Minnesota author Kate DiCamillo is back on bookshelves with a new novel for young readers: "Raymie Nightingale."
It's her first new book since she won the Newbery Medal in 2014 for "Flora & Ulysses." That was DiCamillo's second Newbery win: She also took home the prize in 2000 for "Because of Winn-Dixie."
DiCamillo joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about her new book and its autobiographical roots.
"Raymie Nightingale" is a Florida fairy tale, of sorts. The book takes place in the 1970s, in a small town in the Sunshine State, where DiCamillo herself grew up.
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It follows 10-year-old Raymie, whose father has run off with a dental hygienist. Raymie becomes determined to enter — and win — the Miss Central Florida Tire contest. She's sure that if her father sees her smiling victory picture in the paper, he will come back home. But first, she needs to learn to twirl a baton.
During baton lessons, Raymie meets two other aspiring contestants, equally lost in their own family dramas: Louisiana Elefante, a talented but sickly performer, and Beverly Tapinski, a fearless girl with plans to sabotage the pageant.
Each of the girls reflects a piece of DiCamillo's background, she said. Her own father left when she was young, and when she started writing the story of Raymie, she knew she "was biting off more than I could chew."
"It's a fact, and I survived it," DiCamillo said of her father leaving. "It shaped me, and it gave me great gifts in a way."
The pageant is also pulled from her own experiences. "I was in the Little Miss Orange Blossom Contest," she said. "I don't know how my mother signed me up for it, because there was nothing about me that said 'Little Miss Orange Blossom Contest.'"
In the book, the three girls form a friendship that is tested by a series of unexpected adventures. While writing, DiCamillo was continually surprised by where the characters took her. No amount of planning out the plot worked.
"I have to wait for those moments when things happen that I don't anticipate," DiCamillo said.
DiCamillo recently finished serving as the U.S. National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. During her two-year term, she spoke with students around the country about the power of books and her path to becoming a writer.
"I'm an introvert so it takes a big push to make myself go out there," she said. "But to look up and see a face that's excited about a book, it's the greatest gift. I love that, and I love that connection with those readers."