by CD Davidson-Hiers | September 28, 2022
Kate DiCamillo Reminisces on Her Old Florida Childhood
How Florida’s wild backyards shaped one of the most prolific children's authors of our time.
Before Kate DiCamillo was a bestselling author, she was just another kid from Florida, running barefoot through Clermont back when it was still a labyrinth of orange groves.
At five years old she roamed freely through the groves until her feet were so tough she could tread barefoot across sunbaked macadam. When she wasn’t playing hide-and-seek among the citrus she was climbing trees, venturing down to Lake Minnehaha and building furniture out of Spanish moss-covered branches—until one of them came down with a case of the red bugs.
Sometimes she’d take to two wheels, riding bikes with a troupe of kids and winding up on her neighbor’s porch for a tall tale or two. Looking back, she said it was during those front-porch sessions that her love for stories ignited.
“We got this storytelling tradition that was very much a part of what formed me, too,” DiCammillo said.
She and the other adventurous kids would spend long summer days soaking in their wild freedom until the first sign of stars called them home for dinner. It was a time before Disney, when Florida was still as wild as the kids hungry to explore it.
This childhood grew into DiCamillo’s novels, and though she now lives in Minnesota, this sense of raw Florida never really left her.
“It’s just a part of me,” DiCamillo says.
What a Dog Can Do
In fourth grade, I read DiCamillo’s award-winning children’s novel “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a story about a young girl named Opal lost in the microcosm of a Florida trailer park.
Winn-Dixie, a bounding and joyous dog, enters Opal’s life, complete with fleas and grime, and becomes her companion, confidant and confidence booster as she finds her place in her new home.
I grew up as an only child on a 40-acre horse farm 45 minutes north of Pensacola. It was an idyllic, wild, fierce and nature-bound childhood. And it was DiCamillo who penned the first book that told me someone else in the world saw me, too.
I was surrounded by animals and knew them as friends. They are how I learned about emotion: by watching ears twitch and feathers ruffle, tails wag and muscles shiver.
When I went to school downtown, I left that behind for a crowded classroom filled with children struggling to articulate our half-clear thoughts and blunt observations of a world we had yet to explore.
When I read “Because of Winn- Dixie” aloud during class, I saw myself in Opal—a kid who felt the insistent, comforting presence of an animal as a companion.
Opal meets the scrappy stray who would become Winn-Dixie in the first chapter of the book as he bounds through the grocery store, knocking oranges and produce to the ground. He barrels over the manager, and Opal calls to him. He smiles at her in the way dogs do.
“I had never before in my life seen a dog smile,” Opal thinks, “but that is what he did.”
She takes him home to where she lives with her father, an aloof preacher, in a trailer park where kids aren’t allowed—but she’s an exception. She tells Winn-Dixie “he had to act like an exception, too” and not cause trouble with the cats around the place. She begs her father to let her keep him.
“He was an ugly dog,” Opal thinks, “but already I loved him with all my heart.”
We talked in class about belonging, about Opal’s relationship to Winn-Dixie, and I saw myself at home surrounded by our dogs—the ones I’d raised from puppies, born underneath my wooden playhouse. These were the dogs who would define a large part of my childhood, who would teach me about patience, fear, anger and friendship.
“It’s hard not to immediately fall in love with a dog who has a good sense of humor,” Opal says, and at 10 years old in fourth grade, I knew Opal and I understood each other. Two decades later, the book is still part of my middle school’s curriculum.
Giving in to Grief
What gives resonance to DiCamillo’s work—and why many Americans can recognize at least one of her books—is that she is a shapeshifter of the kindest order and can put herself right back into the mind of a child.
“I was one, once,” she says.
Her books have twice won the John Newbery Medal for children’s literature, she’s been a finalist twice and longlisted for the National Book Awards, and has served for two years as the Library of Congress’ national ambassador for young people’s literature, among a resume of other recognitions.
Another DiCamillo novel, “Tiger Rising,” had its big screen debut as a feature film directed by Ray Giarratana this January. The book tells the story of a young boy in Florida who finds a tiger locked in a cage in the woods. After the death of his mother, the boy confronts his grief and faces the decision of whether to release the tiger from captivity.
In early 2020, I was on site for some of the filming of this tale in Thomasville, Georgia, just 45 minutes north of Florida’s capital, while working for a Tallahassee newspaper. This was before COVID-19 became a household word.
I toured the school where some of the scenes were shot and met several cast members and producers. We spoke about the story’s importance and the lightness of hope that comes from releasing grief. In this case, that release centers on the choice a young boy makes about freeing a tiger from its cage.
The emotions that resonated on set—as many of the actors, who were children themselves, scampered past—would be a premonition for the future.
I think that we all, now more than ever, need to grieve and to let our sorrow rise up.
— Kate DiCamillo
COVID-19 swept through Florida a month later, and two years on when speaking with her over the phone, DiCamillo told me that watching the film helped her release the grief we all experienced from living through the pandemic.
“I think that we all, now more than ever, need to grieve and to let our sorrow rise up and that movie taps into that,” she said. “That need to acknowledge our grief.”
After touring the Thomasville set, I met DiCamillo at a Tallahassee high school for a stop on her book tour promoting another middle-grade series she’d written. Children in the audience peppered her with questions, their books in hand, with details pulled from her work that could’ve earned them a college English degree.
DiCamillo told me she loves what kids notice in her writing, and how often kids are closer readers than even she. One young reader sent her an outline for several sequels to her works with instructions for her to get started. One of the kids I spoke with about DiCamillo’s books said he just wanted to see more dragons. Endeared, DiCamillo told me, “I’m not dragon-adverse.”
Back to Her Florida Roots
Today, more houses line the dead-end street where DiCamillo grew up, but the same magnificent oak trees that she once climbed stand sentinel at the entrance to the road.
“It’s so easy to take myself back there and walk around,” DiCamillo said on the phone, thinking back on her memories.
She returned to her childhood Cooper Memorial Library in 2016 while on a book tour. While the location had changed over the years, many of the people who came to see her were familiar faces she had grown up with. It was a profound summation of her career: going home to the overwhelming celebration of her work.
“I felt how that community raised me,” she said of the experience. “I knew what it was like to grow up in that small town, and then I felt how much those people–teachers, librarians, neighbors, all these people–had helped raise me.”
It’s still easy to picture a well-worn childhood off Sunset Drive, where DiCamillo was raised with the liberty of roaming the great outdoors, and an imagination growing as abundantly as the once-plentiful orange groves.
She writes characters that cannot help but be exactly who they are, like the child she once was, who belongs so fiercely to our feral Florida landscape.
“It’s that intensity of being a kid,” she said. “Everything was so vivid, so alive.”
And in the pages of DiCamillo’s books, readers of all ages are taken right back to the days when Spanish moss-covered sticks and winding orange groves held infinite possibilities, when each day sparked curiosity and creativity, when a simple smile from a shaggy dog could change our whole world.