An interview with Kate DiCamillo
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with two-time Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo, one of America’s most revered storytellers.
Today we’re going to talk about The Beatryce Prophecy, a fantastical meditation on fate, love, and the power of words to spell the world. A few episodes back, I talked with two-time Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall. Among many things, we discussed The Beatryce Prophecy, for which Sophie created the artwork. Now I get to share my conversation with Kate about this incredible book and the many splendors and joys of reading.
Listen to the Interview
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Bianca Schulze: Hello, Kate DiCamillo. I am beyond excited to talk to you! I am an avid reader of your stories, and I have to say that The Beatryce prophecy, I think it might be my favorite book that you’ve written.
Kate DiCamillo: Oh, it’s so nice that you can’t see me because I haven’t combed my hair or brushed my teeth, but also because you can’t see me tearing up over that. What a beautiful thing to say. Thank you.
Before a book comes out, you feel really vulnerable, right? There’s nothing that you can do. It’s kind of like putting your kid on the school bus for the first day of school. There’s nothing that you can do. You’ve done everything you can do, and you just hope that the world is kind. So, thank you for liking it. It matters to me.
Bianca Schulze: I feel like, with a lot of your books, there’s usually the main plot between beginning and end, but I find that your main characters and even the side characters, I feel like they’re always trying to find their way home. And I don’t necessarily just mean home as in house. I just mean finding where they belong. And I just feel like that theme is often there. But your characters always go through a lot of transformation. And I’m wondering, when you started writing The Beatryce Prophecy, did you know where it was going from the moment you started writing?
Kate DiCamillo: Oh no. I have a lot of friends that write, and by the time they sit down and start writing, they know exactly what’s going to happen. So, everybody does it differently. For me, I have no idea and it’s a relatively terrifying way to write. But then I’m almost like the reader because I don’t know what will happen either. I don’t have any sense of certainty. So, I think you’re right that that seems to be one of my thematic preoccupations.
It’s this thing about finding your way home literally or metaphorically. And as I make my way through a story, not knowing what’s going to happen, it’s that feeling of like walking down a long, dark hallway, and you can see the little white light underneath the door at the end, just that little crack of light. And so as again and again, I seem to work over this thing of finding your way home; I’m literally doing that as I’m telling the story, trying to find my way home with the story and with those characters. Does that make sense?
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely. I feel like that comes across. I always feel as I’m reading—even if there’s a dark spot within the story—you can feel that there is a light at the end of the tunnel that we’re working towards. So that made complete sense to me.
Kate DiCamillo: Oh, beautiful.
Bianca Schulze: So, Beatryce, the main character of The Beatryce Prophecy … and by the way, I love the way Beatryce is spelled with that y at the end, the r y c e. I’m assuming that was a conscious choice to spell it that way?
Kate DiCamillo: It was. You’re the first person that’s asked about that, and it wasn’t that way in the beginning, like for the first few drafts. It took me a while to figure out that that’s what needed to happen. And it was like one of those things that didn’t happen as I was sitting there working, but rather I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, oh, it needs to be a y, and I don’t know where it came from or why I was so certain that that’s the way it should be. And it’s nice of you to notice that.
Bianca Schulze: The story takes place in a medieval setting. I almost feel like that’s how it would have been spelled at the time that she existed.
Kate DiCamillo: Yeah. I don’t have the finished copy. I’m just looking at the advanced reader. The font that Candlewick uses for the title, you’re right; that’s what it does. That y makes it look, along with that font, like it is from a different time.
Bianca Schulze: So, she lives in this medieval world, and it feels as though every male in her life, even the well-meaning ones (and there are some very well-meaning male characters and then possibly some not so well-meaning male characters in the story), they seem to suggest a lot along the way that she needs to be mute. But Beatryce, inside of her, is absolutely anything but mute. There’s also this theme that she’s trying to be who they want her to be, which is mute. Some of them, for a very good reason, want her to be mute. But ultimately, we know that if you don’t get to be true to yourself, it doesn’t lead to happiness or everything that’s right in the world. So anyway, for me, this theme of the male characters telling Beatryce to be mute, but she is absolutely anything but mute. So, talk to me about this.
Kate DiCamillo: Well, I’m just sitting here again. It’s nice that we don’t have the camera on because you can’t see me with my mouth hanging open thinking. That’s a fascinating point that some of these men who want her to be quiet like you said, have very good reasons for that. They’re trying to keep her safe, but she’s this strong character and she won’t let herself be silenced. It’s fascinating. I’m just kind of like … I’m processing all of that and thinking about how it goes into something I am aware of in the book.
You know, only after I’d written it did I figure this part out. The book is dedicated to my mother. That whole silencing that you’re talking about is so much a part of it because it goes back to how very lucky I was that I grew up in a house where my mother read to me and bought me books and took me to the library. But I was one of those kids who was desperate to learn how to read. I felt like I really needed it, and we learned how to read in first grade in those days, and I got into first grade, and they were teaching with phonics, which made no sense to me at all, and I just couldn’t get it.
So here I was, right on the verge of doing this thing, which I felt so profoundly I needed and wanted to do, which was to read a book by myself. And yet, I couldn’t do it. And I remember coming home from school hysterically telling my mother, you know, like, I was crying like, I don’t get it. I don’t understand what they’re talking about. I can’t do it. And my mother said, you know, for the love of Pete, calm down. She said a couple of really important things to me at this juncture. She said, you’re smart, which was really helpful, and there’s a way around this. We’ll just figure out a different way to do it. And so, she made me flashcards. I memorized the words. She knew I was good at memorizing. She thought, ok, let’s try this. And so that’s how I learned to read.
And I really do feel like I wasn’t fooling myself until I could read, and so it’s that sense of empowerment, then I felt like there was like I could do anything because I could read Coming back to your point, I couldn’t be silenced because I could read and write.
Bianca Schulze: Well, it sort of ties into the next theme of the story that I wanted to talk about, too, which is the power of reading is so strong. This podcast is named The Growing Reader’s Podcast, and it’s all about raising readers through finding the next great book. And so, I love it when the book itself shows how important reading is and how important words are, how words and reading connect us to the world and how, ultimately, through education, we can begin to make wiser choices.
I mean, Beatryce is a girl who lives in a world where girls are not supposed to read and write. Well, a lot of people aren’t, but she knows how, and this starts to become a little bit contagious with some of the other characters. And as other characters learn to read and write and process, things improve, and people better understand the world. And I just loved that theme in the book.
Kate DiCamillo: Oh yeah. One of my favorite parts in the book is when Beatryce—because like you said, most people in this world can’t read or write, it’s only a few handfuls of men in power who can read and write, and the rest of the people can’t—becomes friends with a boy about her age named Jack Dory. She finds out that he can’t read, and she’s just amazed and kind of appalled. And she sets out to teach him by introducing him to the world of letters. It is profound for both of them that her ushering him through and him understanding that this is something that he wanted and needed. He didn’t even know it.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. And what a great character for Beatryce to know that she has this ability to help raise others up around her?
Kate DiCamillo: Right, right. Yeah. To be like, oh, come on, let me (kind of like a little bit of the variation on my mother), oh, for the love of Pete, I’ll just show you how to do it.
Bianca Schulze: Since you talked a little bit about favorite things, I spoke with Sophie Blackall, who did the incredible illustrations throughout. I am wondering … well, first, obviously, she had so many great thoughts about The Beatryce Prophecy, so I encourage anyone to go back and listen to that episode because it was so fun to get the illustrator’s perspective on your words. But I am curious as to whether you have a favorite illustration that she created in the book.
Kate DiCamillo: Well, you know, I think that basically, we should just spend the rest of our time talking about Sophie because I’m so blown away by what she did here. And this is one of the great good gifts of writing a novel for kids is that you can get art like this that comes along and makes the story deeper, more deeply felt, more magical. And Sophie’s art is … just there aren’t enough superlatives for it. And do I have a favorite one? Yeah, I have one. You have to solve problems sometimes when you’re figuring out what’s going to be illustrated and how it’s going to be done. And Sophie came up with the most elegant solution and, to me, the most magical. Do you have a favorite in here, Bianca? Like a favorite illustration?
Bianca Schulze: I love Answelica, the goat. Beatryce is my favorite character, but Answelica the goat, I mean, she’s almost my favorite. I couldn’t pick almost. I don’t know. I said this to Sophie; I would want to meet Answelica to see if I passed the test. Would she butt me the first time I met her or not? So, I think I like it when Answelica is butting Brother Edik.
Kate DiCamillo: Oh, I love that one too. I love that one. As I said, I love them all.
This is kind of towards the end. It’s a two-page spread of Beatryce being spirited away by one of the king’s men as she’s wrapped up and on the back of the horse. And you can’t see her face at all and above her … so it’s like … just in looking for it right now, my heart skipped a beat. Above her is a story in the sky, which she remembers that she’s telling herself to keep herself calm and remind herself of who she is. It’s got a princess and a wolf. It’s all above her head because she’s in the story and using the story to ground herself, even though it’s up there in her imagination and the sky. It’s brilliant and it makes me feel like a kid when I look at it.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that piece of art is incredible because it could be a very dark moment, but Beatryce just has this drive in her where she is always one step ahead of everybody with her thinking. And Sophie’s artwork shows what she is imagining in her mind above. And it’s so light and bright, but also kind of ghostly. And so, you almost don’t see the darkness that is taking place at that moment.
Kate DiCamillo: That’s a brilliant point because that goes to all the art that she’s… I mean, this is all black and white art—it’s pencil and it is luminous. I mean, all of this art of hers casts so much light, you know, and in particular, there, you’re right. It’s like, this is a very dark moment, and it doesn’t seem as dark as it is because of Sophie’s art and how she’s channeled Beatryce’s mind.
Bianca Schulze: Sophie is hands down one of my favorite illustrators, and so the pairing of you two together is phenomenal and it makes my heart sing. Did you request Sophie? How did that collaboration come together?
Kate DiCamillo: I did request Sophie, and I didn’t. You know, I always leave it up to Candlewick—they’re brilliant at this. And I always think, oh, this would be good, that would be good. And I requested, but I didn’t know that it would. If it would happen or not, because you, illustrators, artists, their schedules are packed, and you know, there are all these different things that had to happen.
I’ve known Sophie—we have said Hey to each other at conferences and we had each other’s email address—but you know, you’re always supposed to be kept apart when you’re writing and they’re illustrating. And so, I didn’t reach out and go, oh, please, please, please. But it came back relatively quickly that she was going to do it, and I was just gob stopped that she was going to do it. I can’t think of anybody better for it. And not only that, but my expectations were also huge and she just kind of blew them out of the water.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, she sure did.
So, I’ve sort of expressed a lot of the different little bits of themes about your characters feel like they’re coming home. It feels like Beatryce is this amazing female character who won’t be silenced in a world that feels like it’s trying to silence her. There’s this beautiful power of reading and how words connect us. But I want to know ultimately when this book is out in the world, and I’m sure you feel the same way that when you write the story and the book gets into the hands of the readers, the story now belongs to the readers. But what impact do you hope that this book does have on young readers?
Kate DiCamillo: Oh boy. Well, I am totally like not only does it belong to the readers, but it’s also not complete, it’s not really a book until… You know, it takes the reader to finish it, right? So, not only is it their story, but it’s not a story until it goes that full circle and is read by somebody somewhere who I don’t know and I’ll never meet. And they sit, and they exist in this world. We exist in it together, you know.
And what do I want them to take away from it? I always have the same feeling for each book, which is that I hope that somebody closes it and feels less alone and more like they understand themselves better—and maybe other people better, too. It’s a lot to ask … that you feel less alone.
This is the beautiful thing about reading. I just read a great essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. I feel like I should get up and get it. Should I do that?
Bianca Schulze: Please!
Kate DiCamillo: I was so taken with this essay. It’s called The Operating Instructions, and it’s from a book of hers, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books.
Ok. Ursula K. Le Guin:
Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone. What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along the lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom and listen to them. Not hear passively but listen. Listening is an act of community which takes space, time, and silence. Reading is a means of listening.
Isn’t that fantastic? Reading as a means of listening?
Kate DiCamillo: Words are what matter. The sharing of words, the activation of imagination through the reading of words. The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions, the best manual we have, the most useful guide to the country we’re visiting. Life.
And so, there’s my outrageous hope … that somebody will feel less alone, that they feel like they’re walking through the world with somebody, and that it will help. The book will help to make some more sense out of the world.
Bianca Schulze: Ok, I’m speechless, and I have goosebumps right now. I have never heard reading put that way. That reading is listening, and that’s so true.
Bianca Schulze: And you know, what’s so fun for me is I just read this yesterday afternoon. I was just like, wow, it blew my socks off. And then to be able to share it with you is just like, it’s so thrilling. It’s that same thing that we’re talking about. We’re a complete circle, right? It’s like we both get to listen. So thank you for letting me go and get it and talk about it.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, yeah. I’m glad you did.
So, I always ask this question, and I feel like you may have answered a little bit when you told me about how your mom came together with you to sort of get you over the hump of learning to read. So, this may already be answered, but you can let me know. To be a writer, they say that you need to be a reader first. Was there a pivotal moment in which you considered yourself a reader?
Kate DiCamillo: Yeah, you know, it’s funny because that moment with my mom and the flashcards, it’s not that I ever forgot that, but it’s not how I would have answered this question before writing this book and excavating that memory. It wasn’t forgotten, but it wasn’t primary for me because, you know, she taught me that way. It worked for me and then I was like a fish to water. And so, the memory is more like, oh, I never had any problem reading. I was always a reader.
When I think of my first kind of flashbulb memory of being in the first-grade classroom, holding Little Bear, and sitting in an orange plastic chair and everything suddenly clicked, and I could read. I knew I could read. And that was that. It was just like out of my way, people. It was just this feeling of always knowing that it was what I needed. Then it was just like, I’m off and running.
I love libraries. The town where I grew up waived the—you could only check out four books at a time—and the librarian came out from behind her desk and waived that rule for me because she said that I was a true reader. So, this is just confirmation of how what I felt myself to be. And then the world said, yeah, that’s who you are.
Bianca Schulze: You know, librarians just don’t get enough credit.
Kate DiCamillo: They don’t. They really don’t.
Bianca Schulze: Is there anything else you want to share about The Beatryce Prophecy before we go?
Kate DiCamillo: Gosh, it’s more like I feel like I’ve learned a lot about it by talking to you. I guess not about The Beatryce Prophecy in particular, but more about books in general. I just want to say that thing of like what we were talking about librarians. To me, it is the hugest gift in the world for somebody to put a book in your hands. And librarians do that again and again.
And the other thing is, having somebody reading to you seems like such an act of love to me. So, I just want to say thank you to everybody who puts a book in somebody else’s hand and everybody who’s reading to somebody. That goes for kids too. I say, when I talk to kids, you can read to the adults in your life. They need it to, you know.
Bianca Schulze: Definitely.
Well, Kate, this has been such a treat for me, and I just loved The Beatryce Prophecy, and I know that you have so many fans out there that will be dying to get their hands on this book. And for anyone that maybe hasn’t read one of your books, I know that once they read this, they’re going to go back and read every other book that you ever wrote because The Beatryce Prophecy is just so wonderful. So, thank you for writing it. Thank you for sharing your time with us.
Kate DiCamillo: Oh, you’re so kind, and I’m so grateful for your passionate reading and your insights. I’m grateful.
The transcription of this interview with Kate DiCamillo has been condensed and edited for readability.
About the Book
Written by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Ages 8-12 | 256 Pages
Publisher: Candlewick | ISBN-13: 9781536213614
Publisher’s Synopsis: From two-time Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo and two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall comes a fantastical meditation on fate, love, and the power of words to spell the world.
We shall all, in the end, be led to where we belong. We shall all, in the end, find our way home.
In a time of war, a mysterious child appears at the monastery of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. Gentle Brother Edik finds the girl, Beatryce, curled in a stall, wracked with fever, coated in dirt and blood, and holding fast to the ear of Answelica the goat. As the monk nurses Beatryce to health, he uncovers her dangerous secret, one that imperils them all—for the king of the land seeks just such a girl, and Brother Edik, who penned the prophecy himself, knows why.
And so it is that a girl with a head full of stories—powerful tales-within-the-tale of queens and kings, mermaids and wolves—ventures into a dark wood in search of the castle of one who wishes her dead. But Beatryce knows that, should she lose her way, those who love her—a wild-eyed monk, a man who had once been king, a boy with a terrible sword, and a goat with a head as hard as stone—will never give up searching for her, and to know this is to know everything.
With its timeless themes, unforgettable cast, and magical medieval setting, Kate DiCamillo’s lyrical tale, paired with resonant black-and-white illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall, is a true collaboration between masters.
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About the Author
Kate DiCamillo is one of America’s most revered storytellers. She is a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and a two-time Newbery Medalist. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Florida and now lives in Minneapolis.
For more information, visit https://www.katedicamillostoriesconnectus.com/.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Sophie Blackall Discusses Negative Cat and The Beatryce Prophecy. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Kate DiCamillo.
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