Authors are basically storytellers who do their thing on the printed page (or on your favorite electronic device), instead of around the kitchen table or wherever people gather to swap stories. Today, three authors renowned for their storytelling prowess—Kate DiCamillo, Meg Cabot, and Sherman Alexie—gather at the Downtown Stage at 3:15 p.m. for 45 minutes of dishing tales. And with this trio, those stories just might blow the roof off of McCormick Place.
DiCamillo, who was National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in 2014–2015, can attest to the power of storytelling. It isn’t just a great way to strengthen bonds with other people, she claims, it is also an an effective way to make peace with one’s past. During the presentations she gave to school groups in her role as ambassador, DiCamillo disclosed that her father left the family when she was six years old, not long after they had moved to central Florida from Philadelphia. She recalls that “standing up there and saying those facts out loud” informed her most recent novel, Raymie Nightingale (Apr.). In the book, 10-year-old Raymie Clark convinces herself that if she can only win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, maybe her father, a dentist who ran off with his dental hygienist, will see her photo in the newspaper and come home.
“What do you do when somebody leaves?” DiCamillo asks. “I would love it if [readers] feel hopeful when they finish the book. I would love it if they think: maybe I am stronger than I think I am; maybe I am capable of wondrous things.”
Alexie, too, says that much of his writing springs from his personal experiences. After all, his most famous novel is titled The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. His latest book, Thunder Boy Junior, is a total departure from his early work: it’s a 32-page picture book that he says was like “designing a 32-room house,” it was so difficult to pack so much onto each page. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales, it was just released earlier this week. It’s the story of a little boy named after his father who wants his own name, not one that he has to share. Alexie wrote the book for two reasons: first, because he thinks there aren’t enough representations of Native characters in children’s books. “I want kids all around the world to read this story about a Native American kid searching for his self-identity,” he says. Second, because he was named for his father and, at times, “struggled” with that. The book has a “feeling” that is “very autobiographical,” he adds, but unlike Thunder Boy Junior, Alexie has never “climbed a mountain or touched a wild orca on the nose.”
Meg Cabot isn’t royalty, but her best-known books, the Princess Diaries series, include autobiographical elements as well. The series, which ended in 2015 with Volume 11, Royal Wedding, was inspired by her mother dating and then marrying her teacher after her father’s death, “just as Mia’s mom does in the book,” Cabot says. She launched her series for middle-grade readers, From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess, the newest of which is Royal Wedding Disaster, because some of her fans lobbied her to write about the kingdom of Genovia for their younger siblings, but to leave out all that kissing—probably so that young readers could read the books without wanting to barf. Cabot decided to introduce Olivia, Princess Mia’s long-lost half sister, who is, by the way, biracial, in homage to Cabot’s own sibling, who is biracial. Cabot adds that she can’t guarantee there won’t be any smooching in any of the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess, but if that happens, “Olivia will be the first one to freak out.”
In addition to those autobiographical elements in Olivia’s story, Cabot added a personal touch to the new series: she is illustrating the books herself. She was an art major in college and has always wanted to write books that she could also illustrate, “and use the skills I spent so many years studying.” Plus, she adds, “the benefits of doodling for all ages are well documented.”
This article appeared in the May 14, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.