, not because they were bad novels but because the world wants something different now.  Even so I feel validated by these changing standards, not erased by them.  I was one of many who helped create a world that made it possible for these new standards, these new writers to grow.

Recently, I read Kelly’s Newbery award novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.  (I listened to it, actually, a new kind of “reading” I have discovered as I make my way back and forth across the city in a succession of thirty-minute segments.  It seems that everyplace I go is thirty minutes away.)  And I was delighted by the grace of the writing and the wisdom of the writer.  By the world she created out of ancient elements while making her story wholly new.   By the skill of the narrator, too, in this audio rendition.

And I thought . . . how lucky I am to belong to a field that contains Kelly Barnhill and Katherine Paterson and Neil Gaiman and Kate DiCamillo and Kevin Henkes and Debby Dahl Edwardson and all the as yet unknown writers who will follow us as we tumble, one after another, into obscurity.  What a blessing to have been a part of all that good work.

If, for a brief moment, I conflated Kelly’s award with my own . . . so be it.  I’m glad to have flashed across the stage with her, if only in my own mind.  (If you go back to check on the mistake, you’ll find it corrected now.)

What matters isn’t that my day in the sun has passed or that even Kelly’s is passing.  What matters is that the work, our work, day by day by day, is good.  What matters is that we each lived our gifts, brought them singing into the world.  (This, not just for my fellow writers, but for my old-lady friends who did other good work as well.)

What matters is that, however minutely, our living and thus our song changed the world forever.

The Adult Narrator in a Children’s Story

Last week I quoted Dallas Bradel and her support for my call to keep adults more present in stories for young people. I agreed, of course, with all she said.

But she had more to offer, and this is the way she continued her very articulate argument:

I applaud your understanding of the importance of supportive, likeable adults in the lives of your protagonists.  In Little Dog, Lost, Mark’s mother and the lonely old man give readers some insight into the value of adults as human beings and as allies in navigating the challenges of life. 

I will add, however, that I found the parenthetical comments from the adult narrator in A Very Little Princess and Little Dog, Lost to be distracting intrusions into the narrative. I kept wanting to say, “Hush, I don’t care about the dog park; you’re interrupting Marion’s story about Mark and the dog.” 

Could you possibly feel satisfied to be present as an adult voice strictly through your adult characters, without making sidebar comments to your reader? Just wondering. 

She and I carried the conversation on a bit further through e-mail and she clarified her position this way:

Hope that my view was expressed clearly though, as I am not opposed to the adult voice in the story, as a character or as a narrator telling her story. I am a huge advocate of the active presence of adults in children’s lives, both in reality and on the page.

In considering my negative feelings about the outside narrator whom I experienced as intruding via the parenthetical remarks, I think that that storyteller voice felt to me less like a comforting figure than like a benevolent know-it-all who thought I needed regular explanations in order to understand the story. Does that make sense? 

Yes, Dallas, it makes sense. She isn’t objecting to the looking-back-adult character through whom I told the stories in Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins—a stance that is still pretty much forbidden in stories for young people—but she is annoyed by the standing-outside-the-story and, I suspect even worse, the commenting-on-the-story narrative voice I’ve used in the two Very Little Princess books and in Little Dog, Lost. A voice I happen to love.

So who is right here? It’s easy—perhaps too easy—to say this is all a matter of taste. And in part it certainly is that. I’ve heard folks complain about the same thing in Kate D’Camillo’s use of a very intentionally old-fashioned-sounding adult narrator in The Tale of Despereaux, a literary device I enjoyed. (Again, we’re talking about adults who read and discuss children’s books. not the young readers who are intended to be the primary audience.)

I wonder if anyone has asked kids how they feel about having such an adult filter? I remember reading Little Women to my daughter when she was eight or nine. Soon after I started I thought, “Oh dear. She isn’t going to put up with this preachy, teachy voice!” But when I closed the book she wanted to know when we would read again.

The truth is that when I set out to use that adult narrator, I didn’t ask anyone, adult or child, whether they liked my storyteller’s voice. I used that voice because I needed it. It’s that simple. The wise, kindly adult providing a window into my children’s world was there for me because I found it comforting. I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that at least some of my readers would feel the same way. Where does that need come from?  No place very mysterious. This past decade has been a time of deep losses for me, ones I could do nothing to prevent, and that storyteller voice is what has come to me out of those losses  It makes me feel safe inside my own story.

Can I justify my decision in literary terms? No. I can only say again, I wrote those stories as they were given to me, as they sang themselves in my heart. They will—as all stories do—work for some readers and not for others. Not a very satisfying answer, I know.

It is, in truth, the only one I have.