I'm glad Eleanor is a fan of Flora and Ulysses. I really like it too. As I said before the American Library Association awards were announced, the field of contenders seemed very wide. There wasn't anything that I really loved over anything else. The choices for both the Newbery and the Caldecott this year don't feel inevitable, but they're satisfying. Well-crafted books that can engage kids. I have no complaints.
Kate DiCamillo is a very interesting author and person. Her books, as you point out, are often multi-layered, with disturbing elements as well as funny and emotionally satisfying ones. Her father apparently left her family when she was five, which could help explain the anxiety about parents that goes through many of her books. The mother is the villian through much of Flora and Ulysses; her parents' separation is a constant worry for Flora. In Tale of Despereaux, the queen (mother of Princess Pea) dies early. Opal's mother in Because of Winn-Dixie, DiCamillo's first book, is an alcoholic who left the family before the action of the story. But in all those books, the overwhelming take-away is the engaging and tough personalities of the main characters. We remember Opal and her dog, Flora and her superhero squirrel, the humans and rodents of Desperaux. I've occasionally asked a parent who's read Winn-Dixie about the alcoholic mother, and I rarely find anyone who remembers that issue. The sense of humor mixed with emotional turmoil makes for very good books.
The Bink and Gollie books and the Mercy Watson ones are younger and lovely in their own ways. I love your description of the pig Mercy Watson as "in some ways truly pig-like." My favorite title of the six books is Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig.
But then there's a stranger darker side to DiCamillo. I usually describe The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, the story of a china rabbit who goes through many trials, as a love-it-or-hate-it book. When it came out in 2006 Michael Patrick Hearn gave it a glowing review in the New York Times, ending with, "one reading is hardly enough to savor the rich philosophical nuances of DiCamillo's story. I think I will go read it again right now." Elizabeth Ward, in the Washington Post, came down on the hate-it side: "I had trouble recalling the last time I had read such a bleak and manipulative story: Tess of the d'Urbervilles maybe." That's where I am too, so here's a longer quote:
Edward, you see, is a vain, pampered, cold-hearted rabbit, incapable of love; it's convenient that he's made of china, because china is breakable, and Edward, apparently, must be broken -- violently, repeatedly, spiritually, physically -- before he can experience "genuine and true emotion." If that sounds bizarre, it is.It's always confused me that the ultimately warm-hearted optimistic author of the books I like can write something so bleak.
I've seen DiCamillo speak several times: she's an incredibly upbeat person, cracking jokes at a rapid rate. The most recent time, she was on stage at the annual booksellers' convention in a conversation with the venerable Cynthia Voigt (you wrote about her here). At one point the moderator asked about their writing routines. Both women, it turned out, felt they did their best work before brushing teeth: they got up in the mornings and immediately started writing.
DiCamillo: That voice that's in your head that says -- Who do you think you are, you don't know what you're doing -- that voice is not an early riser. That voice shows up at about 9 o'clock when I'm done with writing. I spend the rest of the day with that voice telling me that I don't know what I'm doing, but it is not there at 6 o'clock in the morning. I can write without that critic. (to Voigt:) You're looking stunned.The whole conversation is here. One definitely gets a sense of both women's personalities.
Voigt: You still have that voice?
DiCamillo: Oh my goodness, you don't still have that voice?
Voigt: I don't think I ever had that voice.... I was raised with the mantra that you can't do this, and my response was not accommodating (laughs).... My whole habit is that if anybody tells me I can't do something, that's the very thing I'm going to probably try to do.
So congratulations to Kate DiCamillo. And I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.