A self-deprecating wit has ably served Kate DiCamillo. Despite having won the Newbery Medal twice, she has often worried aloud about impending doom, sure that the moment will come when her own personal Toto will pull back the curtain to reveal that she—and her life’s work—are not as impressive as people have been led to believe.

DiCamillo says it wasn’t until she served as the Library of Congress’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature—a role that sent her to bookstores, schools, and libraries around the country—that she started to believe in the importance of her work. Her latest middle grade novel, Raymie Nightingale (Candlewick), debuted in the top spot on the New York Times children’s middle grade hardcover bestseller list the week of its release. “I had been thinking that everything that had happened to me was just some kind of miracle, all just a fluke, but after all the people I met during these past two years, I finally realized that stories are what connect us,” she says. “Getting a group together—whether it’s a whole school, or a town, or a Girl Scout troop—around a book is a marvelous way to learn about each other.”

DiCamillo, a keynoter at this year’s Children’s Institute, will deliver a talk titled “Owning the Power of Stories, Harnessing the Power of Connection,” about how bookstores can build business by finding new ways of reaching readers in their communities. It’s a homecoming of sorts for the author, who lives in Minnesota but grew up 30 miles west of Orlando in Clermont, a town that had no bookstore of its own at the time.

“There was a store, Hilltop Stationery, that had a book nook with a rack of those mass market paperbacks, and my mother, bless her heart, was always willing to indulge me,” DiCamillo says. “That’s where I got my first copy of Paddington and my Dell Yearling edition of Island of the Blue Dolphins.”

Central Florida is also the setting for Raymie Nightingale, a novel that draws on the “emotional truth” of DiCamillo’s childhood to tell the story of a girl whose father leaves the family unexpectedly. “Every sentence I wrote felt like it had 400 sentences behind it,” she says. “There was a lot of weeping.” This spring, Candlewick sent DiCamillo on a 20-city tour that took her to some of her favorite places: bookstores, where she says she always encounters evidence that the bookselling industry is alive and well.

“I’ve got an independent bookstore 10 minutes away from me, Magers & Quinn, and every time I go in there it’s packed with people,” DiCamillo says. “Same with Wild Rumpus and Red Balloon. I think there’s a renaissance going on.”

Though DiCamillo’s term as ambassador ended in January (she passed the baton to graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang), she is in her second year as National Summer Reading Champion, a project of the Collaborative Summer Library Program, a nonprofit that provides public libraries with high-quality summer reading materials for children, teens, and adults. “It’s super easy for me to do because I am all about summer reading and always have been: ‘You mean you’re going to give me prizes for doing what I want to do anyway? Where do I sign up?’ ” she says, recalling her own summers at Clermont’s public library. “Whenever I am with a group of kids, I always ask them, ‘How many of you know about the summer reading program at your library and how many of you know it’s free?’ Spreading that sort of message comes very naturally to me.”

Kate DiCamillo will give the opening keynote on Wednesday, June 22, 7:45–9 a.m., in the Salon E Ballroom.

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