Kate DiCamillo is an author known and beloved by teachers, librarians, students, and parents alike. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Florida, she draws on the setting of her childhood for many of her realistic fiction novels. But her writing also takes us into places completely imagined and filled with wonder, joy, and sadness.
Recently, I was able to join an online Q&A with Kate DiCamillo and hundreds of school kids from across the country (and around the world!). Seeing her interact with the children who were asking her questions and how she honored their ways of wondering only reinforced what I had suspected since first reading The Tale of Despereaux years ago during my early teaching days.
As a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and a multiple-Newbery Award honoree and winner, there is something magical about DiCamillo and her books. She doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects like loss and bullying and abuse, yet her writing is also infused with a charming sense of just how marvelous our world can be. She tackles the hard stuff with hope. She guides you through the dark with the promise–always delivered–that there is also light. And she reassures that the best way to find that light is together.
What is perhaps hardest to explain is the way a DiCamillo story stays with you. It takes you deep into the heart of a world–that of a lonely child, or a brave mouse, or a toast-loving pig–and it changes just a little piece of who you are and how you see our world. Her stories echo back in ways that jump to mind just when they are needed. This, and the ways in which she respects the hard lessons and secret magic of childhood, have made her beloved to many.
In turn, she takes her responsibility as an author seriously, saying in her 2014 Newbery acceptance speech for Flora and Ulysses, “We have been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story. We are working to make hearts that are capable of containing much joy and much sorrow. Hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and of each other. We are working to make hearts that know how to love this world.”
That same book that drew me into DiCamillo’s world, The Tale of Despereaux, is now celebrating its twenty year anniversary. It seemed like the perfect time to go back and revisit–or discover for the first time–her many magical worlds, with all their dark corners. Below, you will find a deep dive into her novels in chronological order. This is followed by a brief description of the first book in each of her early chapter book series, as well as a few of her lesser-known picture books. I hope that among them, you can find a story that makes your heart a little larger, too.
(Note: Kate DiCamillo’s books, particularly her most realistic ones, sometimes include light profanity, as well as adults who smoke or drink. Most of her novels take on serious themes, including loss, death, and abuse. As always, it is best to read the book before sharing to determine if it is appropriate for your situation!)
Middle Grade Novels by Kate DiCamillo
2000–Because of Winn-Dixie
DiCamillo’s first published book, Because of Winn-Dixie received Newbery honors. It follows India Opal, who is new to the town of Naomi and desperately misses her mother. While the magic in this book seems to be a dog who smiles and a pet store clerk who can mesmerize animals with his guitar playing, the true magic comes from the community India Opal builds around herself and the ways in which each character finds healing and acceptance through that community.
2001–The Tiger Rising
The Tiger Rising also introduces us to a main character who has lost a parent and subsequently moved to a new town. In this case, that character is Rob, whose mother has recently died of cancer. But Rob’s father refuses to let Rob grieve, largely because of his own deep pain. Finding a real, live tiger caged in the forest is the beginning of change for Rob–along with becoming friends with Sistine, who is determined that they should set the tiger free. Layered with symbolism around being trapped and rising free, this is an affecting and affirming story.
2003–The Tale of Despereaux illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering
Beginning with a mouse who is born different, this Newbery Award-winning book weaves together the tales of many outsiders. Despereaux is born with his eyes open and a deep love for stories. But he is banished for talking to Pea, a beautiful, lonely, and spoiled princess. In the dungeons lives Roscuro, a rat who struggles with his unusual love for light. Roscuro convinces Miggery Sow, a kitchen girl who desperately wants to be a princess, to help kidnap Princess Pea and hide her away. As all their stories cross, the characters find ways to lift each other up and accept the good–and the differences–they all hold. An absolutely charming modern fairy tale that examines the light and dark in us all.
2006–The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
If The Tale of Despereaux introduced me to Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane cemented my love for her work. This is a heartrending tale that follows the twists and turns of the life of a china rabbit doll as he moves through the hands of many owners. Reminiscent of The Velveteen Rabbit in its search for meaning through the eyes of a toy becoming increasingly shabby the more it is loved, Edward Tulane goes deeper as Edward himself must grow from spoiled and selfish to loved and loving. A beautiful tale made even more gorgeous by the accompanying artwork.
2009–The Magician’s Elephant illustrated by Yoko Tanaka
Orphaned and left in the care of an old soldier, Peter Duchene is determined to know the fate of his sister. So when a fortune teller says that an elephant will bring them back together, Peter believes her. And then, miraculously, a magician conjures an elephant that the entire city of Baltese becomes obsessed with. Peter knows that to find his family, he must return the elephant to her own home. But will those with power let him do it?
2013–Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures illustrated by K.G. Campbell
When Flora Buckman witnesses a squirrel being changed to a superhero by a runaway vacuum cleaner, she decides she’ll look after the squirrel, Ulysses, and help him discover his powers. Together with a quirky band of characters, they go through a variety of adventures–including chaos in a donut shop, battling a vicious cat, and Ulysses’s kidnapping by his arch-nemesis, Flora’s own mother! At its core, this is a story of caring for each other and finding your home. Flora and Ulysses is a fun romp of a read with a very tender heart.
The first in the Three Rancheros trilogy, Raymie Nightingale introduces us to Raymie Clarke, who is trying to do a good deed so she can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Contest and convince her father to come home. Instead, she finds two unique and loyal friends: Louisiana and Beverly. Together they learn to depend on each other in an undependable world, and Raymie finds a way to move forward. A coming-of-age story that focuses on finding the power of one’s own soul.
Louisiana’s Way Home (2018) and Beverly, Right Here (2019) round out the trilogy with heart and hope, following the paths of the other two Rancheros.
2021–The Beatryce Prophecy illustrated by Sophie Blackall
How to summarize a book about stories and reading and prophecies and loving one another? The Beatryce Prophecy throws us into a medieval-like world where a prophecy states that a girl child will unseat a king and change the world. That girl is Beatryce, who appears one day at a monastery, able to read and write and tame an untameable goat. Slowly, her past and her destiny are revealed, and she gathers the perfect community of characters around her to make the prophecy come true. Full of stories-within-the-story and speaking to the power of love, this book will carry you along into a world like no other Kate DiCamillo has written before.
2023–The Puppets of Spelhorst illustrated by Julie Morstad
Five puppets: an owl, a king, a wolf, a boy, a girl. They are in a trunk together but they do not know their purpose. One by one, they are moved apart and then brought back together to put on a play more meaningful than they could guess. The Puppets of Spelhorst is the first of three Norendy Tales, original fairy tales that will match in tone and setting.
Early Chapter Book Series by Kate DiCamillo
Mercy Watson Series #1: Mercy Watson to the Rescue illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Mercy Watson is a pig who loves buttered toast and lives with the Watsons, who are more than happy to give it to her. They consider her their porcine wonder, and when their bed begins to fall through the floor, she stumbles into saving them in the most wonderful of ways. A delightful character that kids will be eager to follow through the whole series!
Bink and Gollie Series #1: Bink and Gollie written with Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile
Bright, funny, and sparse with words, Bink and Gollie follows two spirited girls through three lighthearted adventures. Though the dilemmas are light, the new understandings are deep for young readers: compromise, togetherness, loyalty. Fucile’s illustrations are joyful and integral to the loving tone of the book.
Tales from Deckawoo Drive Series #1: Leroy Ninker Saddles Up illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
The characters who surround Mercy Watson in her series get a spotlight of their own in the Tales from Deckawoo Drive. This first book focuses on Leroy Ninker, who dreams of being a cowboy. But what is a cowboy without a horse? The horse Leroy gets, Maybelline, is a very peculiar horse–and a perfect fit for Leroy. Accompanied by Van Dusen’s lively pictures, this book will make you crave more from Deckawoo Drive!
Picture Books by Kate DiCamillo
Great Joy illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Frances is in the Christmas pageant at her church, but she is much more interested in the organ grinder and his monkey on the corner of the street. They seem to have nowhere to go at night, even when it snows. But Frances finds a way to help them and to celebrate great joy all around.
Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken illustrated by Harry Bliss
Louise is a chicken who longs for adventures–and she finds them! Kidnapped by pirates, joining the circus, and journeying to far away lands, Louise is never far from trouble and always happy to return home. Told in chapters with delightful prose and accompanied by the humor of Bliss’s illustrations, you’ll feel like you’re on an adventure right along with this plucky hero.
Good Rosie! illustrated by Harry Bliss
Rosie is a good dog, but she is lonely. Her owner, George, notices and tries to help her make friends by taking her to the dog park. At first, Rosie is intimidated, but then two persistent dogs, Maurice and Fifi, insist. With a bit of a stumble in behavior for all the dogs, this book offers a great read-aloud about what works (and what doesn’t) when meeting someone new.
With more than 25 books to explore, a walk through Kate DiCamillo’s words will take you to a universe where stories, love, and created community are held dear and where children’s experiences and perspectives are acknowledged and valued. Do not go there expecting to be unchanged–but know that when you go, you are in the capable hands of a wonderful writer.