Kate DiCamillo brings readers back to the table

Books

After your very first novel receives a Newbery Honor and you go on to win two Newbery Medals; after you become a two-time finalist for the National Book Award; after several of your books are adapted for the big screen (not to mention a stage musical and an opera); after you’re named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature; and after your work becomes so commercially successful that you sell more than 40 million copies of your books—after you achieve all of that, what mountains are left for you to climb?

If you’re Kate DiCamillo, the author of such widely adored classics of 21st-century children’s literature as Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux and Flora & Ulysses, you write another excellent novel: Ferris. While many of DiCamillo’s earlier books feature young protagonists who must deal with the loss of a parent or caregiver through distance, divorce or death, Ferris is a story about a child “who has been loved from the minute that she arrived in the world.”

As we chat over Zoom, Ramona the dog snoozing in a chair next to her desk, DiCamillo reveals Ferris’ deeply personal roots. “My father passed away in November of 2019, and my best friend that I grew up with had her first grandchild on December 31 of 2019.” That date was also her father’s birthday. “I was estranged from my father,” she shares, characterizing their relationship as “very difficult.” As DiCamillo looked at photos of the new baby surrounded by parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, she wondered, “What happens if you write a story about a kid that is just so certain and safe” in her family’s love? “Is there a story in that?”

It turns out, there is.

Ferris follows its titular protagonist, Emma Phineas “Ferris” Wilkey, during the eventful summer before she enters fifth grade. She finds herself on the receiving end of an unfortunate new hairstyle from her Aunt Shirley, whose husband has moved out of their house and into Ferris’ family’s basement. Ferris’ father is convinced that raccoons have infested their attic. Her younger sister, the scene-stealing Pinky, has decided that she wants to be featured on a “wanted” poster and has attempted to achieve her goal through petty theft, an incident involving biting and a hilariously unsuccessful stickup at the local bank. Ferris’ best friend, Billy Jackson, keeps playing François Couperin’s “Mysterious Barricades” over and over on every piano he can find. And Ferris’ beloved grandmother, Charisse, has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure but seems more concerned with uncovering what a ghost might want—a ghost she insists has been appearing in her bedroom doorway.

It’s great that we’re meeting, but even if we never met, I would be there with you, because it’s not a story until it’s you and me, together.

That may sound like a lot for one novel to juggle, but DiCamillo balances it all with the ease of an expert orchestra conductor. She does it so well that some readers may be surprised to learn that DiCamillo describes the experience of creating a novel as an act of “writing behind my own back” and “always starting not knowing where I’m going to end up.”

Where Ferris ends up is a climactic dinner sequence straight out of a screwball comedy, in which every single one of the novel’s many narrative threads coalesces. Although it will have readers gasping with laughter, the seeds of the scene lie in more turbulent soil for DiCamillo. When she was growing up, the family table “was often a place of terror” because of her father. As she worked on the scene, DiCamillo says that she thought about the concept of “repetition compulsion, how you keep on doing something until it turns out differently.” Eventually, DiCamillo says that she realized, “Well, here we go, this is the same place I end up every time I write a story: everybody around the table, happy, safe and eating. It surprises me every time.”

DiCamillo hopes that, through her work as an author, she’s able to create spaces that feel this way for readers. “So much of good storytelling is leaving space for the reader.” When she meets children at book events, she tells them, “It’s great that we’re meeting, but even if we never met, I would be there with you, because it’s not a story until it’s you and me, together. That’s what makes it a story, is both of us being there.”

Perhaps this is why DiCamillo becomes visibly emotional when she discusses what it’s like to write against a backdrop of rising censorship and book bans in schools and libraries across the country. “If there is any hope for us,” she says, “it is in being able to see and feel for each other, and books are a vehicle for doing that. Stories help us see each other and help us see ourselves.” She even confesses that she can’t talk about this subject “without weeping, because I know from personal experience and I’ve seen it with other kids: The right book at the right time will save somebody’s life.”

It’s a transformative power that every reader has experienced, but a power that Ferris is only just beginning to understand. Throughout the novel, Ferris reflects on the words that her “vocabulary-obsessed” fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Mielk, taught her. (“All of life hinges on knowing the right word to use at the right time,” Mrs. Mielk claims.) As a child, DiCamillo found it incredibly difficult to learn to read and only succeeded thanks to her mother’s tireless efforts. “I knew that’s what I needed, were those words,” she explains. “What Ferris has—those words, that family, that table to sit around—that’s the way I want the reader to feel too. It’s like, you are invited here, to this place. Now look, you have all those words. You have this table. You have this family. You emerge feeling loved.”

Ferris’ grandmother, Charisse, often tells Ferris that “every good story is a love story.” With Ferris, DiCamillo has created a truly great story, and it’s brimming with love.

Photo of Kate DiCamillo by Dina Kantor.

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