At Ci4, Kate DiCamillo Discusses Power of Stories to Connect

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A full day of education on Wednesday, June 22, at the Children’s Institute in Orlando, Florida, began with the keynote address “Owning the Power of Stories, Harnessing the Power of Connection” by two-time Newbery Award winner Kate DiCamillo.

Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas, who introduced the author to the breakfast crowd, said DiCamillo “has always occupied a place in the hearts of indie booksellers… No matter where her books are set, Kate’s themes of hope and belief among challenging circumstances have resonated with readers of all ages around the world.”

The truth of Koehler’s statement was evident in booksellers’ emotional reaction to DiCamillo’s speech. The author’s message of the power of connection particularly resonated after the previous week’s attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub by a gunman who killed 49 people and injured 53.

In her remarks, DiCamillo, whose newest book for young readers is Raymie Nightingale (Candlewick Press), admitted to booksellers that it took her many years to stop feeling like a fraud as a writer. Even though she has been writing and publishing books for the past 13 years, DiCamillo said that her feeling of being a fraud was as true when, as a bookseller at Half Price Books in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, she published her first novel, Because of Winn Dixie, as it was when she was asked to serve as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in 2014 and 2015.

As a children’s author, “I traveled, I spoke to kids, and I spoke to librarians, signed books, did interviews,” DiCamillo said, explaining that the whole time she wondered: “When were people going to discover that I had been given the blue ribbon by mistake?”

However, DiCamillo said, her fear of being seen as undeserving was mitigated by her belief in the importance of the opportunity she had been given to spread the power of books and stories to connect people. Realizing that “what I do as a storyteller, as a writer, as someone who talks about stories and writing, matters,” DiCamillo said, got her over her doubts.

DiCamillo illustrated the origins of her belief in the power of connection with examples from her shy girlhood in Florida. She related a “strange and dreamy moment” she had while riding on a glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs amusement park: spotting a gigantic silverfish as it passed beneath her feet led her to talk to the stranger sitting next to her, a rare feat for shy Kate.

“I was suddenly looking down at myself and the secret world below my feet, the world of silverfish and turtles revealed to me by the glass…The marvels of this world and its secrets had managed to insert a small wedge into my heart. I had opened up a little bit,” said DiCamillo.

“The glass-bottom boat rides at Silver Springs went a long way to convincing me there’s another world within this world if you have another way of looking,” she said. “Stories are glass-bottom boats. We sit together and look together at this world and the worlds hidden inside it.”

DiCamillo also discussed how, in grade school, this same belief helped her to relate to other children. One day, as her teacher read aloud from Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins in class, she saw that the class bully, whom she had always feared, was just as enraptured by the book as she was.

“He wasn’t a monster, he was a kid, a kid who liked to hear a story,” DiCamillo said. “I had seen [him], and he had seen me. This happened because of a story read out loud.”

Over the years, this experience of realizing the power of story has come to DiCamillo’s aid again and again. When she stepped into the role of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, DiCamillo said, she was uncertain and shaky, but it helped to remind herself that what she was doing was not about her.

“It was about stories; it was about stories mattering to kids and teachers and librarians and booksellers, it was about the power of stories. It was what I talked about everywhere I went, connecting through stories,” said DiCamillo.

“When we read together, when a grandparent reads to a grandchild, when everyone in the town reads the same book silently together, we’re taken off the horrible rock of aloneness; we connect, and when we connect, we change. That was the message I wanted to deliver as ambassador.”

Books and stories teach us to reach out to others and to be brave, a message DiCamillo said she needed during her confusing childhood in a broken home, just like her latest character, Raymie Nightingale. DiCamilllo ended her talk by suggesting that booksellers reach out and be brave themselves, by talking to fellow booksellers about programs that bring people together, whether it is working with local schools to get an entire grade reading the same book, or staging a community read-aloud event at a nursing home.

“Stories matter, bringing people together around stories matters. I know that you know that. I know that you believe it,” she said. “This is what booksellers do. You bring the writers to readers; you connect them and it changes lives.”