Kate DiCamillo's Picks For Summer Treehouse Reading

May 25, 2014
Originally published on May 27, 2014 11:12 am

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial kickoff to summer, and that means the tantalizing prospect of having more time for reading stretches ahead of us — long, lazy summer days curled up with a book.

With that in mind, Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo shared some summer book recommendations for readers ages 8-13 with NPR's Melissa Block. DiCamillo is the author of Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, among others, and was recently named the country's national ambassador for young people's literature by the Library of Congress. Her latest book is Flora & Ulysses.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. It's the unofficial start of summer - this Memorial Day. Which means the tantalizing prospect of having more time for reading stretches ahead of us. Long, lazy summer days curled up with a book. And with that in mind, we have a few summer book recommendations for young readers - say the eight to thirteen-year-olds among us. Who better to weigh in on that than the country's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, so named by the Library of Congress, Kate DiCamillo. She's the author of "Because Of Winn-Dixie", "The Tale Of Despereaux", and many others. Kate, welcome back to the program.

KATE DICAMILLO: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And you have sent along some suggestions of great summer reading for young people. And let's start with one - it's an novel called "Counting By Sevens," by Holly Goldberg-Sloan, with a wonderful female narrator, 12-year-old Willow Chance. She is obsessed with the number seven, with human disease and with plants. I love this book. We got it for our mother-daughter book group and everybody seemed to really, really engage with this character.

DICAMILLO: I think she's just an absolutely delightful character in the middle of a huge, huge storm of tragedy really. And this tragedy happens right up front and yet it's a book that is in many ways a really, really happy book about finding yourself and being who you are. I loved this book and it made me laugh out loud. It made me underline and dog-ear pages and I love to dog-ear a book. I think you should live in a book. And then it's a very wise book. You don't realize how much you're learning about how to see other people and how to be in the world. You know, you do that thing sometimes when you close a book and you want to clasp it to your chest - this book made me want to do that. I just wanted to hug it.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about another novel for young readers that's on your list with also a very captivating young female narrator - it's called "Under The Egg" by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. And the plot line here has to do with a girl in New York City, a painting that may or may not be a treasure and art stolen by the Nazis. There's a lot packed in here, but it's really compelling reading.

DICAMILLO: Again, a very strong, very capable, very smart female narrator. And in the same way, someone who is suddenly on their own in the world.

BLOCK: You know, I'm curious - for you as an author, when you read a book like "Under The Egg," this is a debut novel from Laura Marx Fitzgerald - what's your thinking about that? I mean, this is, I think, a really successful book and it's her first book.

DICAMILLO: Happily, when a book is good, I stop being a writer and I'm just a reader, which is what I did here. You just fall into it as a reader. But the writer in me did go and check a couple times to see - is this really the first thing that she's written? - because it is so accomplished. There's a certain amount of jealousy so - but that's good.

BLOCK: (Laughing) That can fuel you.

DICAMILLO: Yeah. (Laughing). I was very impressed with it.

BLOCK: There's an intriguing selection on your list. And it's a book called "How I Discovered Poetry," from the poet Marilyn Nelson - a personal memoir told in 50 unrhymed sonnets. All of which take place between 1950 and 1959. She calls it a portrait of the artist as a young American Negro girl.

DICAMILLO: Yeah. And this book does so much in such a deceptively simple way because it's a history of a certain time in America. It's a very personal recollection. It's about being part of a military family and it's about growing up as a black person and even more than that too, there's this thing about somebody discovering language. And that last poem about when she realizes that she's going to become a poet - I always was afraid of poetry when I was a kid and this poetry just is very clear. It opens itself to you.

BLOCK: You mentioned the last poem in the book, it's called "Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl" set in Clinton Sherman Air Force Base, Oklahoma, 1959. Would you read that poem, Kate?

DICAMILLO: Yeah 'cause I just put my glasses on.

BLOCK: (Laughing) Great.

DICAMILLO: (Reading) My face, as foreign to me as a mask, allows people to believe they know me. Thirteen-year-old American Negro girl, headlines but read if I was newsworthy. But that's just the top of the iceberg me. I could spend hours searching the mirror for clues to my truer identity, if someone didn't pound the bathroom door. You can't see what the mirror doesn't show. For instance, that after I close my book and turn off my lamp, I say to the dark give me a message I can give the world. Afraid there's a poet behind my face, I beg until I've cried myself to sleep.

BLOCK: And that's where that book ends.


BLOCK: You know, all the books we've been talking about, Kate, are told by young female narrators - do you find it harder to find books with boy narrator's that might be more appealing to a male audience in this age group?

DICAMILLO: Yes. You know, there's always that danger of losing boys as readers and we don't tend to worry about that as much with girls. So for younger boys there's Kevin Henkes' "The Year Of Billy Miller," which was a Newberry honor this year. And it's a book that I can't say enough good things about, that deals with matters of the heart in a very, very compelling way, in the second grade year for Billy Miller. And if you were reading this out loud to your second-grader, your fourth-grader and your fifth-grader would wander in and be captivated too. I could guarantee it almost. Maybe I shouldn't guarantee it.

BLOCK: (Laughing) We'll hold you to that.

DICAMILLO: (Laughing) Yes.

BLOCK: Kate, do you have especially vivid memories of summer reading when you were a kid - maybe in this age group, 8 to 13 or so.

DICAMILLO: Oh, my goodness, yes.

BLOCK: Yeah.

DICAMILLO: I was lucky enough to have a mother who took me to the library - the public library - twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays. And also bought me books. And also read aloud to me. But we had a tree fort in our backyard and I would take books up there and read.

BLOCK: Do you remember one book in particular that you were reading up there in the summer?

DICAMILLO: Well, it's funny because not too long ago, I remembered that I read and loved "Harriet The Spy." And so I went back to it as the adult me with some trepidation thinking, wow, will this be as good as I remember - 'cause I remember being in the tree fort reading this book. And it's even better and more subversive than I remembered. And it's basically a primer in how to be a writer.

BLOCK: Well, Kate, happy reading. Thanks so much for talking with us.

DICAMILLO: Melissa, thank you. It's so good to talk about books. I'm so glad that y'all did this. Thank you.

BLOCK: That's children's book writer Kate DiCamillo. Her most recent book won the Newberry medal. It's called "Flora And Ulysses." And if your hands were too full to keep track of Kate's summer book list, you can find that list our new Facebook page. Go to facebook.com/npratc.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.