One of the purest quotes about the process of writing is one alternately ascribed to Woodrow Wilson, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, John Locke and the French mathematician Blaise Pascal: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”
It reads like a Yogi Berra-ism (though he’s one of the few sages not to have been given credit for it) until the meaning reveals itself: Penning a mess of words is one task. The more difficult task is judiciously editing and distilling them.
An even more difficult task is to distill them for 8-year-olds.
“You have no time at all with a kid to get them to trust you,” says the children’s author Kate DiCamillo. “You have a page. That’s all. You can’t indulge in a lot of things that adults will put up with, because kids will just put the book aside.”
Writing for children — big concepts in tiny words, epic narratives in limited pages — requires such a special skill set that in 2008, the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book introduced a position: the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, to raise awareness of issues related to reading and children’s literacy. Previous ambassadors are Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson and Walter Dean Myers.
On Thursday, DiCamillo, best known for her Newbery Medal-winning “The Tale of Despereaux” and the movie-adapted “Because of Winn-Dixie,” was named the library’s fourth youth ambassador. A kick-off reception is scheduled for Jan. 10.
“It’s something I believe in so much,” said the author, from her home in Minnesota. “The power of story and the power of books.”
DiCamillo grew up in Florida, an illness-prone child besieged with bouts of pneumonia that kept her sedate and indoors. Books were her link to the larger world. “I always say that I read without discretion,” she says. “If there was a book, I read it. There was no rhyme or reason.”
She loved “The Twenty-One Balloons,” in which a professor discovers a fantastical island on a round-the-world journey. She loved a biography of the inventor George Washington Carver so much that her mother once asked the librarian if they could buy it, rather than check it out every week.
“Everything except ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ ” she says. “I was too worried about what would happen to Wilbur.”
As a somewhat aimless adult, she moved to Minnesota with a friend who needed a roommate and got a job fulfilling orders in a book warehouse. Stationed in the children’s section, she began browsing the books she’d been assigned to shepherd and landed on one she loved so passionately — Christopher Paul Curtis’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” — that she took it home and transcribed it, trying to dissect what made it work.
A few years later, her first book was published and later received a Newbery Honor. “Because of Winn-Dixie” is about the bond between a lonely young girl and a dog named after a supermarket.
“Stories connect us,” DiCamillo says, and she believes this so strongly that she’s decided to make it the platform of her two-year ambassadorship. She hopes to encourage communities to engage in reading projects together — retirement homes reading with elementary schools, or entire towns launching on the same book.
DiCamillo has written nearly 20 books — stories with heart and humanity, and occasional melancholy. Stories that respect children as intelligent readers, that reflect the world as an occasionally hard but often magical place.
“There’s a wonderful quote from Katherine Paterson,” the “Bridge to Terabithia” author who was, herself, a former library youth ambassador. The quote, DiCamillo remembers, says something like, when you write for children, you’re bound to write with hope. “I like that,” DiCamillo says. “I like that I’m duty-bound to do that. It makes me a better person.”